No, Airline Pilots Don’t (And Shouldn’t) Have Unlimited Power…

Filed Under: Advice

“The captain is the judge and the jury.” “Right, wrong, or indifferent, what they say and demand is to be followed.” “It’s the captain’s plane.” “The captain is NOT required to explain the rules.” “Like the captain of a ship, the buck stops there.”

These are some comments that were left by different people on a recent post, and I wanted to address them.

I have a ton of respect for airline pilots

Let me start by saying that I recognize that commercial aviation is as safe as it is thanks in large part to the work pilots do. Airline pilots have a lot of responsibility, in terms of the lives in their hands, and the value of the equipment they’re flying.

I support pilots being well compensated, and I think it’s important airlines treat pilots well so that they can be well rested and in a good mental state when they fly. It’s not an easy job, between being away from family, constant time changes, and inconsistent schedules.

I also happen to think they have one of the coolest jobs in the world. When I was a kid I wanted to be an airline pilot, and to this day I sometimes regret not having pursued that path (but it all worked out okay, I guess).

Every time I’m in an airport I still kind of admire them — I check out how many stripes their uniform has and see what airline logo is on their hat, and I glance at their luggage to see if they have a sticker of the plane they fly (this is purely for avgeek reasons, not because I’m a creep… I think).

Airline pilots also work in customer service

The above being said, I don’t really understand the sentiment among some people that give pilots God-like power, and make them beyond reproach. The way I view it:

  • Pilots aren’t above the rules and should lead by example
  • Pilots do have final say when it comes to what happens on the aircraft, though only within the framework of the policies created by the airline (and while they can go beyond that, they can also be punished for doing so)
  • Fundamentally pilots work in customer service as well; while their primary job is safety, their livelihood is also dependent upon happy customers, and that’s especially true at airlines where service culture is used as a point of differentiation, and there’s significant profit sharing

The “captain of the ship is the judge and the jury?” How did that work out for the captain of the Costa Concordia? Of course that’s on a different level than any of the behavior we’re potentially talking about, but, I mean, I think it makes the point. That’s an extreme example of what happens when a captain thinks he’s above others.

“It’s the captain’s plane?” Sure, but in the same way that a Target or a Starbucks or a Hampton Inn “belongs” to a manager on duty. Do they have final say on kicking people out? Yes. Does that excuse bad customer service or mean they can’t be punished for their actions? No.

“The captain is not required to explain the rules.” I mean, sure, and for that matter no one in any context is ever required to explain anything. We have certain freedoms. But that doesn’t make it right, or mean that there can’t be consequences.

To be clear, this isn’t specific to the recent Delta captain situation I wrote about. As I mentioned in the post, I thought the passenger was being unreasonable.

Rather I’ve seen similar comments on many stories I’ve written about pilots over the years, where some commenters equate flight captains to an untouchable group of people that have final say on everything, without consequence.

Yes, pilots are there primarily for safety, but they can also make a meaningful difference to the passenger experience, whether that comes in the form of a professional pre-flight announcement, standing at the door during boarding or deplaning, or taking it to the next level, as former United captain Denny Flanagan did.

Bottom line

I have a lot of respect for pilots, and think they have cool jobs. But I also don’t view them as these people who are above the rules, don’t report to anyone, and can do whatever the heck they want.

Like I said, this isn’t specific to the Delta incident above, but over the years we’ve seen many situations where pilots do a great job stepping in and deescalating conflict and being kind, and we’ve also seen situations where… that doesn’t happen.

Regardless of the industry, everyone has the ability to use their power (whatever form it comes in) to try to make the world a better place, and that includes airline pilots, in my opinion.

Am I off base?

  1. I disagree. You can’t just pull a plane over to the side of the road like a bus. If there’s an incident in mid air it can become problematic to very problematic. I’ve had seen someone die mid air and as horrific as that event was, particularly for the FAs (and that this happened back in April when COVID was raging) at least it didn’t involve something that could have impacted the safety of the flight. Other than the a/c had to land heavy on the diversion.

    Someone needs to be final decision maker of whether someone can fly and when it’s all said and done I think the Captain should be the one. It’s not perfect and like everything today society seems to think we are suppose to live in a Utopian world of perfection. Pilots aren’t perfect but I’d rely on their judgement over flight attendants or ground staff.

