A woman says she was mistreated by American Airlines (AAL) on a flight from Raleigh-Durham to Washington, D.C. last week, after the airline called the police when a passenger next to her complained that she was too close. (They were sitting side by side.)
Amber Phillips, a 28-year-old writer, alleges that she was being punished by the airline for “flying while fat and black.” As with so many incidents like this, her retelling of the event on Twitter(TWTR) went viral.
“This white woman literally spent the entire 45 minute flight making an active scene [because] my arm was touching hers,” Phillips wrote.
Calling the police over something so mundane might sound bizarre, but people don’t always act rationally at 35,000 feet. The confrontation underscores rising travel grievances over in-flight etiquette.
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Tensions remain high on airplanes, and space-related issues are the most contentious for travelers, a study released by Expedia on Monday found. Some 51% of those surveyed said their top pet peeve was seat kickers or bumpers, and 43% cited body scents. Other frowned-on behaviors included inattentive parents (39%) and personal space violators (34%).
And these tensions can be magnified by racial biases. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People previously found “a pattern of disturbing incidents reported by African American passengers, specific to American Airlines.” Incidents cited included an African-American woman being switched to coach from first class, and an African-American man required to relinquish his purchased seat “because he responded to disrespectful and discriminatory comments directed toward him by two unruly white passengers,” the NAACP said.
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Responding to the NAACP comments, American Airlines previously said, “We do not and will not tolerate discrimination of any kind.”
And in response to the incident this week, an American Airlines spokesman said a flight attendant called the police after a passenger on the flight requested it. “We have an obligation to contact law enforcement if any passenger requests it,” he said. No charges were filed.
Though a few airlines are exploring innovations to give passengers more room than ever, for most of the flying public, seats continue to shrink and the flying experience seems to get worse. Of course, personal space violation is subjective, though the amount of personal space available on flights is on the decline.
In August, a federal court ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to address the “case of the incredible shrinking seat” after American Airlines planned to decrease the amount of legroom on its flights by two inches. It later reevaluated that plan after a public outcry.
Passengers appear to be unhappy with the comfort level on planes. In 2016, airlines ranked seventh-to-last out of 43 industries in the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Only one in four Americans say air travel is enjoyable, and 27% say it’s “awful” according to a January CNBC survey.
The top complaint of air travelers? Uncomfortable seats. Some 77% of Americans say these are the most hated aspect of flying, followed by delays (71%) and cancellations (67%).
So who does the controversial middle armrest belong to? Given that there’s only one between two seats, whoever gets there first.
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