After a dog died in an appalling debacle aboard a United Airlines flight Monday night, the internet assembled to pose “what ifs” and render ex post facto judgement. If, as several eyewitnesses have claimed, a flight attendant “insisted” that the dog’s owner, Catalina Robledo, needed to store the pet in an overhead bin, why didn’t the passenger object more fervently or get off the plane? And couldn’t the eyewitnesses have done more? Why didn’t they rise in mutiny upon hearing this plainly incorrect instruction?
First of all, consider the complexities of Robledo’s situation: Reporting has indicated that she does not speak English fluently, and she was traveling alone with an 11-year-old, a newborn, and her dog.
But even holding those challenges aside, much of the second-guessing presupposes that you can get what you want on an airplane using the same tactics you’d deploy to resolve a dispute with Amazon, Walmart, or Olive Garden. This expectation makes sense, because outwardly the airlines greet you with a smile and emphasize a similar commitment to customer service. But complaining on an airplane is fundamentally different, because the inside of a cabin is ultimately governed by a set of inflexible laws that prioritize safety and anticipate worst-case scenario disasters. Most of the time these regulations are just background noise, but at the heart of most passenger horror stories lies some rule that transformed an ordinary service interaction into something more akin to a police stop. These dynamics are the special sauce that makes airplanes uniquely terrible venues for conflict mediation.
So what should you do if you need to win an argument on a plane, as if your dog’s life were on the line? As a former flight attendant, here’s the advice I’d offer.
Speak Up, but Beware the Limits of Speaking Up
Even though the flight attendant aboard United Flight 1284 had it wrong, Robledo still could have been thrown off the plane had she refused to store her dog in the overhead bin. This is because of regulations that in effect criminalize insubordination on planes. Federal regulations require, for instance, that passengers follow all crew instructions. (“Crew” includes flight attendants, who are required on planes because the Federal Aviation Administration wants someone present to command an evacuation during an emergency.) If you refuse to follow directions, airlines can take advantage of the broad permissions they are granted to refuse transportation to any passenger they deem a safety risk.
But you should still speak up—as Robledo did. The key is to remain calm and to avoid monopolizing the flight attendant’s attention. “You’re allowed to disagree with flight crew,” says Justin T. Green, a partner at Kreindler, a large plaintiff-side aviation law firm, “but you must do so without interfering with the flight crew’s duties.”
If you can’t convince the flight attendant to reconsider the decision, ask to speak with the lead flight attendant. Don’t ask to speak to the pilot, because pilots are trained to prioritize cockpit duties and usually defer to their in-flight crew’s judgement when a cabin issue is reported. As one pilot explained to me, not backing them up “would cause massive issues for the lines of communication among the crew and diminishes the already fragile authority flight attendants have over passengers.”
Finally, it’s always better to speak up while your plane is still at the gate. This allows you access to the conflict-resolution specialists airlines employ in airports, who are versed in all matter of regulatory arcana.
Avoid Confrontation. Just Give In.
If your dog’s life is not on the line, consider whether your problem truly requires an immediate resolution. The rules are stacked against you inside a plane. And even where an airline is later shown to have kicked off a passenger for bad reasons, the law provides the industry with unique liability protections.
If it can wait, your problem will get a fairer assessment once you’ve deplaned. “My best advice is to try to avoid confrontations on airplanes, even when the flight crew is in the wrong,” Green told me.
But if your dog’s life is on the line, you can flip the script. Instead of arguing, simply tell the crew why you feel unsafe. Crews are trained to make safety their first priority and encouraged to proactively report any conditions that could be unsafe. Your report would probably get relayed to another crew member, which could lead another staffer to get involved, hopefully one who’s better versed in procedure.
Pets are counted as passengers, so their safety matters, too. And you can report all safety issues, not only ones that directly impact you.
Ask to Deplane
If the crew persists in their request after you’ve told them you feel unsafe, ask if you can deplane. It should be no problem if the plane is still at the gate, and the airport employees are likely to be more responsive to your needs once you’re not holding up a plane.
Asking could work in your favor even after the plane has pulled away from the gate. That’s because it takes time to drop you back at the gate, and pilots want to get home as much as you do. As one pilot explained to me, “No one wants to return to the gate for any reason. I’m 99 percent sure that, once the captain got word of what was going on in the back, both he and the flight attendants would be either scouring the policy manual or calling company to find out what the proper procedure really is.”
For financial and logistical reasons, getting off the plane can be scary. You could be stuck buying a new round of tickets for everyone traveling in your group if the airline doesn’t help. But if you’re right, the company will almost certainly assist.
Document the Event
Airlines now find themselves in a similar position as police departments. Everyone has access to a camera and Twitter, and these are powerful tools for redressing wrongs.
File a Complaint
Once you do get home, explore the work of consumer rights organizations like Flyers Rights and Travelers United, and consider filing a formal complaint. (The Department of Transportation told me that it’s looking into Robledo’s experience, working in cooperation with the Department of Agriculture, the agency that enforces the Animal Welfare Act.)
For its part, United Airlines says that it has refunded Robledo and her family’s tickets—including the pet fee.
Thanks to the pilots who provided guidance for this piece, whose identities I’ve withheld to allow them to speak candidly and without the permission of their employers. If you work in the airline industry and have additional tips, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!