Ethics Quiz: The Strict Pilot

This is a new one on me.

A Southwest Airlines pilot threatened to turn the plane around and return to the departure gate after one of the passengers on board received nude photos via AirDrop and reported the incident to airline staff.

He told the plane,

“So here’s the deal. If this continues while we’re on the ground, I’m going to have to pull back to the gate, everybody’s going to have to get off, we’re going to have to get security involved, and [your] vacation is going to be ruined. Whatever that AirDrop thing is — quit sending naked pictures, let’s get yourself to Cabo.”

Southwest Airlines defended the pilot, saying that the safety, security, and wellbeing of customers and employees was its “highest priority at all times…
When made aware of a potential problem, our employees address issues to support the comfort of those traveling with us.”

And will, therefore, even punish everybody to support that comfort…

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Was the pilot’s threat responsible, fair and competent?

Maybe I’m missing something (hence the quiz), but I think the pilot was abusing his authority. How does it make sense to threaten a plane-full of passengers with “ruining their vacation” because of the conduct of a single person they have no control over? How hard is it to stay off your phone for an airplane ride?


Pointer: Not The Bee.

28 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Strict Pilot

  1. It doesn’t make much sense to punish an entire classroom because of the misbehavior of a few malcontented students whose behavior they cannot control, but teachers in my time certainly did that a lot.

    Of course, airline passengers are increasingly behaving like children…

  2. The Airline staff could have shown a little tech savvy knowledge and advised the gentleman who received the naked picture to change his phone settings so that he could only receive airdrops from people in his known contact list. I know, I shouldn’t blame the victim, and really I’m not. I only suggest that it was within the victim’s control to stop being a victim.

    • Thanks, I didn’t understand the situation until I read this comment.

      Apparently an unknown person on board the flight was sending unsolicited photos to all the passengers with iPhones (“Air Dropping” is a phone-to-phone way of sending files). I this this is the “missing” link in the ethical analysis. The photo itself was not what prompted the pilot’s warning, but the behavior of a passenger that could not be readily identified.

      If the unknown offending party continued to SPAM peoples phones with obscene images, the pilot would have been absolutely justified in cancelling the flight. Usually, a disruptive party is readily known (someone handing passengers nude photos directly would be escorted off the flight by security, and the plane would be only delayed). Having an unknown offender causing the disruption makes isolating the individual difficult. Using social guilt (threatening to turn that plane right around!) seems like the least disruptive path to keeping the plane ride on time and pleasant for all onboard.

      It allows the cowardly SPAMMER to remain anonymous, as long as he ceased disrupting the plane. If he kept it up, they’d have to have police examine all the phones, which would not be practical on the flight. Returning to the gate would have been the only option; if anonymous SPAM were not strictly cracked down on, passengers on every flight would risk being tormented with obscene or otherwise objectionable images.

      • This, apparently, is a regular occurrence in the school lunch room and the school bus for kids with inadequate settings. Maybe not “nudes” but jokes, memes, and the like. The perpetrator in this scenario was probably a 18-yo male. (Duh, like that was ever in question.)

      • I have an android and I don’t use Dropbox unless I absolutely have to. I confess that I don’t know the tech issues involved but I wonder if this is somehow an Apple phone/device issue where the “unprotected” or unfiltered phones “talk” to each other withouut the users evening knowing about it. Maybe a passenger has some racy photos in the data files that were inadvertently shared with other nearby devices.


      • Police can’t examine phones without a warrant. There is little they could do here until the can identify which phone is the problem.

        • They can examine the victims phone, and figure out what phone number the message came from. They can then interview the passengers and ask their phone numbers. The cagy one who refuses to give their number might then not be let back onto the next flight.

          Of course, this would only come to pass if the perp didn’t stop when the pilot threatened to ground the flight.

  3. I once was boarding a plane on which the pilot was standing at the door “commanding” the onboarding passengers to put aside their phones and pay attention so the boarding process could be expedited. I wanted to hug him but that would have encumbered the boarding process.

  4. I see no health, safety, or security concerns related to this in any way, so definite abuse of authority. We also can’t forget the self-entitled complainers; the attendants and pilots should have responded “not my problem.”

  5. My understanding is that the Captain in Charge (I think it is called) has pretty much complete authority over how to handle disruptions on the flight (“complete authority” not including summary execution, of course). On that alone, it would not be an abuse of authority.

    PRO TIP: If you ever get hassled by flight attendants for misbehaving, request to speak to the Captain in Charge. They can absolve you of all your sins and hopefully defuse the situation without removing you from the flight.

