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The Talon House



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Issue of 2006-09-25

Posted 2006-09-18

American Airlines Flight 45—departing Charles de Gaulle at 10:40 A.M., arriving J.F.K. at one each afternoon—is a tourist’s delight: timed just right to avoid late checkout, leaving time for one last Kir Royale at Les Deux Magots. On August 22nd, the coach cabin was packed with vacationing New Yorkers. Ralph Jackson (21A) and David Leisner (21B) were returning from two weeks in France, while Huffa Frobes-Cross (21F) had stopped over in Paris on his way back from South Africa. Assigned to seats 20A and 20B were George Tsikhiseli, a television journalist, and his writer boyfriend, Stephan Varnier. “We’ve been together only four months,” Tsikhiseli said last week. “So it felt like a honeymoon.”

Twelve days earlier, British police had foiled a terrorist plot to blow up airliners. Heightened security had delayed the flight by about two hours, and passengers, by the time they boarded, were ready to relax. “I had a José Saramago book I was looking forward to reading,” Leisner said. “And then I was going to take some melatonin and have a little nap.”

Shortly after takeoff, Varnier nodded off, leaning his head on Tsikhiseli. A stewardess came over to their row. “The purser wants you to stop that,” she said.

“I opened my eyes and was, like, ‘Stop what?’ ” Varnier recalled the other day.

“The touching and the kissing,” the stewardess said, before walking away.

Tsikhiseli and Varnier were taken aback. “He would rest his head on my shoulder or the other way around. We’d kiss—not kiss kiss, just mwah,” Tsikhiseli recalled, making a smacking sound.

In the row behind them were Leisner and Jackson. “They were like two lovebirds,” said Leisner, who is a classical guitarist. Frobes-Cross, a Columbia grad student who was sitting across the aisle, had overheard the stewardess’s decree, too. “First thing I catch is ‘You have to stop touching each other,’ ” he said. “And I’m, like, Whoa, that’s really weird.”

Leisner and Jackson, who were “astounded,” leaned forward to ask if they’d heard correctly. When Tsikhiseli and Varnier confirmed that they had, the four men summoned a stewardess and asked to speak with the purser.

A little later, the purser appeared at Row 20. She was, by all accounts, calm and professional; to the men’s surprise, she said that she knew nothing about the incident and had not instructed the stewardess to tell Tsikhiseli and Varnier to stop touching each other.

“Which stewardess was it?” she asked.

One of the men pointed out the stewardess—a woman with, as Jackson put it, “Texas hair, like from the nineteen-sixties.” According to Leisner, the purser rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, say no more. I know.”

The purser asked the men to describe what they’d been doing, and she acknowledged that their behavior had not been inappropriate. Tsikhiseli then asked if the stewardess would have made the request if the kissers had been a man and a woman. Suddenly, Leisner said, the purser “became very rigid.” Contradicting what she’d told them before, she stiffly said, “Kissing is inappropriate behavior on an airplane.” She then said that she was busy with the meal service and promised to come back.

Half an hour later, the purser returned, this time saying that some passengers had complained about Tsikhiseli and Varnier’s behavior earlier. The men asked more questions. Who had complained? (She couldn’t say.) Could they have the stewardess’s name, or employee number? (No.) Would the purser arrange for an American Airlines representative to meet them upon landing at J.F.K.? (Not possible.) Finally, the purser said that if they didn’t drop the matter the flight would be diverted. After that, Leisner said, “everyone shut up for a while.”

Maybe an hour later, the purser approached Tsikhiseli and said that the captain wanted to talk to him. Tsikhiseli went up to the galley and gave the captain his business card. The captain told Tsikhiseli that if they didn’t stop arguing with the crew he would indeed divert the plane. “I want you to go back to your seat and behave the rest of the flight, and we’ll see you in New York,” he said. Tsikhiseli returned to coach.

Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American, said that the stewardess’s injunction to the men was reasonable, and would have been made whether the couple was gay or straight. “Our passengers need to recognize that they are in an environment with all ages, backgrounds, creeds, and races. We have an obligation to make as many of them feel as comfortable as possible,” he said. (He added, “Our understanding is that the level of affection was more than a quick peck on the cheek.”) But a customer-service representative named Terri, reached last week on the telephone, offered the opinion that kissing on airplanes is indeed permissible. “Oh, yeah! Sure. I’ve seen couples who are on honeymoons,” she said. “They just don’t want you to go into the bathroom together.”

— Lauren Collins


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