Waitresses as Air Marshals

A man was convicted last week of the federal crime of “interfering with flight crew” after he and his girlfriend were seen “embracing, kissing and acting in a manner that made other passengers uncomfortable.”

Although it usually covers serious criminal activity, the Patriot Act can apply to minor infractions on flights.

“You can’t make any threatening gesture to an attendant because it does violate the Patriot Act,” explained [Charles] Slepian [an aviation security expert at the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center]. “They don’t want you getting out of your seat except to go the lavatory. The whole idea is to keep control. If you react to the attendant, you’re going to get locked up.”

Flight attendants, with their increased power, definitely seem to be getting more sensitive to all types of behavior. Emily Gillette claims that she was kicked off a plane last month for nursing her baby on a flight between Burlington, Vt., and New York City. A spokesman for Freedom Airlines, which was operating the Delta commuter flight, says that Gillette was ejected because she declined an attendant’s offer of a blanket.

One passenger on a Delta flight from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City was arrested for leaving his seat to go to the lavatory less than 30 minutes before landing (due to the incident, air marshals ordered all passengers to put their hands on their heads for the rest of the flight). And an Orthodox Jewish man was kicked off an Air Canada flight for praying, which attendants claim was making other passengers nervous.

Other passengers have been taken off flights for making jokes, such as asking attendants if they had “checked the crew for sobriety” and “where do you keep the bomb?” Some have been booted for taking onboard hand cream, matches and bottles of water, and for sniffing something in a bag.

And there doesn’t seem to be an age limit for the violators. In 2005, a United Airlines flight out of Chicago was delayed because a small boy said something inappropriate.

Now, there may well have been aggravating circumstances in all those cases. The convicted plane cuddler, for example, was belligerent with the stewardess because he thought she was rude to him.

Still, that an anti-terrorism law is making a federal crime out of being rude to waitresses is patently absurd. And, please, the idea that stewardesses are anything but waitresses 99.999% of the time is a joke. They are not “flight crew” just because they make insipid announcements that nobody actually listens to. (Indeed, on JetBlue, celebrity guests give those safety instructions via videotape.)

Yes, they’re trained to help the passengers to safety in an emergency. When they’re actually acting in that capacity, they should be treated as authority figures. Otherwise, they’re just people who hand out snacks. Let’s quit pretending otherwise.

Being rude to waitresses is boorish. It should not, however, be a crime. Yes, their jobs are hard enough without people being jerks to them. Then again, passengers are paying customers and some of them have bad days. And being crammed into too-small seats and being treated like cattle doesn’t exactly bring out the best in people.

Sean Hackbarth thinks the solution is for better judgment on the part of both the airlines and prosecutors.

The smart airlines better train their attendants to make common sense the rule. All passengers know the story of United 93. U.S. hijackings are a thing of the past. Passengers will fight back. Along with that prosecutors need to use their brains instead of wasting time prosecuting members of the Mile High Club.

Certainly true. Then again, the fact that the law currently makes stewardesses think they’re Authority Figures Who Must Be Obeyed* and gives prosecutors the option to bring trivial cases to court is problematic.

Steven Taylor believes “the bottom line is that at the end of the day innocent citizens are being harassed because the Congress decided to deputize flight attendants.” Quite right. It’s high past time to reverse that.

*I’m also less than thrilled with the general trend of police officers who seem to think they are entitled to subservience from the public they’re hired to serve. But that’s a subject for another day.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Law and the Courts, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Patrick McGuire says:

    There is a real simple way to correct all this. Drive!

  2. carpeicthus says:

    How often do marshals order everyone on a plane to put their hands on their heads? I’d think we would have heard about that.

  3. Anderson says:

    “Waitresses.” Ouch. I will be checking this thread periodically for the “flight attendants” to show up in force.

  4. James Joyner says:

    “Waitresses.” Ouch. I will be checking this thread periodically for the “flight attendants” to show up in force.

    Heh. Actually, I think I’m being generous here, as waitresses tend to be better at their job than airline flight attendants. Even at an inexpensive restaurant, they’re much more proactive.

