Don’t you just love it when you’re doing something as stress-free as traveling during a pandemic and a fellow passenger decides that it’s that moment to exercise his right to be a pain in the ass?
It happened this week to a bunch of lucky travelers on an American Airlines flight from New York to Dallas (COVID-19 hotspots both) when conservative activist Brandon Straka refused to wear a face mask. Here’s how Straka interpreted the event:
According to journalist Astead Wesley, who was on the same flight, Straka’s response was far less pithy:
Straka was then asked by attendants to disembark the plane, which he did of his own volition (to the applause of the remaining passengers, according to Wesley) but not without shooting a parting blow on Twitter.
AH HA! Gotcha airlines! Straka, like many among the non-mask wearing population, are adamant that there is no national law requiring people to wear face masks in public and they are only subject to federal laws, apparently. Which hey, I’ll give them one thing: There is no law requiring people to wear face masks in public.
However! Airlines can basically kick you off of their planes for any reason. And guys, it doesn’t even have to be because you broke a law! I’m serious. Passengers are kicked off planes all the time for reasons like having peanut allergies or speaking Arabic or having a child with autism—none of which are federal offenses. In 2018, airlines reported to the Federal Aviation Administration that 153 “unruly” passengers were ejected from planes. This number is most likely underreported too, as it is up to the flight crew to report the incident. And while you can sue airlines after the fact, once the crew of a plane decides you are done, you are done. There’s no appeals process to get you back on that flight.
Fortune magazine spoke to a lawyer who had represented airlines in the past. Here’s what he had to say about the power of airline employees:
“Airlines have broad, but not absolute, discretion under federal law to refuse to transport a passenger that it considers to be a safety risk,” says Adam Wasch, a Boca Raton-based attorney who has represented airlines and their insurers during his career.
He says federal law authorizes the refusal to transport passengers that the airline decides might be “inimical to safety” based on the facts presented. But, as some federal courts have held, the law is not a license to discriminate.
“If the evidence suggests that the airline’s decision to eject a passenger was based on racial profiling, then an intentional discrimination claim may survive a motion to dismiss but, overall, it is a tough evidentiary burden for a passenger at trial due to the broad discretion given to the airlines,” he adds.
Ah, so, it looks like federal law is actually on the side of the airlines on this one. FAA regulations give stewards sweeping power so that “...no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crew member in the performance of the crew member’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.”
American Airlines took full advantage of those broad-reaching powers with Straka, banning him for life from flying with them and, if he pulls similar stunts with other airlines, he may lose the ability to fly with those as well. Back in May, as airlines geared up for an influx of passengers after COVID-19 emptied fuselages for weeks, many airlines said they would be requiring masks, but would not be enforcing their use. They are singing a different tune these days, according to the Chicago Tribune, with United and Delta keeping separate internal lists of defiant passengers and smaller airlines following suit. Mask compliance on airplanes is especially important now that we know COVID-19 is at its most infectious in confined spaces over an extended period of time.
Oh well, maybe Straka could buy a face mask off of his own website with his own crappy hashtag if he feels like visiting the friendly skies again. If not, well, I hear you can get a rental car pretty cheap these days.