(CN) – An Alaska Airlines flight crew who landed an international flight early and tried to have eight Egyptian passengers and one Brazilian arrested for getting “out of control” may have abused its discretion if no crime was committed, the 9th Circuit ruled, reinstating the passengers’ lawsuit against the airline.
A group of Egyptian businessmen and their wives, including one Brazilian fiancée, were flying first-class from Vancouver to Las Vegas for a convention.
One first-class passenger, who was not part of the group, testified that the flight attendants treated the Egyptians badly. When one of the Egyptians got up to stretch and was told to sit down, which he did, the attendant allegedly kept complaining about his standing. When he told her, “I am sitting,” she handed him a passenger in-flight disturbance card to fill out, the witness claimed.
The attendant allegedly became increasingly hostile toward the group. After trying to talk to her, the international passengers all fell silent while she yelled at them. She then called the cockpit and told the pilot, Capt. Michel Swanigan, to land the plane because she had “lost control of the first-class cabin.”
TSA and the police were waiting when the plane landed in Reno. The flight attendant and pilot demanded that the group be arrested, but they were not. Instead, they were allowed to continue to Las Vegas on another airline, even after the attendant called the other airline and asked that the group not be allowed to fly.
The ousted passengers sued Alaska Airlines for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of international flight rules over the ordeal.
U.S. District Judge Robert Jones in Nevada ruled that the crew had acted within its discretion when it removed the passengers and tried to have them arrested. Jones said airline crews have wide latitude to decide if passengers pose a safety threat to a flight.
A 9th Circuit panel voted 2-1 to reverse that decision, saying a flight crew can’t arbitrarily kick people off a plane and have them arrested if no crime has been committed. The majority said passengers have a right to be treated fairly and with respect.
“Based on his evidence, a jury might well conclude that Captain Swanigan’s refusal to let the Egyptians continue on to their destination had nothing to do with safety or order but was designed to placate a flight attendant who had taken a dislike to certain passengers, perhaps because of their nationality or ethnicity,” Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote for the San Francisco-based panel.
In a partial dissent, U.S. District Judge James Otero wrote that the captain “had no duty to conduct a thorough investigation prior to his decision to divert the plane, and could rely on the distress call he received from the flight attendant.”