Passenger Kicked Off Flight Because They Cut Off Crew Member At Revolving Door

A Dallas man was kicked off a flight home from New York City because he had unknowingly cut off a flight crew member while going through a revolving door. This seems like a case of discretion gone way too far.

Airline Passenger And Crew Member

A lawyer boarding a flight at New York’s LaGuardia Airport was kicked off the flight apparently because he ticked off a member of the flight crew while going through a revolving door:

A prominent Texas lawyer was not allowed to board a Virgin America flight home from New York on Monday because of an encounter with a crew member at La Guardia Airport in Queens, he and the airline said.

The lawyer, Robert B. Abtahi, the vice chairman of the Dallas Plan Commission, the official body that makes planning and zoning recommendations to the City Council, said he was trying to board Virgin America Flight 885 to Dallas before its scheduled departure at 3:50 p.m., when he was told that he would not be allowed onto the plane.

Mr. Abtahi, who goes by “Bobby,” said the reason he was given was that the captain and crew did not feel comfortable with him on the flight. When he pressed for specifics, a gate agent told him that he had cut off a crew member in a revolving door while arriving at the airport, he said. He was forced to cancel the ticket and rebook on another airline.

Virgin America said in a statement sent by email that airline officials had reviewed the incident and believed it was “the result of a misunderstanding.” David Arnold, a spokesman, said the airline was reaching out to apologize to Mr. Abtahi for his experience, and added that it was his understanding that it had unfolded as Mr. Abtahi described.

“As an airline that prides itself on our award-winning guest service, we take issues like this very seriously,” he said. “We are sorry Mr. Abtahi had this experience today, as it was not representative of the guest service for which we are known.”

The airline offered Mr. Abtahi reimbursement for the cost of the flight as well as two free flights in the future. Mr. Abtahi said he accepted the apology, but directed the airline to give the free flights to the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, a Dallas charity that helps refugees fleeing abuse.

Mr. Abtahi said he wanted the airline to tighten policies giving flight crew members broad discretion to decide whether to allow a passenger on board. “We have all these regulations around flying and safety, and that seems the most subjective one,” he said. “I have PreCheck and Global Entry and I’m not acting crazy; I haven’t been drinking. I’m just standing.”

Mr. Abtahi said that the incident, reported online on Monday evening by The Dallas Morning News, happened in one of the airport’s revolving doors when a woman got behind him in the same stall. In response to a reporter’s inquiry, he wrote on Twitter that they “both fumbled to get in,” and he “didn’t know she was crew.”

Mr. Abtahi said he did not think anything of the encounter until a gate agent told him he had cut someone off. He offered to apologize, he said, but was still kept off the plane. He was allowed to cancel the ticket without paying a penalty fee and booked an American Airlines flight leaving around the same time.

Long before September 11th, members of a plane flight crew have had wide discretion when it comes to either refusing to fly at all, or refusing to allow a certain passenger on board of they believed it would interfere with the operation of the aircraft. In the past, when stories of the use of such power have come to light it’s typically involved passengers who were becoming unruly due to arguments over seat space with other passengers or members of the crew or, quite often, passengers who were drunk and misbehaving. The policy does make sense to the extent that a passenger in the cabin who becomes a serious problem could end up diverting the attention of the flight crew to the extent that they are prevented from doing their jobs, and potentially prevented from taking the actions they need to take in the event of an emergency. In the years before cockpit doors were hardened in the wake of the September 11th attacks, such persons were arguably also a threat to breach the integrity of the flight deck itself and pose a threat to the safe operation of the aircraft. To that extent, I suppose, these policies are arguably necessary and the discretion of the flight crew is something that should generally be accepted. It’s also policies like this that allow the crew to divert a plane in flight if necessary if a passenger becomes so unruly in flight that they are posing a danger to passengers and crew while the plane is operating.

Notwithstanding these arguments, though, it seems obvious that there are situations where this absolute discretion that flight crews are typically given in these situations can be abused. The worst thing that Abtahi seems to have done here is inadvertently cut off a member of the crew while going through a revolving door. Abathi says that he didn’t even realize anything wrong or that the other person was a crew member on any flight, least of all the one he intended to board. The crew member — and it’s not specified if the person involved was the pilot, co-pilot, or a stewardess/steward — apparently was offended enough to invoke this extraordinary authority to demand that Atahbi be kept off the flight. This is also a good example of how this power can be arbitrarily abused. More recently, we’ve seen the same power used to keep people with Muslim names off of flights based on nothing more than fears allegedly expressed by other passengers. Abtahi, who is Iranian-American, doesn’t make the allegation that either his name or his appearance had anything to do with what happened, but one does have to wonder if the facts of the pre-flight encounter at the revolving door would have led the crew member to take the same action if Robert Abtahi had been a guy from Kansas named Dave Smith.

As for Abtahi, he mentioned the incident on Twitter, which resulted in an amusing response from American Airlines, but ultimately the matter seems to have been resolved to Abtahi’s satisfaction:

So all’s well that end’s well, I suppose. Nonetheless one has to wonder if discretion that goes so far as to allow a flight crew member to turn an inadvertent slight at a revolving door to keep someone from making their flight is discretion that has gone just a bit too far.

