(The Catalyst) –– Something aboard a Frontier Airlines flight across the Rocky Mountain West caught the attention of federal investigators last week. Perhaps it was the passengers banging on the ceiling, walls and floor of the cabin, or maybe how most of the passengers were out of their seats, jumping up and down.
The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating a group of Colorado College students and a Frontier flight crew for a video that was shot in the air during Flight 157 of a Airbus A320 on Feb. 15, an airline spokesperson and federal officials confirmed this week.
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The students, who were traveling from Colorado Springs to San Diego on the way to an ultimate frisbee tournament, filmed a version of the “Harlem Shake,” a YouTube meme that has gone viral in the past few months. While no charges or sanctions have been filed against the airline or the students, the FAA is continuing their investigation into the flight and working to uncover if any regulations were violated.
“They are still looking into it, it’s still open,” Tony Molinero, a spokesman for the FAA said this week. “…I don’t know where the [investigators] were told about it, but when they saw the video they just decided to look into it because it is better to be safe than sorry.”
In the video, as is typical with the Harlem Shake, one student starts dancing in the center aisle near the front of the aircraft. After about 15 seconds of music, everyone on board starts dancing in what one passenger called “a riot on a plane.”
They hoped to put a novel twist on a fading fad and ended up striking gold and creating an apparent stir in the process. The video now has nearly a half-million views on YouTube, and at least one television station from the Denver area and the Associated Press have contacted the team for comment.
“Obviously I hope that this whole situation is solved with the FAA…,” said Matt Zelin, sophomore who filmed the dance and who is a member of CC’s frisbee team. “I don’t see there being any reason why this should cause any trouble. We asked the staff and they said it was safe.”
Aviation experts agree.
Nothing that happened on Flight 157 could have jeopardized the aircraft or the crew, according to a aviation expert Steve Cowell, a consultant with SRC Aviation, a University of California Flight Safety Program graduate, and former pilot with 28 years experience from Denver, said.
“The FAA is charged with the serious matter of overseeing inflight safety,” Cowell said. “Although [the FAA] believe they have an obligation to investigate this inflight and somewhat spontaneous fun event, there is nothing from my observations and knowledge that would suggest a violation of an FAA regulation or that safety of the aircraft, crew or passengers were in jeopardy, as long as a member of the crew made the appropriate announcements after turning off the seatbelt sign.”
Al Yurman, a former investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board and now a consultant with AYA Aviation, also doesn’t see anything wrong with what went on.
“As long as the seatbelt sign wasn’t on they are free to move around,” Yurman said from his home in New Jersey. “It’s just like a boat – if you walk to one side it will tip a bit.”
In the video, the entire fuselage does appear to be moving. But despite claims by aviation experts that erratic movement in flight cannot disrupt controls or stability, investigators saw something in that short video that made them suspicious.
Molinaro couldn’t say specifically what investigators saw in the video that made them want to look into the flight, only that they would be doing so.
“We will talk to the crew and things like that,” Molinaro said. “The key issue was whether or not the seatbelt sign was on.”
Frontier Airlines declined to comment in-depth as it their policy to “not comment on things that are under FAA investigation.”
“All safety measures were followed and the seat belt sign was off,” said Kate O’Malley, a spokeswoman for Frontier.
The students had decided long before getting to the airport that they wanted to try and make one of the best Harlem Shake videos ever.
“We had come up with the idea, just a few of us just talking, a couple days before we got on the plane,” Zelin said. “When we got to the airport we were kind of ready and had brought costumes and stuff.”
Zelin and his teammates wondered whether the crew would allow them to complete and film the dance on-board. Having written a mini speech on a notepad, Zelin spoke to one of the flight attendants and briefed her on the topic
“I told her how there was this popular YouTube thing called the Harlem Shake,” he said, “and her face kind of lit up. She said Frontier Airlines had already done one like that and that flight attendants had as well.
She liked the idea of us doing it on the plane and that it was a real possibility. She just told me ‘to wait until the seatbelt sign was off and then go for it.”
So, somewhere over the Grand Canyon in Arizona, he went for it. The flight attendant handed over the public address system, showed Zelin how to use it and told him that the “floor is yours.”
“The music didn’t work and nobody had the song downloaded and it was actually just people dancing around on an airplane with no music playing whatsoever,” Zelin said. “I was concerned that it would actually create turbulence and a problem for the pilots. I was initially saying we should do it on the ground and the crew were the ones that said it should be done in the air.”
Junior Conor Crowley, who uploaded the video to his YouTube account, was also worried about how all the commotion would affect the structure of the aircraft.
“I think one of the things that went through my head when we were on the plane was, ‘I can’t believe they are going to let us do this,’” Crowley said.
He was one of the passengers that later received a phone call and subsequent voicemail from an FAA investigator. The two traded calls for a day before the agent stopped contacting him.
Voicemails and calls to that investigator, who works for the Flight Standards officer in the Great Lakes District, were not returned.
“I’m not going to say that I wasn’t stunned because I got a call from a federal agent, which doesn’t happen on a general basis,” Crowley said. “But I would be lying if I said it wasn’t something that had crossed my mind.”
Aviation expert Steve Cowell, who also works with unmanned aerial drones, says that no sanctions should be taken against Frontier Airlines or the passengers because they didn’t do anything wrong.
“Once the pilots have determined that flight conditions warrant, the seatbelt sign can be turned off,” Cowell said. “After doing so, it’s an FAA requirement that passengers are cautioned that seat belts should be worn in case of unexpected turbulence. That said, there are no existing FAA regulations that prohibit a flight attendant crew member passenger from allowing the use of the public address system. One air carrier has allowed the use of the public address system for positive, fun messages such as marriage proposals.”
Al Yurman agrees, except for he sees the use of the public address system as possibly problematic.
“It is supposed to be strictly for crew use or emergency use,” he said.
Some passengers said they noticed the movement on the plane did cause what felt like “light turbulence.”
“I was in the moment so I didn’t notice any turbulence or anything of the sort,” Zelin said. “I offered to talk to the pilots when I talked to the flight attendants, so I am assuming that the flight attendants had briefed them. I never talked to them.”
The FAA says the investigation “may take another week or so,” but until then Frontier and the CC students on the plane that day must wait for the findings.
“We always knew it was a novel idea and that we were going to be some of the first people to do the Harlem Shake on a plane,” Crowley said. “But when we actually made the video we realized how crazy it looked that everyone was doing it. That’s a lot of people.”