The US government does a good job of reminding passengers that their Second Amendment rights don’t fly on airplanes. But during this very tense election year, travelers got a reminder that some of their First Amendment rights may not either.
The latest example of how freedom of speech is limited on board emerged on Dec. 22, when a couple was reportedly removed from a JetBlue flight departing from New York, after one of them complained about a high-profile cabin-mate: Ivanka Trump, daughter of the incoming US president, who was traveling with her children.
“Your father is ruining the country. Why is she on our flight? She should be flying private,” the person reportedly said, according to celebrity news site TMZ. The president-elect’s eldest daughter was seated a few seats away.
“You’re kicking me off for expressing my opinion?” the incredulous passenger added, according to TMZ’s account, upon getting booted from the flight.
Putting aside the questions of what Trump, whose family is no stranger to private air travel, was doing in coach, the incident is a serious reminder that the consequences of uncouth behavior on a plane are real.
Comedian Louis C.K. once joked that if you are sitting in your seat and making a funny lip-smacking noise and won’t stop, “they will land the plane.” It’s a great bit, but it’s also true that by design, the bar to kick a passenger off a flight is fairly low, as a way to give crew and captain the ability to make quick calls about perceived safety threats.
It comes down to context. Passengers who belt out a song or share their opinions on the ground can be removed if the staff observes or even fears harassment of fellow passengers or endangerment to the crew, even if the same behavior on the ground wouldn’t be formally penalized. There’s good reason for this—should a situation escalate, the next “stop” might be hours away, leaving limited options for diffusing the situation. After all, there’s no stepping out for air to escape an obnoxious airplane passenger.
Once in flight, a diversion is costly for carriers, which have to pay overtime, re-staff the plane, request a new take-off slot, and rebook passengers. Nipping an unruly-passenger problem in the bud before the flight even takes off is often the easiest course.
The man on board the flight with Ivanka Trump expressed his opinion “at the wrong time and at the wrong volume” tweeted Heather Poole, an American Airlines flight attendant and author of the memoir Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crash Pads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet.
In November, Delta Air Lines banned for life a man who cheered the 2016 US presidential election results, shouting ”Donald Trump, baby!” and asking if any “Hillary bitches” were on board. Earlier that month, the captain of a United flight from San Francisco to Puerto Vallarta tried to get ahead of any potential problem, warning passengers to keep quiet about politics or take another flight because “we are going to be in a metal tube at 35,000 feet.”
There is a downside to the airlines’ ability to make quick judgments: They’re often wrong. Decisions by multiple airlines to kick passengers off flights have been called into question this year as complaints of discrimination have mounted. Nearly every major airline has come under fire at some point for kicking Muslim passengers off of flights after passenger complaints or suspicions were raised.
Delta found itself embroiled in another controversy on Dec. 21, when it removed YouTube stars Adam Saleh and Slim Albaher from a flight between London and New York. According to the two vloggers, passengers had expressed discomfort after the pair was heard speaking Arabic on the plane. Saleh later released a video in which a Delta pilot tells him that he can be accommodated on another flight, to which Saleh suggests that the passengers who harassed them should be moved to another flight. Delta defended the decision and said that the customers—both known as pranksters—”sought to disrupt the cabin.”