Snogging the Friendly Skies Leads to Threat to Divert Plane
A same-sex couple aboard an American Airlines flight from Paris to New York City were harassed by a stewardess, then upbraided and threatened by the flight’s captain, according to a story in this week’s "Talk of the Town" section of The New Yorker magazine.
Stephan Varnier and George Tsikhiseli were approached by a flight attendant as Varnier rested his head on Tsikhiseli’s shoulder, and told that the flight’s purser had instructed the two men "to stop that," according to Varnier, who was quoted in The New Yorker article, written by Lauren Collins. The article continues with Tsikhiseli recalling, "He [Varnier] would rest his head on my shoulder or the other way around. We’d kiss--not kiss kiss, just mwah." Overhearing the exchange, another same-sex couple seated behind Varnier and Tsikhiseli, Ralph Jackson and David Leisner lent their support and, the article states, "the four men...asked to speak with the purser."
When the purser stopped by their seats and heard the story, she was initially sympathetic, denying that she had issued any such instructions, according to the article’s account of the men’s recollections. The purser’s attitude remained sympathetic, in the article’s recounting, until the moment Tsikhiseli asked whether a mixed-gender couple would have been approached in such a manner by a member of the flight staff. At that point, according to the article, the pursuer told the men, "Kissing is inappropriate behavior on an airplane."
Or perhaps worse than inappropriate: when the men attempted to continue the dialogue later in the flight, the pursuer reportedly told them that the plane would be diverted if the men continued to make an issue of the way they’d been treated. The men say that they kept quiet after that, but nonetheless Tsikhiseli was later summoned by the flight’s captain, who told him, the article states, to "stop arguing with the crew" or he would divert the plane. The captain reportedly sent Tsikhiseli back to his seat with the words, "I want you to go back to your seat and behave the rest of the flight," the implication being that a diversion of the plane--a measure ordinarily reserved for situations involving threatening passengers, and which can lead to felony charges--would result unless the men accepted their chastening without further protest.
The incident, which took place on Aug. 22, followed close on the heels of an Aug. 16 incident in which a claustrophobic 59-year-old female passenger aboard United Flight 923 experienced an in-flight panic attack, precipitating a security response that included diverting the flight to Boston’s Logan airport under fighter jet escort, and placing the woman under arrest. Both incidents occurred shortly after British officials foiled a terrorist plot to destroy passenger planes in mid-flight across the Atlantic.
An earlier incident in December 2005 involved air marshals aboard American Airlines Flight 924 in Miami responding to a bipolar man’s apparent panic attack by shooting him. Rigoberto Alpizar was shot and killed by air marshals after he rose from his seat prior to takeoff and rushed toward the front of the plane, crying out, "I have to get off," according to eyewitness accounts, which also included details on how Alpizar’s wife ran after her husband, calling out as she ran, "He’s sick. He’s ill. He’s got a disorder." Air marshals claimed that Alpizar issued a bomb threat, but Alpizar’s luggage, which was detonated on the landing strip, contained no hazardous materials and Alpizar himself was unarmed. Furthermore, the bomb threat version of the story was not substantiated by passengers, who also claimed to have been subjected to harsh treatment from the air marshals. John McAlhany, who was also aboard flight 924, told Time magazine, "I was on the phone with my brother. Somebody came down the aisle and put a shotgun to the back of my head and said put your hands on the seat in front of you. I got my cell phone karate chopped out of my hand. Then I realized it was an official."
According to The New Yorker, American Airlines spokesperson Tim Wagner called the flight crew’s handling of the situation involving Varnier and Tsikhiseli a matter of American’s "obligation to make as many of [the passengers] feel as comfortable as possible," and stated that a straight couple would also have received similar instructions. The article did not say whether threats to divert the plane based upon a couple’s displays of affection would have followed in the case of a mixed-gender pair seeking clarification of airline policy.