When the Skies Become Unfriendly

My experience led me to assume that if this flight attendant had an issue with my son, she would address it with me and I would fix it. But she didn't seem him as my son... or anybody's 11-year old at that point. He was a young black man sitting in the middle of white people.
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Rows of empty seats on airplane
Rows of empty seats on airplane

People don't treat Charlie the same as they did when it was obvious that he was a little boy. Eleven isn't grown up, but his outward appearance and the way he carries himself don't say 11. Apparently that can be an issue when he is on an airplane.

He is only a few inches shorter than me and his shoulders are almost as broad. He is big. He appears to be older . . . much older. He looks like he could be in his mid teens. Even though I wish it didn't matter, the fact that he is black makes a difference. It just does. Look around . . . read the papers. I don't necessarily have to read a paper. I watch my son live it. It made a difference our last vacation.

Boarding an airplane is loosely-controlled chaos. The aisles are jammed as people work their way toward their seats and stuff bags in overhead compartments. We have a family of four so we always book three seats in a row on one side of the airplane and the seat just across the aisle. I sit on an aisle with my wife in the corresponding window seat and our six-year-old in the middle. Charlie takes the seat just across the aisle from me. You would think that only being two feet away from him, I would be able to help him out if he needed it . . . but not during the boarding process.

We were all seated when I overheard a flight attendant asking a passenger to change seats.

"Sir, I really need you to change seats," she said.

She was standing behind me and addressing a passenger on the other side of the plane. The aisle was full of people and I couldn't see who she was addressing. I couldn't hear the passenger's answer.

"I don't see anybody else here," she said. I remember thinking that was an odd thing to say. "Actually, sir," she said with a tone that was now much less friendly, "I don't need anybody's permission to move you. I can have you moved." I looked at my wife. "Damn," I thought, "that's harsh."

I couldn't hear what the passenger was saying. Whatever the person said it wasn't what she wanted to hear. "If I wanted to," she said with very little attempt at courtesy, "I can have you forcibly removed from this airplane in handcuffs." She then told the person, that she didn't feel like doing that so she was going to work it out.

A few minutes later a passenger took the empty seat next to Charlie. People still clogged the aisle, but it was letting up. I was checking out my dining options when I heard the flight attendant behind me again. "We managed to fix this without your help," she said. "Remember that I can make your flight miserable." I blinked. I wasn't sure what was going on, but I couldn't imagine a reason to threaten a passenger.

Eventually all passengers were seated and we taxied and took off. The flight was long, but our boys are seasoned travelers. Everything went smoothly. Naps were taken, snacks eaten and movies watched. Charlie seemed fine during the flight so I was surprised to see him in tears at the baggage claim carousel while talking to his mother. I walked up to see what the issue was. My wife turned to look at me. She was pale. That happens to her just before her face gets red when she is really pissed. "Oh My God," she said to me in a tone that suggests I should hide the breakables.

I looked at Charlie. He was crying. "She said she was going to throw me off the airplane."

I looked at my son. I wanted to ask him to repeat himself, but that would have just been a coping mechanism for me. He didn't need to say it again. I put my arm around him. I looked at his mother. "How the hell did we miss that?" she asked. I exhaled. I felt like a total parent failure at that point, but I knew exactly how I missed it. It goes like this.

I am white. I make assumptions based on this. I don't mean to, but I can't help it. My experience led me to assume that if this flight attendant had an issue with my son, she would address it with me and I would fix it. But she didn't seem him as my son . . . or anybody's 11-year old at that point. He was a young black man sitting in the middle of white people. Further, I couldn't imagine a flight attendant would address anybody, much less an 11-year-old, in that manner . . . ever. I just assumed. Those assumptions and the fact that 15-20 people stood between us or around us led me to not believe that Charlie was being addressed like this. My assumptions are a manifestation of that white privilege you sometimes hear about. My privilege and I failed Charlie miserably.

The flight attendant needed a seat for one reason or another and decided the young black man sitting in the middle of a group of white people could move. She either didn't know or didn't care that he was 11. This is important because if Charlie were flying by himself at 11 she would know because children flying alone require special procedures. That means she saw a young man and assumed he was alone and would move. When he didn't want to she threatened him.

You might be wondering why he didn't say something to us on the plane while it was happening or right after it happened. He told her that he was with his family. That was when she told him "I don't see anybody else here" . . . I make this point again just in case you are inclined to think that this wasn't about race. Once it was over and she left him alone Charlie was fine. I didn't have a clue from him that anything happened. There are two reasons for that. First, I have mentioned before that Charlie has some cognitive processing issues that make him handle things differently than you and I. Once it was over . . . it was over. He moved on. He was fine until his mom asked him how his flight was when we were in baggage claim. Then he had to relive it. It might be a good thing he waited until then.

The second reason he didn't complain to me is because he didn't realize that I didn't know what was going on. He thought that I could hear the exchange. If I didn't stop it, then I must be ok with it. That's the heartbreaking part. Hopefully we have fixed that issue.

Once we got home I took my complaints to the airline. A day later I got discount codes for $50 off for each of my family members for our next flight. I bring up a serious concern about the conduct on one of their employees regarding my son and they toss us a few bucks. Being blown off with cash is a special kind of being blown off. It means that somebody who makes decisions for a corporation believes that I put a monetary value on the way my son is treated.

I should take time at this point to tell you point blank that this is not a complaint about flight attendants. I will be saddened if the take-away from this post is that "flight attendants are bad." That is false as well as being absurd. Like I said, we travel frequently and almost every flight attendant has been wonderful. I know many flight attendants and I am friends with some.

This is not about flight attendants. This is about two things: First it is about a woman who made assumptions based on my son's appearance and decided threats and intimidation were an appropriate method of customer service. Secondly, this is about my failure to see through my privilege and be a better father. Well, at least I can fix the second part.