Kicked off a United flight for taking pictures of the new first class seats

Matthew, a young man who blogs about air-travel, was thrown off a United jet after a flight attendant chastised him for taking photos of the new first class seats. She apparently thought he was a terrorist. According to Matthew, she lied (and the captain backed her up) and said that he refused to stop taking pictures when asked. The captain apparently threatened to have him taken off the plane by the police. Matthew says he's logged 950,000 miles with United though he's only 26 years old, and that this has made him question his views of the airline.

Captain: Sir, you are not flying on this flight.

Me: Can you tell me why?

Captain: My FA tells me she told you to stop taking pictures and you continued to take pictures.

Me: That's a lie, captain. She told me stop taking pictures and I stopped. I did try to explain to her why I was taking pictures—I am a travel writer [I offered him one of my business cards and he too refused to accept it].

Captain: Look, I don't care. You are not flying on this flight. You can make this easy or make this difficult. We'll call the police if we have to.

Me: Why are you threatening me? Your FA is lying—I did not disobey any crewmember instruction.

Captain: Look, we're already late. I'd advise you to get off this plane now. Make it easy on yourself. Don't make us bring the police in. Goodbye.

Me: Wait. Captain, may I have one of your business cards?

Captain: I don't have any, but United will have no trouble finding me. My name is...[removed].

Thrown Off a United Airlines Flight for Taking Pictures! - Live and Let's Fly (via Hacker News)


  1. He shouldn’t have been kicked off, but he probably shouldn’t have insisted on making his point with the FA, and I certainly would avoid using the word “terrorist” in any context on the plane, even if it’s proceed by “I’m not a”.

    1. I’ve heard this several times, but I’m not sure I agree with it. 

      If using the word “terrorist” was enough to get kicked off the plane, then I would expect the captain to say something like, “You used the word ‘terrorist’ while talking with my flight attendant.” But instead, he focused on the photography and said “My FA tells me she told you to stop taking pictures and you continued to take pictures.” 

      Based on the author’s description and comments from his fellow passengers, it sounds like the flight attendant did lie to the captain. The “terrorist” explanation is just an after-the-fact justification.

      Or possibly the captain focused on the photography because “You said terrorist! AAAAAGGGGGHHH!” sounds a little too close to Pee Wee’s Playhouse for something as serious as flight safety.

      1. There are certain words that make people uncomfortable in certain situations, regardless of context. Using the word terrorist in an airplane is akin to using the word pedophile in a daycare. It’s probably not a good word to utter, even if preceded by “I’m not a…”

        It isn’t logical. It isn’t rational. It isn’t normative. But a lot of us seem to understand that using these words provokes an emotional, even visceral reaction in others, so we attempt to avoid them in certain circumstances.

        1. I’m still not convinced.

          First, we’re still in ex post facto territory. According the people who were actually on the plane, Matthew was ejected because he allegedly refused to stop taking photographs, something which he and several other passengers dispute. The “terrorist” explanation didn’t enter into the discussion until much later, which makes is sound like an excuse rather than a justifiable reason.

          Second, even if the word “terrorist” does provoke an emotional, visceral reaction, it’s still not a reliable indication of danger. Safety personnel who use such arbitrary tools to evaluate situations are not competent or trustworthy. And they open themselves up to all kinds of mockery.

          1. Totally agree with you that it is not a reliable indication of danger (see my above comments about it being irrational and illogical).

            And perhaps it wasn’t the reason for his ejection from the flight (although, he is at least suspicious of it himself when considering it afterward).

            However, I think one has to go through some significant social cue mental gymnastics not to realize that use of words like “terrorist” and “bomb” on airplanes, when not explicitly relevant to the current conversation, are loaded words that can (irrationally) cause others concern.

            Nonetheless, assuming his story to be an accurate account of the events (and we’ve no reason not to), it sounds like he is owed compensation and an apology. I hope he gets it.

          2. I think we actually agree about most of this. I even agree about the emotional impact of words like “terrorist” or “bomb”. 

            I’m just rejecting the idea that the mere utterance of either one is a legitimate safety issue. Sure, they may be loaded words. In some contexts, they may even make us feel uncomfortable. But that discomfort is not a reliable predictor of danger. It’s just discomfort.

        2. So what are you saying? Presumably you aren’t excusing irrational overreaction to someone using certain words, or advocating prior restraint of free speech.

          OK, better not to say certain things in certain situations, which I think nobody is disputing. But if you happen to, it shouldn’t be such a big fucking deal, right? And it certainly doesn’t give others the green light to mistreat you, overreach their authority, and then excuse their conduct by saying that you used a bad word, and therefore waived all your rights to reasonable treatment somehow.

          At least, I assume you aren’t defending that kind of thing?

      1.  No, we refer to him as “He Who Must Not Be Named” (preferably with a really good thunderclap just afterward.)

  2. As some people posted- on the original article, I think it was his unfortunate use of the “T-word” on the plane that may have put the FA into bitch-mode. United went down the toilet for customer service many years ago, and this doesn’t surprise me. 

