By Travel columnist
updated 6/25/2005 1:32:48 AM ET 2005-06-25T05:32:48

When Lynne Dolce-Brouwer’s flight from Boston to Chicago lands, her six-year-old daughter runs off the plane. She pursues her but isn’t allowed back on the aircraft to help the rest of her family disembark. When she tries to push her way past the flight attendant, fists start to fly. Was the flight attendant out of line? Is this passenger entitled to an apology – or even, a refund?

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Q: I recently flew from Boston to Chicago on ATA with my husband and my three young children.

When the flight landed, my six-year-old daughter ran off the plane. I immediately followed her to make sure she was safe and told her to wait by the front of the plane. Since my infant twins, all the bags and my husband were still on the plane, I tried to re-board the aircraft.

The flight attendant stopped me and said I would not be allowed to reenter the plane since I had already left. I told her that I needed to help my husband get our twins and bags out of the plane. She insisted that I could not do so.

I politely asked her if she would assist my husband to get the babies and bags out of the plane. Once again, she refused.

At this point, I heard my twins crying and knew that my husband needed help fast. I entered the plane to assist my husband. The flight attendant followed me and then attempted to physically drag me from the plane. My husband intervened and told her to stop immediately. My arm was completely scratched up and bleeding.

The flight attendant screamed at me, threatening to call the police and have me arrested. We felt very intimidated at that point and felt that the best situation was for us to leave and then file a formal complaint. I would like your help in knowing how to contact the appropriate agency to report this assault by this flight attendant so that it does not happen to someone else.

— Lynne Dolce-BrouwerChicago

A: You can contact the US Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division on the Web or by e-mail at or you can call (800) 255-1111. A complaint of this nature would go on ATA’s permanent record and, if appropriate, it would be investigated.

But why wait? I called ATA to find out what happened, and it conducted its own investigation.

The airline confirmed that there was an altercation, but it disputed several important facts. ATA told me you were warned not to leave the aircraft, and when you tried to come back, a crewmember assured you that your husband and twins would get help when they disembarked. It also insisted that its employees didn’t use excessive force in removing you from the plane.

ATA has a policy against passengers leaving the plane and then re-entering the cabin. It’s a sensible rule. After all, if you allowed people back on the aircraft while it was unloading, it would slow the entire de-planing process.

Your incident brings to mind another case of a child running past a restricted area. In 1999, one of John C. Davis Jr.’s children tried to slip past gate agent Angelo Sottile at a Continental Airlines ticket counter in Newark. Sottile restrained the child, both men got into a scuffle, and Sottile’s neck was broken. The employee survived, but the passenger prevailed in a resulting lawsuit filed by the airline against him.

I think mistakes were made by everyone. ATA’s didn’t effectively communicate its policy with you. Although it claims that you were warned about re-boarding, and told that your family would be taken care of, none of those messages seemed to reach you. I’m not convinced that you needed to be removed from the plane, either.

Ideally, your six-year-old would have stayed with you after the plane landed. If you had to leave the aircraft to find your child, you should have waited until everyone had deplaned before requesting permission to re-board.

But your biggest error was ignoring the flight attendant’s request to stay in the Jetway. The only reason to disobey the instructions of a crewmember is in a life-or-death emergency, which this clearly wasn’t.

ATA apologized for the situation but it stood by its crew’s decisions. I agree that the flight attendants handled this by the book, and I also believe you did what you thought was best for your family at the time. But with just a little extra compassion and common sense on both sides, I’m sure the all of this unpleasantness could have been avoided.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.


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