  2. Not off base but completely disagree. Captain is judge, jury, and executioner onboard. The airline can review the behavior post-flight and discipline as necessary. If you’re even a casual student of commercial aviation you’d know there are plenty of consequences for pilots who overstep these bounds. I also don’t like conflating customer service with unqualified deference. Some passengers deserve to be treated like the morons they are.

  3. I disagree as well. The captain of the flight is designated by the company because they are required by the FAA to do so. Yes the Captain and his crew represent theIr airline and partake of the company customer service doctrine. But unlike ‘regular’ employees flight crew also answer to the FAA where the regulations are clear cut. An airplane does not fly on smiles and customer survey results, but with discipline and training. A constant pressure exists on all flight crew from the day they get their licenses. A pressure that the FAA reminds them of at every check, recurrency or eval training.
    Alot of uncertainty during these times and this skipper might have been feeling the weight of it for whatever reason. He holds the rank of Captain but he is also the commander of that flight. The name says it all. There is no vote or reasoning for anything. He gave his commands and they should be followed.

  4. Captains suppose to take in everyone’s thoughts (FO, FA, ground crew etc) but at the end of the day he/she does have the final say. Especially when you’re in the air, captain has final say as PIC it’s literally in the FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations). You can’t pull a plan over and stop the trip like a bus or ship or hotel per your example. Things are different on an airplane and you need someone with final authority hence the captain has PIC authority.

  5. Yeah, that’s all pretty logical. We’re not under military command the moment we step on a plane. They have the power granted them by company regulations, no more, no less. We don’t really see pilots abusing that power, and while the use of power we see is within reason it’s easy to use hyperbolic language like ‘judge, jury, and executioner’ because we’ve never seen examples of the fringe situations that could potentially occur if that were the actual standard.

  6. “But I also don’t view them as these people who are above the rules, don’t report to anyone, and can do whatever the heck they want.”

    Straw man much?

    Pilots aren’t above the rules. They have bosses. And they can’t do “whatever the heck they want”. Who would argue that?

    Although this post is wishy-washy enough to be unclear your argument *seems* to boil down to “pilots have more official latitude over what happens on a plane than I like”.

  7. I disagree Ben. If you take a look at 14 CFR, 91.3 in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, its pretty clear who’s in charge on the aircraft.

    Do some pilots take this too far? Yes, some do. But that’s open to armchair quarterbacking after the fact. While on the plane the PIC is in charge and what he says goes.

  8. Aw, Captain Denny’s still the best.

    To those saying the Captain has absolute power – look at all the crashes over the years caused by poor CRM, specifically overly deferential FOs to dictatorial captains. Yes, the captain has final authority over the plane, but best practice includes checks and balances.

    Also if you care about safety, how is it defensible for the captain to flout public health guidelines (not to mention corporate policy or even any sense of self-preservation) by not wearing a mask? To say nothing about the escalatory effect of antagonizing pax instead of working to diffuse the situation?

    “Asshole drill sergeant” is a poor look. I don’t want a COVIDiot hothead flying my plane.

  9. Great pay comes with great responsibility. Too many what-ifs in regards to leniency and authority on a metal tube to trouble makers on board. With zero plan B opportunities while in the air, this means the often (and at times, warranted) shamed judgement of character prior to taking off must be implemented. Far from perfection, but what process would satisfy all in the long run?

  10. Agree. Not all Captains are Sully equivalents in terms of character and trust. Fully agree, they have to follow rules and that they should have a boss in management who will intervene after the fact in the event that a Captain gets out of line. That said, the Captain has the final word onboard or else there would be anarchy.

    In all my years of air travel I can only recall one incident where I felt a Captain showed poor judgment by resorting to name calling with a drunk passenger which just escalated the situation. Overall, I have tremendous respect for flight crews for displaying a lot of patience and especially now during the COVID pandemic when tensions are elevated.

  11. Sorry Ben….strongly disagree with you on this one. Just like I want my pilot to bear the ultimate responsibility in getting me to my destination safely, I also want my pilot to have complete authority and the final word on ANYTHING and EVERYTHING that involves my flight. If that includes kicking someone off the plane or refusing to pushback because they are acting strange then so be it. The pilot is the dictator until we reach our destination. End of argument.

  12. As far as interactions with passengers go the Captain IS the first and last word, there are no discussions. The pilots are NOT the Manager on Duty at a supermarket as described here. The line of control for a Captain is the First Officer, most airlines have instituted a cockpit environment of checks and balances. If the company finds out a pilot violated protocol they get a call from the chief pilot.

