News Article - September 01 2006

Baggage-claim fracas ends in an arrest
  Just when you thought you'd heard it all, along comes another bizarre tale about waiting for baggage at Philadelphia International Airport. It started like so many before, with a long delay - this one an hour and a half - in delivering baggage for a US Airways flight from Las Vegas. Somewhere along the way, tempers flared. And flared again. And again. Until there was what one traveler called a "near-riot."

   It began Aug. 23, shortly before 11 p.m., about 90 minutes after Flight 30 had landed. Passengers were still waiting for their bags to arrive in the airport's Terminal B-C complex. Passengers said they tried unsuccessfully to get information about the delay from a US Airways baggage-service office next to the luggage carousels. Robert Ensign, 24, of Hayfork, Calif., was one of the passengers who seemed to grow more frustrated as the minutes dragged on with no luggage in sight. "He was being very abusive and belligerent," US Airways spokesman Philip Gee said of Ensign. "He was physically intimidating the agents." And that is when police were called.

   US Airways has had a rough summer, with passengers complaining frequently about long waits for checked luggage and airline officials struggling to find enough baggage handlers, especially for night shifts. Ensign continued to yell and curse, said US Airways, even after police arrived. He was standing near a baggage carousel with about 200 people. What happened next is unclear, except that Ensign ended up on the carousel with officers on top of him. Ensign's wife and two other passengers say police overreacted. Police disagree, saying the man was hostile, shouting and cursing at officers who responded to a call for help from US Airways employees.

   According to the police report of the incident, five officers tried to calm Ensign down, but he backed away from them and fell backward onto the carousel, officer Raul Malveiro, a police spokesman, said yesterday. As the officers tried to subdue Ensign, several fell on top of him on the carousel, Malveiro said. The officers' report described him as "very hostile, very out of control, shouting at officers," Malveiro said. Audrey Kuhner, a Northeast Philadelphia resident traveling with three others on the flight, said an officer said something to Ensign like, "Hey, kid, come over here," as they approached, and he responded by saying, "I didn't do anything." Ensign may have pulled away and struggled with the officers as they tried to subdue him, but what happened next was unjustified, Kuhner and the other witnesses said.

   "They picked him up and threw him on the belt," Audrey Kuhner said. "They picked him up again... and dragged him about 15 feet and then took him out to the car. He had no shirt on. It had been ripped off." Kuhner and the other witnesses - her daughter, Katie Kuhner, and Angel Young, Ensign's wife - gave similar accounts of the scene. "They were using very excessive force," Young said yesterday. She is a Lancaster native who owns a T-shirt shop with her husband in a mall in Eureka, Calif., near their home. "People were screaming, 'Get off him, he didn't do anything.' "

   About a dozen of the others waiting for bags offered to serve as witnesses and gave her their telephone numbers, Young said. In an e-mail describing the event, Katie Kuhner said the police "almost caused a near-riot because of their behavior. Yes, he was cursing about bags, but so was everyone else, including myself. It just so happens, he said it louder... . It seems to me police should have some kind of conflict-mediation training." Ensign was charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, given a summons and released about 2 a.m. the same night. He was not injured, police said. Young said Ensign received cuts and bruises, but no broken bones as a result of the arrest. Ensign did not want to talk to a reporter about it, she said.

   Malveiro, the police spokesman, said the incident had not been referred to the department's internal affairs unit for further investigation. The airline employees said they did not have a good view of the scene outside the office that led to Ensign's arrest. US Airways officials say they are spending $5 million to buy new baggage-handling equipment and upgrade the Philadelphia facilities, which they said were badly neglected during the company's two trips through Chapter 11 bankruptcy between 2002 and 2005. America West Airlines acquired US Airways last September and began merging the carriers.

   US Airways has received so many complaints about the service here in the first half of the summer that W. Douglas Parker, the chairman and chief executive officer, addressed the situation in response to a question from a reporter July 27, during the company's second-quarter earnings conference call with analysts and reporters. "We're certainly not happy with the performance we've had in Philadelphia over the last six weeks probably," Parker said. "It's certainly not up to our standards." Shortly after Ensign's arrest, bags from Flight 30 arrived on the carousel, including those of the three witnesses. Angel Young did get her and her husband's luggage. But Katie Kuhner said two of the six bags in her group were damaged. "A brand-new suitcase," she said. "What were they doing for two hours?"

Source - Philadelphia Inquirer