Man and his family booted off airplane after asking if pilots were sober.
July 16, 2002 9:04 PM   Subscribe

Man and his family booted off airplane after asking if pilots were sober. Hans von Schweinitz, on his way to go fishing in Canada, asked one of the flight crew whether the pilots had taken a sobriety test. They hadn't. A blood alcohol test kit was sent for. Two and a half hours later, with the plane sitting there on the tarmac, the pilots were found to be clean. Then they ordered von Schweinitz and his family to get off the plane, while the other passengers cheered.
posted by RylandDotNet (43 comments total)
*Quickly adds this to his ever-growing lists of reasons to never fly commercial airflights again*

Trust me, its a long list, and I've only been flying for 10 years.
posted by insomnyuk at 9:16 PM on July 16, 2002

"[A pilot] said parents should teach their children that there are consequences to asking questions and that the passenger who asked the question was going to be taken off the plane," Christopher von Schweinitz said. ... "The guy said he could put us on the next America West flight, but we had to give our word that we wouldn't ask questions like that again, and we said that we wouldn't."
posted by pracowity at 9:43 PM on July 16, 2002

pracowity, it sounds like that pilot went to the Ari Fleisher school of telling people to STFU.

I'm with you as well, insomnyuk. If I can't drive there in a day or two I don't need to go there.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:44 PM on July 16, 2002

Wow. I know that if I was on my way home from a business trip and some ultra over-protective parent had pulled this stunt I would have strangled him then and there. I reccomend that he ride the Greyhound with all of the other crazies. I understand that he went through traumatiuc experiences, but eventually you have to live life.
posted by ttrendel at 9:45 PM on July 16, 2002

The von Schweinitzes have returned to the Austin area from their fishing vacation. They immediately took their story to the tabloid TV show "Inside Edition." It aired Monday.


Bad PR for AW all the same.
posted by donkeyschlong at 10:00 PM on July 16, 2002

Since it didn't happen to me or anyone I know, I side with both parties. The passenger was within his rights to request the sobriety test. And good on him for asserting his authority. And yay for the airline for not taking that kind of shit from people.
posted by Foaf at 10:12 PM on July 16, 2002

It's not clear whether from the story whether the passenger requested a sobriety test, or whether he merely enquired about whether one had been done. If the airlines treated a query as a request, then, in my opinion, the passenger was rude, but AW over-reacted. I'd love to see what they would have done if he asked whether the plane was safe to fly on. Hold the flight and call in a mechanic?
posted by dws at 10:24 PM on July 16, 2002

Just so I'm clear: judging from some of the comments, it's okay for airlines to subject us to mediocre scrutiny, but not vice versa?

The airlines aren't doing us a fucking favor by flying us around. We pay for it. Oh no, wait. The government just bails them out whenever they whine. Never mind. I guess we *are* at their mercies.
posted by donkeyschlong at 10:37 PM on July 16, 2002

It didn't say in the article that the passenger requested a test, merely that the passenger asked if the pilots had taken one. Without further information, I'd be hard-pressed to call that out of line, particularly given that America West screwed up to begin with. (On preview, what dws said.)

Even if he had requested a test, they could simply have asked him to take the next flight and gotten to work on having those pilots tested, rather than making everyone sit at the gate hating this man. Stupid behavior from yet another America West flight crew — they threw another passenger off for making a joke about the pilots' sobriety a few weeks ago, so they should have had plenty of time to develop an approach to the remarks.

Seriously, if the crews can't handle a little customer concern after having two drunk pilots push back from a gate in one of their planes, they should find work with another airline.
posted by blissbat at 10:38 PM on July 16, 2002

This is America West's response to my letter:
Mr. Fox:

Thank you for contacting America West Airlines. We appreciate and welcome all inquiries, concerns and compliments, as your feedback is important to us. We take all comments regarding safety seriously and safety is always our top priority. In the extremely rare situation of a customer having a specific reason for concern about a flight crew member, the situation would be investigated immediately and appropriate action taken. Ms. Joette Schmidt, Vice President of Customers has appeared on a nationally televised program and apologized for removing this customer from our flight. We deeply regret the inconvenience the situation has caused.

Sandi Walters
Customer Relations
America West Airlines
And my subsequent reply:

Thank you for your response. I'm happy that Joette apologized for removing this customer, yet I would be happier if instead America West had better protocols for how to deal with this kind of situation, because as you're aware, the same thing happened again last week:

Blaming the 2.5 hour delays in obtaining a sobriety test on the passenger asking the question? That's deplorable. A possible alternate course of action would be to inform the passenger that 10% of flights are preceeded by alcohol-level tests, and that if the passenger finds that unacceptable, they can elect not to fly.

