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Pilot-In-Command

JetBlue plane among clouds, seen from below
photo by Ben Carleton

When he was a U.S. senator in the 1980s and ‘90s, Alfonse “Al” D’Amato was known for being brash, loud and prone to shoot from the lip.

This tendency helped him wrest a New York seat long held by fellow Republican Jacob Javits, who was D’Amato’s temperamental opposite. It has also occasionally propelled D’Amato back into the news after he eventually lost his seat to Democrat Chuck Schumer in 1999.

So it wasn’t too big a surprise to read that D’Amato’s aging but still-flapping gums got him kicked off a JetBlue flight from Fort Lauderdale to New York City – for loudly taking the captain’s side, no less.

The flight, which had been significantly delayed, was further held when the pilot informed passengers that he needed 10 of them to move from the front of the plane to the rear due to weight distribution requirements. Six of the passengers reportedly refused to budge.

At this point, D’Amato evidently felt the need to interject. According to another passenger on the flight, D’Amato confronted not only his stubborn fellow-passengers, but also the captain and the crew, who he said needed “to grow some balls” and control the situation. D’Amato later denied he had shouted at them, as some reports claimed, though he did say he had asked the captain when he planned to intervene.

Regardless of its volume, D’Amato’s disruptive interference got him removed from the plane – at which point he appealed to his fellow passengers to walk out with him in protest of his treatment. From passenger-shot video posted online, it seems that only one person took him up on this offer, though several others loudly shouted “freedom of speech.” In one of the videos, a passenger can be heard asking, “Do we still live in America? Are we still in America?”

“No,” another passenger replied, “you’re in Florida.”

In reality, having Broward County Sheriff’s officers escort D’Amato off the plane had nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with disruption. As a JetBlue spokesman told CNN, “The decision to remove a customer from a flight is not taken lightly. If a customer is causing a conflict on the aircraft, it is standard procedure to ask the customer to deplane, especially if the crew feels the situation runs a risk of escalation in-flight.” And, after all, it hardly makes sense that the former senator was being punished for the content of his disruptive interjection. D’Amato was taking the pilot’s side. Sort of.

Weight and balance is a critical element of safe flight in any aircraft. Most travelers never know or think about this because, on big jets, airlines have algorithms that estimate the distribution of passenger weight, and they can adjust cargo loading procedures to keep the plane’s center of gravity within the acceptable range. But if you fly on small propeller-driven commercial or private aircraft, you have probably been asked your weight and told exactly where you may sit. Occasionally, pilots need to make some changes even on larger aircraft.

Passengers have no choice here. Federal regulations give the pilot-in-command total discretion over the operation of the aircraft and the conduct of its crew and passengers. This even extends to the power to disregard federal regulations governing the operation of the aircraft – a pilot-in-command may, at his or her discretion, disregard any federal regulation. The pilot may be required to explain or justify such deviations after the fact, but even federal regulators recognize that only one person can be responsible for the safety of a vessel and all souls on board. That person’s word is, literally, law.

So D’Amato’s fellow passengers had absolutely no business arguing when a pilot or his designated crew told them they would need to be re-seated for the safety of the aircraft. If someone paid a premium for a more spacious seat he or she no longer got to occupy, that issue would have to be taken up with JetBlue after the flight. If someone wanted to sit near the front of the cabin in order to make a tight connection, or just because that individual lacks the courtesy and patience to wait behind others to deplane, that was just too bad. Interstate 95 provides an alternate route to New York for anyone who is too selfish to share a commercial flight with others and who is disinclined to charter their own plane and crew.

But, of course, D’Amato didn’t need to get involved by offering his opinion about the pilot’s request or his fellow passengers’ reluctance to comply. Maybe he missed the memo that a pilot-in-command outranks a former U.S. senator with a big mouth and an even bigger ego. Maybe, as his paid apologists later said, D’Amato was just overtired and out of sorts after waiting seven hours for his flight to depart amid the disruptions in Fort Lauderdale following a mass shooting just a few days earlier. D’Amato himself later admitted that he had not slept much, making him tired even prior to the long-delayed boarding process.

There is no free speech issue here. There is no customer service issue here. There is only an issue of a disruptive passenger who subjected his fellow passengers and an aircraft crew to needless stress and potential danger by opening his mouth when he should have kept it closed. He was never the brightest light on the Christmas tree, but even Al D’Amato ought to be able to understand that he left his filibuster privilege behind when he gave up his Senate seat.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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