  13. If we think that someone is a possible danger to themselves, fellow passengers, or the aircraft, we have no choice but to act – the FARs demand it. DOT or our employer can review our actions and decide if we acted appropriately, and they certainly do. We have neither the time nor the expertise to explain to some idiot which subsection of the COC or FARs they are violating when they do something stupid.

    Also, it’s clear that you hold pilots in high esteem – especially since you claimed to be a private pilot in a previous post, only to be outed by your instructor as not being a private pilot. Perhaps go ahead and continue your study to become a private pilot. Even a cursory review of your FAR-AIM will demonstrate that not only are we allowed to be the final say for what happens on our aircraft – we’re REQUIRED to.

  14. Pilots are accountable for their actions after their flight, so I see no issues with them having the final say during the flight itself (unless the order is “sit back while I crash this plane into a hill” or something, in which case I’m sure no one will have any trouble disobeying that).

    This is in contrast to police, who seem to have no accountability at all.

  15. You were off base when you noticed the race of the offending passenger. You were off base in your original posting by insinuating that the pilot may have reacted by the color of the skin of the passenger. You were off base when you insinuate that the pilot was rude. You were off base when you introduce in a BLM tweet as to this incident.
    Finally, how is a passenger wearing a hat with F*** embroidered on it an effort “to try to make the world a better place”.
    This was an extraordinary situation where the Captain, right or technically wrong, handled this incident logically, rationally, reasonably and sensibly.

  16. Someone needs to make a decision, usually within minutes. Of the potential individuals involved-the gate agent, the flight attendants and the pilots it should be the pilot that makes the final decision. It’s not a Democracy. Most Captains are going to discuss the situation with gate agents and the flight attendants but there’s often nearly 200 + people impacted, many with connections to make. There no time for a Spanish Inquisition.

    Some of these comments just proved my point. People think there’s some kind of Utopian existence in which individuals only make perfect decisions. If you think a pilot has acted inappropriately take it up with the airline’s management and/or the FAA. If they blow you off that’s probably telling you something about your case.

  17. No its not the same as a hotel manager. If you have someone who is going to be a problem on a plane it can become incredibly dangerous once they are in the air. Yes staff should be polite and use customer service but if the captain is involved that means the situation has already significantly escalated. Self-entitled people like that passenger like to keep pushing the limits to see how far they can go. There is an entire plane load of people that needs to get where they are trying to go and she wanted to be a special snowflake and argue. Not acceptable and I have no problem with a captain being blunt with someone like that. Its not a debate. Its not up for discussion. If she has an issue she can get off the plane and take it up with the airline but there isn’t going to be a whole back and forth with an entire plane of people waiting. Seriously think about it. Wouldn’t you be pissed if you missed your international first class connection to another country because someone wanted to sit there and argue with the captain? The hat was clearly inappropriate. Her attitude was inappropriate.

  18. we need a captain like denzel washington in flight, a great movie a great character.

    also ben/lucky that lady was totally out of line i am told at the casino if i say the F word i am banned and this is with 21 and above, banned for the day/ night.

    she should have ust left the hat in the luggage trying to win the lottery

    also what does race, blm have to do with the incident. SHE DID NOT OR WOULD NOT CONFIRM THE QUESTION I CALL PEOPLE EVERY DAY WHO DO THE SAME THING, AND IT IS FRUSTRATING, SHE WAS TOTALLY IN THE WRONG, and i do not care if she is black white chinese mexican arab jew gay straight fat skinny short tall etc… she was being un ruly and not a good passenger

  19. Ben,

    A pilot in command, from a 747 all the way down to a single seat sport aircraft is ultimately responsible for anything that happens regarding that vehicle. An airliner at 35,000 feet traveling at Mach 0.8 requires someone who can act decisively and swiftly backed by years of training and continuous verification of their skills.

    If a problematic passenger is kept on board because the customer is always right and causes an incident, the captain has to answer to that.

  20. The Captain is the Final Authority to the decisions governing the aircraft and All those on board. In making their decisions they should be employing the concept of Authority with participation and input from others though the final decision is theirs as spelled out in the FARs. As for the authors mention of a Captain being bound within the company policies this is deeply incorrect. The Captain has to maintain the safety of the flight as required per FARs and in a post 9/11 world small circumstances can quickly grow into highly consequential situations airborne and these are often never perceived by the traveling public. A Captain has the full authority to decided who flys on the aircraft or not. Company polices usually encourage a collaboration with dispatch before removal but in the end the Captains decision is final. To assume Captains are not taught these things and that decisions are cavalier is to be quite ignorant to the real judgements that are being made. As someone earlier said, if you dont like it , take the bus.

