Sunday, April 05, 2009


This Air Canada incident involving a celebrity wouldn't have even caught my attention but for a peculiar contradiction. The airline insists that the scheduled flight from Heathrow to Toronto was diverted to St. John's, Newfoundland for a medical emergency. But the linked report implies that the only passenger disembarked was an intoxicated woman who was taken by police, not ambulance, and charged with a number of things, including endangering safety of an aircraft.

I'm not certain I've ever heard of Coleen Walsh, but apparently she hosted for radio and TV including CBC in Toronto, and was released on $2500 bail.

Although the Aviation Herald article refers to Ms. Walsh as "the ill passenger" I suspect they have incorrectly inferred that and that in fact Air Canada did divert for a medical emergency and simply have released no information on its nature. This is supported by the fact that Aviation Herald articles normally give no information on the nature of the medical emergency in such diversions and that the police were called 30 minutes after landing. If an airplane needs emergency services, ATC will make the necessary calls to have them meet the plane as soon as they arrive. It looks like the A330-300 diverted for medical reasons, was met by an ambulance for the actual ill passenger and then when Ms. Walsh proved to be unready for their subsequent departure, the crew called police.

The Star article almost makes it look as if Air Canada is trying to cover for her, "No, no, she wasn't sick, she was drunk!" but I'm sure it's just an error in the writing. That just goes to show how easy it is to have the facts:
1. airplane diverted for medical emergency
2. intoxicated person arrested
and just by sewing them together into a paragraph make the article say something else. I'm sure I do it all the time.

A later article in the same newspaper gives Ms. Walsh's side of the story. She apparently offered her first aid skills in relation to the medical emergency and when she was rejected because they wanted an actual doctor, she persisted, and pushed another passenger who told her to shut up. When asked to leave the airplane she complied, but became enraged when she realized that she was being taken into police custody. She cites an alcohol reaction with sleeping pills and a missed dose of other medication as contributing to her overreaction.


Anonymous said...

It's one of those odd things about aviation law that aircraft are viewed as so fragile that one passenger pushing another 'endangers' an aircraft.

Maybe the sudden shift of weight could endanger a light plane flying at its CG limit, but the notion of something the size of an A333 being 'endangered' by a shoving match is absurd.

A shoving match is assault, nothing more.

Flight crew and police have far too much discretionary power to level unreasonable charges against passengers for things that have no impact on aircraft safety.

dpierce said...

Anon -- While I agree the wording at face value is absurd, it's unlikely they literally think the passenger put the airplane itself in danger. Legal systems like nice, clean categorizers for offenses in order to provide guidance to cops, judges, and bureaucrats on how to handle things.

It's also the job of prosecution (rightly or wrongly) to throw anything that can stick to the defendant, and typically (rightly or wrongly) not the job of the cop to make too many decisions in the field about the speculative outcome of a situation.

The judge and defense counterbalance the zealous prosecution in light of time and gathered facts. In theory.

You cited assault. Assault is itself a broadly abused categorizer. A kid here was recently trotted out of his school in handcuffs for pointing a loaded rubberband at a girl. The charge was assault.

I guess it's most important for people who read the news to understand that lists of charges are more of a prosecution wishlist than a statement of truth.

Garrett said...

The problem with "zealous prosecution" is that prosecutors have been gifted an incredibly long, incredibly permissive list of offenses. This means that in practice they exercise "discretion" in the vast majority of cases by not zealously throwing every single charge at the offender, and this "discretion" creates enormous risk for discrimination and corruption.

The politically impossible fix is to do serious spring cleaning on the books, removing about 90 percent of what is there, so that prosecutors and law enforcement can and should be truly zealous, with the discretion falling to the judges and juries.

That won't happen. Legislatures pass more ridiculous and redundant laws each year, and prosecutors have learned there is near zero risk in "throwing books" when politics encourage them to do so.

In short, I agree with anon, shoving matches should be simple assault. I'd actually go further and say that a charge of "endangering an aircraft" should not exist. Reckless endangerment is plenty specific. Here in the US, we have many levels of this "endangering an aircraft" nonsense from old federal laws up through secret provisions of post 9/11 laws.

Aluwings said...

If the previous three posters are saying they disagree with tossing unruly passengers off airplanes at the first provocation, then I totally disagree. There is no police force or "brig" available on an aircraft. Any misbehavior involving assault (verbal or physical) inevitably distracts the Captain whose mind should be on flying the aircraft, not deciding how to restrain passengers who've "gone off their meds."

As aircraft carry larger herds of people, and people get more and more surly at being treated like cattle in their never-ending quest of wanting more and more while paying less and less, maybe we'll one day see armed police officers on board. Until then, law-enforcement on an aircraft falls to the Captain. Whatever it takes to keep people from rioting on board an aircraft is fine with me.

garrett said...

I certainly think captains and their crews ought to toss people off airplanes whenever they see fit, and take whatever action they deem necessary to maintain order on the ship. That sort of authority is a lot older than Canada or the US. It is also completely unrelated to criminal prosecution or even criminal behavior; you might boot someone just for being sick.

If you do need to boot some drunk idiot, there is no need for some specific offense of irritating an air carrier. If they committed a crime on board the aircraft, they should be prosecuted for it. Being reckless has been criminal since before airplanes existed. If the offense was serious, the punishment will be serious. If the offense was being rude and annoying an FA, well, the airline might just have to pound sand or try their hand in a civil context.