    I got screamed at by a United FA a few years ago for using my cell phone after the plane landed and was taxiing to the gate, because her colleague neglected to make the “you may use your cell phones now” announcement after landing. Several others were doing the same, so I don’t know why she targeted me. I probably asked for coffee at the wrong time or something. Her colleague quickly made the announcement after she started yelling at me… After giving me the “You are lucky I don’t have you arrested!” line, she stormed off as the plane reached the jetway.

    1. Isn’t it interesting how workers, no matter how menial their job is, often try to establish themselves as some sort of authoritarian figure whenever possible.

      Mall cops, flight attendants, etc.

      1. No less interesting than how self entitled passengers/customers routinely abuse workers or deliberately break rules etc. etc.

        For every crazy flight attendant there are scores of passengers who keep ignoring or being shitty to flight attendants when they ask them nicely for like the 20th time to put on their seat belt, stow their bag, turn off their cell and so on.

        1. Yes, but if he is not being a self entitled passenger, there would be no reason for the over the top reaction, would there? He has paid to be on the flight, and the FA is being paid to do his/her job courteously. That should count for something.

          Excusing irrational behavior because of something that happened some other time really doesn’t compute.

          I’ve experienced many examples of petty abuses of authority, but it would not give me license to react in advance of same because of it.

          1.  Excusing irrational behavior because of something that happened some other time really doesn’t compute

            I did no such thing. Notice the OP’s blanket use of “workers”….

            He made a blanket disparaging statement about “workers”, not this particular flight attendant.

      2. The more menial their job, and the more despised their role, the more need *some people* feel to inflate their own self-importance.

        Which is a vicious cycle, because then they and their job are more despised.

        But it doesn’t cost anything to always try to be reasonable. I suppose polite negotiation and dispute resolution is just not part of some people’s world view.

        However that may be, Donald Trump (for example) has buckets of money and a very high status job, but he is as big an arsehole as any harassed wage-slave, so it doesn’t do to generalise too much.

  3. It seems like United is already more or less saturated for negative publicity as far as customer service goes. It doesn’t matter. You’ll never shame them into improving. My brother in law figures their business model is based purely on their size (number of destinations and flights) and the offering of travel miles. For frequent travelers, the fact that you can travel basically anywhere on United using your accumulated miles makes it worth it to suffer the abuse you will inevitably take.

  4. First class passenger treated like the rest of us shocker.

    Maybe he has enough clout to get the issue addressed. Probably not.

    And when it comes down to a he said/she said, there’s no way to tell who’s bullshitting, and I’m glad that the captain sided with his crew, rather than a self-important travel writer.

    One has to wonder, though: what if everyone in that first class cabin had pulled out their cameras and started taking photos of the captain. Would he have thrown them all off?

    1. Your first gut reaction is to be mad at him because he’s rich? What does this have to do with anything? You should address your ressentiments.

        1. Look buddy, I am poor. I am unemployed right now. I have no sympathy for unearned privilege. It’s just fact that this story is *not* about wealth in any way or form. It is not about class war. The conflict in question has nothing to do with money. I think I am justified in pointing out when something is off-topic.

          1. We’re talking about “first class” which by its very nature is a separate “class” of flying where customers are treated with higher class, as VIPs, and generally coddled more than the rest of the passengers.

            His crack about being treated like a coach passenger? I’m going to allow it.

            Oh, and from the Replacements lyrics quoted by somebody below:

            Don’t treat me special, don’t kiss my ass

            Treat me like the way they treat ’em up in first class

    2. You must have missed that he was upgraded to business class.  That means he purchased a coach ticket.  Between you and the affected traveler, you’re the one who comes off as self-important.
      Instead of turning this in to some sort of class struggle, I think it’s more important that people focus on the PINAC angle (not to mention the “OMG you said terrorist!” and complete customer service breakdown).

  5. The “flight attendant is not comfortable” thing seems to be key.  In almost every one of these cases – where someone is singled out for removal from a flight – this is touted as the reason.  I’m sure that their training involves “going with their gut;” and defaulting to removal as soon as they’re uncomfortable.  Which is a real shame; an effective training program would concentrate on identifying real likely threats. 
    A lot of people talk about “security theater” when it comes to airline safety, but I think the biggest problem is that security personnel (and flight attendants) are simply not trained to know what to look for.

    1. It is also due to power without responsibility.  There is no accountability for how their power is used and almost no recourse for the affected passenger.

      This leads to abuse as sure as the Sun comes up and training won’t do much about it.

      This is why we are supposed to be a nation of laws, not of arbitrary rule by despots which we have become.

      1. That’s a point, especially in other similar situations.  You do have a recourse, though – a lawsuit.  If the cases so far are any prediction, your odds are pretty good.  What I don’t understand is why – considering that the airlines definitely know their legal risk – this continues to happen.

      2. 28,000* other commercial flights happened that very same day without such an incident. Perhaps you’re being a bit melodramatic….

        I would also remind people that companies have a bad habit of not justly compensating workers for extra responsibilities either. They’re essentially making waitstaff also have to perform the job of security, or air marshal without the training or extra pay that should go with it.

        * the figure which seems to appear on the web most often.