  21. Pilots are trained for technical aspects of a flight, not the customer service ones. Why should we expect pilots to have a final say on dealing with customers, or give unlimited power to them to do so? Even for the technical aspects, I can list dozens of air crashes caused by captains being an a**hole and disregard warnings from crew members, but I can’t think of one accident caused by pilots’ authority not being respected. My point is that, captains should be given the most power since they take the most responsibility, but that does NOT mean they can be a dictator.

  22. So uninformed !

    Check 14 CFR, 91.3 in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations.

    Pilot in command of the aircraft is fully responsible and has the maximum authority on borad. Same as a captain on a vessel.

  23. As an airline captain myself, here’s the part of the puzzle that you’re missing. Federal regulations require that passengers obey the instructions of crew members while on the aircraft. If a person won’t obey a simple instruction while on the ground, there’s certainly no guarantee that they’ll do so while airborne. In fact, they’re less likely to do so. Was this a fight I’d choose to fight? Probably not, but once a passenger refuses an instruction, particularly from the captain, then they really can’t continue on the flight. That’s what most people don’t get. We have a responsibility to ensure the safety of all onboard, and if you refuse to comply with my instructions, then how can I know you’ll obey the flight attendants in a more dire situation?
    The other part of this that passengers don’t see is that (particularly on the ground, with the door open) the captain will probably have to justify his decisions and actions. That is the check and balance here. Once you’re in flight however, you’d better do what you’re told, or you’re quite likely to be walking off the plane in handcuffs.

  24. Nah, Pilot’s primary job is safety? no, their only job is safety. Cabin crew, managers, ground staff, airport managers they are there to put up and be polite, and recognise your status, make you feel special etc, pilots are there to do the pre flight checks, take off and land. The fact that the majority do this and still have time and energy for being nice to you is an extra, not a requirement.

  25. Put a uniform on some people and their egos bloat up — pilots, cops, all the same. The Delta guy clearly had a massive one. Poor guy probably doesn’t get much respect at home so goes on a power trip at work.

  26. Forget whatever you read in this column, as it’s conjecture. The rules of airline flying are legally outlined and governed under Federal Aviation Regulations. I urge you to reference CFR FAR 121.533 – Responsibility For Operational Control.

    “(e) Each pilot in command has full control and authority in the operation of the aircraft, without limitation, over other crewmembers and their duties during flight time, whether or not he holds valid certificates authorizing him to perform the duties of those crewmembers.”

  27. I worked as cabin crew for an airline that primarily served the military.

    I had MANY passengers that boarded and “appeared to be intoxicated” by FAA regulations for long haul flights. Unfortunately, due to the old boys club, no one was ever removed, even though said passengers could be barfing their guts out in a lav across from my jumpseat.

    And then I cleaned up the mess later.

    Old boys club. Always will be.

  28. There’s a big distinction between in the air and on the ground. The captain “ Has final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight” per the FAA. They do have essentially unlimited powers to respond to an emergency in flight. At the gate…. much more a customer service position.

  29. Ben, you’re a solid blogger with a large following counting myself as one. However this time I can not agree with you and frankly take exception to your post. On a ship ,which applies to airplanes the Captain has the absolute last word in anything affecting its movement through the air or across the water to do other wise would be foolish. If you trust your very life to the captain to get you where you’re going then you are also acquiescing to their authority in all other matters as it pertains to the safety of the ship/passengers.

    Disclaimer I am an exUSAF and a licensed USCG “All Ocean” 500 ton Captain and once a small coastal cruise ship Captain

  30. Well, most if not all problems on board never start with the captain. It starts with a FA that for whatever reason, right or wrong does not feel comfortable with a passenger and calls the captain. In some cases the passenger is really a problem but in most cases is the FA that feels overpowered and decides to make people’s lives miserable. Thank Bin Laden for that. Since 9/11 FAs and airport personnel were given way too much power to decide who flies and who doesn’t. The captain is usually the last resource.

  31. As a retired airline pilot, the Captain used to be the unquestioned authority. And planes crashed a lot. Now the crew works together and the Captain makes the final decision. Planes crash a whole lot less.

    The Asiana SFO crash is an example of that old “Capt is God” mindset.

  32. As a B777 Captain my airline delegates considerable authority to me to act on their behalf. With that authority comes responsibility and accountability. It is a much more collaborative process than in the early days. If I make a poor decision I know i will hear about it from my manager. Taking the safest course of action is always a good plan.

