There has been a lot of media coverage this year about passengers' rights when getting bumped off a flight. Another issue has been less addressed: the right to a nonaggressive seatmate.
While boarding a Ryanair flight in Europe recently, an obviously inebriated young man, carrying a nearly empty bottle of vodka in a clear plastic duty-free bag, plopped into the middle seat next to Michael. He then slurred, "I've been drinking a lot and will need that seat," repeatedly poking Michael in the arm. This was unacceptable.
Michael called a flight attendant over, a young man who appeared to be a junior member of the crew, and explained the situation. The flight attendant offered to try to move Michael, but the flight was full and there were no other seats. Michael was insistent, "This person is drunk and belligerent. He must be removed from the plane."
A senior flight attendant came over and instantly recognized the situation. She cajoled the drunken passenger to the front of the plane with the promise of a better seat. She then notified the captain, who authorized the passenger's removal by security.
What are your rights in a situation like this? The "Consumer Guide to Air Travel" on the U.S. Department of Transportation website doesn't address a situation in which a passenger is being abused by a fellow passenger. One airline spokesman told us, "You are buying a ticket from point A to point B. You are not guaranteed a pleasant seatmate, but if the airline deems he or she objectionable and therefore a safety threat or offensive to passengers, they can remove said passenger."
According to FlyersRights.org, the largest not-for-profit airline passenger consumer advocacy organization, "In a situation like this, you should contact the flight crew. The captain has ultimate authority for the safety and security in flight. Actions can vary from admonishment, changing seats, to ejection, arrest, and restraint."
In our case, had the flight crew insisted the man could stay, we would have been obligated to abide by their decision. Michael felt the first attendant he addressed was less experienced, so he took his case to someone with more authority. Airlines do not want unruly passengers on their flights, so Ryanair handled it properly. But it took Michael's holding his ground to reach that moment.
If you are in a situation where another passenger is making you uncomfortable, point it out to the cabin crew. If you are not satisfied with their initial response, be firm in your position until the situation is rectified.