The internet has been in an uproar the last week over the April 9 incident in which an elderly doctor was brutally dragged off United Airlines flight 3411 to make room for members of a crew that needed to get to Louisville, Kentucky. Of course, the world was quick to jump on the I-Hate-United bandwagon before getting all the facts. It turns out that not all was what it seemed. There are many behind-the-scenes details of this unfortunate incident that people did not bother to learn before just assuming that United was in the wrong. But in fact, United employees were not even the ones who removed the passenger, Dr. David Dao, in the disturbing video — that was the federal aviation security. By all passenger accounts, the United crew remained calm and even pleasant during the ordeal.
Like it or not, the rules are there for a reason — it’s called 9/11. And really, if a member of an airline crew tells you to do something, you do it. They may not be right 100% of the time (as you will soon see), but more often than not, they have a reason for what they’re saying.
United Airlines is not even close to being the only airline to have crazy incidents like this. In fact, they all do. But since United is one of the biggest carriers in the world, we hear about their “transgressions” much more often. Last year alone, there were over 40,000 people who were either involuntarily removed from planes or were denied boarding on 12 major U.S. airlines. These are people who refused an airline’s offer of compensation for their seat but got kicked off, anyway. The numbers work out to where one out of every 16,000 people will be denied their right to fly, even with a ticket. And this is not even counting the 434,000 people who do give up their seats per year.
I have rounded up some of the more questionable events that have centered around the removal of a passenger or passengers from an aircraft. These situations are all ones that have been debated, disputed, and ultimately, never fully agreed upon. Following are 16 other times people were controversially removed from airplanes for all sorts of weird reasons.
16. Removed For Literally Nothing
A particularly mind-boggling story of a passenger being removed from a plane is that of Tiana Fough. A mother of two toddlers, she was on her connecting flight back to Portland, Oregon from a vacation with girlfriends in Tucson when out of nowhere, while in the aisle boarding, a flight attendant started yelling at her. “Stay right there,” he shouted. “I asked you three times.” She refused to give him her name since he did not have on the same uniform as the other flight attendants, nor a nametag, and he said, “I will throw you off this plane.” In her seat, she began to sob, and when he came back, he asked where her bag was and told her he, backed by another flight attendant, was kicking her off the plane. The passengers all began to boo the crew and the airline, and some even complained after the flight. (Fough took another flight four hours later). Strangely, another man took her seat almost as soon as she got up. Fough, herself, probably sums it up best when she says, “It’s a little coincidental that I’m being attacked verbally for no reason, and then all of a sudden, another guy is getting my seat.”
15. Trans Black Woman Removed For Wearing a Superhero Hat
What do you think of when you hear the phrase “Black Panther”? The Marvel superhero or the revolutionary black nationalist and socialist organization? Apparently, the folks at United saw the hat worn by Amanda Stevens and saw the latter. Last October, while wearing the superhero hat and a t-shirt with an upside-down American flag on the front, the freelance e-sports journalist was removed from a Chicago-bound flight because her attire made the pilot “uncomfortable.” She agreed to turn the shirt inside-out even though she had flown in it before but still had a tense exchange with a flight attendant and said she didn’t know if she would be allowed to stay on the plane or not. This conversation was given as the official reason for her ultimately getting kicked off the flight, but Amanda disagrees. In her opinion, she was targeted because she was a transgender black woman.
14. Removed For a Toddler’s Gibberish
In 2007, Kate Penland and her 19-month-old son, Garren, were traveling on a Continental ExpressJet flight from Houston to Atlanta when they were kicked off the plane. The reason? Little Garren kept saying the phrase, “Bye, bye, plane.” Now, most logical people would assume that the toddler, who was looking out the window at the other planes on the tarmac and waving goodbye, was simply talking jibber-jabber. Which he was. Unfortunately, however, the flight attendant was upset by this and told Penland that she needed to shut her baby up. She said, “It’s called baby Benadryl.” Penland told the woman that she would not drug her baby, and then they were forced off the plane because the flight attendant had told the pilot that Penland had threatened her. By the time they had taxied back to the gate, Garren had fallen fast asleep. Fellow passengers were stunned and came to her defense, but to no avail. Already six years post 9/11, any words uttered on a plane — even from the mouth of a toddler — are still being taken very seriously.
13. Army Vet Removed For an Emotional Support Dog
Last year, a U.S. Army vet was kicked off a Spirit Airlines flight from Denver to Houston because the airline apparently did not consider her emotional support dog a real service dog. Janae Fowler had flown with Spirit to Denver with her dog Ziggy and had no issues, but on the return trip, it was a different story. Fowler said the flight attendant who raised the issue said that a service animal is for someone with “real disabilities,” which angered Fowler since there are plenty of people — vets and civilians, alike — who have disabilities not visible to the eye. The problem began when the flight attendant asked if Ziggy was a pitbull to which Fowler replied that he was a pitbull and a chocolate lab mix. Situations like this seem even more dumbfounding when they happen to someone who has served our country and is disabled (in any way) because of it.