  33. @santastico – +1

    In all my years of flying I have never seen a pilot just be an absolute ass. I’m sure there’s some but what I usually see is them unilaterally siding with the asshat FA that just chooses to make their lives miserable. No idea why. Jealousy? Hate their job? Who cares. But usually these stories of how awful the pilot was and blah blah blah begins with a FA on a power trip.

  34. You can’t fly a plane by committee. The law, FAA, and the public hold the Pilot as the sole person responsible for the flight and hold them to account if they do it wrong. The pilot has to have SOLE authority. He or she can be questioned after the fact if the call is wrong, but they have to be the one to make the call. This is like the military in that aspect and to equate this with a store manager just shows a lack of respect for the knowledge and responsibility of the position.

  35. I agree with you, I believe captains should have more regulations concerning their behavior during flights. I believe their should be more avenues to civil court for a passenger harassed or discriminated against by a pilot. As the old saying goes, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I regard the comments against this as people who feel their country would be safer if they had a dictator in charge. You see how well that worked out for Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, and Vietnam.

  36. Agree and Disagree. But no its not the same as a starbucks as at starbucks if something goes wrong you can call the police, whereas on a plane there is no police only 200+ lives at stake. Also a Pilot is more experienced, invested, trained, and knowledgeable than a starbucks manager. But yes I think pilots are accountable, and should be held accountable but at the same time sometimes they have make a quick decision that ensures the safety of all others, so they should be allowed to exercise some power and authority.

  37. Completely off base. Few atmospheres need to behave like this – Surgeons, Pilots, Military. Bad outcomes occur when there isn’t a sole captain of the ship in these fields.

  38. Also, how hard is it to have some decorum and not wear a F*ck hat in an airport and a non-spirit/frontier/allegiant plane? Like, what was her no outfit…? A hat with the word C*NT on it…

  39. Much of this depends on the size of the aircraft and the route, especially post 9/11. The captain holds ultimate responsibility onboard the aircraft. Much like a ship, the first officer is second in command. But their primary concern is to safely get the craft and its contents (passengers and/or cargo) from departure to arrival. The captain has the capacity and responsibility to refuse passage to anything (or anyone) that will put the flight at risk.
    But before issues reach the captain, the flight attendants hold a degree of authority and, so long there is more than one, there is a head flight attendant. (Remember that flight attendants aren’t just glorified wait staff). The majority of the time, the captain does not get involved in what goes on outside of the cockpit.

    Finally, while it’s true that the captain holds ultimate authority onboard the aircraft, he or she doesn’t own the airline or the aircraft and has bosses and authorities on the ground to who can take a variety of actions against a pilot if he of she does something wrong.

    A ship could be at see for days or, in not so distant passt, weeks. So it could be necessary for a ship’s Captain to handle criminal issues before reaching land. Flights are measured in hours, mostly less than 12, and nearly all less than 24. And while a pilot can’t simply pull over to the side of the road at a moment’s notice, it is usually possible to divert to a much closer airport if there is a situation. Unlike a ship, which can anker and float somewhere for months.

  40. I’ve been an airline pilot for well over 30 years and today is my last ever duty. It’s the job I dreamed of when I was at school, and I’ve literally lived my dream.
    I agree 100% with this article. All airline pilots work within a rule based structure, it’s why flying is so safe. As the captain I am required to work within those rules, and ensure the rest of my crew and passengers also comply. On board everyone is legally required to follow my lawful orders, but that “lawful” in there is significant. So when I put the seat belt sign on, that is lawful. I wouldn’t need to explain why. Indeed if I didn’t turn it on and someone was injured, then liability ensues.
    The customer service aspect of the job is equal to the safety aspects, and that is assessed during training and routine checks, just like my ability to handle an engine failure.
    Hopefully the general public has a good respect for my profession. I can’t say that I’ve loved every minute, but it’s a career I’ve cherished.

  41. Sorry, but I totally disagree with you. I want my doctor, pilot — any expert — to have the final say in their field of expertise.

  42. Ben – just stop. Doubling down and digging yourself into a deeper hole on this topic isn’t helping. Please leave these issues to the news networks and stick to flight reviews that you’re actually good at.

  43. I’m extremely disappointed by both articles inspired by the Delta event. The captain could definitely have been more courteous, but you seem to have made up quite strong irrational views based on this one event.

