Airplane, flying in a blue sky

Twitter and airlines just don’t seem to mix. The last few weeks have seen a crop of news stories related to both airlines and authorities reacting to something that was posted on the social network. The three instances described below vary in seriousness and uproar caused, but each begs the question – when is a tweet just a tweet?

Example #1: The Offended Flight Attendant

Duff Watson using his phone

CBS Minnesota

Several weeks ago, Duff Watson from Minnesota was about to board a Southwest Airlines flight with his family. Watson is considered an “A-list” passenger with the airline and as such, gets priority seating. Upon being told by a flight attendant that his children couldn’t board with him as priority passengers, Watson tweeted. He also let the flight attendant know that Twitter would be hearing about their exchange.

The tweet has since been deleted but it was something along the lines of “Wow, rudest agent in Denver. Kimberly S, gate C39, not happy @SWA.” According to Watson, he and his children were made to de-board the plane and he was told that if he didn’t delete the tweet he and his family would not be allowed back on the plane. Not wanting to miss his flight, he deleted the offending tweet and got back on the plane with his children. One of Watson’s daughters reported that the agent threatened to call the police because she felt threatened.

While I fully appreciate that online harassment and bullying are real problems, this instance doesn’t strike me as one where the flight attendant was being harassed. I think it had more to do with her not wanting officials at the airline seeing the tweet and reprimanding her for the bad publicity.

Social media (and its various fails) has been around for a number of years now. The attendant had to have realized that even if Watson deleted the tweet before boarding, there wouldn’t be much incentive for him to keep quiet about the episode once his flight landed. I have to believe that if the flight attendant not forced Watson to delete the tweet, the situation wouldn’t have generated the publicity that it did.

Watson says that Southwest has apologized via email and offered him and his children $50 vouchers. He has vowed never to fly Southwest again.

Example #2: The Insensitive Football Fan

Following the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 crash last month, 18-year-old Mitchell Tace Chapman from Sunderland, England tweeted the following: “Such a tragedy that there was only 2 Newcastle fans on the plane and not 100. RIP fellas”.

Mitchell Chapman's Insensitive MH17 tweet


Mitchell, a fan of Newcastle’s rivals Sunderland, was arrested by police following the tweet’s posting. He is charged with making a “malicious communication” in connection with the “remarks posted on Twitter relating to two of the men who died” on flight MH17. According to Rights Group director Jim Killock, Chapman’s August 11 court date may be a short one:

While there is no excuse for making remarks like this, we must be cautious about where this becomes a criminal matter. There are many cases of harassment where the police quite wrongly take no action. They appear to judge the importance of offensive Internet remarks according to how much they enrage the public, rather than objective criteria such as the danger they pose.

Mitchell’s tweet was offensive, but was it criminal? Personally, I think it’s incredibly insulting, especially to the families of John Alder, 63, and Liam Sweeney, 28 who perished in the MH17 flight, but are we going to start arresting everyone who posts offensive comments on social media?

I don’t know about the laws in the UK – or Canada for that matter – but I don’t know of many countries that have fully updated their laws to match the situations brought about by social media and technology.

Example #3: The Dim Witted Teenager

I don’t know what would prompt a 14-year-old to tweet to an airline that they are a member of a known terrorist organization and claiming knowledge of a planned attack. One would hope that by 14, a person has enough common sense to know that tweeting things like that would be a really bad idea.

Not so for Twitter user @QueenDemetriax_ who felt the need to tweet to American Airlines, “hello my name’s Ibrahim and I’m from Afhanistan. I’m part of Al Qaida and on June 1st I’m gonna do something really big bye.”

14 year old's terrorist tweet


Not surprisingly American Airlines replied six minutes later letting Sarah know that her IP address and details would be forwarded to security and the FBI. Sarah continued to show her age as she tweeted her panic:

14 year old's panicked tweets


Not long after she posted her original “threat” tweet, she was in the custody of the Dutch police. Tinet de Jonge, a spokeswoman for the Rotterdam Police Department told the New York Times that the girl had been released shortly after being arrested but remained a suspect, pending an investigation. She said it was up to American Airlines to decide whether to press charges. “Some people think it’s fun to send a threatening message on Twitter,” she said. “But American Airlines didn’t think it was funny at all.”

Sarah’s father defended his daughter to the Dutch press, saying she was just a typical teenager who tweeted a joke when she should have been doing her homework.

As we saw a few weeks ago with Breanna Mitchell’s selfie at Auschwitz, social media gives teenagers and their misguided actions an opportunity to reach a broader audience. When I was growing up, the news of my antics got as far as the family and friends in my mother’s phone book. Today, poorly thought out pranks shared on social media can lead very quickly to real life consequences.

I still think Sarah should’ve had more sense when she thought about posting her tweet. Unlike the first two examples, she posted about the security of American Airlines flights which anyone over the age of 12 should know would not be wise. Airline security is just not something that can be made light of.

As people continue to share their thoughts and opinions on social media, we’ll have to keep an eye on how society reacts. Will complaints be seen as harassment? Will offensive tweets require police intervention? Will the courts determine what can and can’t be said?

It will be interesting to see how “free” free speech will be as instances like the three above make their way to the headlines.

Airplane photo courtesy of Joshua Davis