Air travelers have been saying airline service has been going into the toilet for years, but not many passengers have actually had to spend a transcontinental flight in one.
This week, though, a traveler sued JetBlue Airways for more than $2 million after the captain on his San Diego to New York flight allegedly made him sit in the toilet for three hours during a sold-out, five-hour journey.
In addition to generally feeling humiliated, the traveler is suing JetBlue — a well-regarded, low-cost carrier with fine in-flight entertainment, lots of leg room and leather seats, except of course in the bathroom — because there was no seatbelt in the toilet. When the cabin crew told passengers to buckle up during periods of turbulence, he couldn’t do it, and got bounced around a bit.
Whether this airborne toilet training is worth $2 million in distress money is impossible for a bemused outside observer to say. Presumably, the courts will decide that.
But this odd incident, while hardly representative of flying, does raise some real-world points to ponder.
Chief among them: Just how much authority does the captain of a civilian commercial airliner legitimately have when weighing matters of safety and security at 35,000 feet? Most airline pilots are former military officers, a fact reflected in the job title ‘captain,’ and most still typically operate with a military-like chain of command in the stressful environment of a speeding jetliner.
In the case of the JetBlue flight, the captain was no doubt weighing the safety and comfort of stressed and possibly fatigued airline workers and trying to balance that with the needs of the passenger. Telling the customer to "go ‘hang out’ in the bathroom" — as he did, according to an Associated Press account of the incident — was presumably an improvisation on the pilot’s part. Was it an appropriate one? Or was it an abuse of authority?
In short, what rights does an air traveler have in situ when an airline pilot gives an order? Is refusing an order the modern-day equivalent of “Mutiny on the Bounty"? Is being banished to the bathroom the equivalent of walking the plank?
And — if the allegations contained in the lawsuit were indeed accurate — what if the passenger hadn’t stayed in the bathroom, as the pilot ordered? Could the captain have had the passenger arrested on landing for disorderly behavior? Or could the police have decided to arrest the captain, instead, for ordering the man to do something illegal and potentially dangerous to his safety?
Another thing: Should there be seatbelts in airline toilets? Maybe they would merely be an encumbrance. But maybe they could help avert, uhm, messy situations in turbulent weather.
Summer’s coming, and so are more full flights, as money-losing airlines continue to cut capacity. More discomfort is inevitable. And so are more lawsuits, both frivolous and serious.