Misbehaving Passengers Turn Widebodies Around


A couple of passengers found a novel way of turning around a widebody airliner on Friday when they tried to commandeer business class seats on a United flight from Newark to Tel Aviv. Only about a third of the 330 seats on the Boeing 787 were occupied for the 10-hour flight. Shortly after takeoff, the pair took a look at the sparsely populated front section and claimed a couple of the empty lie-flat seats for themselves. According to Israeli media, the duo refused to show flight attendants their tickets and then “started a riot” before the crew reversed course as the plane crossed the border into Canada. The two were taken off the plane back in Newark but were not charged. The flight was canceled and the other 121 passengers were put up for the night in hotels and rebooked on flights the next day.

Meanwhile, an American Boeing 777 pulled a 180 about an hour out from Miami for a more familiar reason on Wednesday. A woman on the flight to London refused to put a mask on and the plane returned to Miami so she could be escorted off by police. She was not arrested. That airplane was also only about 30 percent full. That flight was also canceled and the other 128 passengers rebooked.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. So, how much did it cost the airline to turn around, land, reschedule, and buy 121 hotel rooms Vs just letting 2 tired people use a few unoccupied more comfortably seats on that flight?

      • United would rather go broke rather than give even a hint of old fashioned niceness. Gone are the days of caring stewardesses that would actually ask if you wanted to change seers to spread out a little on long, near empty flights.

        Obey; because letting you have a pleasant flight is against policy.

    • Business class seats are occupied by passengers that either paid for the seats or earned them through loyalty to the airline. Why should some passengers that maybe bought cheap tickets and maybe travel once a year enjoy sitting in a nice seat with nice service, and good food? Passengers that pay for cheap seats today are so entitled. Good for UA for turning the plane around. Maybe those good for nothing passengers learned their lesson.

      • There has to be a better way of dealing with it than turning around the plane. Letting them keep the seats but charging their credit card?

      • Maybe the lesson that the high-paying customers (who paid for a good seat AND to get to their destination on time) learned was to choose a different airline that will fulfill the deal that they made with United.

        I’m not condoning the 2 passengers doing the “self-upgrade”, but at least fly the other 121 passengers to the destination. If you wanted to make it a big deal, just have police quietly waiting at the destination. The problem is de-escalated and all are happy. You know, a sensible outcome.

        • And were we all living 30 years back I might be inclined to agree but now, with the ‘benefit’ of social media, you can bet that had things gone as you suggest, these freeloading arrisholes would be crowing all over Facebook at their ‘audacious behaviour’ and come the next flight there would be another riot with 30 people claiming their free upgrade for only 5 available seats.

          Sorry, but they should have been arrested and charged with ‘endangering an aircraft’ if they did not immediately vacate their un-paid-for seats at the request/demand of cabin crew.

          And why on Earth the other passengers didn’t do something is beyond me.

          • I said you can arrest them if you like, but do it quietly AFTER landing with police waiting at the arrival gate. Why inconvenience so many people and add costs? If you handle it discretely then everyone wins.

    • I am actually curious how the math works out here for United. If you have flights that are only 30% full, then booking the passengers on tomorrow’s flight is close to free. I’m guessing saving maybe 8 hours of flight time overall goes a long way to offsetting hotel rooms and other costs. Could it be that United actually saved money making this move?

      • Now that’s a good question. I can tell you that I quit flying British Airways after they merged us with another flight which both delayed our takeoff and resulted in a downgrade to coach. I don’t fit in coach, and generally cannot sleep in the seats. They only gave us $300 each credit towards another ticket in spite of our status and club membership. IIRC the price difference was $800 each for the tickets which we paid for. It’s been almost twenty years. We didn’t use the coupon, and haven’t used BA either.

    • So you would condone poor behavior to allow the remaining passengers the hint that if these two were allowed to move up to business class, some or all may use that as an excuse to demand the same in any future flight. Get real. It is solely up to the flight attendants discretion, not passengers, to ask passengers if they wish to move around. You must assume that the entire flight means food is available to a nearly empty flight because that would be ludicrous. I’m pretty sure food is planned according to the number of passengers but you go on with presumptions. Or did you even give it any thought? The captain has ultimate command and most likely consulted with superiors or already used prescribed procedures to turn around. Returning to Newark says these two self indulgent individuals were not getting their way, period.

