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ATW Editor's Blog

Unruly passengers and bomb-threat tweeters should be made to pay


Hands up, I’m not a Twitter fan. It has always seemed to me that something that begins with ‘twit’ should be avoided the way one skirts around bores at cocktail parties.

But even if I’m wrong and Twitter really is a social revolution, this week’s incidents involving Twitter and airlines highlight the dangers of everyone being connected all the time to say anything they like, even if it’s no more than digital graffiti.

First there was the unbelievable-but-true story of US Airways tweeting a highly graphic porn image of a naked woman with a model plane to one of its customers who had tweeted a complaint.  According to this BBC article, US Airways – now part of the new American Airlines – acknowledged the image was attached to its tweet in error, has apologized, and is investigating the mistake. “We apologize for an inappropriate image recently shared as a link in one of our responses,” a US Airways tweeted. No kidding? In this case, the lesson is that airlines – indeed, all companies -- should be as rigorous about their tweet processes as they are about all other public communications. Airlines are increasingly using Twitter as a media for communicating with their customers and for handling complaints. They cannot afford this type of error.

This clearly isn’t the New American’s week. Yesterday, a 14-year-old girl in The Netherlands tweeted to the airline what she thought was a joke - “hello my name’s Ibrahim and I’m from Afghanistan. I’m part of Al Qaida and on June 1st I’m gonna do something really big bye.” She may be a teen, but that’s a sick joke and one that can’t be dismissed in today’s world. Not surprisingly, American responded via Twitter saying that her details would be passed to the FBI. Both tweets have been deleted and the girl’s Twitter account has been suspended.

But what followed is even worse. Suddenly, it has become trendy to tweet bomb threats to American and Southwest Airlines – see this blog by Caitlin Dewey in today’s Washington Post. To her credit, Dewey points out the seriousness of this supposed joke. "We hardly need reiterate the problems with this kind of thing: airlines need to take threats seriously, no matter how silly they seem, which means a lot of airline employees (and presumably, police and security and FBI) are spending a lot of time tracking down nuisance threats, as well,” she writes.

I believe this is part of a broader problem that needs to be addressed. IATA and ICAO have recently moved to clarify and tighten rules for dealing with unruly passenger behavior during flights. IATA says its airlines now handle some 300 incidents a week and the problem is growing. It has proposed protocols that would close legal loopholes in the 1963 Tokyo Convention that governs disruptive behavior on airliners. The move would ensure that air crews can be sure about what action they can take to control a disruptive passenger and that culprits could not walk away scot-free after appalling and abusive episodes during their flights. I will be writing more about this in the May issue of ATW.

To my mind, there should be a similar hard line on Twitters that act like the twits they are and make threats to airlines and airports.

I recently moderated a regulatory panel at the Phoenix SkyHarbor Aviation Symposium. One of the topics  we addressed was that of the US Transportation Department’s Tarmac Delay rule and how that can have unintended consequences of forcing airlines to cancel far more flights than is necessary because they can’t risk stepping over the three-hour delay deadline, after which they face government fines that can be in the millions of dollars.  One of the panelists, an ALPA official, pointed out that someone who has “lasered” airliners at airports can get away with a $10,000 fine, while a commercial airline can be fined around $27,000 per passenger for contravening the Tarmac Delay rule, even when there were circumstances beyond the airline’s control. And not a dollar of that money goes to the passenger.

When it comes to who faces the consequences for bad behavior, we’ve got the rules upside down.

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