    The captain should be the ultimate authority on an aircraft & his/her word should be the final word. Saying otherwise is taking a very dangerous road for the future.

    That passenger was equally rude because she wasn’t answering the question & kept recording hoping for an irrational escalation from the captain that never happened.

    It’s easy to judge his behavior sitting on a desk writing articles, but it’s another thing to have to deal with horrible & rude passengers like her on a daily basis especially since the beginning of the pandemic.

    You & I are not responsible for the safety of that flight, he was, and he did what was required. That woman’s behavior didn’t make her worthy of patience.

    I hope the comment section will open your mind and you’ll see things rationally, beyond race & without bias.

  44. PIC aka pilot in command has the full authority of the flights… period. They can fly you back to your origin even if you’re about to land at destination and that’s absolutely captain’s call. Get a life.

  45. Same as the Captain of a Ship. He is the Ultimate, that’s why they call him The Master .He is responsible even when it is the Fault of a Pilot on Board.

  46. I rarely strongly disagree with any of your posts, but I really have to disagree here. There is a lot of value in having an absolute authority when it comes to safety enforcement, even if it comes at the cost of compromising other aspects of the service provided.

  47. I agree with Ben here, no one should have absolute authority, no one should be a dictator, the captain is not immune to COVID and is not excluded for wearing a mask. Absolute authority has never worked well, and that’s why we have a democracy. Pilots are in a customer facing role, whether they like it or not. It is not an easy job, but it doesn’t exclude that from that responsibility. All throughout the ages, pilots have communicated with passengers, they have participating in marketing activities, and represent the brand as much as anybody else. There is still a lot of respect for pilots and the difficult job that they do amongst 90%+ of the population.

    There will always be troublemakers and problematic passengers. There is no need to be rude, to argue back and forth with these passengers. If they pose a genuine safety risk, and may create an incident on board when airborne, they can be asked to leave the aircraft. Gate authorities will then approach to handle the removal (which in itself must be correctly administered).

  48. It cannot be argued in good faith that an offensive hat is a safety threat for the flight. A pilot should never have the authority to have somebody removed from an aircraft — they should only have the authority to call it in, to somebody who is trained to do the job of making these decisions (without also having to fly a plane as well).
    Once you’re in the air, it’s different of course.

  49. When you hear of an accident, first to be blamed is the pilot.
    Pilot is the last person to evacuate.
    Pilot is responsible for everyone’s safety.
    If he’s not being democratic when things go wrong, why expect him to be democratic when things are right?
    Listen to the Captain and make everyone’s life easier. Please!

  50. In most part, the captain is/ should be a person with lots of knowledge and experience. However, that sometimes doesn’t translate to good decision making. I have been involved in two incident in which the captain made a poor decision or poor leadership, in one, I actually wrote the captain up for his action. Believe me, it takes a lot for me to write someone up, so this incident had to be to an extreme level.

  51. Ben, I think you’re completely off base. First of all, I was a Customer Service and Operations manager for a legacy carrier for the last 7 years until June of this year when I took a furlough package. In my 7 years (3 of which were at a major hub) I dealt with every issue under the sun from people passing away on flights, to being arrested to celebrities, etc. and no doubt have had situations where I’m called to resolve an issue on board which to be honest was often times an overreaction from the flight attendants but captains were more often than not uninvolved. The rare times the captain has actually gotten involved they usually deferred to me or the flight crew. Feel free to reach out if you’d like to discuss. I have such fondness and good memories of my time in this role.

  52. This has nothing to do with “customer service.” The Captain is the primary person responsible for the safety of the a/c and the passengers. Period. GAs don’t decide whether a plane can fly. If the Captain feels that a passenger is a danger/threat to the safety of passengers and the a/c he/she has the full right and power to deny boarding/flying.

    That’s not to say the Captain is always 100% correct in his/her assessment and decision. They are human beings operating in a pressure cooker situation and often with limited information. Again people can’t help themselves to turn this into a “discrimination” issue. Mind boggling just how dumb down people have become.

    As a passenger the last thing I want is for a passenger to cause a diversion. I’ve flown countless of thousands of flights in the past 25 years and never once had to interact with the Captain over an issue with my behavior.

  53. With the legacy I worked for that’s wrong, on the ground with the door open it’s the Customer Service divisions plane. I once had a security threat that the captain asked me to handle because the plane was on the ground and door open (of course I had a large team and law enforcement assist) but the incident happened entirely on the plane.

