True or False: The Captain is Always Right

An interesting piece in the Atlantic about a family who claims a seemingly minor problem aboard a recent United flight to Baltimore prompted the pilot to divert the flight and kick them off. Which leads to the question, is the captain always right?

Bizarre incident of the fake pilot

The Incident

The following information comes wholly from an email sent to the Atlantic:

A family on a United flight back in February was unhappy with the inflight entertainment, a film called Alex Cross – apparently the PG-13 rated film was too much for their young children and they asked a flight attendant if their overhead screen could be shut (fellow passengers supposedly supported this request). The answer was no.

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What follows, also from the email, may have been the family’s big mistake: “We asked if the captain has the authority to address this issue, but received no response. A few minutes later we asked for the captain’s name and [were] told to ask him ourselves when we disembark.” They said the flight then continued while they quietly distracted their children from the doings on the screen.

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What the Captain Did

An hour later, the pilot announced they were diverting to Chicago “due to security concerns.” Upon landing, a Chicago police officer approached the family and led them off. Other security personnel were waiting for them including the FBI. After a five-minute questioning, they were allowed to go and later boarded another flight home.

Is the Captain Always Right?

An airline captain’s word is law on a plane, and for good reason: someone has to be in charge, and he or she is right there in the thick of things, with the experience and training to respond to a wide variety of situations. But is the captain always right?

FareCompare is trying to get a fuller picture of this incident and we put several questions to United.

UPDATE: United responded to the Atlantic as follows: “The crew reported a disturbance involving a passenger.” We can’t quite put our finger on it but it sure seems like there’s something missing from this explanation.

We also contacted other airline pilots to see what they had to say about this. We will update with any responses. We’d also like to know what you think.

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Published: April 2, 2013