Keep in mind my point of view is influenced by the current state of affairs in the US, where certain interactions with air carriers are governed by secret laws we can't be sure we aren't breaking. One must simply STFU and deal with it, or not travel.

Jim said...

Ohhhhh, so many things here to respond to:

1. Too many laws on the books. Absolutely. More get added, few get deleted (politicians are not know for backbone, or willing to be painted by an opponent as "going soft on crime"), and the result are a bunch of flotsam and jetsam. The downside is that sometimes it is a crapshoot as to which ones get thrown at an offender, to the delight of nobody except the defence lawyers.

2. Too bad there isn't a law against exercising bad judgement. (a) Colleen Walsh admits to having to bottles of wine (which are the little two-glass mini-bottles), or about 4 glasses. She then takes a sleeping pill. Good mixture. (b) She then offers First Aid - like anyone wants a warped first aider working on them? Maybe she'll offer to drive them to the hospital next?

3. "Combined with not taking her anti-menopause meds". Right, let's shovel it on because it's never my fault. I'm sure

4. Toss her off the aircraft. Good idea. Get bitchy, for any reason, you can walk home for all I care.

5. Assault against the passenger. I hope he charges her. Sounds like she's a prima donna in need of a humble experience.

6. Off the aircraft. Easy one. Aircraft already on the ground, mouthy passenger against aircrew. Toss her off. The charge of endangering the aircraft will probobly be tossed, which is fair. Unlawful obstruction and obscene language - you had to be there.

7. Why is there not an ability for Air Canada to flag her int he computer along the lines of "we choose to not do business with you any more"? Or maybe - hopefully - there is. I'm not suggesting she needs to be put her on no-fly lists and label her a terrosist, but all businesses need a "don't sell this person a ticket because this person is a pain in the ass" list. Wow - accountability for you actions -- what a concept.

8. And - reading multiple articles - I am once again no longer amazed at the prevalence of imprecise writing in the press.

Anonymous said...

And if you want to see her resume, have a look at

Aside from everything else, turn on the "Show/Hide Hidden Characters" feature of word and look at the line breaks etc used for formatting - she has also managed to reduce Word down to a typewriter.

I'm glad she doesn'r fly airplanes.

Anonymous said...

Anon. no.1,

Unless you are a cockpit crewmember, you are unqualified to determine the threshold for passenger conduct endangering a flight.

Despite the impressions of many, we do still have a lot to do up there at times, particularly if we are forced to make an unscheduled landing.
In dealing with situations like this one, one crewmwember will be occasionally removed from their normal duties while coordinating a ground response and diversion preparations. That removes a level of redundancy and crosschecking that has been institutionalized in airline flying precisely BECAUSE it increases safety; Losing that redundancy, even temporarily, DOES reduce the safety of the flight, or 'endanger' the flight, in the words of the law.
And that's plenty high a threshold to 'throw the book at' an offender.

GPS_Direct said...

As stated above, too much to comment on... But, I'll pile on just a bit.

Let's suppose they don't have the "endangering an aircraft" angle. As with the kid and rubberband, she likely didn't actually assault another passenger - at least not in a legally meaningful way, so that won't stick.

Though she was misbehaving, if they take the "get bitchy, for any reason, you can walk home" approach, the lawsuit will be filed before the plane reaches its orginal destination. And, in this case, its likely backed by the Canadian government as evidenced by the "two for one" seating edict.

And, while I love the "we don't want your business" idea, under the current public sentiment - where they have a "right" to travel by air, you're looking at another lawsuit, or a reason to step in and nationalize the airline. Um... Air Canada... Well, they could still sue.

You can call it endangerment or whatever you like but, impact on the cockpit crew aside, if she's got a flight attendant out of their normal duty station and the SHTF, I'd wager she's likely "endangering" the pax in that FA's section. And that's good enough for me.

dpierce said...

Aluwings -- If the previous three posters are saying they disagree with tossing unruly passengers off airplanes

Not at all. In fact, I'm betting I probably have a broader definition of the concept of "security" than most. (I pedantically make a big distinction between endangering the 'security' of an aircraft versus endangering its 'safety', but the wording of the title of the complaint is what we're picking over, so we're stuck with 'safety'.)

Having an unruly person zip-tied to their seat for a prolonged period of time is a security issue, and it's important to get this person off the plane as soon as possible for security reasons (although in my experience, most people won't see it as such) and for reasons of their rights (unless there's a law enforcement agency on the plane willing to take custody of the actor).

My contention is that cops work in the world of generic and broad charges that may seem like overkill for the action exhibited. It is unlikely that a single, unarmed, untrained, aggravated but fairly powerless "civilian" on a plane is going to bring the plane down. But nobody has the time or capacity (or should have to put up with) making fine distinctions amongst a dozen granular sub-charges. That's the domain of processes downstream from the field arrest.

That said, whenever I read a report of someone being arrested for their behavior on a plane, I always give them the benefit of the doubt in my own mind. I've seen too many examples of hapless pax who've provoked the ire of a FA in trivial ways. I'd elaborate, but I don't want to sound like I'm down on the crew and my comments, as usual, are already TFL.