Just a customer suggestion, but I hope that you take it to heart.

Kevin Fox
Looks like America West staffers need to get on the same page...
posted by kfury at 11:30 PM on July 16, 2002

Wow, if they can't stop doing this, wouldn't you be concerned about flying with them on the general safety concern of putting your life in someone stupid's hands?

It's a reasonable question. I would have no idea that I might get in trouble for asking that on any flight. I would expect the answer to be "no", of course.
posted by Wood at 12:00 AM on July 17, 2002

It certainly seems like a bit of an over-reaction to a simple query from a passenger, but if I had been sitting on that plane at the end of a two or three week business trip with the only thing between me and home sweet home being one last flight, I would have thrown him off myself without a second thought. If he wanted to ask questions such as this, the check-in counter was the appropriate place (or the ticket counter, or anywhere else but the plane itself).

Obviously the passenger was not seriously worried about the sobriety of the crew, or he would have asked whether the crew of the second flight had been tested.
posted by dg at 12:26 AM on July 17, 2002

And again, the message from a company that cannot afford to piss off their customer base is: "Give us the money, comply to every demand we make of you, and don't give us any lip, or we'll throw you off the plane." Any other industry that treated its customers this way would be on the verge of financial ruin... oh, wait...
posted by Dreama at 12:38 AM on July 17, 2002

(wow.. FIRST MEFI POST.. *grin*)

I think the airline overreacted in this case; it sounds like the passenger just asked if the pilots were sober, not if they'd taken a sobriety test. AW overreacted (and was more than a little bit petty), and made an "example" of the passengers in question.

They're definitely on my list of "don't fly any time soon" airlines (along with Southwest, for their "we give you tiny seats to start out with, but if you don't have the same body profile as the skinny people we design the planes with, we'll charge you double" policy).

A more appropriate example would have been for the crew member to have the pilot and/or copilot talk directly to the passenger in question, and have their fears of drunken flying negated.. instead of being pissy about it.
posted by mrbill at 12:52 AM on July 17, 2002

To be honest, I'd have to side with the airline on this one. I mean give me a break... If he was so damn concerned about drunk pilots, what the hell was he doing going on an America West flight? Like someone above pointed out, if he was really concerned about the sobriety of the pilots, he would have asked for the second flight's pilots to be tested too.

The only thing that this does is make a plane full of people wait 2.5 more hours. If it was at the end of a long trip, or the person had a connecting flight to make at the other end and missed it, or whatever, it could have been 2.5 very agonizing hours.

If you're worried about your pilots being drunk, is 5 minutes before scheduled takeoff really the best time to check on it? Fly a different airline, ask about it earlier, do anything - but don't force another 100 people to wait with you.
posted by swank6 at 2:43 AM on July 17, 2002

It's pansy-assed vengeance for them to wait 2.5 hours for the sobriety test, and THEN kick the family off after they passed.

It's petty and mean of the airline.
posted by kfury at 3:09 AM on July 17, 2002

Not that I want to side with the AW, but someone should mention that we know of these two incidents because they were handled badly. We have no idea how many people asked this question and were treated fairly.

On the other hand, if the airline had their stuff together, it really shouldn't ever be handled badly. In this particular case, I agree with kfury.
posted by Miss Beth at 3:55 AM on July 17, 2002

"Bush taps Texas ally to be Mexico envoy: Reaction positive to naming of Garza for ambassador job"
is the story i get when i click the link this morning.
posted by quonsar at 4:29 AM on July 17, 2002

i'm with kfury.
posted by dabitch at 4:35 AM on July 17, 2002

Airlines act like dicks because they can. Apparently they decided to test their pilots just because a guy asked, not because he accused them of drinking. Then it took them 2.5 hours to get the tests -- the customer wasn't holding them back -- and they had no backup arranged. But they blamed the customer, who only (from the article, anyway) asked.

If they tested the pilots because the customer falsely accused the pilots of being or appearing drunk, that's the customer's fault. But if with no evidence or accusation of pilot drinking, the airline chose to test the pilots, that was their business decision and they should have handled it better. And if they tested their pilots because of some insane regulation that makes questions into statements, it isn't the customer's fault that a regulation makes it hard to run an airline.
posted by pracowity at 5:08 AM on July 17, 2002

I don't know about you guys but it doesn't sound unreasonable to make all passenger plane pilots take a sobriety test before takeoff.

