In late June, cellphone video taken on a Delta-Skywest plane circulated around social media. Posted by Robyn Rodgers on Facebook and an Instagram account under her alias, Deejay Reborn, the videos show a white flight attendant arguing with Rodgers, and then with others on a small aircraft, about their behavior on the flight—behavior she deemed so egregious that the aircraft, which was getting ready for takeoff, was forced to turn around and go back to the gate.
But what caused the flight attendant to turn the plane around was nothing more, passengers say, than a request from a black passenger, Rodgers, that the flight attendant not hover over her while she was putting her phone on airplane mode.
“[The flight attendant] was standing over me kind of menacingly with her arms folded,” Rodgers, a New York-based D.J., told The Root. “All I did was ask her to not stand over me.”
In her Facebook post, Rodgers recounts her phrasing this way: “‘I know how to turn on airplane mode, you don’t have to stand over me,’” she says she told the Skywest crew member.
It’s unclear whether that comment set off the flight attendant or if it was when Rodgers showed her the phone screen—with its airplane-mode setting on—to show that she had complied. But according to Rodgers, the flight attendant “immediately” huffed to the front of the plane to call the Delta gate.
Within moments, the flight attendant had the already delayed plane—the last Delta connection leaving Indiana for the evening—turn back around. By the time the plane reached the gate, four more adult passengers would be kicked off and one child. One passenger, Ryan Miller, was booted from the plane for vouching for Rodgers, telling the flight attendant he had seen Rodgers comply with the orders given her.
“Would you like to stay [in Fort Wayne] too?” The Skywest attendant can be heard telling him in one video. Earlier, she had been telling Rodgers that the reason she was turning the plane around was because Rodgers chose to argue with her and not comply.
“I’m not taking anyone with attitudes. I have zero tolerance for that,” the flight attendant says.
Two others were removed from the flight for asking if the flight could continue onward without having to turn around.
The exchanges captured between her and the flight attendant show a very familiar scene—a black woman talking calmly and deliberately to a person in authority who has trained their eyes on them for some unknown provocation.
While the situation escalated to include more passengers, it was Rodgers, a black woman, who was initially singled out in a dispute that, for her, was as confounding as it was terrifying, and one she fears could have adverse effects on her ability to travel for the foreseeable future.
“Once you are treated inhumanely and publicly made to feel like your humanity is not being respected, you don’t forget that,” Rodgers said.
Nearly a month after getting kicked off SkyWest flight 4527, not only does Rodgers still need answers, but she’s considering a discrimination lawsuit to make sure that what happened to her doesn’t happen to other passengers.
As Rodgers told The Root, the flight attendant may have already been on edge before their interaction because of the atmosphere on the flight.
“Maybe because the fight was late, there seemed to be just a very anxious energy overall,” she said. “It seemed like a lot of people on the flight were not paying attention to [the flight attendant] because it was just a bit rowdy and a bit loud.”
Because it was a small flight, the Skywest crew member would have been the lone flight attendant on the plane, meaning she alone would have been responsible for delivering flight and emergency instructions, as well as quelling any potential disruptions.
While Rodgers acknowledged that the flight attendant may have felt overworked, she pointed out that, despite having had no prior interaction with the flight attendant, she was the one singled out for using her phone.
“She didn’t snap when those other things were occurring,” she said.
“In the video, I very clearly say, can we rectify this? So we can move on. So no one is held up,” Rodgers said. “I was steadily trying to de-escalate the situation, and she was steadily escalating it.”
When they got back to the gate, Rodgers wrote in her Instagram post, there was an armed officer there to take her off the plane.
Because Delta does not routinely do more than rebook passengers on future flights if they had been removed, the passengers kicked off Skywest were left to fund their own hotels. Because it was a connecting flight and the last Delta flight out of Fort Wayne, all the passengers removed were stuck in a city they were unfamiliar with and forced to look for their own lodging. One woman needed help from her fellow passengers in order to afford a hotel room for the night.
On the ground, Rodgers documented her interaction with Delta workers, who explain to her and another passenger why she and others had been kicked off the flight. According to one unidentified worker, the flight attendant felt “uncomfortable, unsafe because to her, she didn’t feel like you guys were listening to her.”
Remembering that the dispute was, at best, over how pleasantly a passenger complied with a crew member’s request, Rodgers’ run-in with Skywest raises the question: How much punitive power can a person—particularly one in authority—wield under the flag of “safety”?
When contacted last week about the case, a spokesperson for SkyWest said it “[takes] all allegations of discrimination seriously” and are still investigating the incident.
“We are disappointed for all of our customers impacted by this experience and have worked with our partner Delta to follow up directly with the customers removed from the flight,” Skywest said in a statement to The Root.
Rodgers’ attorney, Keith White, says they’re exploring a discrimination suit against both Delta and Skywest for singling out Rodgers.
White noted that during the encounter, “there are similarly situated white people, white passengers on that plane who are not being asked to put their phones into airplane mode.”
He added that the fact other passengers recorded the flight attendant on their phones, with none of them being reprimanded or confronted, was telling.
Rodgers, who travels frequently, fears there will be long-term consequences.
“My understanding is that it’s very possible that I could have a black stain on my name because there was an incident on a plane,” she said, adding that she was anxious she might be flagged or discriminated against, or “labeled noncompliant” for the indefinite future.
It’s unclear how many airlines maintain their own “no-fly” lists—bans on air travel similar to the ones the federal government creates and enforces. A spokesperson for American Airlines confirmed that such a list existed for its airline but added that denying unruly passengers future travel was rare (Delta did not respond to ABC’s request for comment on that story.)
Because it wasn’t a Delta airplane or crew member, and the airline rebooked the passengers on the next available flight leaving Fort Wayne, Rodgers is left waiting to see how Skywest will respond.
Rodgers says she suspects the airlines are less concerned about her experience and more worried about avoiding a potential public relations disaster. In her view, they seem to have waited for the incident to blow over.
Going forward, Rodgers wants to make sure both airlines address what happened to her, “not in a superficial way, but in a way that has meaning and has long-lasting impact.” She hopes that the airlines explore why the flight attendant may have over-reacted, and enact new training or policy guidelines to address flight attendants being overworked, if that’s what the case is.
She’s also concerned with the message those airlines are sending if they stand by their flight attendant.
“I don’t know her name, and the company that she was working under has chosen to, for all intents and purposes, support her and her behavior in their name,” she said. “That’s incredibly wrong and super disheartening.”
“It was terrifying to know that someone in a position of power, even though that power is limited, can have a long-lasting effect on your life. Just because they say something happened that didn’t happen.”