Live and Let's Fly has been silent the last three days as I weighed how I wanted to cover what happened to me on a United Airlines flight from Newark to Istanbul last week. The situation was both traumatizing and highly embarrassing and I wanted to ensure that I had ample time to consider what transpired before hurling any accusations or failing to understand the other side. But frankly, the more I replay the incident in my mind, the more certain I become that I was wronged. Here's my story:
Last Thursday I was scheduled to fly from Newark to Istanbul on United's direct flight. The 767-300 was outfitted in a two-cabin configuration, staffed by a legacy United crew, and I had been upgraded to business class. It was my first time on this reconfigured aircraft and my first longhaul in the Continental BusinessFirst seat. Naturally, I wanted to provide a review for you.
As I settled into my seat, I pulled out my iPhone to take a few pictures of the seat. When I held the phone at forehead level to take the picture below, a flight attendant came running over and told me that I could not take any pictures of the cabin. She referenced this section of the Hemispheres magazine:
The allegedly off-limits picture:
I looked at the FA, smiled, but said nothing, putting my iPhone away. To be clear, I did not take any more pictures—not a single one. Meanwhile, another passenger was taking pictures behind the curtain and the FA ran over to him and demanded that he stop as well. This passenger had a lively discussion with the FA, though I did not hear the resolution.
Naturally, the FA's warning bothered me and I felt the need to explain myself. I signaled for her to come back and asked her to hang my coat. I then said this verbatim—
"I want you to understand why I was taking pictures. I hope you didn't think I was a terrorist. Here is my business card [offering her one]. I write about United Airlines on an almost-daily basis and the folks at United in Chicago are even aware of my blog."
She took my jacket but refused to take my business card saying, "No, that's okay," then saying, "I did not know that" after I explained my reason for taking pictures. I again emphasize, I took no more pictures.
A few minutes later a Global Services rep came onboard and asked to have a word with me, motioning for me to follow him. As I walked up front, I noticed the FA who had reprimanded me earlier ducked into the front galley and out of sight.
He was direct—"The captain is not comfortable with you on this flight. You'll need to gather your things and we'll find another way to get you to Istanbul." I was flabbergasted. My first thought was that they had the wrong passenger—they must have wanted the passenger who was arguing.
The GS rep stepped into the galley, around the corner, and asked the FA to verify it was me. She leaned forward, our eyes briefly meant, then she quickly hid herself again. Yes, she meant me.
I asked to speak to the captain—surely this was a ridiculous misunderstanding. The GS rep would not let me approach the flight deck but offered to talk to the captain on my behalf. He stepped into the cockpit for a few minutes and a few minutes later the captain emerged. He would not look me in the eyes as we spoke.
Captain: Sir, you are not flying on this flight.
Me: Can you tell me why?
Captain: My FA tells me she told you to stop taking pictures and you continued to take pictures.
Me: That's a lie, captain. She told me stop taking pictures and I stopped. I did try to explain to her why I was taking pictures—I am a travel writer [I offered him one of my business cards and he too refused to accept it].
Captain: Look, I don't care. You are not flying on this flight. You can make this easy or make this difficult. We'll call the police if we have to.
Me: Why are you threatening me? Your FA is lying—I did not disobey any crewmember instruction.
Captain: Look, we're already late. I'd advise you to get off this plane now. Make it easy on yourself. Don't make us bring the police in. Goodbye.
Me: Wait. Captain, may I have one of your business cards?
Captain: I don't have any, but United will have no trouble finding me. My name is...[removed].
With that, he turned and retreated back into the flight deck, with the female first officer looking on.
I looked at the GS rep and shook my head. I walked back to my seat, opened the overhead bin, and retrieved my garment bag and rollerboard. There were whispers throughout the business class and Economy Plus cabins as I made the walk of shame down the aisle.
Again, I was asked to step off the aircraft and said, "Just as soon as I get my coat back." The only FA who knew which coat was mine was still hiding somewhere, so she had to be found in order to retrieve my coat. I never saw her again.
As I walked down the jetway and back into the terminal, I remarked, "I want you to note that I was cooperative in your report and that the FA lied about me taking further pictures."
The GS rep was very understanding, said he sided with me and claimed that he had done his best to make my case to the flight crew, but they "jointly decided" I would not fly. I had a connection in Istanbul that I would now miss—there was no way to get me into Istanbul in time to make my connecting flight to Baku on a separate ticket.
We began working on alternative arrangements that would preserve my upgrade to business class to Istanbul. Because of the sold-out cabins on many routes and my desire to have a decent rest (i.e., not just fly to London or Barcelona with five hours of sleep), I was ultimately rebooked to fly to Istanbul via Washington and Kuwait City, with the final segment on Turkish Airlines in economy class. But I had to buy a new ticket to Baku, which set me back another $225. I won't blame United for that, but this situation comes down to one glaring problem:
The FA lied. Yes, she outright lied about me, falsely stating that I flouted her order and continued to take pictures. The blame lies almost entirely with her. I'll return to her in a moment.
The captain was unprofessional and weak—he could not even look me in the eyes when he spoke to me and he was not at all interested in what I had to say. I believe I am being quite charitable to say I understand his considerations. The problem boiled down to a "he-said, she-said" situation and I don't begrudge the captain for trusting a member of his flight crew over me. But he also had no interest in getting to the bottom of what happened; he just wanted to get the flight underway. And the condescending and downright nasty way he spoke to me is no way to talk to anyone, let alone a 1K who has held elite status on United for one decade.
But the true culprit is the FA here. Even though the 9/11 attacks were over a decade ago, maybe I should have never used the word terrorist in my explanation. Maybe the FA was not used to a passenger defending his action. But whatever the case may be, nothing can justify the fact that this FA lied about me.
Even if I give her the absolute benefit of the doubt—that though I did not take any more pictures she genuinely feared I would be a safety threat to the flight—that does not give her license to state mistruth that impugns my character. And if she was indeed scared of me, how pitiful is that? Indeed, the terrorists have won when 11.5 years after the attacks U.S. citizens are scared of a camera onboard an airplane.
This was not an issue of privacy—the real impetus behind United's onboard photography guidelines above. You can see that the picture of my seat did not compromise anyone's privacy. Instead, I believe the FA simply could not fathom why I would want to take pictures of my seat and therefore deemed me a security threat and lied in order to get me off the airplane.
Not only did this episode publicly defame me, it made me question my loyalty to United. I'm not some kettle traveler making a baseless loyalty claim. Regular readers know that I am extremely loyal to United Airlines, fly them often and almost exclusively, write about them even more often, and have accrued nearly 950,000 lifetime flight miles with United—I'll be a 26 year old million miler flyer later in the year.
I have no regrets about this incident (other than not being able to take the flight). I did nothing wrong and the FA who lied about me should be held to account by United. Surely, a liar is more of a security threat than a passenger who wants to take a picture of his seat.
United has not been contacted yet, but I will send them a copy of this story. I welcome an investigation into this incident and encourage my seatmate or any of those seated around me on the flight to chime in should you come across this story. I have nothing to hide other than my humiliation for being thrown off a flight on the pretense of a mistruth.