They are flying an aircraft that has the potential to take many more lives than just the ones on the plane itself when it crashes.

How hard is to have a couple breath analyzers at an airport?

posted by Wong Fei-hung at 5:21 AM on July 17, 2002

Here is another link to the story, for those of you just joining the program. Oh yeah, and airlines suck.
posted by piskycritter at 5:59 AM on July 17, 2002

Incidents like these will continue as long as there are no repercussions. The pilots and crew involved should all be fired to set an example. It would not happen again anywhere in the industry.

I can't believe the selfishness of some of you, whining about the 2.5 hr delay. Did you not understand that the delay was the airline's fault, for not having the sobriety test handy? Poor planning = delays. Reasonable concern for one's safety = improved safety.
posted by rushmc at 6:24 AM on July 17, 2002

Imagine you're the pilot. Some dick is like "Are you sober? I'm just going to bother you because I'm an obnoxious American on my way to torment people in another country."

... and then you have to sit on your ass to PROVE that you're sober? (And, as it happens, you are.)

I'd be friggin' pissed, too. The passengers were obviously inconvenienced by that guy and cheered when those fools got kicked off. And yeah, there should be consequences to being annoying.
posted by ph00dz at 6:34 AM on July 17, 2002

The passengers were obviously inconvenienced by that guy and cheered when those fools got kicked off.

Imagine the inconvenience of flying into the ground at 350 mph because the pilot/s (who are not above scrutiny) had one too many. I've been of flights where this question was asked and seen the pilot actually came out of the cockpit to introduce himself just to reassure the passenger. Classy.

AW sucks as an airline in general from my personal experience so this type of behavior doesn't surprise me in the least.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 6:50 AM on July 17, 2002

More evidence that pilots should be tested for sobriety before every flight. Aayilah was apparently killed by a drunk pilot with cocaine in his system.
posted by timyang at 7:19 AM on July 17, 2002

Bring on the pilotless airlines. Computers don't drink alcohol, and can't be threatened with boxcutters.
posted by glenwood at 7:20 AM on July 17, 2002

It would have been a good PR move to have all AW pilots take a breathalizer test before their flights for a few months to reassure AW customers that everything's okay, but as we are seeing, AW doesn't seem to have a PR clue.
posted by neuroshred at 7:33 AM on July 17, 2002

I'm a general believer in the principle that pilots should be able to clamp down on any situation they feel is out of control, even to the point of kicking people off a plane. However, I don't see any justification for that in this incident, and it's a slap in the face for the public to be treated so badly by an industry that keeps coming to us for bailouts.

Timyang: The most likely explanation for Aaliyah's Cessna crash: It was flying at 700 pounds over its maximum weight, due to the number of passengers and their equipment, according to MTV.
posted by rcade at 7:38 AM on July 17, 2002

Von Schweinitz, 68, a German immigrant, said being kicked off the plane reminded him of living in Germany during World War II.

Oh come on. They were removed because they delayed the flight for two and a half hours, not because of any "suspicious" behavior. These pilots may be a lot of things, but they're not the Gestapo.
posted by UnReality at 7:42 AM on July 17, 2002

The Airline, and the local "Airport Authority" are at fault for not having sobriety tests available.

It's a reasonable question. If you drive, and a police officer stops you, and asks the same question, aren't the people in line behind you just as inconvienienced?

Pilots are human, not gods. Much like doctors, lawyers, police officers, polititians... they drink, they make mistakes. they should be just as accountable as the rest of the population...
posted by jkaczor at 7:53 AM on July 17, 2002

Ummm, glenwood, computers can be hacked... locally or potentially remotely (if the designers are stupid enough to allow remote control Boeings....), physically destroyed, or best yet... removed and replaced with machines more controllable....
posted by jkaczor at 7:55 AM on July 17, 2002

(welcome, mrbill.)

The wisecrack this guy made was a little blunt, sure, but the flight crew *definitely* overreacted. Don't you think Jack in the Box workers still get E. coli "jokes" from people? I'm sure it gets tiresome real fast, but you know, when a company makes a very public screwup, they're going to keep hearing about it---and not in the corporate offices so much as on the front lines of customer interaction.

