July 13, 2007 — -- A mother and her son were booted off a plane after a flight attendant became upset when the 19-month-old kept saying "Bye, bye plane" as the aircraft prepared for liftoff.
Kate Penland and her son, Garren, thought they were finally homebound when they boarded a Continental ExpressJet flight from Houston to Atlanta after an 11-hour delay at Bush Intercontinental Airport last month.
As an attendant reviewed the flight safety instructions, Garren began to bid Houston adieu.
"There was a plane next to us, and I pointed it out to Garren, and he started saying 'Bye, bye plane,' over and over," Penland said.
Distracted and upset by the boy's words, the flight attendant went over to Penland after completing her safety demonstration.
"She leaned over the gentleman who was sitting next to me, and she said, 'OK, it's not funny anymore. You need to shut your baby up," Penland said.
Penland said she told the flight attendant that she expected her child to fall asleep momentarily.
"'It doesn't matter. Regardless, I don't want to hear it,'" Penland said the flight attendant told her.
"'It's called Baby Benadryl,'" Penland said the attendant told her, suggesting she give her child allergy medication to help him fall asleep fast.
"I said, 'Well, I'm not going to drug my child so you have a pleasant flight,'" Penland said.
The discussion continued and very quickly what started as an unpleasant flight for Penland and Garren became no flight at all.
The flight attendant told the captain that Penland had threatened her, and the captain agreed to taxi the plane back to the gate, where mother and child were told to disembark.
Other passengers who witnessed the argument were stunned, and came to Penland's defense.
Fellow passenger Sandy Taylor said the flight attendant came back and "in a real arrogant way she says, 'We're going back to the gate.'"
Stacey Watts said the attendant told Penland, "If you do not leave the aircraft voluntarily — the authorities have been called — the police will come and remove you from the plane."
By the time the plane had taxied to the gate, Garren was fast asleep, Penland said.
They were still forced off the plane, and Penland and Garren were left to fend for themselves and find a place to sleep.
ExpressJet spokeswoman Kristy Nicholas said that if a passenger is understood to be compromising the safety of passengers or crew, or if a passenger undermines a crew member's "authority as the person responsible for safety" on board, they may be removed from the aircraft.
But Penland denied that she had ever threatened the flight attendant or that she or Garren had posed a threat to the security or comfort of the flight.
"It was embarrassing," said Penland, who was not arrested nor ticketed after the incident, to ABC13-TV in Houston. "I felt helpless."
The airline later said in a statement to "Good Morning America": "Customer service and safety are our top priorities and we take any complaints about these issues seriously."
How does a 1-year-old's words cause such a large-scale disruption? A combination of short tempers and poor decision making, some airline analysts said.
"It just seems to me that a flight attendant made a decision that was a bad one," aviation consultant Mike Boyd said. He said that the flight attendant might have had a bad day and overreacted to the situation. "They're human too? They're just like the rest of us."
Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passenger's Bill of Rights, was not so sympathetic toward the flight attendant's decision.
"It's absurd," Hanni said. "Unless there's another passenger that comes forward that can corroborate that this mother threatened the flight attendant, I cannot understand the abuse of authority that this flight attendant had."
"How aggravating can a baby be that they have to turn an entire planeload of people around?" Hanni said. "You can't stop a toddler from cooing during the security announcement."
With concern for airline security so high since Sept. 11, angst over safety likely lowered tolerance for any actions or words out of the ordinary — even if they came from a 1-year-old.
"Since 9/11 there is an extreme awareness by crew members that we still face a real threat of a terrorist attack," said David A. Castelveter, the vice president of communications for the airline lobby Air Transport Association. "There is an overabundance of precaution to ensure that we maintain the highest standards of safety."
"We've got to err on the side of caution here," Boyd said. "If the person in the cabin decides there's an unsafe condition, you've got to go with it and then sort it out later."
But Hanni was very critical of what she called a decline in respect for passenger rights since 9/11.
"Passengers have less rights than a prisoner of war," she said, adding that she believes Penland has the right to punitive damages for the way she was handled by the airline.
An ExpressJet spokeswoman confirmed that the airline had received a complaint from Penland and was investigating her claim.
Continental Airlines spokeswoman Julie King referred inquiries on the matter to ExpressJet, on the grounds ExpressJet is not owned by Continental but works as a regional partner with it and several other airlines.
When asked whether Continental had any communication with Penland, the airline declined to comment "due to pending litigation." King did not provide details about the litigation.