“Sir, you need to put your bag under your seat or in the overhead bin,” says the female flight attendant while making her final safety check before take-off.
“Can’t I leave it on my lap?” replies the man. I turn around. It’s the heavyset thirty-ish guy I’d given a friendly smile to as we waited in line to board.
He’d responded to my smile with a blank stare.
“Sir,” the flight attendant's voice is calm, “it’s not safe for you to have anything on your lap at take-off.”
“Why?” he asks, his voice like a petulant kid.
It’s a full Southwest flight on a hot August afternoon. I’m on the aisle. 13F. He’s behind me in the middle seat, 14E.
“If it’s under the seat,” he adds, his voice rising. “It’ll slip back when the plane takes off.”
“Back where?” the female flight attendant responds. “It’s pretty tight in here,” adding, “Sir, it’s for your safety and the safety of the other passengers.”
“What’s your name?” Petulance has turned to cantankerous.
“Well, Lisa, this is f**king ridiculous. F**king crazy….
We freeze, us passengers surrounding this, as Lisa takes matters into her own hands. As usual, my mother’s words pop into my head. “Never argue with a drunk.” Yet, I can tell a drunk a mile away. This guy was an argumentative a**hole. Not a drunk.
Maintaining her professional demeanor, Lisa tries again: “Sir, you have two choices. The overhead bin or under your seat.”
“You’re rude, Lisa,” adding more expletives directed at her.
“We’re going back to the gate,” Lisa says softly, and heads to the cockpit as the plane rolls to the runway to take-off.
My surrounding passengers sit quietly as my heart thumps out of my chest. Please get this guy off without a scene.
I’m thinking that this is the stuff you see in videos on The Daily Mail. “Disruptive passenger on Southwest flight…”
I’m flying solo. No Hank to distract me with a written note or a whisper. Then, I see an opening. The man next to me starts having a coughing fit. He sips his water but can’t seem to quell it.
“Would you like a mint?” I ask him. “Sounds like you’ve got a dry throat and I get those, too. I’ve got three kinds of mints to choose from,” I say, as I fish around in my bag.
You see, that’s what I do. I talk to distract myself when I get anxious. I would have given my right arm to keep a conversation going.
Meanwhile, I watch out of the corner of my eye as the flight attendants converge at the front of the plane. Two bells ring. The purser picks up the phone.
The pilot comes on: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are returning to the gate. We’ve a customer service situation we need to take care of. Won’t be long. Thank you for your patience.”
He’s quiet, this angry man in 14B, and I wait for some reaction from him.
The plane comes to a stop. The doors are disarmed.
The plane remains quiet except a crying baby a few rows back.
A uniformed woman comes on board, heads straight to him, her tags dangling, and stands next to me to look straight at him. I focus on her tags, eyelevel to me.
“Sir, I’m from Southwest Customer Service. You need to depart this plane.”
“Why?” he shouts. “She was rude!”
Her words are calm and concise. “Sir, you need to depart this plane.”
The elderly man on the aisle steps out and the disgruntled guy in 14E reluctantly heaves himself up and out of his seat into the aisle. The woman from customer service has stepped forward.
“What about my overhead bag?”
“You may take that.”
“What about the bag I checked?”
“That stays on. We’ll book you another flight.”
I watch him clutch the white plastic bag to his chest. What is in that thing that he won’t let go of?
He curses as he follows her down the aisle.
He’s gone. Phew.
Later, as the plane bounces from intense heat rising up from the Salt Lake, Lisa is collecting the trash. “Thank you,” I tell her. “You handled that guy so well.”
She lowers her bag and makes eye contact. “I haven’t asked anyone to leave a plane for fifteen years. He was…”
“He was awful,” I interrupt. “And, who knows what after we took off had he stayed.”
“Thank you,” Lisa replies. Her smile is sincere.
The flight attendants are asked to sit due to turbulence. The guy next to me is clutching my role of Peppermints and his cough has subsided.
The baby has stopped crying. A group of inebriated women in back are loud and happy. “Woah,” one of them laughs as we hit an air pocket.
Praise to Lisa. Praise to her Purser, Brian. Brian trusted Lisa’s judgement and the crew followed through.
Upon landing, we stood waiting to depart the plane. The guy in front of me tells me, “that guy shouldn’t have been taken off,” as he overhears his seatmate and me talking about it.
“If every disgruntled person gets taken off,” he says, “we’d be late all the time.”
“Late?” I reply. “He was scary awful. Did you not hear him? That flight attendant made the right call.”
“But, I’m an hour late,” he argues, giant earphones encircling his neck.
“Well,” he admitted. “There’s that,” he said, offering a smile.
*Thanks to, and respect for, all those flight attendants out there who make good calls. Lisa working Southwest Flight #1845 – you rock!