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In the Air, Minor Tiffs Can Escalate Fast

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At a time of heightened security concerns, disgruntled airline employees and frustrated passengers can be a combustible combination in a crowded aircraft, as travelers find themselves subject to lots of rules and little wiggle room to challenge them.

On a United Airlines flight from Zurich to Washington Dulles International Airport on Jan. 2, Bill Pollock asked a flight attendant about a sign telling passengers not to venture beyond the curtain separating economy class from the rest of the plane. Mr. Pollock, a book publisher from Burlingame, Calif., said he wanted to stretch his legs and visit his wife seated on the opposite aisle, using the passageway behind the galleys in the plane's midsection.

(Read more: Best Seats: United Airlines Boeing 757-200)

But when he questioned a flight attendant on the policy and began recording their conversation using his cellphone, the situation quickly escalated: the flight attendant grabbed his phone and nearby federal air marshals intervened.

"Two marshals held me up against the counter, they had my hands behind my back," Mr. Pollock said. "I wasn't violent, I didn't use four-letter words. All I did was ask this guy about the sign on the curtain and they flipped out."

The flight was met by United personnel and security agents, who, Mr. Pollock said, took his statement and then sent him on his way. But the incident left him with lingering questions about his rights — like whether there is a policy restricting economy-class passengers to their own cabin (not just their own bathrooms), whether travelers are prohibited from videotaping flight crew and what recourse passengers have if airline or security personnel overreact.

It turns out, none of these questions has a clear answer.

Les Dorr, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the agency did not have a rule limiting passenger movement on a plane, but federal regulations state, "No person may assault, threaten, intimidate or interfere with a crew member in the performance of the crew member's duties aboard an aircraft."

Rahsaan Johnson, a United spokesman, said flight attendants routinely made an announcement asking customers not to pass through the curtains separating cabins, adding that federal regulations require passengers to "comply with lighted signs, placards and crew member instructions."

Mr. Pollock conceded that he told the flight attendant he planned to ignore the sign, which other travelers had questioned in online travel forums.

On a United flight from Dulles airport to Zurich last January, David Snead said he saw a flight attendant pin a similar sign to the curtain in front of the economy cabin. To him, it appeared "handmade."

"She got in arguments with people who tried to pass through," he said. "She was not a nice flight attendant." (Read more: What Do Flight Attendants Really Think of You?)

He added that he sympathized with airline employees who must enforce a growing number of rules. "Flight attendants have a ridiculously hard job dealing with passengers unwilling to accept every rule the airline comes up with," he said.

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Rules that cause friction between flight attendants and travelers often involve electronic devices and carry-on bags. But as carriers invest more money in amenities for higher-paying customers, stricter divisions between passenger classes contribute to the tension. (Read more: Will iPads Revolutionize In-Flight Entertainment)

Veda Shook, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said she was not aware of a policy limiting where passengers could walk, especially if a cart was blocking an aisle or a family member was seated on the other side of the plane.

"I think it's generally understood that you hang out in the cabin that you're in," she said. "But I've never really encountered a situation where someone couldn't move about the cabin to get from point A to B."

Given the potential consequences of a disruptive event, Ms. Shook said, flight attendants are trained to avoid any escalation of conflict, a "nip it in the bud" approach that may seem aggressive.

"You have to be prepared to shut anything down immediately," she said.

Airlines report to the F.A.A. incidents involving "unruly passengers" who interfere with the duties of a crew member. The agency said there were 101 such incidents in 2012, well below the 140 to 176 reports in each of the previous three years. The statistics do not include security violations, which are handled by the Transportation Security Administration.

David Castelveter, a T.S.A. spokesman, said the agency could not comment on the incident involving Mr. Pollock. But in an e-mail message, Mr. Castelveter explained: "Federal air marshals are trained to protect the safety and integrity of the aircrew, passengers and aircraft. Due to the sensitive nature of their job, T.S.A. cannot discuss specific tactics or training."

The Federal Air Marshal Service operates largely out of public view, but the secrecy surrounding its operations can put travelers in a difficult position when interacting with agents whose role is not always clear.

On a different flight, a passenger who had made several trips to the bathroom was questioned by an air marshal and detained by the police after the plane landed.

"We have reached a point where you check in your civil liberties when you check in your bag," the traveler said, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the situation. "It's a little over the top what's going on."

Customer complaints about the airlines' service and performance have risen. The Department of Transportation received 7,524 complaints about carriers in the United States in the first nine months of 2012, compared with 5,231 in the same period in 2011. Complaints about United topped the rankings, with 3,414 filed in the first three quarters, versus 1,132 for American Airlines, No. 2 on the list.

No federal regulation restricts what passengers can photograph or videotape on a plane, but Mr. Johnson said United published in its in-flight magazine a rule against photographing or recording aircraft equipment and airline personnel.

So where does that leave Mr. Pollock?

He said a United representative told him that their investigation indicated he refused to return to his seat, refused to stop taking pictures and refused to move away from the curtain when asked — all untrue, Mr. Pollock said.

"It's just emblematic of what air travel has become," he said. "If you ask a question on a plane, you're going to be identified as a problem and you're going to get whatever response they choose to take — and there's no recourse."

That feeling of "no recourse" has been heightened in the digital era, as customers are directed to Web sites to submit complaints and find it difficult to get more than a form response.

Jeremy Cooperstock, an engineering professor in Montreal, created the Web site Untied.com to help passengers in that bind. Besides collecting complaints about United — the site received 4,500 last year — Mr. Cooperstock lists contact information for United customer service managers and advises passengers, and airline employees, on their legal options.

United is suing him, seeking an injunction against disclosure of its managers' contact information.

"Passengers are increasingly dissatisfied with the service and treatment they receive," he said. "I feel the need to alert the public to their rights and help employees who have been victimized by their management."

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