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Danny Cevallos: American Airlines is the latest to encounter a viral video backlash

Phone cameras make airlines accountable to millions who can see their actions

Editor’s Note: Danny Cevallos is a CNN legal analyst and an attorney practicing in the areas of personal injury, wrongful conviction and criminal defense in New York, Pennsylvania and the US Virgin Islands. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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Video evidence has emerged of an American Airlines incident in which an unidentified male passenger confronts a male flight attendant, warning him “You do that to me, and I’ll knock you flat.” The flight attendant rushes right back at the passenger and responds with “Hit me. Bring it on.” This chest-bumping came shortly after that same flight attendant apparently had a confrontation with a female passenger holding a baby and yanked a baby stroller away from her.

As with many of these videos, no one filmed the initial incident; tape only started rolling during the aftermath. But the aftermath still contains plenty of action, and it yields a lot of information about the events preceding it.

Danny Cevallos
Danny Cevallos

On the whole, the smartphone video camera has created a lot of nudnik amateur documentarians, but it has also brought democracy to air travel. No longer can passengers be pushed around or abused without airlines being held accountable by the millions of people who can and will watch the footage once it’s leaked online. And with video evidence, there is little room for the airline to manipulate the narrative or turn the story into a he-said, she-said situation.

As for this particular video, it shows what happens when passengers dare to take on airline crew members. It shows a flight attendant who is accustomed to unfettered authority over passengers. And it shows other passengers speaking up on behalf of a stranger.

Here’s what it also shows:

The Female Passenger: This is the woman holding the baby who supposedly had the stroller wrested from her. She sobs through the entire video, from the beginning to the very end. If, in fact, she was hit in the face before the video begins, her sustained distress is understandable. And given that she admonishes the crew that “you can’t use violence with (me holding a) baby,” there is reason to believe some force may have been used. The crew doesn’t appear to deny these accusations. And, on the whole, she comes off as believable.

The Flight Attendants: They vacillate between confusion and inaction, but others try to help the woman. One tries to hand her a cup of water. It’s awkward.

Other Passengers: Some you can see and hear; others are disembodied voices. All sound aghast at what they apparently saw the flight attendant do. One can be seen trying to explain in detail how the female passenger was hit in the face. Throughout the video, gestures and words of these travelers seem to concur: Something bad happened to the lady with the baby.

The Captain: On the video is a person who appears to be the PIC, or Pilot in Command. The pilot in command of an aircraft is the final authority as to the operation of that aircraft. He is also the “In-flight Security Coordinator” – federal regulations require him to “(p)rovide for the safety of persons … against acts of criminal violence.”

Does this pilot look overly concerned about the safety and well-being of his passengers? There’s chaos erupting on his vessel, and he spends most of the video leaning casually against the bulkhead, watching a woman cry and men nearly coming to blows on an aircraft he (ostensibly) commands.

Hey, Skipper, get involved. This is your plane. See to the safety of your passengers and your crew. In fairness, he meanders into the fray at some point, but for the most part, he placidly stares at the fracas as it unfolds before him.

Which brings us to the man known only as “Second-Row Guy.” This guy is my hero.

Let’s face it – most of us aren’t heroes, especially in the “Hunger Games” world of air travel. There’s little incentive to stick up for others in mass transportation, and plenty of reasons to fear authority. The airlines have beaten it into our heads that, in times of heightened security, they can do anything they want to us in the name of safety. If we give them any backtalk, they can deny us boarding for being “disorderly.”

Think about it: We now live in an era where another airline felt perfectly comfortable dragging a limp, bloody passenger out of his seat down an aisle, and off the plane – just because some other crew members wanted his seat.

No one wants to be the next body hauled unceremoniously off an airplane, with our shirt pulled up over our belly, so when bad things happen to other passengers, most of us just push our earbuds deeper into our ear canals and pretend we didn’t see anything.

Perhaps cell phone cameras, by bringing public accountability to air travel, have emboldened the passenger intervener, like Second-Row Guy.

Before the advent of citizen videographers, disputes between a passenger and an airline employee were quickly resolved by the following procedure: The airline employee was always right, and the passenger was always wrong. The passenger would then be either denied boarding or kicked off the flight. And all the crewmembers would support their colleague.

Cell phone video also eliminates the element of spin. If this would have happened before smartphones, how do you think the American flight attendant would have described this incident? He’d offer some self-serving homily like “I was calmly helping a passenger stow her stroller when out of nowhere this maniac started screaming at me for no reason, so I calmly asked him to take his seat, calmly.” He might have even inserted a few more “calmly’s” in there.

That’s another reason I love Second-Row Guy. The rest of us conflict-averse, inflatable-neck-pillow milquetoasts would fumble with our iPhones while the baby’s mother wailed away. Not this this guy. He appeared completely unrelated to the sobbing woman, but he risked a Dr. Dao-like dragging by security to come to her aid.

Okay, Hero-Guy definitely shouldn’t have threatened to knock the flight attendant “flat.” That was wrong. But technically speaking, he did phrase it in the conditional: If the flight attendant talked to him that way, he’d knock the flight attendant flat.

In California, a criminal threat must be unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and so specific as to convey an immediate prospect of execution of the threat. It must also cause the threatened victim actual, sustained fear for his safety. That flight attendant did not look remotely fearful; he gave it right back to the passenger and even dared Second-Row Guy to hit first.

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    To be fair, there are plenty of stories of patient flight attendants who have to deal with out-of-control passengers. There are passengers flying shirtless, clipping their nails and generally misbehaving on flights these days.

    Crew members have their hands full, to be sure. But sometimes an errant airline employee abuses his authority. That’s why we have the cell phone video – and the guy in the second row.