    SUPER SECRET PRO TIP: The PRO TIP does not work if you were at all physical with the flight crew.

    If this was illegal behavior (it probably was) that could disrupt the flight (it probably could), the pilot would have the authority to remove the offender. As Rich in CT suggested, because the offender was not readily identifiable, identifying the offender would have required canceling the flight.

    And, keep in mind, this was simply a threat. A threat that the pilot was within his rights to make, was likely not an idle one, and one that was likely to result in more ethical conduct by all of the passengers.

    I would answer yes on all three points.


    • The fact that he has authority to make that threat of to follow through with it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be abuse of his authority to do either. I regard “abuse of authority” as distinct from “exceeding authority.”

      • Jack: I would agree with you that one can abuse authority without exceeding it. That would be if the use of power is disproportionate to the offense.

        The problem with airline flights is that so many causes of disruption can endanger the flight. After 9/11, airlines became more vigilant, and that vigilance has only increased as passengers have seemed to become more unruly over the years.

        So, I agree with your distinction, but see the threat as a proportionate measure to avoiding further disruption.


    • To his credit, the pilot of the one flight way back at the beginning of the Trump administration DID throw that hag in a turtleneck who went off on her seatmate because she disagreed with him off the flight, and he was within his rights.

  6. Not only was it an abuse of authority…. It’s a phone to phone file service. If the pilot actually got security involved, all the shipper would have to do would be to delete the file and there would be literally no record of the transfer…. So what are they going to do?

  7. Air drop requires the receiver to proactively accept the transmission. I was recently on a flight with a group and I knew that another member’s I phone had the same identifier -“Chris’ I-Phone”. I knew the sender and the other Chris were friends, so I declined the transmission because I knew it was not for me. It seems to me that if the receiver of the unwanted image did not know who was sending the picture it would be unethical to choose to receive the data in the first place even if the receiver had an open Air Drop setting.

    As for the pilot, his threat could have caused substantially more disruption when the innocent become forced to incur the costs of the behavior in question. I know I would demand compensation from the airline for my losses in the event I missed a connection. Many island vacation spots do not have multiple flights in or out daily so missing a connection could mean a significant wait for another flight.

  8. Others have raised reasons why I believe the Captain didn’t abuse his authority. I am not an expert of AirDrop, but part of the story includes passengers complaining about receiving unsolicited nudes from an unknown sender. If the offender can’t behave themselves during taxi, what else might they do once airborne? The Captain has a responsibility to provide safe transportation and the passengers expect the flight to be free from unsolicited pornography. Had it not been stopped, passengers would rightly complain and Southwest’s reputation would’ve taken a hit for ‘allowing’ this behavior to continue when the aircraft was taxiing as opposed to having to make an unscheduled stop to deal with one asshole.
    I understand air travel sucks right now, so missing a connection isn’t wholly within the Captain’s control.
    Lastly, who goes through Cabo San Lucas for a connecting flight? I would assume very few; fewer than the number of passengers who were upset about the nude pictures.
    The Captain of an aircraft operating under the FAA’s category for this flight has the authority to deny boarding or have someone removed for disruptive behavior, and this Captain had the authority to go back to the gate without giving the unruly passenger an opportunity to comply.

  9. I don’t have an iPhone and don’t know how Air drops work — but evidently neither did the pilot.

    I have to argue that this was an abuse of his authority. Yes, pilots should have a lot of leeway in dealing with threats to the airplane or passengers — but what exactly was the danger here? I fail to see that it was more than one of the passengers being angered by receiving these unsolicited images. I don’t see any physical harm involved.

    I imagine that finding the sender would either require a lot of forensic analysis on the recipient’s phone or actual consent of the other passengers for the police to examine all their phones. They would also be effectively detained during at least some of this investigation, I think. These days I have to believe that it is a seriously invasive search to confiscate your smart phone.

    And someone has mentioned that simply deleting the image (or perhaps the app) might well dispose of the evidence. There would be ample opportunity as the plane returned to the gate and the passengers disembarked.

    • I gotta say I’m with D.G. on this one. One passenger was doing something that at least one–probably more–other passenger(s) did not like. But at no point does this behavior, as described, actually interfere with the safe takeoff, flight, and landing of the aircraft.

      Would the pilot have done the same thing because some kid complained that a his older brother was playing “I’M NOT TOUCHING YOUUUUUUUU!!!” and refused to stop?

      This situation warranted a “Not my problem. Shut off your damn phone if it’s such an ordeal.” reaction. Maybe — MAYBE — call ahead and alert the police at the destination to get involved if the activity was actually criminal (such as sending underage nudes).

      Abuse of authority all the way.


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