Recent headlines, about the Rev. Robert Schuller's alleged assault on a United Airlines flight attendant, have highlighted a growing problem in the airline industry: passengers who misbehave to such an extent that they constitute a threat to the safety of the flight crew.
The criminal complaint against Rev. Schuller charged him with a misdemeanor, stating he argued with a male flight attendant on the Los Angeles-to-New York flight, and then put his hands on the attendant's shoulders and shook him, "causing (the attendant's) head to move up and down in a vigorous manner."
The Positive Thinking Reverend was said to have been angered because he could not hang his ministerial robes behind his first class seat (he seemed concerned about wrinkles but not about the violation of Federal Aviation Safety Regulations); because his specially ordered low-fat meal was "inedible;" and because they dared to serve a plate of grapes that also had cheese on it!
If this conveys an image of a primadonna mentality that seems to think he is the centerpiece of all importance, then we begin to understand the prime causal factor in such ridiculous incidents.
In a rather vague TV sermon, following the incident, Rev. Schuller appeared to portray the situation as one of mere misunderstanding; he was a "hands on" minister because he loves everyone and that had been misinterpreted by others.
In return for a public apology, a fine of $1,100 and six months of supervision during which he refrains from breaking any more laws, federal prosecutors agreed to drop the misdemeanor assault charges against the "Hour of Power" minister.
That should have been the end of it but, in a legal climate found only in America, it is just the beginning. A $5 million lawsuit has been filed by the "injured" flight attendant, alleging Schuller had ruined his career. F/A Khaled Elabiad is now too frightened to even go near an airport and is being treated by 4 different doctors, including a psychiatrist. Elabiad demands $2.5 million from the "hands on" Reverend and another $2.5 million from Schuller's church.
To most of us, such claims insult our intelligence. But that doesn't mean a jury convened in New York or Los Angeles won't agree with such absurdity.
Unacceptable passenger behavior on airliners is a growing problem and carries the potential of actually threatening the safe operation of a given flight. For several years cockpit and cabin crews have advocated a "get tough" policy towards such passengers, but it has been only during recent months that airline managements and the FAA have recognized the importance of nipping this trend in the bud. By filing such a ridiculous lawsuit, Elabiad may have severely injured several years of hard work by flight crews.
Imagine another passenger doing something that actually threatens the safety of a flight, but the evidence consists solely of the testimony of some crewmembers. If he is a rich celebrity, a sharp defense lawyer could get him off by claiming (Johnny Cockran style) the crew had conspired against him so they can then sue for the big deep-pocket bucks that motivates many slimy lawyers. In other words, the credibility of the testimony of flight crews is crucial to obtaining a conviction for miscreant passengers. If all the evidence in the O.J. trial was ignored because one cop lied, then it is not too much of a stretch to see the potential for celebrities going scott free, after they have endangered a flight, because greedy lawyers seek to milk the situation for all they can get. If flight crew members succumb to dollar signs dangled before their eyes by amoral lawyers, then this aspect of airline safety is dealt a serious blow. Fortune Cookie lawyers can hurt us all, especially if we travel by air.
September, 1997, revised September, 2005
Robert J. Boser
The Editor of this Web Page, now retired, was an
airline pilot for 33 years and holds 6 specific Captain's type-ratings
on Boeing Jet Airliners.