12. Lesbians Removed For Kissing
The L-Word actress Leisha Hailey was kicked off a Southwest flight in 2011 for kissing her girlfriend, Camila Grey, leading them to accuse the airline of homophobia. The couple were flying from Baltimore to St. Louis, and had shared a kiss that, according to the flight attendant, was not appropriate for a “family-oriented flight.” While the airline insisted that Hailey was escorted off the plane due to her behavior and not her sexuality, Hailey did not believe it and tweeted the whole thing. One of the last tweets on the matter was, “I have been discriminated against by @SouthwestAir. Flt. attendant said that it was a ‘family’ airline and kissing was not ok. This is an outrage. I demand a public apology by @SouthwestAir and a refund. I will never fly this airline. @SouthwestAir endorses homophobic employees. No one made her accountable.”
11. Seven People Removed For Being Black
There were concerns that the crew of Spirit Airlines flight 868 were discriminating based on race when seven African American passengers were removed from the aircraft before their Los Angeles to Dallas flight in 2015. Initially, just one couple was escorted off the plane because the male had been accused of being disruptive. But then, five more passengers were asked to leave as well when they questioned the white flight attendant’s motives in kicking off the couple. All seven passengers were black, and other passengers snapped photos of them leaving the plane then posted them on social media, exposing what may have been real discrimination at the hands of the Spirit Airlines crew.
10. Three Siblings Removed For Being ISIS
Siblings Maryam, Sakina, and Ali Dharas of London were removed from their EasyJet flight from Stansted to Naples in 2016. Passengers had falsely accused them of being ISIS supporters after one person claimed he had seen them reading ISIS material. Without explanation, the trio was escorted from the plane, and then they were separated and questioned by police on the tarmac. Based only on their ethnic appearance, they were asked if they spoke English. The siblings, having been raised in England, have English as the only language they speak, read, or write, despite the fact that the passenger had said they were reading Arabic on their phones. They were told that further background checks were being performed, and although the siblings were eventually allowed to reboard the plane, they were warned that officers would be waiting for them when the plane landed if anything was found.
9. Removed For Switching Seats on the Way to Get Married
The latest airline removal incident (even since the infamous one involving the Asian doctor on April 9) involves a couple on their way to their wedding in Costa Rica from Houston. And as with the doctor, it was United at the center of it all. Michael Hohl and Amber Maxwell tried to sit in their assigned seats during the boarding process, but a man was sprawled across all three seats in the row, asleep. Rather than wake him, they took two vacant seats a few rows ahead, since the plane was so empty. Problem was, they had inadvertently moved from Economy to Economy Plus, in an Exit Row. When asked if they were in their assigned seats, they answered honestly and complied when told to return to their original seats. But then, a few minutes later, a Federal Air Marshal boarded the plane and removed them for being “disorderly and a hazard to the safety of the other customers.” United said that the two were repeatedly trying to sneak into better seats and not being compliant when told to go back. But if they were deemed such a safety threat, why were they rebooked on a different flight the next day?
8. Removed For Speaking Arabic
Khairulddin Makhzoomi made headlines in April 2016 when he was kicked off his Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Oakland for speaking Arabic. 26 at the time, Makhzoomi was a political science student at the University of California, Berkeley. After boarding the plane and taking his seat, he called his uncle in Baghdad and chatted with him in Arabic about the previous evening, in which he had dined with U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon. Within moments of saying goodbye to his uncle, the woman sitting next to him had left the plane, and police officers had hurried toward him. He was removed from the plane, aggressively questioned, and dogs sniffed his bags. Makhzoomi was searched, had his wallet taken, and was escorted away from the gate by FBI agents, who then demanded he tell them everything he knows about martyrs.
7. Removed For Being Fat
No one on a plane wants to get stuck sitting next to someone who weighs 385 pounds; flying can be unpleasant enough without having to touch strangers the entire trip. But should such a passenger be forcibly removed if his or her row mate is uncomfortable? That’s exactly what happened to Errol Narvaez in 2016. First, the airline switched him from an aisle seat to a middle seat, and he could not switch back because the flight was fully booked. When his row mate showed up, the guy insisted that Narvaez take the aisle, then he went off and whispered in a flight attendant’s ear. It turns out that he did not want to be uncomfortable for the five-hour flight from Las Vegas to Newark and refused to switch to one of the plane’s other two empty seats, both in the middle. Narvaez was told the plane could not accommodate him at that time, and he waited for the next flight for six hours. Initially, they tried to charge him $117 for the change, but he did not end up having to pay.