Photo via ABC News

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Race and Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    My cousin’s husband is an Iranian American. His parents fled Iran for the US after the Sha of Iran was deposed. He has a Persian last name but a very American first name. He is also a Pilot for American Airlines. I believe his parents were Iranian Christians although I’m not sure since he is non religious. He has dark hair and brown eyes, as did my Italian X wife, but looks very much like people we see every day which is not surprising since the vast majority of Iranians are Caucasian. To the best of my knowledge he has never had any problem doing his job. I have often wondered how many xenophobes would be nervous if they knew his last last name.

  2. Ben says:

    So all’s well that end’s well, I suppose.

    An apology wouldn’t do it for me. Being forced to miss and re-book a flight is a huge disruption when you’re traveling. Complete unquestionable discretion creates petty tyrants, it always will, no matter the situation. Apparently this petty tyrant was allowed to keep his/her job. If I used my job’s discretion to make a customer’s life miserable for no other reason than I felt like it, and management found out about it, I’d be summarily fired.

  3. @Ben:

    I would be upset too, Mr. Abtahi is displaying more public composure over this than I would, probably.

  4. KM says:

    The airline offered Mr. Abtahi reimbursement for the cost of the flight as well as two free flights in the future. Mr. Abtahi said he accepted the apology, but directed the airline to give the free flights to the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, a Dallas charity that helps refugees fleeing abuse.

    ^^^ This? This is class. Well done, Mr. Abtahi, for having more poise, charity and grace then I suspect I would in this case. I would have hit them up for enough to get a all-expenses paid trip to DisneyWorld for me and the fam while donating the other two flights…..

  5. Lankyloo says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    My first reaction, as uncharitable as it was, was that an arrogant jerk lawyer was reaping his karmic balance, but he has been a stand-up guy about the response. Glad to be wrong!

  6. mackykam says:

    Since when are paying passengers called ‘guests’? I’ve had guests in my home many times and I never charged them for drinks, food or the chair they sat in. More fool me, I think.

  7. @mackykam:

    Since when are paying passengers called ‘guests’?

    This has been a thing in retail and many service related business for several years now. I’ve noticed it every where from Target to the chain restaurant down the street. I’m assuming there’s some marketing logic behind it about that tells them that calling us “guests” rather than “customers” has some kind of psychological impact. Maybe it does for some people, but not me.

  8. CSK says:

    The insidious thing about the word “guest” in the context of a retail transaction is that it implies that the paying customer is actually the recipient of the “host’s” largesse, whereas in fact the reverse is true.

    The only circumstance in which I’d be a guest rather than a customer of an airline would be if they gave me my tickets instead of making me pay for them.

  9. Mu says:

    God, if “rude in NY” becomes the standard for being allowed on an airplane they can close JFK, La Guardia, and Newark and make the three people that are still acceptable use Islip.

  10. C. Clavin says:

    I’m sure it had absolutely nothing to do with him looking vaguely middle-eastern.

  11. Mikey says:

    @C. Clavin: Eh, I dunno…I Googled up some photos of him. If I saw that guy getting on a plane in New York, I’d assume his ancestry is Italian.

    Then again, my late father was 100% Sicilian and if he grew a moustache he looked a bit too much like Saddam Hussein, so…

  12. C. Clavin says:

    Yeah…the revolving door story makes no sense at all.
    Then there is Occam’s Razor…

  13. grumpy realist says:

    @Doug Mataconis: calling me a “guest” rather than a “customer” makes my teeth ache. If I’m a “guest”, how come you’re charging me for the ticket, eh?

  14. gVOR08 says:

    @grumpy realist: Look at it from their point of view. They can either go to the trouble and expense of making you feel welcome and respected and taking good care of you; or they can pretend they give a spit by calling you “guest”.

  15. James Pearce says:

    Airflight still being terrible has, admittedly, allowed me to explore the concept of slow-travel, the idea that the journey, not necessarily the destination, is the point. There is a fairly good chance I’ll be taking a train from Chicago to Los Angeles next year, not to see these cities, but to explore the mileage between them. One way. A full day and more on the train. The country whipping by in the window.

    The big crimp in this plan is that I’ll have to fly into Chicago and out of Los Angeles. Maybe I should reconsider this plan…

  16. grumpy realist says:

    @James Pearce: You can at least more or less easily get from O’Hare or Midway to the relevant train station without paying an arm and a leg.

    Time for the Heavy Lift Zepplins! (One of my future projects.)

  17. Hal_10000 says:

    So the airline apologized. Mr. Abtahi accepted the apology with grace and class. It would seem that all that remains if for social media to insist on remaining outraged.

  18. Ken in NJ says:

    @mackykam: Since when are paying passengers called ‘guests’?

    @Doug Mataconis: This has been a thing in retail and many service related business for several years now.

    It’s been a thing for a lot longer than that. Admittedly, it took a while for it to spread, but Target has been calling customers “guests” for 25+ years.