I’m sure many of you have heard about the absolutely insane incident which occurred onboard Delta Air Lines flight 129 from Seattle to Beijing on July 7. For those of you that haven’t, I’ll outline the basic facts of the incident below, and then give my opinion on a question which has been circulating in the travel community since the incident occurred: when a passenger is behaving in a threatening, violent manner, what is the appropriate amount of force necessary to put an end to the threat.
It happening like this, according to the criminal complaint now filed against the passenger in question: after Delta Air Lines flight 129, a Boeing 767-300ER operating from Seattle to Beijing, departed SeaTac, 23-year-old business class passenger Joseph Hudek IV (who was travelling as a non-revenue passenger, using a travel pass as he was apparently the family of a Delta employee) stood up and went to the lavatory twice, a. After returning from the second trip, he lunged for the emergency exit door and attempted to open it. While it would have been impossible for him to do so due to the massive pressure differential between the aircraft cabin and the air outside, he succeeded in turning the level about half-way to the open setting (enough to trigger an alert in the cockpit that the door was being opened). Flight attendants tried to intervene, but he managed to beat them back and continued attempting to open the door.
Other passengers soon tried to stop Hudek; he punched several of them and broke a desert wine bottle over the head of one of the passengers attempting to restrain him. A flight attendant soon returned, smashing him in the head with a wine bottle. He seemed unfazed, shouting to no own in particular, “do you know who I am?” At this point, passengers finally managed to get him into a headlock and lashed him to his seat with zip ties. The flight returned to Seattle, and Hudek was arrested.
So, now that we’ve outlined the basics of the incident, let’s examine this question, which has been discussed at length in the travel community over the past few days: how much force is appropriate when a passenger poses a threat to the safety of others onboard.
Some have criticized the more violent attempts to subdue the passenger (saying that breaking a bottle over his head was intended to kill him), saying that the passengers and crew used too much force, a sentiment I very much disagree with.
Your average passenger isn’t going to know that it was impossible for him to have opened the door, and they were in fear for their lives. Even if that threat wasn’t real, there was no indication that Hudek was just going to lay down and stop when he couldn’t open the door; there is no indication he couldn’t have carried on his attack in some other way. He could have stabbed people with glass shards or bludgeoned people with luggage; he was surrounded by things a deranged man could use as weapons. If he isn’t stopped, then things could certainly get even more out of hand. This was no Dr. Dao incident, there was no unarmed, non-threatening man being viciously abused. This was a dangerous man, mentally unstable or on drugs or both, who exhibited extraordinary strength (it’s very hard to open the door as far as he did) and showed no qualms about attacking his fellow passengers. It is entirely necessary to use enough force to stop Hudek, but not enough to incapacitate or kill him. If that involves breaking a bottle over his head, that’s fine.
I hope this man gets the help he needs, but I won’t make excuses for him and I will say he got what was coming to him.