    Then again, they work for tips. Maybe they ought to decrease flight attendant pay and pass word to the passengers that gratuities are appreciated…

  5. yo says:

    … and yet, no one’s mentioned the Replacements:

    She don’t wear no pants and she don’t wear no tie
    Always on the ball, she’s always on strike
    Struttin’ up the aisle, big deal, you get to fly
    You ain’t nothin’ but a waitress in the sky
    You ain’t nothin’ but a waitress in the sky

    Paid my fare, don’t wanna complain
    You get to me, you’re always outta champagne
    Treat me like a bum, don’t wear no tie
    ’cause you ain’t nothin’ but a waitress in the sky
    You ain’t nothin’ but a waitress in the sky

    And the sign says, “Thank you very much for not smoking”
    My own sign says, “I’m sorry, I’m smokin'”
    Don’t treat me special, don’t kiss my ass
    Treat me like the way they treat ’em up in first class

    Sanitation expert and a maintenance engineer
    Garbage man, a janitor and you my dear
    A real union flight attendant, my oh my
    You ain’t nothin’ but a waitress in the sky

  6. Poly says:

    and in todays news:

    Reality television stars Duane “Dog” and Beth Chapman were taken off a United Airlines flight Monday morning after they yelled and swore at a flight attendant, Los Angeles airport police said.

    Police were called to Gate 68A about 8:05 a.m. Monday. According to a report of the incident, the Chapmans were disrupting the flight by being loud and using profanity.

    United Airlines Flight 386 from Los Angeles to Denver returned to the gate “shortly after pushback because of a disruption of the flight because of passengers,” said airline spokeswoman Robin Urbanski. “The disruption on the flight affected our other customers on the flight and our safety regulations.”

    Urbanski said there were 156 passengers on the flight and it departed about 43 minutes late.

    Airport police interviewed the flight attendant, who requested the Chapmans be removed.

    No one was arrested, and Duane, Beth, Timothy and Leland Chapman were rebooked on another flight to Denver.

    Duane Chapman thanked the officers for responding and apologized, but Beth Chapman had no comment, police said.

    granted these folks were probably rude…… but to get ejected from a flight, come on..

  7. James Joyner says:

    I don’t know the details but given that they weren’t arrested and were immediately allowed on another fight, it does strike me as overkill. Especially when they turn the plane around and screw all the other passengers.

  8. mavsfan says:

    Interference with a Flight Crew predates the Patriot Act by a number of years, so that’s a red herring. The two have no relation, which effectively squashes this entire article.

    And let’s look at this incident in particular:

    Trial testimony by crew members established that Persing put his head in Sewell’s lap, and refused the request of a male flight attendant to stop. Several passengers testified they heard Persing warn the attendant to “get out of my face” and he appeared to be intoxicated.

    After being refused mixed drinks on the flight, Persing told the flight attendant there would be a “serious confrontation” between the two, according to the complaint. Crew members testified Persing was verbally abusive on other occasions during the flight.

    That’s threatening at the least, not just “being rude.” Sorry.

    Dig a little deeper next time. I found that in two minutes online. Research, please. Due diligence is essential if you want to consider yourself a journalist.

  9. James Joyner says:

    Read the statute you cite from 1999:

    One who assaults, threatens, or intimidates a flight crew member or attendant while aboard an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, and thereby interferes with the performance of that crew member’s duties or lessens the ability of that crew member to perform his/her duties is punishable under this subsection. See United States v. Meeker, 527 F.2d 12 (9th Cir. 1975). A violation of 49 U.S.C. § 46504 is a general intent crime; it does not require any specific intent to intimidate or to interfere with the flight crew member or attendant. See United States v. Grossman, 131 F.3d 1449, 1451-52 (11th Cir. 1997); United States v. Compton, 5 F.3d 358, 360 (9th Cir. 1993); United States v. Hicks, 980 F.2d 963 (5th Cir. 1992), cert. denied, 507 U.S. 941, 507 U.S. 998 (1993); United States v. Meeker, supra, 527 F.2d at 14. While attempted aircraft piracy and interference with flight crew can both be charged in the same indictment, if convicted on both charges, the defendant should be sentenced only under the attempted aircraft piracy conviction because, absent highly unusual circumstances, the interference with flight crew charge is the lesser included offense. See United States v. Compton, supra, 5 F.3d at 360; see also United States v. Calloway, 116 F.3d 1129 (6th Cir.), cert. denied, 118 S.Ct. 324 (1997); United States v. Figueroa, 666 F.2d 1375, 1380 (11th Cir. 1982).

    That was about safety, not rude behavior.

