FAA to investigate cell phone use on Atlanta flight

An AirTran spokesman said a man traveling with a group Tuesday afternoon refused to turn his cell phone off before takeoff. But the woman sitting behind the man said it wasn't a phone at all, and feels the entire incident was the result of poor communication.

"He was not talking on a cell phone, it was a camera," said Nancy Deveikis of Marietta. "He was looking at pictures."

A flight attendant asked the man twice to turn off the device, Deveikis said. But it was clear the man did not speak English, she said. Although the man was traveling with others, the rest of the group was seated throughout the plane.

When the man did not respond to the flight attendant, she took the camera from him, Deveikis said. Deveikis, who presented ajc.com with her boarding pass for the flight, said she watched the exchange from directly behind the man in seat 28A and the female flight attendant.

"She grabbed it from his hand and basically said I'll be holding this until you get off the plane,"Deveikis said.

It’s unclear whether he was talking on the phone, snapping photos or texting, AirTran spokesman Christopher White said. But to airline officials and flight attendants, it didn’t matter. The Boeing 717 had pulled away from the gate, and the phone was on, White said.

“Flight attendants were telling him, ‘Turn off the phone, turn off the phone,’” White said.

“We can’t taxi with the cell phone on, and we certainly can’t take off,” White said. “Language barrier or not, you start to butt up against interfering with a flight crew.”

Deveikis said she never heard the one flight attendant use the word "phone" when speaking to the man.

“Passengers are required to follow instructions of the flight attendants," regional FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said. AirTran reported the incident to the FAA, Bergen said. The federal Transportation Security Administration will not handle the incident, saying it is a customer-service issue between the passenger and the airline, a TSA spokesman said.

Houston-bound Flight 297 was scheduled to leave Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport at 4:40 p.m. Tuesday. But the pilot decided to return the plane back to the gate, and the man and the group he was traveling with were asked to exit the plane.

Another person in the group – someone who could speak English – got off as well to act as an interpreter, White said.

So, why didn’t he leave his seat to help in the first place?

“He told flight attendants that he could have helped during the taxi time, but he didn’t want to get up,” as passengers are to be seated at that time, White said.

Deveikis said the flight attendant who took the phone told other members of the group, "If you're English-speaking, then maybe you should get off the plane, too."

Another flight attendant, Deveikis said, was in tears as she left the plane following the incident. A new crew later returned to fly the plane, she said.

AirTran gave the 72 other passengers on the plane the option to stay on that flight or switch to another one without paying any fees, White said. Of the remaining passengers on the plane, 12 decided to take another flight.

The 11 others in the 13-passenger group got back on the plane, which took off for Houston, White said. TSA officials spoke to the man with the electronic device as well as the other person who was acting as an interpreter, and they took a later flight to Houston, White said.

Deveikis said she remembers the original members of the group reboarding.

Deveikis, who often flies to Houston for business, chose to remain on the flight. She said the man with the camera and his entire group reboarded the plane. The whole incident, which scared other passengers who weren't clear what was happening, could have easily been avoided.

"Just one flight attendant snowed everyone into believing she had an irate passenger," Deveikis said.

Still, airline officials contend the right action was taken.

“It’s a fine line that we have to play,” White said. “Is there any safety or security reason to bring the plane back? Yes, there was a safety reason.”

White declined to identify the passenger. No charges were filed. And, for AirTran, the case is closed.

“Once we determine there is no other problem, it’s our responsibility to get everyone back on and get the plane taken off as quickly as we can,” White said.

Staff writer Megan Matteucci contributed to this report.

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