The Bell Curve: A flight gone awry

First off, let's deal with the bias.

For the past two weeks, you may have been following the adventures of a lady named Cynthia Angel, who got bumped from a Delta Air Lines flight for disputed reasons that have turned into one of those lingering stories that especially captivate consumers who have run afoul of the system. One thing that isn't in dispute is Cindy Angel's anger at her treatment. She's mad as hell.

She's also my sister-in-law.

Let's look at the facts that aren't in dispute. Cindy was on her way to her home in North Hollywood when all this got started. She had been visiting her son, Matthew, in Atlanta, where he was plying his actor's trade in a film underway there. On July 19, about 10 p.m., his mother was waiting in line to board her flight to Los Angeles, which had been scheduled to take off some two hours earlier.

As she stood in the entrance to the plane with three other passengers, a man they took to be one of their pilots squeezed by on his way from the cockpit.

The passenger who was last in line leaned forward and said, "Did you smell that?"

The woman behind Cindy echoed "smells like straight vodka."

Cindy — who knew full well that vodka is odorless — had indeed smelled something she deemed alcoholic, and the man in front of the little group of passengers concurred.

So the first woman said, "What do we do?"

And when Cindy said, "We should call it to someone's attention," and got no takers, she spotted the head flight attendant in the first-class galley.

Cindy went up to her and said: "I don't know what the protocol is, but three other passengers and I think we smelled alcohol on the pilot's breath."

The flight attendant dropped what she was doing and said something to the other pilot, who was seated in the cockpit. He then asked Cindy to step inside and closed the door behind her.

She remembers saying exactly what she had told the flight attendant.

"I was very nervous," Cindy related. "I wasn't accusing anyone. It was at this time just an observation."

The co-pilot responded that he had been with the captain for the past five hours and the captain had not been not drinking.

To which Cindy, greatly relieved, replied, "Great, I was just making sure," just before returning to her seat in Row 39. On the way there, feeling very much alone, Cindy looked for the other three passengers in her little group. She couldn't find the two men on the crowded plane, and the third avoided eye contact with her as she passed down the aisle.

But for Cindy, who felt she had done her duty, the trouble was just beginning.

The plane was almost full and Cindy had settled down with a book, when she felt a suit with proper credentials standing over her and heard him ask her to step outside, where he asked her to repeat what she had told the co-pilot. She knew it by heart now.

Back in her seat 20 minutes later, the same suit and a similarly credentialed woman approached her, as she put it, "very assertively," telling her to get her carry-ons and come with them. When she asked what was going on, she met silence.

She was escorted into an airport office, crying and asking why she was getting "treated like a criminal for doing the right thing."

She watched with sinking heart as her plane taxied by containing her checked luggage and the eyewitnesses who could confirm her story. For the fourth time she was asked to tell that story. Then the credentialed woman told her that the captain had tested negative and that "he and his staff do not want you on his plane."

About 11 p.m., Cindy was handed vouchers for a flight the following morning and two expired dinner coupons, a room voucher for a downtown Atlanta hotel and a shuttle to get there. Then she was abandoned, without any personal luggage, in a near-empty airport, "scared, alone and vulnerable."

By that time, the shuttles had quit running and the restaurants were closed. It was past midnight before she got into the hotel after a $100 cab ride and "so full of anger I couldn't possibly sleep."

"They kept telling me that they took this seriously," she recounted. "Well, so did I. If I suspected that an airplane full of people might be endangered by my keeping quiet, I would do exactly what I did in Atlanta again. I thought I was just being vigilant. It would only cause trouble for the pilot if he were guilty. When he was cleared by the test, the whole matter should have ended, and I would have accepted an apology.

"Oh, yes, there's one other thing I learned. You can't depend on people to support you if doing so involves personal risk. I can still see the woman passenger who helped start this avoiding my eyes as I was walked up the aisle of that plane with my carry-ons."

Cindy's other phone was ringing as we talked. It was KTTV FOX 11 wanting to interview her for a program called "America's Newsroom." If hard news doesn't get in the way, she is scheduled to appear there today.

JOSEPH N. BELL lives in Newport Beach. His column runs Thursdays.

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