Ned wears a neck brace when he flies, not because he’s injured or disabled, but because he prefers it to one of those floofy neck pillows. This didn’t sit well with a Delta flight attendant who was intent on keeping disabled-looking folks out of the emergency exit aisle. The attendant wouldn’t leave Ned alone, even after Ned demonstrated his range of mobility and explained that the brace was from a minor car accident thirty-three years ago. Ned managed to hold onto his seat after a chat with the senior flight attendant, but the original flight attendant later came back, “got in [Ned's] face ñ literally, just inches away” and complained that Ned had “bucked his authority.”
In early January, 2008, I was traveling via Delta Airlines from my home base in Las Vegas to Atlanta, connecting to Washington DC, where I was going to stage a new-book launch at the National Press Club. My seat was in the emergency exit row ñ at my request, because of the extra leg room ñ and after I took my seat, I put on a soft-collar neck brace, which I use in lieu of a pillow to support my head while in flight. Like most airlines, Delta’s seats seem to have been designed by Torquemada, and anything that adds to my comfort is a plus.
When a flight steward saw this, he informed me that I’d need to change seats, as someone with a handicap could not sit in the exit row. I’m not handicapped ñ this neck brace stems from being rear-ended in ’76, and I keep it around for flying and not much else. I explained this to the steward in reasonable terms, even taking it off and demonstrating my neck mobility. However, he was on a mission from God to purge the flight from evil handicapped men in emergency exit row seats, and would not be calmed. That the plane was full and the flight was long both motivated me to want to hang on to my aisle seat. After listening to this “gentleman” for way too long, I asked to speak to the senior flight attendant. Unlike this cretin, she was reasonable ñ I explained to her my situation and choice, demonstrated my mobility ñ and she told me to stay in my seat, but wait until after take-off to put the neck brace back on. She was so reasonable that I was glad to comply.
After take-off ñ in fact, I waited until we could all turn on our electronic devices again ñ I put my neck brace back on. A couple of hours later, during the in-flight movie that I was watching (at $5), the steward came back, manhandling the drink cart. When he saw me with the neck brace on, he went ballistic. He got in my face ñ literally, just inches away, and I thought I’d need an umbrella to avoid the spittle. He was furious that I had bucked his ëauthority.’ I tried to explain to him that I’d gotten his boss’s permission, and that he should back off, or at least check with her before he broke a blood vessel. That didn’t seem to please him, but he finally backed off after threatening me with unspecified dire results. Under my breath, I mumbled “son of a bitch” ñ and meant it ñ but even though he didn’t hear it, he figured out that it wasn’t flattering, and really went thermonuclear. He demanded to know what I said, and I informed him that it was none of his business.
Well, it took me about 45 minutes to get my blood pressure back down from low earth orbit, but eventually I calmed down and “enjoyed” the rest of the flight. As I was getting off the airplane in Atlanta, this guy avoided my gaze, but with a smirk. Moments later, I found out why when I was accosted by an “official” looking middle-aged woman with an official red blazer, a clipboard and an attitude. She said something like, “I understand there was a problem on the plane Ö” Since I was intent on making my connection (also with Delta) and because I’d just about had it with power-crazed minions who should have been treating me like a customer instead of a problem, I chose an unusual approach.
“Yes,” I said, “and I hadn’t intended to report it ñ I figured I’d just let it go ñ but since you brought it up, I’d like to file a complaint against that flight attendant who treated me so rudely.” I briefly described the nature of my complaint, and kept pressing her to give me the complaint form and get the name of the flight attendant, as I wanted to take this to the top. Suddenly, she got an emergency phone call and had to depart the scene. It clearly hadn’t gone the way she’d expected.
Especially since 9/11, there have been a small but annoying cadre of airline people who think they have real power over passengers ñ that they can use the threat of booting someone off the plane (or worse) to enforce things that are way beyond their rights. This isn’t the first (or the last) time I’ve been hassled on airplanes or at gates, and it isn’t the worst case, either, but it was the only time when I’d figured out a way of deflecting the problem. I thought others might want to consider the same approach ñ instead of submitting meekly, complain ABOUT them to proper airline authorities, putting them (and the system) on the defensive.