FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Yisroel Sternberg and Chana Beck, who are Orthodox Jews, were flying with their three children from New York to Fort Lauderdale. It was supposed to be a fun family vacation, but they claim Spirit Airlines employees' anti-Semitism turned it into a nightmare.
In a civil rights and defamation federal lawsuit filed Thursday in the Southern District of Florida against the airline, a passenger reported hearing a flight attendant using an anti-Semitic insult to refer to Sternberg.
The passenger, who had been sitting near the cabin galley, told The Algemeiner that "it was painful to see" how Spirit Airlines employees "were just out to get them" and "it was disgusting ... how it became personal ... It was anti-Semitism. The guy was full of hatred. You could see it."
Sternberg, 28, and Beck, 25, flew on Spirit Airlines from from Newark Liberty International Airport to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport with their baby and two toddlers ages 2 and 3. As it's customary, the parents had purchased a ticket for the baby's car seat.
"Upon noticing the Sternbergs, however, the Spirit Airlines flight crew immediately began a discriminatory campaign," Fort Lauderdale-based lawyer Yechezkel Rodal, of Rodal Law, wrote in the lawsuit about their experience during a Jan. 8 flight.
The first conflict was over their 6-week-old baby's Doona car seat, which is a Federal Aviation Administration-approved child restraint system. A Spirit Airlines flight crew "irately" said they didn't allow it on board, according to the lawsuit. The seat converts into a stroller.
"My clients simply questioned why their FAA-approved car seat, for which they had purchased a seat, was not permitted on the plane," Rodal said. "The hostility and retribution they faced is still shocking."
The plane's lead flight attendant allegedly said she did not care what anyone else said regarding the car seat because she was not allowing it on her plane. Although a Spirit Airlines complaint resolution official allowed them to keep their car seat, the flight attendant did not allow it.
"Not wanting to make a big fuss, the Sternbergs had little choice but to have the car seat stowed below deck," Rodal wrote in the lawsuit. "No alternative child restraint system was offered to the Sternbergs and, as a result, Chana held their 6-week-old daughter for the duration of the flight."
The alleged mistreatment continued. Sternberg switched seats to help Beck with the toddlers and a flight attendant told him that it wasn't safe, because there weren't enough oxygen masks.
"Despite being shocked by the tone and aggression of [the flight attendant], Yisroel immediately and dutifully got up and moved right across the aisle to his assigned seat," Rodal wrote.
Sternberg took issue with the flight attendant's tone and asked for his full name. They claim the attendant not only refused to disclose it, but got even nastier. He allegedly said he could speak to him however he wanted, ordered him to "shut up" and threatened him with police after landing at FLL.
"To the Sternbergs' shock and horror, they were escorted off the plane, guarded by two Broward Sheriff Deputies, while all the other passengers deplaned and walked right past them, staring and wondering what was going on," Rodal wrote.
Spirit Airlines rescinded return tickets and issued a lifetime ban for the couple. Spirit media relations manager Derek Dombrowski told the Daily Business Review that the airline stands against discrimination and strives to maintain a welcoming environment for all guests.
"We have zero tolerance for discrimination," Dombrowski said.
The lawsuit alleges the actions of Spirit Airlines' employees falsely accusing them of ignoring crew's instructions caused the young family to suffer personal humiliation, loss of capacity for enjoyment of life, mental anguish and embarrassment.
"Even if the Sternbergs were being non compliant and cursing at the flight attendant — they most certainly did not — there was absolutely no reason to call the police and to ban them for life," Rodal wrote. "To this day, the Sternbergs have no idea what they did wrong."
According to the lawsuit, this is why they believe that their identifiable religious clothing is what prompted the crew's alleged mistreatment. Rodal said that with anti-Semitism on the rise and abuse of power rampant, the community needs to be more vigilant than ever.
"Aboard that airplane, the Spirit Airlines flight attendants were in positions of power, given to them by federal law," Rodal said in a statement. "It is where power lies that we must keep an ever watchful eye. Spirit employees abused that power and now must be held accountable."
After the flight, the Zionist Organization of America sent a letter to Spirit Airlines CEO Edward Christie Jan. 14 demanding that the airline issue an apology and a refund.
"Terminate all employees whom a full and fair investigation reveals participated in subjecting the family to antisemitic bigotry and mistreatment," they wrote and also asked the airline to "mandate company-wide anti-bias training for all employees, which includes education and training on antisemitism and other forms of bigotry."