On the evening of June 26, as Southwest Flight 1226 neared the end of its 31/2 hour journey from St. Louis to Las Vegas, Dr. Sivaprasad Madduri, a urologist from Poplar Bluff, Missouri, left his seat in the sixth row and began heading toward the front lavatory.
The captain was using the lavatory at the time, and a flight attendant told Madduri to return to his seat. When Madduri saw the captain leave the lavatory, he got up again.
It is against Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations to approach the cockpit when the cockpit is not secure. Madduri says he did not know this. A spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines claims that two flight attendants explained the regulation to the doctor. At any rate, some pushing ensued. "She pushed me back into my seat," said Madduri. Yes, but that was only after he tried to force his way past her, the spokeswoman for Southwest said.
Because he takes blood pressure medicines that have a diuretic effect, Madduri needed to use the toilet urgently at that time. It was a while before he could ease himself.
But when the plane landed, he was in for a shock. Two police officers brusquely escorted him off the plane and turned him over to the FBI. He was taken out of the airport in handcuffs, then taken to a detention center.
"The officers took mugshots and fingerprints, and I was ushered into a large jail cell," the slight physician later wrote in a letter he sent to St Louis Post Dispatch and Southwest Airlines. "I looked around and there were already 43 inmates. All of them were young, abusive and using language I never heard of. There were small fold-down benches along the wall. Having no place even to sit, I spent half of my night standing."
In the morning, when he was taken to federal court, he was almost in tears. He said a court-appointed attorney told him he could plead guilty to misdemeanor assault and pay a fine of $2,500. Or else he could plead not guilty and expect a protracted and costly legal fight that would almost certainly require multiple trips to Las Vegas. He pleaded guilty and eventually made his way to the meeting that had brought him to Las Vegas in the first place -- the annual convention of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin.
Was he a victim of racial profiling? Or over-zealous flight attendants? Or post-911 paranoia? Or were the problems mostly of his own doing? Or could it be a little bit of all of the above? Columnist Knight Ridder wonders.
"I can tell you this, these types of cases are taken very seriously by the U.S. Attorney's office, particularly when you have somebody who is trying to force his way to the front of the airplane when the pilot is out of the cockpit and the cockpit door might have been open," said Ray Gattinella, the assistant U.S. Attorney who handled the case.
he criminal complaint, filed by the FBI, makes mention of a second flight attendant who allegedly tried to explain the regulation to Madduri after he returned to his seat. The complaint says the first flight attendant again tried to explain the regulation to Madduri when he made his second attempt. The complaint states that Madduri said, "I'm not listening to you."
"When they were leaving the plane, several passengers thanked the crew for the professional way they handled the situation," Brandy King, the spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines claimed in an interview.
But then Dr.Madduri got a letter from Frederick Taylor Jr, senior manager at the airline's customer service communications, offering a $100 voucher for a future flight.
"Sometimes, an explanation for the reason why things happen is not always possible, and the bizarre behaviour of the individual during your June 26 flight to Las Vegas supports this point," Taylor said in a letter accompanying the voucher. "While I am unable to explain the circumstances surrounding the disruption, I think it is important to offer my heartfelt apologies for any concerns you may have had as a result of this event".
"Naturally, we don't want this experience to affect your feelings about flying with us in the future, or for it to be your last recollection of traveling with our company. In fact we would consider it a privilege if you gave us another opportunity to provide you with better memories."
Dr Madduri points out that the letter is as good as a guilty plea, more so when it came with the $100 offer. He would not discuss details of the case he is filing against the airline, but said such a move was necessary. "If I do not act, more people will be victims like me. If they could do this to a 65-year-old physician, they can behave much worse to anyone of colour," he told India Abroad newspaper.