  54. Surely it comes down to a position of law?

    Under the Tokyo Convention (1963), the state of registration of an aircraft (in this case the US via the FAA, but equally applicable for whichever state and their local laws) is competent to exercise jurisdiction over acts and offences committed on board.

    The aircraft commander is legally empowered to prevent acts which may jeopardise the safety of the aircraft or persons or property on board, or which may prejudice good order and discipline on board.

    Of course it’s up to the commander and those under his/her authority to exercise reasonable judgement in that regard, and in this case over what they feel may prejudice good order, and the likelihood to cause offence or discomfort to other passengers.

    It will usually be in the terms and conditions of carriage that you can’t wear items likely to cause offence. It does obviously leave a bit of a grey area if it’s rather unspecific. This is where you would hope the commander does exercise good judgement.

    I’m an airline pilot in the UK. The Civil Aviation Act 1982 states much the same as the US regulations, but again all ultimately agreed and mandated by ICAO and the Tokyo Convention.

  55. Glad to see all the others disagree as well. Their authority comes from old maritime law when the captain was total authority on the sea.

  56. Yeah Andy, or perception. What actually happens behind the scenes vs the snapshot they see can be completely different. Most people probably don’t know that we can actually start the boarding process and in fact be fully boarded without ANY flight deck on board. I’ve had widebody flights that we’d board 280+ people on and the captain and first officer would stroll up shortly before departure. We can board once minimum flight attendants are on board. There have been times I’ve had passenger issues on board, the passenger was removed and the flight deck wasn’t even on the plane.

  57. Your points are valid, but the only legal power rests with the commander. Everyone else simply uses the commanders power by his or her authority. Even when that is not expressly given. Different authorities have slightly different details, but the meaning is similar.

  58. Hashmal, what are you talking about? Literally no one at the airline has any legal power. They’re private businesses. “The commander” ?!?!? What!? This isn’t 1588 and the Spanish Armada…. there are many many “commanders” that control who does and doesn’t get on an airplane, I’ve had pilots change there mind after talking to another “commander.”

  59. The commander is the captain designated in charge, or command of the aircraft. That’s the terminology for EASA, European regulations, but FAA is very similar. In the UK, that legal framework is covered by the ANO, Air Navigation Order. So the commander is not only responsible to the company, but also the authority. If those clash then the commander is obliged to be responsible to the authority first.

  60. RJ you’re right in the air it’s the pilot’s call but on the ground (at least in the US) there are many people who have equally as much authority as him or her.

  61. I’m a Captain for a major airline and while I understand what you are saying (and agree with some of your points), it needs to be pointed out that in the eyes of the regulatory authority, the FAA, the Captain’s authority is absolute in the safe operation of the airplane…It’s enshrined in Federal law. At a major airline, every time a Captain signs on for duty, he/she is accepting the complete and final responsibility for 150-400 lives and over a billion dollars in company liability for not only those lives, but the airplane, as well. This responsibility cannot be delegated. Sure, we rely on input from our fellow crew members, dispatchers, etc, but ultimately, the decision and thus, the responsibility lies with us, as Captains. An airline cockpit is not a democracy, per se…in other words, we don’t take a vote on what we should do in an emergency, etc. It’s more like a benevolent dictatorship…we try and gather all input and information, but ultimately, the final decision and responsibility rests with one person, the Captain. Now, does any of this give us the authority to go on board and start breaking criminal or Federal law? Of course not. If a bad or inappropriate decision is made, there are usually consequences…up to losing one’s license. The entire process of becoming a Captain for a major airline is a seasoning process, and usually takes decades to achieve. By that time, 99% of us know how to handle and manage conflict…be it in the cockpit or cabin. There will always be instances of Captains misusing that authority or responding in an inappropriate manner (we are human, after all), but like in most highly skilled professions, it’s very rare. Generally, at my airline, we are specifically instructed not to go to the cabin to handle passenger issues, whether on the ground or in flight for security reasons. We allow the CSRs to handle it on the ground and the Flight Attendants once off the gate. If my FAs have an issue with a passenger and are uncomfortable, I will back them up and have the CSRs remove the person in question. I think if the Delta Captain in this video had done the same, this incident could have been avoided. So, to your original point, as pilots, we are, to some degree, the face of the airline to the public, but not nearly as much as the CSRs and FAs…we are there to get our passengers where they want to go as safely and efficiently as possible. There is a customer service element, of course, in handling delays, effective and honest communication, etc, but it’s not our primary duty. This profession is different than your Starbuck’s or Target analogy, as lives are at stake on a 350 million dollar airliner, and not if your Frappuccino order is messed up. I’m not sure what you’re trying to advocate in your article, but eroding Captain’s authority is a dangerous and slippery slope….it’s there for a reason, and has been so since the nautical era.