  6. United has cost me many hundreds of dollars by being late, denying me flights, failures, denying accomodation for failed flights, etc.

    Their stupid luggage policies delays flights 30 minutes every time as people attempt to stuff oversized items above them instead of checking their bags.

    I hate flying united.

    This flight attendant is the result of a poison culture where he/she is ground into a pulp and then takes it out on us.

    1. I agree:  I hate flying United!   For all of the same reasons that you stated… I’m with you 100%.  We are now making every effort to avoid United actually.  (Although we still have about 100,000 United frequent flier miles to use.)

      Hello, Hawaiian Airlines!  (They still serve you a snack or a meal, for free!)

    2.    quote;  “This flight attendant is the result of a poison culture where he/she is ground into a pulp and then takes it out on us.”  That is so true of many businesses these days !  I worry about the future when I see more and more authoritarian abusive shit every day.

    3.  “us” aka passengers are often the ones actually doing the grinding. In fact at least a few on every flight I’ve ever been on.

    4. United was a horrible experience at their big hubs. Never felt more like cattle than I did with them. Banks of kiosks for handling your ticketing (maybe 80?) and only 2 workers to assist with checked baggage. Felt for the few people who were working the terminal & the counter/kiosk system. Reminded me of the “I Love Lucy” episode where she’s making candy and the conveyor belt never would stop.

  7. Well, obviously United’s first class seats are of such major strategic importance I suppose even looking at them could be construed as terrorist intent…

    1. “Well, what sort of choice does that leave me? All right, I am a terrorist!”

      “He is a terrorist!!!”

  8. The whole thing is evens sillier as you could probably get all the pictures and even videos you wanted with a phone call to their PR department or simply walk their webpages.

    I think there is some weird thing buried in their assorted rules about not being allowed to take pictures of their “procedures” or some such arrant nonsense that implies the bad guys are just waiting to find out how the coffee is served to complete their plans for the next strike against the Great Satan.

  9. I wonder if it’s actually not something simpler.  He called the FA over after being asked not to photograph, and explained why he was taking the photo earlier…

    The thing that came to mind (being prone to, one a person-to-person level, attribute problems to misunderstandings before malice), was maybe, from that conversation, she THOUGHT he was saying “I’m a travel writer, not a terrorist, that’s why I’m taking pictures” and an implied (And I’m going to continue to do so). 

    He said he didn’t take any more, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she KNOWS he didn’t take any more.  Maybe she thought that, after telling him off, while she went to deal with the other passenger, he took a bunch more pictures and then called her back to explain why he’d violated her rule.

    It’s still wrong, but it’s a (slightly) more forgivable mistake to me.

  10. The solution to problems like this? Glass-cams!

    That way, not only is there a continual recording of both the item of interest and the related confrontations, but any nearby meteorites can be caught on video, uploaded to the internet, and be viewable world-wide (except for Germany)!

  11. Amongst the stupid things about this is the fact that a google search for pictures of the new United First Class seats gives you many hundreds of hits: including this one on the United site.  So one more picture is bad because…

  12. I don’t believe it was the word “Terrorist.” I believe it was because he justified the rule-breaking by his claim that he is well known for writing reviews of United. So even though there’s a published (if stupid) rule against taking pictures of the equipment, the rule doesn’t apply to him because he’s a reviewer.  Basically the FA heard “none of your rules will apply to me, starting with this one.” If he hadn’t justified himself and just said OK I won’t take any more pictures, nothing would have happened.

  13. Forget the ‘he spoke the word terrorist’ angle for a bit. Why is it against United Airlines ‘rules’ to photograph the back of a seat? What is the possible reasoning behind this kind of prohibition and why is it policy to remove passengers who take pictures of a seat back?

  14. Maybe in the end it wasn’t the T word, but the accusatory tone (your FA is lying) that made it impossible to defuse the situation.

  15. Sounds like he got in a tuffle with the stewardess, she got pissed, complained to the captain and he had her back? Captain has absolute authority on his flight, he may kick anyone he wants off for any reason, and the company is going to back him up on this. He’s responsible for the lives of 100+ (often 250+) passengers plus crew. Any passenger that puts his crew or other passengers in danger while he’s busy piloting a quarter million pounds of aluminum through the sky at 500mph is more than welcome to stay right the fuck off my airplane, thanks. He can catch the next flight.

    I am not a pilot, but I sail offshore 12-15 miles where it takes several hours to get back to shore/port, and if the crew doesn’t want to play nice, they can stay on the dock and play with their toys. Bringing along an irritable crybaby is asking for trouble.

    What he was doing to piss off the stewardess is completely irrelevant.

    1. Sounds like he got in a tuffle with the stewardess, she got pissed, complained to the captain and he had her back?

      Sounds like you’re making shit up to bolster your love affair with authority.

    2. Excellent example describing how the world is divided into those who will always side with “authority” figures, and those who are suspicious of them. I’ve seen too many examples of mindless rule following by petty tyrants. Admittedly, I never bought into the “because I said so” reasoning. In this case, I can’t see where the harm was caused by taking a picture, and I can easily see where the “rules” were interpreted to give the FA the upper hand.

      Flying has become such an enjoyable experience.

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