  10. mavsfan says:

    That word “threat” in the statute? See it? Now look at what Persing said to the FA. Was it? Maybe, maybe not.

    That phrase “interferes with the performance of that crew member’s duties or lessens the ability of that crew member to perform his/her duties?” Did he? Maybe, maybe not. We can debate it all day, but it still doesn’t address the fact that there is no nexus between the Patriot Act and this statute and incident. None. Zero. Zilch.

  11. James Joyner says:

    there is no nexus between the Patriot Act and this statute and incident. None. Zero. Zilch.

    That’s simply untrue. Patriot Act revised and extended several pre-existing policies.


    Section 2332b of title 18, United States Code, is amended–

    (1) in subsection (f), by inserting `and any violation of section 351(e), 844(e), 844(f)(1), 956(b), 1361, 1366(b), 1366(c), 1751(e), 2152, or 2156 of this title,’ before `and the Secretary’; and

    (2) in subsection (g)(5)(B), by striking clauses (i) through (iii) and inserting the following:

    `(i) section 32 (relating to destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities), 37 (relating to violence at international airports), 81 (relating to arson within special maritime and territorial jurisdiction), 175 or 175b (relating to biological weapons), 229 (relating to chemical weapons), subsection (a), (b), (c), or (d) of section 351 (relating to congressional, cabinet, and Supreme Court assassination and kidnaping), 831 (relating to nuclear materials), 842(m) or (n) (relating to plastic explosives), 844(f)(2) or (3) (relating to arson and bombing of Government property risking or causing death), 844(i) (relating to arson and bombing of property used in interstate commerce), 930(c) (relating to killing or attempted killing during an attack on a Federal facility with a dangerous weapon), 956(a)(1) (relating to conspiracy to murder, kidnap, or maim persons abroad), 1030(a)(1) (relating to protection of computers), 1030(a)(5)(A)(i) resulting in damage as defined in 1030(a)(5)(B)(ii) through (v) (relating to protection of computers), 1114 (relating to killing or attempted killing of officers and employees of the United States), 1116 (relating to murder or manslaughter of foreign officials, official guests, or internationally protected persons), 1203 (relating to hostage taking), 1362 (relating to destruction of communication lines, stations, or systems), 1363 (relating to injury to buildings or property within special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States), 1366(a) (relating to destruction of an energy facility), 1751(a), (b), (c), or (d) (relating to Presidential and Presidential staff assassination and kidnaping), 1992 (relating to wrecking trains), 1993 (relating to terrorist attacks and other acts of violence against mass transportation systems), 2155 (relating to destruction of national defense materials, premises, or utilities), 2280 (relating to violence against maritime navigation), 2281 (relating to violence against maritime fixed platforms), 2332 (relating to certain homicides and other violence against United States nationals occurring outside of the United States), 2332a (relating to use of weapons of mass destruction), 2332b (relating to acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries), 2339 (relating to harboring terrorists), 2339A (relating to providing material support to terrorists), 2339B (relating to providing material support to terrorist organizations), or 2340A (relating to torture) of this title;

    `(ii) section 236 (relating to sabotage of nuclear facilities or fuel) of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2284); or

    `(iii) section 46502 (relating to aircraft piracy), the second sentence of section 46504 (relating to assault on a flight crew with a dangerous weapon), section 46505(b)(3) or (c) (relating to explosive or incendiary devices, or endangerment of human life by means of weapons, on aircraft), section 46506 if homicide or attempted homicide is involved (relating to application of certain criminal laws to acts on aircraft), or section 60123(b) (relating to destruction of interstate gas or hazardous liquid pipeline facility) of title 49.’.

  12. mavsfan says:

    Okay then, slightly. But it has no bearing on this incident as the relevant statute (46504) was only modified by the Patriot Act insofar as “relating to assault on a flight crew with a dangerous weapon.” It was amended to add “or attempts or conspires to do such an act.” Does this qualify as totalitarian and repressive?

    Being “rude” to a FA doesn’t invoke the Patriot Act. Still a red herring. There exists a slight nexus from the Patriot Act to 46504, but certainly nothing substantively repressive. It merely expands assault to also include attempted assault, which is a charge or essential element in every state in the Union.

    Also, here is the indictment of the charge:

    Notice the verbiage stating “…and did threaten to initiate a violent confrontation with the flight attendant….”

    Nope, not being rude. Threatening. There is a substantive difference.