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The day I was almost kicked off a plane (because of a T-shirt)

“Don’t you understand? It’s a profanity”. This is how #FuckupNights Co-founder, Charlie, was almost kicked off an American Airlines plane.

Carlos Zimbrón
January 15, 2020
The day I was almost kicked off a plane

The incident on the Belizean border

We’re aware of the power of words, and how sometimes our name creates quite an impact. Following the incident on the Belizean border, we wanted to share this experience from Fuckup Nights Co-Founder, Charlie, this time with American Airlines:

Fuckup Nights 3rd Anniversary poster

In December 2018 I was traveling to the United States with my girlfriend to spend Christmas in California.

We flew from Mexico City to Phoenix, where we had a 2-hour layover, and just before starting to board our next flight I started to feel very warm. I took off my sweatshirt and a moment later, in line inside the boarding tunnel before getting on the plane, the girl behind me made a comment about my shirt –“pretty cool man” – and then showed me a picture with a coffee cup she had bought that had some phrase with the word “fuck up”.

At that moment I realized that I was wearing my Fuckup Nights 3rd anniversary T-shirt. So I explained to her what the shirt was all about, you know the classic story: “Fuckup Nights is a project that ….bla bla bla”.

A few minutes later we got to the door of the plane and as I approached the flight attendants that receive you at the entrance I saw one of them with a serious expression on his face, and without so much as a hello he said to me, “You’ll need to take off that shirt. It’s offensive”. I must say, that in these situations when I am in the United States I try to rely on my girlfriend, who is American, to help guide me on how to act so I don’t commit a cultural faux pas. So I turned to her as if saying, “What I do?”.

At that moment everyone thought the flight attendant was joking: my girlfriend, the girl behind me (the one with the photo of the cup), a couple that was in front of us – everyone except me, who saw the face of the flight attendant was way too serious. He then repeated in a very aggressive tone that I could either take it off or cover it, to which the other flight attendant added:

“Don’t you understand? It’s a profanity.”

That’s when I understood that they were actually serious. My girlfriend nudged me to keep walking and since we were blocking the aisle with this little discussion we continued moving forward until we reached our seat, which as it happens, was in the very last row of the plane, so by that time all the people on the plane had already potentially seen my offensive shirt. The interesting thing is that nobody seemed offended, or at least I saw no gesture of shock or disgust from anyone. When I reached my seat I still didn’t cover my shirt, and that was when the situation went from being a weird moment of confusion to serious tension.

The same flight attendant, seemingly the leader of the bunch, walked to the back of the plane to talk to me, or more like warn me, very arrogantly with all the authority his position granted him, that he had already spoken with the captain and that had permission to take me off the plane if I did not cover the “profane” slogan.

At no time did he give me any explanation for this, so my girlfriend helped me quickly look up the airline’s policies on her cell phone. Indeed in their site American Airlines has a point which mentions that you cannot fly with “not proper” clothes – whatever that means. Then we looked a little more and found an article that said that AA had kicked two girls off a plane for using leggings, as they were considered “offensive”. That’s when I lost hope.

While the flight attendant had been giving me his ultimatum, I had tried to explain what my shirt meant, that not only was it not intended to be an offensive message but really the goal is to create a better world and change paradigms. At no point did I actually manage to engage in a conversation with the flight attendant, who seemed increasingly determined to get me off the plane, so that’s when I decided to just give in.

I did the math and quickly thought about what it would mean to continue my refusal: miss the flight, spend money on another, maybe banned from the airline or banned from traveling in the US, or in the worst of cases get tackled by an air marshall. So I decided that telling the story of what happened would be a way to convey my message in a more effective way.

In the end, I just covered my chest with my sweatshirt without actually putting it on, because I was still dying of heat.

This was still a bit uncomfortable, so I decided to do something to hack the situation. I remembered that I had a sharpie in my backpack (I always travel with things to draw), so I found the sharpie, went to the bathroom, and made a small edit to the shirt.

I changed the C in Fuckup to an O, so now it really didn’t say anything, it was just a strange word: FUOKUP. Added a couple smiley faces on there and I was chillin’ for the rest of the flight, sweatshirt-free, #fuckupthesystem.

As I got off the plane, the captain saw me and noticed that I had made an adjustment to the shirt. He grinned, and I winked at him as left with a half-mocking little smile that I’m sure did not make the flight attendants very happy.

In the end it was no big deal and just became a funny anecdote to tell, but I couldn’t help analyzing it again and again. I think what affected me most was the fact that I encountered people who were unable or unwilling to have a dialogue. In the end that’s what we propose in Fuckup Inc., communication channels to understand one another and to improve the world around us through conversation and ideas.

I don’t mind the airline’s policy so much, however questionable it may be. In the end, they get to set the rules in their business. I recognize that the policy as it exists today does not correspond to the today’s world and I don’t consider it 100% fair or right, but in reality the most worrying thing is that there are big, global companies out there that prefer to build walls rather than bridges.

As a society we constantly evolve. An example of that evolution is language, which moves at a much faster rate than that of institutions with their rules and dogmas. Today more than ever we have the opportunity to embrace that evolution and create our own history.

So, I hope 2020 has less American Airlines flight attendants and more happy kittens.

PS: We heartily welcome any American Airlines employee who want to speak in our next Fuckup Night.

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The day I was almost kicked off a plane (because of a T-shirt)


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