How many people missed connecting flights so that this AW crew could make a point about who's boss? Sure, flight crews should have the latitude to lose unruly, potentially dangerous passengers, but this guy wasn't a threat, merely a smartass (and even that may be putting it a little strongly, it's not like there's no valid safety concerns behind what he said). He said something that hit home, and that is why the plane sat, that is why he didn't fly that flight. Not professional behavior on AW's part, to say the least. It sounds like a flight crew populated entirely by playground bullies.
posted by Sapphireblue at 8:13 AM on July 17, 2002

Didn't read the article but I started wondering..... does it take longer than 2.5 hours for alcohol to leave a person's system? (High school health class was too long ago - LOL.) I'm somewhat kidding here... I hope.
posted by thunder at 8:27 AM on July 17, 2002

America West is idiotic for not having a public (and reasonable) policy for how to handle these types of inquiries.

I mean, geez, it's not like it hasn't happened previously.

Where's the corporate meeting with the bigwigs where they decide how *not to make the same stupid mistakes that they just made last week* ?

If a corporation cannot learn, it is doomed to die. (sooner or later)
posted by beth at 8:43 AM on July 17, 2002

I've been thinking that it might not be a bad idea for pilots to be tested for alcohol everytime they get behind the "wheel". And why it takes that long to test someone I don't know. Here you can buy little one use breathalizers at the corner store for a few bucks that have been determined to be accurate enough.
posted by Orb at 9:55 AM on July 17, 2002

To have a forensically acceptable Blood Alchohol Level test, with a breathalyzer, requires a 10 step testing process. It's not quite as simple as breathing in a little tube. It includes, among other things, a 20 minute observation period to make sure no substances are ingested or expelled (vomited) which might cause a faulty result.
This information provided by my dad, occupational physician who does, among other things, pre-employment physicals and drug testing
posted by insomnyuk at 10:40 AM on July 17, 2002

Still, 2.5 hours is plenty of time for a male pilot of average size to burn off a couple of beers or shots.

And the fact is, that every airport has cops. Every cop car has a breathalyzer test or 20. A quick "breathe in this tube" test could have been performed in under 10 minutes and would have been enough to satisfy a worried flyer. And considering that AW has a history of pushing planes away from the gate with pilots that were too drunk to WALK, I don't think the customer is terribly out of line here.

And I don't see why if the tests the cops carry, which can be performed immediately, are good enough to convict a citizen, are not good enough to use on a pilot.
posted by dejah420 at 10:53 AM on July 17, 2002

AW's behaviour was completely inconsistent, illogical and unfair.

Let's assume that they do have a decent testing method in place and that this man's request (however mild or forceful) was frivolous and unnecessary. If there was really no point to having these specific pilots get tested, why did they even bother to test?

If, however, they wanted to reassure this man and any number of other passengers that, yes, these pilots were sober and that they were taking all legal and practical precautions -- why was this man and his family turfed from the plane?

In short, AW does not have its operational or PR shit together. When these two elements came into conflict on that flight, their staff inconvenienced *all* their passengers with the delay and then punished the scapegoat.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.
posted by maudlin at 11:56 AM on July 17, 2002

So no one's going to come out in favor of drunken pilots?
posted by hackly_fracture at 12:21 PM on July 17, 2002

Oh AmericaWERST airlines, how I hate thee. Let me count the ways. I started a blog devoted to America West's fuckups over a year ago after they ruined my 4th of July vacation. It's been fun. Last summer they LOST 5 children who were travelling alone. Good times, good times.
posted by shugashax at 2:18 PM on July 17, 2002

Is America West the only airline that flies out of Austin, Texas? If not, why did this family not choose another airline if they were genuinely concerned?

I'm not saying that America West did anything good, but as a thinking customer the man could have just chosen a different airline, asked at any point BEFORE being seated on the plane, or whatever. Instead the method he chose to express his concern affected a lot of other people, and in my book that makes him an ass.

Sure, America West definitely has some policy stuff to straighten out, but this guy was a smartass and paid for it. Big deal.
posted by swank6 at 2:27 PM on July 17, 2002

Maybe not swank6, maybe the pilots slurred their speech, or stumbled getting on the plane, or the guy saw them in the bar...we just don't know. Also, planes won't let you off the plane once you're on board. Ever tried to get off a plane during a long delay or because you think something is wrong? I have. They tried to give me a valium. I threatened to sue them for practicing medicine without a license.

What we do know is that the airline delayed long enough for booze to leave the pilot's system if they had been drinking. We know they didn't use a test that was available less than 5 minutes away from the plane. We know that they made a scapegoat out of a paying customer.

The customer wasn't in the wrong here just because he questioned the airline or the pilots. AW was totally in the wrong by forcing an unnecessary delay, then by scapegoating a customer...all of which was unrequired and unethical.
posted by dejah420 at 7:03 PM on July 17, 2002

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