The dispute surrounding a student vacation flight from New York to Atlanta is getting uglier.
One hundred one students and eight chaperones were kicked off an early morning AirTran flight before its scheduled departure Monday. The controversy now pits the airline against an Orthodox Jewish high school.
"We take this matter seriously and have started our own investigation," said a statement released Tuesday by Rabbi Seth Linfield, executive director of the Yeshiva of Flatbush school. "Preliminarily, it does not appear that the action taken by the flight crew was justified."
From the airline's perspective, it sounds like a large-scale version of the parental "don't-make-me-turn-this-car-around" scenario.
Southwest, which owns AirTran, said the group of "non-compliant passengers" would not stay seated, and some were using their mobile devices after being asked not to. When the students failed to comply with requests from the flight crew, including the captain, they were asked to leave the plane, delaying the AirTran flight for 45 minutes, said Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins.
Southwest Airlines acquired AirTran in a deal announced three years ago.
Students and chaperones from the Brooklyn-based school said the flight crew overreacted to the teenagers who were looking forward to visiting Six Flags and rafting, among other activities.
"It blew out of proportion. It was a mountain out of a molehill," said teacher Marian Wielgus, one of the chaperones.
According to Wielgus, some students may have had to be told twice to sit down or turn off their phones, but everyone listened.
"They certainly did not do what the stewardess was claiming they did," she said. "That's what was so bizarre."
Wielgus said the flight attendants were "nasty," "overreacting" and "created an incident when there didn't have to be one."
According to Southwest Airlines, the group violated safety regulations.
Wielgus said she would understand if individual students who were not complying had been asked to leave, but she objected to the collective punishment.
Wielgus said a "small group" of students in the back of the aircraft were chatty, but that did not warrant the flight crew to force an entire group of 109 people off the plane.
"It was so ugly," she said.
Rabbi Joseph Beyda, another chaperone, said none of the students on the plane was particularly loud or disruptive. And when he saw that the flight attendant was flustered and had asked students to leave, he asked which kids were causing issues and offered to help, but she refused.
"They just simply said 'get off the plane,'" Beyda said.
Beyda's Twitter account included a joking photo of the class labeled "whitewater rafting in Milwaukee!!" It's not clear when it was taken, but some of the students did have a layover in Milwaukee after they were put on other flights.
Student Jonathan Zehavi said he felt they were targeted because they are an identifiably Jewish group.
"They treated us like we were terrorists; I've never seen anything like it. I'm not someone to make these kinds of statements," Zehavi said. "I think if it was a group of non-religious kids, the air stewardess wouldn't have dared to kick them off."
Zehavi said Southwest Airlines is attempting to cover up an unprofessional and rash decision by saying their group was not cooperating with the crew, when in fact they were, he said.
"It was 4 o'clock in the morning. The last thing any of us wanted to do was get up and make a mess," Zehavi said.
But business passenger Brad Rinschler, who takes the commuter flight three times a month, said he saw "definitely less than eight" chaperones with the students. He saw only two adults walk off the plane with the kids. And the chaperones sat in the front of the plane, while the noisy students sat in the back. Rinschler sat in business class, he said.
He said about 10 of the more than 100 students didn't listen to the flight crew's instructions and were noisy, swapping seats to sit beside friends and using their cell phones.
"They were laughing at them and ignoring them," Rinschler said of the 10 students.