  62. “Pilots aren’t perfect but I’d rely on their judgement over flight attendants or ground staff.“- George , please keep comments like that to yourself. You make pilots sounds stupid. Thanks

  63. Absolutely THE Captain, the pilot in command ultimately has the ultimate authority for the aircraft’s safe operation, and therefore is beholden to the aircraft owner and certainly to the passengers who are paying for their ability, to get them ALL from point A to point B in a safe and reasonably comfortable manner.
    Several years ago, when I was employed with USINS as an Immigration Inspector at a major port-of-entry, when inspecting the crews documents for entry when coming from foreign (passports, customs forms) the pilots were ALWAYS cooperative and polite. I regret to say it was the flight attendants who forgot to leave their on-board authority the moment they stepped off the aircraft. From time-to-time we had to remind them that while in the FIS (Federal Inspection Station) they were subject to the federal, state and local laws that we tasked to enforce.

  64. The captain has all the say. I also totally disagree with the idea that the Delta pilot did anything wrong. If someone is wearing something offensive and giving resistance to the captain what else might we have to expect from them later in the flight? They are a potential risk. Get me to my destination and get me there safely. Get rid of anyone who is not totally in line. Depending on what country you land in you can have your freedom after you land.

  65. The flight deck crew operates the aircraft within numerous rules and regulations that are enforced by Federal Law that cover almost everything conceivable that happens on the flight deck. In the event of an emergency the Captain has authority to do just about anything to protect life and property outside the rules and regulations. If use of that authority was not justified s/he will have to answer for it once the plane is on the ground. Everything the aircraft does, and everything that is spoken is recorded in several different ways so there is very little possibility what actually happened would be in question after the fact.

  66. I completely agree with you Ben.

    In an emergency situation there needs to be a clear line of authority yet at the same time obsequiousness can cause major disaster. Relatively junior staff need to feel comfortable and confident to question decisions and offer their perspective.

    The authority of the captain needs to be respected however their conduct is not beyond reproach. When dealing with a difficult passenger who needs to be removed from an aircraft, a more nuanced approach to the situation can help deescalate the situation – and be more pleasant to surrounding passengers too.

  67. I think we all agree that the captain has final authority onboard. I just wonder if all the buck-stops-there folks will explain that sentiment to their attorneys if there is ever future litigation. Because it seems like the buck stops at the bottom of the deepest pocket.

  68. After 45 years flying as stewardess and flight attendant I can state for sure, any stuation not resolved on the ground with problem passengers , only gets worse in the air. Customers pay for safe, peaceful , transport from one point to another and do not need aggravation during flights. Flying is stressful without extra events. People looking for confrontations should be removed from planes on the ground expeditiously. They should not inconvenience others and delay the departures.

  69. I by no means agree with every article you post but it’s surprising to me how people commenting here appear to have completely missed the point. Sure the pilot has the final say within company policy, applicable rules, regulations and laws. It’s not his/her plane. That very expensive flying machine belongs to the airline, lessor, etc. not the crew. The pilot should of course have power to maintain order, safety etc. Obviously that power ends really quickly when comes to certain things. A pilot that’s a smoker can’t just decide that a non smoking flight is now smoking. A pilot can remove a passenger and doesn’t have justify the action to the passenger but that may not be the end of the matter for the airline, the passenger and/or relevant authorities.

  70. Give all credit to the flight and cabin crew but always remember the two or three individuals that have signed and released that very aircraft as Airworthy and safe to fly, many do not even know they exist.
    These individuals are called


  71. Sorry. When it comes to the operation of the airplane, the Captain”s authority is absolute went it comes to the safe operation of the aircraft. Period.

    Like any leader, a good captain listens to other crew members and takes into consideration what they have to say. Especially their first officers and other coworkers as well. However, he captain is the final decision maker.

    Yes, with that power comes the responsibility to use it wisely. That extends to passengers as well. If a captain wants a passenger off because he feels that passenger would have a negative effect on safety off he goes. I have been a Captain for a major airline for 16 years and have never been questioned on the decisions I have made regarding passenger handling. As long as we use good judgement and follow company policies there is no fear of repercussions. This is the way it has to be.

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