Elderly Couple Booted Over Misunderstanding (They Didn’t Speak English)

In a post-9/11 environment the slightest misstep or wrong words can quickly escalate into a security situation. From the crew’s perspective someone causing a commotion could be trying to create a distraction which could precipitate an attack. To a certain extent that’s understandable though a little common sense would go a long way — if you’re still on the ground that’s probably not what’s happening.

Hypercaution has created license for some crewmembers to go on power trips. I’ve watched flight attendants move customers’ belongings in the overhead. If a passenger speaks up, afraid their computer for instance might disappear to camera equipment could get damaged, the passenger is immediately put on notice: are we going to have a problem? In other words sit down, shut up, or you’re off the flight.

Since the David Dao dragging incident on United last April there’s been more attention paid to the problem of airlines turning customer service problems over to law enforcement. If a passenger fails to respond to an instruction to ‘jump’ with ‘how high?’ they may find themselves taken off the aircraft – physically – by law enforcement.

But what if that passenger doesn’t speak English? I feel badly for an elderly Spanish couple kicked off a KLM Amsterdam – Madrid flight yesterday. A flight attendant moved the man’s bag. We was concerned for its contents. Since the crewmember didn’t speak Spanish, the passenger didn’t understand what was happening and didn’t immediately submit. So the couple was booted from the aircraft.

Passengers on the flight get up and try to insist the couple remain on board. Eventually, as they get off the plane, they apologize and thank their fellow travelers.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. @ Ratanaai – it seems quite common with intra-europe flights. I was flying FRA-LIS with TAP the other day and FA response to a question in german: no german. english or portugese. .

  2. Most FAs are not rocket scientists and some are just plain sociopaths. I once had a FA handing out immigration forms that said sorry Spanish language forms only as we ran out of forms in American.

  3. @Ratanaai – I was on a Lufthansa flight from Athens to Frankfurt yesterday where the crew showed no indication of speaking Greek. Lots of English and German, though. While it benefits me, since I speak basically no Greek and poor German, it just seemed odd.

  4. Colonialism is based upon Language supremacy. The folks being colonized have to learn the colonizers language. The Spanish and Portufues did the same in South America. Now with the EU Spain and Greece are becoming colonies of Germany. So they better learn German or English. English because the entire world (except China and Russia) is basically a US colony now.

  5. I am appalled by the action of the arrogant, callous, ignorant, and stupid crew member! I also have very hard time to believe that no passenger volunteered to translate for the poor Spanish couple. And I don’t buy that in a route Amsterdam-Madrid nobody spoke Spanish!
    Shame to the flight attendant and shame to KLM! It should be made mandatory by any airline company to have at least one crew member speaking the language of the departing or arrival city on a given destination. Just plain common sense, too often lost these days….

  6. @paul says:
    November 6, 2018 at 4:09 pm
    Most FAs are not rocket scientists and some are just plain sociopaths. I once had a FA handing out immigration forms that said sorry Spanish language forms only as we ran out of forms in American.

    Well, why didn’t they hand out the ones they had in English!

  7. These days, the crew will be on the aircraft for more than 1 flight, therefore it may have done Athens to Amsterdam, then Amsterdam to Madrid. So now we need someone able to speak Dutch, English, Greek and Spanish ?

    I agree, it was badly handled, but until the gate staff clamp down n people carrying on too much baggage, issues will occur. I was on a flight recently, UK to Amsterdam prior to getting a long haul flight to Asia, and a family of 7 with a young child carried on no less than 11 bags, and took up the entire allocation of overhead lockers in Euro Business class, because they boarded first. The rest of the EBC passengers had to make alternate arrangements due to their selfishness.

  8. @Liz, so all airlines flying to Amsterdam should at least have one Dutch speaking flight attendant on board?

  9. This is NOT what happen. He didn’t get expelled because he didn’t know English. He understood very well that the flight attendant needed to move his computer, but he refused. The flight attendant has all the right and ability to move baggage if needed without the consent of the passenger. Just because you buy a ticket, that does not give you the right to go on board and do as you please and expected the crew to follow your rules. You can always walk to Madrid if you have a problem with airplane’s rules. Good job KLM for prioritizes the need of all others passengers safety.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *