In yet another unfortunate incident involving Spirit Airlines and religious Jewish passengers, a flight attendant on Flight # 138 from Orlando to Atlantic City on Isru Chag Pesach ordered an Orthodox Jewish family to deplane because their two year old child wasn’t wearing a mask. In a video that went viral on social media and was reportedly viewed over 1.6 million times, the young child can be seen eating a yogurt, and the parents trying to explain to the attendant that their baby just turned two and has been pulling off her mask. But the Spirit employee insisted that the family be removed from the flight claiming non-compliance with the airline’s mask policy.
“You’ll have to deplane the aircraft, or we’ll call the police,” said the flight attendant.
The child’s parents, Ari and Avital Eisenberg of Toms River, NJ, are seen attempting to explain to the flight attendant that the child is eating and is refusing to be masked. The mother, Avital, is visibly pregnant and repeatedly attempts to mask the child. But the little girl refuses to wear it and becomes distraught. The couple was also traveling with a seven year old special needs child.
Eventually, everyone on the flight was forced to disembark from the airplane, apparently due to an airline industry protocol requiring airlines to de-board an entire aircraft when a passenger is not complying with Covid-19 guidelines. Yet despite the delay and the major inconvenience, virtually all passengers were sympathetic to the Eisenberg family and blamed the airline for its unusually cruel and senseless policies.
In the end, all passengers, including the Eisenberg family, were allowed to reboard the aircraft while Daryl, the flight attendant who caused the commotion, was replaced. It was a happy ending for this family and the plane’s passengers. But it was indicative of a disturbing trend where Orthodox Jews seem to be singled out by airline employees, particularly on Spirit.
To make matters worse, the airline responded to the widely shared video which clearly illustrates the sequence of events by tweeting a statement which was false. According to the Spirit tweet, “The flight was delayed due to the adults in a party not complying with the federal mask requirements.” The tweet was denounced by many as an outright falsehood as the circulating videos clearly show the parents wearing their masks and the flight attendant stating that the family is being singled out because of the maskless baby. Eventually, the airline deleted the false statement.
Passengers on the flight are happy to be home but have bittersweet memories of the incident. Eli, who was a passenger on the flight, says, “I was upset that I got home six hours later than expected”. Flight #138, which was scheduled to take off at 11:06 AM, was held up for an hour while a crew member argued with the couple and eventually called police. After disembarking, the stranded passengers then waited another hour at the gate, wondering what would happen next. Eventually everyone reboarded and the flight attendant who caused the ruckus left while accompanied by law enforcement.
The vast majority of passengers, as well as members of the crew and Orlando police officers, were sympathetic to the Eisenberg family, recognizing that they were placed in an unfair and difficult situation. “Once people saw the special needs kid and the two year old and the pregnant mother,” said Eli, “everyone on the plane was sympathetic, including the non-Jewish people. I would have expected the other passengers to be fuming. But I didn’t see that.” Instead, passengers advised the Eisenberg family to hold their ground and to remain on the plane.
The incident made international headlines, and was covered by Newsweek, Fox News, the BBC and other major news outlets. “Family Kicked Off Spirit Flight Over Toddler Not Wearing Mask Says Carrier Is Lying,” read a New York Post headline. And in an interview with Fox News, Avital Eisenberg recalled that the flight attendant “kept repeating that she needs me to deplane and I said I’m not going anywhere, I didn’t do anything wrong,” Avital told Fox News. “We tried to explain that we’re doing everything we can with the kids.”
The entire incident was extremely traumatic for her children, said Avital. “My son missed his medication window,” she told Fox News. “Thank G-d he didn’t have a seizure. My daughter is going crazy from all this. It was a terrible, terrible experience to go through, let alone someone with a special needs child.”
Tzvi of Caplan Cuts in Lakewood was sitting in the same row as the Eisenberg family and is considered something of a hero for having recorded the entire incident with the flight attendant with his phone. “It was a completely targeted incident,” he tells Yated. “Everyone was in complete compliance. The parents were fully masked. Then out of the blue they came and said you are not complying.”
Tzvi says that his ability to record what happened was hashgocha protis. “Hashem put me in the right seat.” He points out that if not for his video which he posted immediately and quickly went viral, the outcome could have been totally different. “It would have been the airline’s word against ours,” he says. “But I made sure to capture the moment.”
Similar incidents have been reported over the past few weeks on other flights, prompting the Rabbinical Alliance of America to issue a statement calling upon airlines “to exercise sensitivity in enforcing its mask policies.” The strongly worded statement accuses airlines of publicly embarrassing Orthodox Jewish families for their failure “to make exceptions for young children who are unable to wear masks.” The RAA calls it “unacceptable cruelty to children and large families.”
The RAA condemned the incidents and demanded that the airlines “apologize and take all corrective necessary steps in holding responsible all those involved in this abuse of its passengers.”
On the positive side, Eli told the Yated that a new flight attendant had been assigned to their flight who was full of positive energy and succeeded in lifting the spirits of the weary travelers.
Whether Spirit will answer the call and make amends remains to be seen. But for this Toms River family, the trauma and the difficulty will not soon be forgotten.