Alec Baldwin kicked off plane. Are game-playing fliers a safety risk?

Refusal to turn off a cellphone got actor Alec Baldwin kicked off plane on Tuesday. American Airlines, which did the deed, noted his disruptive behavior. Others say there's a reason for the protocol on shutting off 'electronic devices.'

By , Staff writer

It's the word-game disruption heard 'round the world, thanks to the fact that it involved actor Alec Baldwin getting kicked off an airplane – and the use of Twitter to broadcast the incident in real time.

The celebrity refused to stop playing the interactive game Words With Friends, when instructed by an American Airlines flight attendant to shut down electronic devices. The crew kicked Mr. Baldwin off the Tuesday flight, and set in motion a cacaphony of comment and opinion from mainstream news media to the Twitterverse.

Baldwin is hardly the first celebrity kicked off an airplane. And he's hardly the only passenger who has balked at shutting down a favored device just because a flight crew says to do so.

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So, how unusual is it to get kicked off a plane? Does it it seem as if this happens only to celebrities, or do celebrities behave worse than the rest of us? And was Baldwin's behavior a safety threat to the airline? 

Baldwin used a post on Twitter to cast himself as the victim: "Flight attendant on American reamed me out 4 playing WORDS W FRIENDS while we sat at the gate, not moving," he wrote.

For its part, the airline said this on Twitter: "Our flight attendants were following federal safety procedures on electronic devices when aircraft door is closed."

Later, on its Facebook page, American elaborated that a passenger on the flight, not named by the airline, "declined to turn off his cell phone when asked to do so at the appropriate time," stood up and slammed a lavatory door when the seat belt light was on, and used offensive language. "Given the facts above, the passenger was removed from the flight and denied boarding."

Getting kicked off a commercial airline is rare, but it happens occasionally to celebrities and noncelebrities alike. 

It occurs at the discretion of the flight captain, says Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Les Dorr. He says the FAA does not have statistics on how often this occurs, or on how often airplanes return to the terminal before takeoff.

The reasons can range from concerns that a person is intoxicated to the electronic-device issue. Air travel experts say that if passengers refuse to obey instructions regarding cellphones and other gadgets, safety is at risk. 

The incident is arguably no big publicity win for Baldwin or for the airline, which recently filed to reorganize in bankruptcy. Baldwin took snide note of the fact, adding the tag "#nowonderamericaairisbankrupt" to his post on Twitter. (In later tweets, he talked about changing his allegiance to United, and saying the flight attendants "look ... smarter" on the flight American rebooked him on later Tuesday.

For his part, Baldwin earned his share of scowls, including from fellow passengers who were delayed because of his gaming habits.

By contrast, it's a public relations coup for Zynga With Friends, creator of the game Words With Friends. The game is in the news for, apparently, being too fun to stop, even when the voice of authority tries to intervene.

Baldwin joins a large cast of celebrities who have been kicked off airplanes.

Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong was ousted for refusing to pull up saggy pants on a Southwest Airlines flight. Actor Josh Duhamel refused to turn off a BlackBerry device on US Airways. The list could go on.

Lesser-known passengers sometimes get booted for the same reasons. And like celebrities, they sometimes get away with things that make other passengers wonder. In one publicized case, a man scantily clad in women's underwear flew on US Airways – about the same time another airline made news for ejecting a passenger with saggy pants.

Do celebrities bring a disproportionate amount of trouble on themselves? It's hard to know, because the evidence is anecdotal. But if that's the case, the explanation could range from pompous self-esteem (being too important to listen to an airline employee) to taking a calculated publicity move on the idea that more news about oneself (even of the "bad" variety) is better than less news.

The FAA does track a statistic called "unruly passengers," by the way. This doesn't include all alleged bad behavior, because incidents are reported to the agency only at the discretion of the airlines. Also, airlines report security risks separately to the Transportation Security Administration.

Since 2005, reported unruly passengers have totaled fewer than 200 per year for the industry.

Although many passengers are skeptical that using electronic devices can threaten air safety, some travel experts say the industry has good reason for its protocols on the use of cellphones and similar devices.

Geoff Thomas, editor of Air Transport World magazine, tells an Australian arm of ABC News that glitches appear to be "exceedingly random," but that there's "enough evidence to suggest that it is a problem" that can interfere with aircraft instruments.

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