ATW Editor's Blog

The flight & cabin crew dilemma

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A white male with an American accent stands in the aisle of a commercial airliner and delivers an angry, hate-filled, political rant at the rest of the passengers, daring them to reveal themselves as “Hillary bitches”. He gets to stay on the flight.

A young, bearded Muslim American calls his mother as his flight prepares for takeoff to tell her what time he expects to arrive in New York, then chats with his young, bearded Muslim American companion. They get thrown off the flight.

If you’ve seen the news – here’s a link to the New York Times account of the second incident, which occurred Dec. 21 – then you will know that the Muslim Americans were chatting in Arabic, which worried some other passengers, led to some verbal exchanges and then to the airline getting the men and their bags removed from the flight before it departed London Heathrow. London police found no reason to charge the men and they were rebooked on a later flight to New York.

I commented on the other incident, which happened in November in the US, in an earlier blog. That man was allowed to stay on the flight despite activing aggressively and clearly making other passengers very uncomfortable.

As it happens, both flights were operated by Delta Air Lines. After the first incident, Delta issued a clear apology and acknowledgement that the passenger should have been removed. Delta has also banned the passenger from all its flights.

Shortly after the second incident, Delta posted the following statement: “Two customers were removed from this flight and later rebooked after a disturbance in the cabin resulted in more than 20 customers expressing their discomfort. We're conducting a full review to understand what transpired. We are taking allegations of discrimination very seriously; our culture requires treating others with respect.”

Airlines everywhere should examine these incidents and review their procedures and crew training because it’s likely they will see more similar cases.

Should looking and sounding Arabic get you thrown off a flight? Of course not; no more than if you are speaking Spanish, German or Swahili. But airline crews typically have to make decisions swiftly – to avoid a delayed departure -and in full view of a close-up audience that invariably includes at least one videographer who goes straight to YouTube. That’s a lot of pressure. So airlines must ensure crews are trained for a new social environment so they make the right judgement calls on who stays and who gets evicted. Part of that training means knowing how to deal firmly with those passengers -- also customers -- whose protests about other passengers are baseless and potentially discriminatory; it’s about diffusing a situation so everyone feels comfortable.  Most important, crews need to know they will have the full support of their management in the aftermath.  

The industry also seems to be encountering more disruptive passengers who are either intoxicated or just plain angry (there was a Korean Air incident recently and video of that seems to show that the flight crew were unable to restrain the offending passenger without the help of other passengers). Again, training is important. But flight attendants are not bouncers or police officers and they should not be expected to put themselves at risk of bodily harm. With these types of incidents, what is needed is stronger legal and punitive consequences on the ground. A disruptive passenger should face heavy fines and potentially imprisonment. Their names should also go on a list distributed to airlines, which can elect to ban them from future flights.

Karen Walker Karen.walker@penton.com

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