Did this airline do enough to protect a passenger from a racist rant?

Planes of Irish airline Ryanair stand on the tarmac.
(Bernd Settnik / AFP/Getty Images)

As a flight attendant for an airline operating from the U.S., I’ve been summoned by passengers who felt intimidated or abused by other passengers. Thankfully, the airline that employs me has a zero tolerance policy for verbal abuse.

When words get ugly — and they have, many times — we notify the captain. We tell him or her that someone is causing a disturbance and creating an unsafe environment in the cabin. Help is summoned, first the gate agent, then the police, to deal with the passenger on the spot if we’re still on the ground.

On a recent Ryanair flight that was to depart from Barcelona, Spain, to London’s Stansted airport, that apparently didn’t happen.

Here’s what did:

On Oct. 19, as the plane sat at the gate, a balding white man let loose a racist rant directed at 77-year-old Delsie Gayle, a Jamaican-born Briton who is black.

The man became incensed, news reports said, because Gayle did not move fast enough from her aisle seat to allow him to reach his window seat. In a video that captured this and has since gone viral, he called her an “ugly black … .”


Gayle’s adult daughter, who was seated a couple of rows away, rushed to her mother’s defense, explaining that her mother was elderly and suffered from arthritis.

“I don’t care whether she’s disabled or not,” the man replied, modifying the word “disabled” with the f-word. “If I tell her to get out, she gets out.”

As the elderly Gayle protested, the man shouted, “Don’t speak to me in a … foreign language you stupid ugly cow.”

Aside from Gayle’s daughter, one passenger appeared to intervene. A man sitting a row behind implored the bigot to stop screaming.

“There’s no need for that,” the intervening man said, thrusting one hand forward in protest. “Just stop.”

During the rant, a male flight attendant appeared in the frame. His voice cannot be heard, but what is known is that he did not relocate the man to a seat far away from the woman he abused.

Instead, the flight attendant asked the arthritic septuagenarian whether she would like to move to another seat.

According to the Ryanair’s website, the carrier is “Europe’s No. 1 airline.” The Dublin-based carrier boasts rock-bottom airfares and no-frills service to more than 215 destinations in 37 countries.

But the “service” on that Barcelona-London flight proved woefully inadequate, even by no-frills standards.

The plane took off. The plane landed in London. There, the hateful man disembarked and went on his hateful way.

As millions of people viewed the video on social media and news websites, Ryanair faced a firestorm of criticism, not only because the airline allowed a shrieking xenophobe to remain on one of its flights, but also because it did not immediately make an official apology to Gayle.

The airline issued a statement on its Twitter feed: “We are aware of this video and have reported this matter to Essex police.”

Through a spokesperson, British Prime Minister Theresa May commented on the airline’s inaction: “When people are traveling and going about their public life no one should be subjected to intimidation or any form of abuse.”

But Gayle was.

On my airline, if the aircraft is still at the gate and the captain has been informed of an incident, he or she will tell the gate agent that a passenger has been deemed unfit to fly and needs to be escorted from the aircraft.

If that passenger refuses to leave, police are summoned to escort the passenger from the plane. If the passenger fails to comply, officers will physically remove the person.

If the flight is in midair, the captain faces a more difficult decision: divert the flight to the nearest airport or continue to the scheduled destination.

Here’s what Ryanair’s website says under Article 11 of “Conduct Aboard Aircraft”: “If, in our reasonable opinion, you … behave in a manner which we reasonably believe may cause or does cause discomfort, inconvenience, damage or injury to other passengers or the crew, we may take such measures as we deem reasonably necessary to prevent continuation of such conduct, including restraint. You may be disembarked and refused onward carriage.”

What he said did cause discomfort, at the very least, but it also caused injury.

A few days after the incident, Gayle appeared on a British news program.

“I don’t know when I’m going to get over it,” she said, her voice cracking. “Because every time I think about it I cry.”

The man has since apologized and said he lost his temper “a bit.”

“I’m not a racist person by any means,” he said in an interview on “Good Morning Britain,” although the detestable words he hurled on the airplane seem to suggest otherwise.

The cabin crew’s job is, in the end, all about safety, but Gayle wasn’t protected. Banning that man for life from the airline may be the only way she or any other passenger can be assured safe passage. It seems little to ask that the airline stand up for the majority of its passengers, decent people who should never be subjected to a firestorm of hate.