By Paul Hudson
President, Flyersrights.org, 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.
n 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.
Flyersrights.org 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.
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, Flyersrights.org 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.