6. Removed For Cleavage (and Defending Cleavage)
Not one but two women were recently kicked off a Spirit Airlines flight in January in the name of cleavage. The woman who started it all with her low-cut top has somehow managed to remain unidentified (known only as “Brenda”), but her story became big news. Flying New Orleans to Fort Lauderdale, Brenda was approached about her clothing by the flight attendants of a Spirit Airlines flight, who not only embarrassed her with their low opinion of her low top but also accused her of being drunk, which she was not. They even made a snide remark before pressuring her to put on a coat, which she did. But the crew kept coming back and harassing the 21-year-old waitress about it even though she kept trying to cover up more and more. Brenda began to cry, and that’s when fellow passenger Cathy Supp stepped in to defend her, and they both wound up getting booted from the flight. Passenger accounts all back up Brenda, who they say was treated like a streetwalker. The airline — nicknamed “Mean-Spirited Airlines” after this incident — insisted her cleavage was not the reason for her removal.
5. Removed For #FlyingWhileBlack
Activist and poet Imani Cezanne was escorted off an American Airlines flight from Charlotte to Atlanta in 2016 for what she claims to be racial discrimination. Not only was she removed from the flight, but she was also banned from flying with American Airlines. She told the world her story as it unfolded, tweeting about what was happening to her. This led to much online support via #FlyingWhileBlack, the hashtag Cezanne had used during the ordeal. It all started when she asked why some non-English speakers were being moved from the Exit Row. The flight attendant gave a satisfactory answer (anyone seated in an Exit Row needs to speak English in the event of an emergency for communication purposes), but moments later, two flight attendants asked her if she was going to be a problem. Because the flight attendants felt threatened, she was escorted from the aircraft. Cezanne had at first refused to leave since she was not doing anything threatening whatsoever, so law enforcement officials were called. She was not refunded and did not have money to take another flight, so she took a bus to Atlanta.
4. Removed From Plane For Phone Conversation
In this situation, at first, the woman who claimed to be the victim turned out to possibly not be. As in any controversy, people choose to believe one side of a story versus another. In 2014, Dr. Lisa Rosenberg was thrown off a JetBlue flight from Palm Beach to New York after a phone call in which she discussed the conflict in Israel with a coworker. A woman said she was offended by Rosenberg’s conversation, and this led to a heated conversation between the two: Rosenberg who is Jewish and the other woman who identified herself as Palestinian. Feeling victimized, Rosenberg said this was an “ugly, racially-driven altercation,” but in the end, it was she who was asked to leave the plane. Her coworker on the other end of the line confirms her side of the story. It’s scary that you can be kicked from a flight because of a phone conversation someone overhears and is offended — not frightened — by.
3. Baby Removed For Being on the No-Fly List
Since 9/11, the number of people on America’s No-Fly list has gone from 16 individuals to 50,000. Being on the list means you’re suspected of terrorist activity. Apparently, 18-month-old Riyanna was one of them because she and her parents were removed from a JetBlue flight leaving from Fort Lauderdale. The family, who are of Middle Eastern descent but were all born and raised in New Jersey, were asked to leave the plane when officials told them their daughter was on the no-fly list. The listing obviously being ridiculous, they still had to stand around the terminal for 30 minutes while officials investigated. They ultimately found that the airline had mistakenly indicated that the little girl was on the government watch list, and the family was allowed to reboard. However, they were too embarrassed and refused. The father said, “We were put on display like a circus because my wife wears a hijab.”
2. Removed For Breastfeeding
In 2006, a woman named Emily Gillette refused to cover up while breastfeeding her 22-month-old daughter on an airplane. She was seated by the window, her husband in the aisle seat, while she quietly nursed. A flight attendant offered her a blanket to cover up with, and when Gillette refused, she was escorted off the plane. This was controversial because the world seems so divided on whether nursing mothers should be made to cover up or not. In a situation where no one can go anywhere if they are truly uncomfortable with a woman breastfeeding, I can see how it would be even worse. Gillette received an apology from both Delta and Freedom Airlines, which operated the flight Gillette was on on behalf of Delta, and the incident even led to “nurse-ins” at Delta gates across the country. Still, Gillette filed a complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission, and she filed a civil suit against Delta in the U.S. District Court.
1. Removed For a Guitar Case
Ohio rapper Machine Gun Kelly (Richard Colson Baker) may have a stage name that sounds frightening, but one’s name shouldn’t be enough to get someone kicked off an airplane (unless you have the same name as a terrorist, but actually, who knows? These days it seems anything can get you booted from a plane). In fact, Machine Gun Kelly was escorted off his flight at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport by TSA agents because of his guitar case that had cuss words on it. According to the TSA, the words were disrespectful to the country, and they even compared it to “the seriousness of 9/11.” I cannot imagine what cuss words would have that effect, but nevertheless, they apparently warranted the rapper’s removal from the aircraft despite his argument that it was his art and that he was entitled to free speech.