You might think that cramped seats, lack of food, and innumerable extra fees are the extent of the class shaming that economy airplane passengers face. You’d be wrong.
You could always be handcuffed.
That’s what happened to passenger Edita Kmetova, who was recently traveling from Vienna to Abu Dhabi on Niki, an Austrian low-cost subsidiary of Air Berlin, after she used the business-class bathroom.
As the Daily Saba tells it, Kmetova didn’t feel well during the flight and, seeing that the economy toilet was occupied, headed to one in business class. When she exited, she was encountered by cabin crew, angry passengers, and one of the captains; an argument ensued and Kmetova was handcuffed. The altercation must have been pretty bad, because the pilot decided to make an emergency landing into Erzurum Airport in Turkey.
Be careful which bathroom you use when you fly. (Photo: iStock)
For now, the story is very much a he-said-she-said tale. Kmetova says she needed to use the business-class bathroom because she was sick; Air Berlin says that economy toilets were indeed available and that the passenger displayed “aggressive behavior toward the crew and other travelers,” including screaming, kicking, and attempted biting.
Kmetova’s version is: “During the flight, I suddenly got nauseous and rushed to the lavatories. First the passengers interfered, then the flight personnel. They argued with me, and eventually they handcuffed me. They then abandoned me in Erzurum, a place I could not even find on a map if I tried. I was left all alone. At that point, I broke down into tears.”
“The [cabin] class divide is growing wider by the day,” says consumer advocate Christopher Elliott of Elliott.org. “The bathrooms are a significant source of tension, particularly when there’s a long wait, like after meal service. When nature calls, and the closest restroom is just behind the business class curtain, some passengers just go for it.”
This isn’t the first time a desperate passenger’s attempt to bolt to the front of the plane has resulted in arrest. In 2009, Joao Correa — who was reportedly suffering from traveler’s tummy — tried to use the business-class bathroom on a Delta flight from Honduras to Atlanta. He spent two days in jail and was facing federal charges before he agreed to a plea deal.
“As with this case, the issue isn’t so much using the restroom, but disobeying a directive from a flight attendant or other crew member,” Joe Brancatelli of the business travel site JoeSentMe.com told Yahoo Travel. "Flight crews tend to not only be the police officer, but also the judge, jury, and executioner, too. They have virtually unlimited power on board. Does it make it right? Do crew members overreact? Of course, but, at least in the United States, FAs are given incredibly discretion.”
Surprisingly, the FAA/DOT doesn’t have a rule allowing — or forbidding — passengers from using any particular restroom. Airlines make their own policies. “In fact, the FAA doesn’t even have a rule that requires an operating restroom on a plane,” says Brancatelli. “An American Airlines flight recently went from Westchester to Chicago/O'Hare without a working restroom.”
Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, a consumer organization representing airline passengers, agrees that airlines are within their rights to offer different benefits to different classes of service. “However,” he says, “they must still provide some baseline of necessary service, which bathrooms clearly fall under. As passenger seat space continues to shrink every year…the ratio of passengers to bathrooms is fast becoming unsustainable in economy seating. Holding some bathrooms as off limits to economy passengers only exacerbates this. So, separating bathrooms by passenger seating class is okay, but only if economy passengers have reasonable access to bathrooms.”
What do you think? Is the bathroom class separation rule taking things one step too far?
George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com isn’t so sure. “People use lavs not assigned to them on domestic airlines every time I fly, so I can only imagine something else was going on. Occasionally flight attendants ask nicely to return to the economy cabin but if someone pulls a Kristen Wiig a la Bridesmaids, then all bets are off,” Hobica says. “As we are constantly reminded, federal law requires us to obey crew instructions International airlines are much more strict about restricting business and first class lav access.”
Brancatelli agrees that in this case, it’s hard to say what happened. “There were likely language issues and, assuming the best intentions on both sides, it seems like the issue escalated and it became, in the judgment of the flight attendants and captain, an issue of interfering with a flight,” he says. “Passengers almost never win that one.”
In the case of Edita Kmetova, at least some people showed a little humanity. According to reports, the Erzerum Airport administrator, Abubekir Özcan, looked after Kmetova, arranged a hotel for her (which was comped by hotel staff), and helped her complete her travels to Abu Dhabi, where she was planning to visit her daughter. Özcan is quoted as saying: “I entered the plane and saw her sobbing. She had been handcuffed. Every passenger on the flight was an Austrian citizen except for this passenger, who was from Slovakia. I had her handcuffs removed and took her off the plane. We then handed her over to the police.”
Niki/Air Berlin has not responded to a request for comment.