  2. As a Captain for a major airline I can very much understand both sides of this issue. The recent escalation of rude and obnoxious behavior as well as outright physical violence and attacks on staff is unprecedented. I agree that a strong message must be made. Yet as others have commented why penalize the “good” passengers as well ? I would choose to have the offending parties informed that they will be arrested upon arrival at the destination and also point out to them that there is nowhere to hide in the meantime. The only problem with that scenario is that internationally law enforcement might not back you up depending upon the country’s view of the infraction.

  3. Very simple solution! Permanent, lifetime ban on flying on any airline! This is the only way to stop this nonsense! Also, consumption of alcohol at airports should be closely monitored!

  4. In many civilian cases with direct monetary value, the perpetrator of an offense is charged with three times the value of the offense. So, at the minimum, these freeloaders should be charged with three times the full-fare first class seats, and with no further inconvenience to the other passengers. Even if international law won’t act, they have to return sometime!

  5. As someone who has flown commercially for decades sometimes to small airports, I can tell you that on several occasions my flight was cancelled or diverted and I was left at some other destination because it was cheaper for the airline to cancel or divert than to complete the flight with just a few passengers. If you think back you can probably also identify with this scenario. It was no doubt cheaper for the airline to cut the flight time, save the cost of fuel, maintenance, etc. and do exactly what they did, and to hell with the passengers. Do not kid yourselves, airlines pull this crap all the time. One time I was on an America West flight that was supposed to fly from Phoenix to Fresno then Monterey CA. We landed in Fresno about 11 pm and the crew walked off and left the few passengers stranded with no recourse. When pressed, the only remaining employee said that Monterey was fogged in. Being a pilot I called flight service for weather and they reported Monterey to be completely clear with a forecast of continuing clear. It was cheaper for the airline to discontinue the flight than to continue and of course screw the paying passengers. This was not a unique experience. The airline alternative was for the passengers to go find some place to stay on their own, then be flown back to Phoenix the next day and try the whole thing again. Airlines still cancel flights if there are not enough paying passengers or if it is the cheapest alternative.

    • United did this a lot in the late nineties. Some people put up with it. I did not. My corporate travel office once made a deal with UA and started pushing everyone they could onto UA flights. I gave them hell, but they kept doing it to me, and UA kept messing up two out of three flights. I realized that everyone was pushing back except the people living in UA hubs. The agents assumed the pushback was about miles and we were making stuff up. So, I offered to take SWA or ANYONE else. They put me back on Continental because they realized I was being sincere. A year later, the deal was canceled. I’m pretty sure we lost more money using UA than if we put every salesman going to a smaller town on a jet charter.

  6. The Entitlement mentality is about.

    I suggest that moving people is quietly done, for reasons such as more quiet (if a passenger is near a baby for example). I was put in first class section one night, I don’t remember if crew knew I worked for another airline, I was neat and clean. If first class is empty I’d put a family in it.

    But it takes smart crews who aren’t afraid of bureaucrats in HQ. The airline I worked for had savvy cabin operations, in part as supervisors had been around – one had flown the BC coast c/w behaviour of bushed loggers, another flew the Arctic where you are more on your own.

    Hiring is key, one day going into the High Arctic I chatted with a young F/A who said she had lied about her age to get the job, she seemed quite savvy. Training is key, that airline was slowly adding supplemental training for terminal agents on

    Bad behavers have long been around, I was told that responding to a bushed logger playing pinch bum was tacitly accepted. Big city types were kicked off an airplane during intermediate stop in the Okanagan one day, bleeping scuba divers were horsing around and wouldn’t sit down so oncoming pax could get to their seats. They were told the station manager would give them directions to a bus terminal, for a long ride to their destination. But maybe, just maybe, the manager could be convinced to let them on a later flight. Today remembering that I wonder if those jerks were sloppy and fooling around while diving – could be fatal.

    This is not a question of airline cancelling flights and such, this is a safety question. Some people in Avweb fora should not be allowed near airplanes.

    • Training is key, that airline was slowly adding supplemental training for terminal agents on dealing with people quietly – I sat in on one class, but never in an F/A class.

  7. I suggest that this could be simply solved by including verbiage in the sales contract to allow the full fare to be charged to people who pull these stunts, but perhaps because the contracts are so full of nonsense it would be unenforceable.

  8. What I’ve noticed and learned from social norms is that if you let people be tarded, then it will trigger another person to be tarded.