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No Exceptions
By Paul Hudson
President,, Pubic Member, FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee
With assistance by Andriana VanderGriend, Johannes Munter & Richard Baxley
Editor’s Note: This article may be republished with attribution.
On April 3, 2015, Karen Momsen-Evers, a Southwest Airlines passenger, received a text message from her husband shortly before her plane was to taxi that read, “Karen, please forgive me for what I am about to do, I  am going to kill myself…”  She panicked and told the flight attendants, who absolutely refused to let her communicate with her husband to dissuade him by cell phone or through the flight deck telephone. 

After the 2 ½ hour flight, she was informed by the police that her husband had indeed killed himself during the flight.

This situation raises several important questions. What FAA regulations apply? What policies and training do flight attendants undergo for passenger emergency situations?  What legal recourse does a passenger have? What should be done to help passengers prevent tragedies in the future?  What can a passenger faced with a family emergency do as a practical matter when on an airliner?

FAA Regulations Re. Passenger Emergencies

The FAA regulations do not permit the use of cell phones except on landing, but do permit use of cell phones for “emergency” related communications. At present, passenger personal emergencies are not specifically included or excluded in the definition of “emergency.”

Most airlines including Southwest permit and even encourage passengers (for a fee) to use their personal electronic devices with WIFI connection once the flight is airborne over 10,000 feet. Skype and other services allow telephone voice over internet communications, email and text messages. 

Crew members are also allowed to use onboard communications equipment as long as it does not interfere with their duties or put anyone on board at risk.

Airline Policies And Training

Southwest and most airlines allow passengers to use cell phones after landing while the aircraft is taxiing. Southwest policies provide that flight attendants should notify the Captain in situations of emergencies, but arguably do not include passenger emergencies that do not involve operation of the aircraft.

Southwest issued this statement: “Our hearts go out the Evers family during this difficult time.  Our flight attendants are trained to notify the Captain if there is an emergency that poses a hazard to the aircraft or to the passengers on-board.  In this situation, the pilots were not notified.”  Then the company offered to refund the cost of her plane ticket.

Southwest policies also require the passengers to comply with flight attendant requests at all times regarding electronic devices. contacted for comment the flight attendants unions representing most flight attendants (the Association of Flight Attendants) and the union representing Southwest Airlines flight attendants (the Transport Workers Union) on this issue, but is still waiting for a response.

Legal Recourse

Intentional or emotional infliction of emotional distress is a common law tort, but one that is rarely successful and disfavored by the courts.  A key element is the conduct must be clearly “outrageous”, and while this should be largely a matter for a jury to decide, most such cases are dismissed by judges at initial stages of the litigation.

Needed Reforms Re. Airline Passenger Emergencies

As the passengers and flight crews can now be in communication by telephone and other personal electronic devices with the outside world, passenger family emergencies some involving life or death situations are bound to re-occur.  Accordingly, while always keeping in mind that flight safety is paramount, air travel needs to accommodate the modern interconnected world.

Accordingly, will recommend the following:

Proposed Guidelines for the FAA & Airlines re Passenger Emergency Situations

In the wake of the Southwest Airlines passenger whose husband committed suicide while she was onboard a flight from New Orleans, LA, to Milwaukee, WI, the FAA should release an Advisory Circular proposing best practice guidelines for airlines to follow in non-medical passenger emergencies.  

Existing FAA regulations fail to address passengers’ personal emergencies adequately leaving the airlines with no guidelines as to handling irregular situations.  

FlyersRights.Org proposes the following guidelines:

  • Expand the definition of “emergency” in existing FAA regulations to include passengers’ personal emergencies not directly related to the safe operation of the aircraft.
  • Expand the definition of “safety” in existing FAA regulations to include passengers’ personal safety not directly related to the safe operation of the aircraft.
  • Advise airlines to assist passengers’ personal emergencies and safety insofar that it does not delay the flight more than ten minutes, or once airborne, that it does not substantially interfere with the cabin crew or flight deck from their duties or from the safety of other passengers.
  • Advise airlines to allow passengers to use personal cell phones during ground operations, up until the aircraft reaches the runway threshold, for emergency situations.
  • Advise airlines to allow the flight deck to use the onboard telephone in order to aid passengers’ personal emergencies.

Practical Steps For Passengers Faced With A Family Emergency

If on the tarmac or taxiway, advise the crew that you have a matter of life and death and in a loud voice if necessary, that you be allowed to exit the plane, refuse to sit down, make a fuss so the pilot returns to the gate.  If in the air, WIFY Skype calls are possible, and you can demand in writing and verbally the captain be made aware of your situation and need to communicate. 

 Probability & Statistics 

With record Memorial Day travel behind us, how’s this summer shaping up for air travelers?
Before you can answer that, the airline lobbyists already did!
Airlines for America, powerbrokers best known for being ‘in bed‘ with Congress, predicts:
  • U.S. passenger airlines achieved strong operational performance and improved profitability in the first quarter despite another ‘harsh winter’ (well, not so harsh).
  • Improving finances benefit customers, employees, investors and the overall U.S. economy (nono and maybe).
  • U.S. passenger airlines’ operational performance improved markedly year over year as airlines invested in systems, procedures and staffing operations. (What?!!)
Probably over 90 percent of problems we get at FlyersRights involve delays and cancellations. And they’re not weather-related; they stem from lack of flight crews to maintenance problems to lack of timely information. The airlines may apologize, but do nothing to ensure it doesn’t happen again. There is little to no recourse from the FAA or DOT.
The source of the passenger dissatisfaction has much to do with the fact that the three largest US airlines have a combined monopoly over the nationwide US air network — from city-to-city domestic routes to international connections. Passenger plight nowadays is akin to the frustration generated by the monopolistic cable television or cell phone industries in the US, where the respective markets are dominated by an insensitive few.
Many seem upset the airline industry does not serve the traveler — but why should it? It has powerful friends in Congress and in the regulatory agencies.
Last summer may be best remembered for ‘air rage,’ knee-defenders and drinks thrown at recliners. Though entertaining, the argument seems to blame the victim for suffering from the crime.
Specifically, the assertion: “The only way airlines can make money is to schedule more flights, cram more seats into the planes and manage their yield so that the planes fly fuller,” fails to acknowledge the implicit assumption that money cannot be made in a business by reducing costs.
The Wall Street Journal posted its annual statistics for the best and worst airlines. Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, both well known for their good customer service, placed at the top of rankings — which shows that profitability does not have to come at the expense of the customer. Effective management will be able to reduce costs at the same revenue level to improve profitability.
Of course, mergers have reduced competition, which leads to all kinds of pricing and service “understandings” that permit rate hikes and fee increases without ever a shadowy backroom meeting.
This is modern capitalism at its worst, where restraint of trade is more profitable than expensive and uncertain innovation. Keep the foreign airlines out, and a fat, protected market for local carriers.
No wonder the Big Three (AA, DL, UA) are fighting hard against international competitors. No oligopoly likes new, strong entrants which challenge the status quo with a better product at lower prices.
Even Republican trickle-down defenders can see that current market forces are out of wack here. Such “invisible hands” exist only in text books today. These are robber barons in action, not market forces.
FlyersRights has said many times that the airlines should be investigated for possible collusion and/or violation of the Sherman anti-Trust Act.  With the airline industry — as in most — the answer is trust busting. It worked for Teddy Roosevelt, and should work now in the New Gilded Age.
As is becoming all too common, we see the USA resting on the laurels of its past greatness, oblivious to an outside world that is accelerating past it.

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