Another week and yet another example of truly horrendous customer service onboard an American passenger jet. An incident, like the United Airlines ‘dragging‘ episode, that should never have happened – and was entirely avoidable. What on earth is going wrong?
This time it was an American Airlines flight where the drama unfolded. On Friday, AA flight 591 was due to depart from San Francisco for Dallas, Texas. Facebook user, Surain Adyanthaya posted an almost three-minute clip of the scene which he described in an accompanying post:
“OMG! AA Flight attendant violently took a stroller from a lady with her baby on my flight, hitting her and just missing the baby. Then he tried to fight a passenger who stood up for her.”
The allegations centre around a single male Flight Attendant – he’s alleged to have violently taken a stroller from a female passenger. In the process, the stroller hit her and narrowly missed the small child that she was holding.
She was left distraught, hysterically crying as the Captain and other Cabin Crew looked on. It was too much for one male passenger to witness as he started to remonstrate with the crew about their behaviour. That’s when he spots the male Flight Attendant and shouts “You do that to me and I’ll knock you flat,”
The ensuing confrontation is an uncomfortable scene to watch. As the Flight Attendant angrily points his finger at the passenger, the Captain and other crew try, somewhat lazily, attempt to calm the two men.
Amerian Airlines Responds by Suspending Flight Attendant
American Airlines have been quick to react. In a statement released the same day, the airline confirmed the Flight Attendant at the centre of the incident had been suspended pending a full investigation:
“The actions of our team member captured here do not appear to reflect patience or empathy, two values necessary for customer care. In short, we are disappointed by these actions. The American team member has been removed from duty while we immediately investigate this incident.”
Perhaps not wanting to make the same mistake as United CEO, Oscar Munoz, AA immediately apologised to the female passenger and everyone else on that flight: “We are deeply sorry for the pain we have caused this passenger and her family and to any other customers affected by the incident.” The spokesperson said that the passenger had been upgraded to First Class for the remainder of her international journey.
Of note – the statement was released on a section of the American Airlines website called ‘Crisis Alert’.
What Happened Before the Video Started?
We could make all manner of assumptions about what happened prior to the video starting. American Airlines has started a full investigation but the outcome may take some time to be released.
But let’s say the female passenger was attempting to take a stroller onboard the aircraft. If this was the case, we could kind of understand why the Flight Attendant wanted to take it off her. After all, strollers are banned from the passenger cabin for safety reasons.
Now let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the female passenger refused to relinquish the stroller to the care of the airline. Would that then make it acceptable for the Flight Attendant to snatch it from her (for safety)? – Overwhelmingly, No!
Comply with Crew Member Instructions
If you’ve been on an American Airlines flight recently, you’ll no doubt have heard this line: “U.S. law requires all (passengers) to comply with lighted and posted signs and crew member instructions.”
But there’s a lot of confusion about this law and what Flight Attendants can and can’t do. First things first, the ‘instruction’ has to be lawful. Somehow, U.S. airlines have found themselves in a situation where Flight Attendants think that whatever they say, goes. The focus has somehow shifted from customer care to total compliance and dominance. Travellers complain of Flight Attendant’s on ‘power trips’.
The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) does not grant FA’s the power to manhandle customers when there is no imminent threat or danger to the aircraft, passengers or crew. We can’t think of any situation where it would be necessary or proportionate to forcibly remove a stroller from a passenger.
Flight Attendant “Threatened with violence”
Bob Ross, the President of AA Flight Attendants union, APFA has released a statement about the incident. He raises a good point, in defence of the male FA:
“…it appears another passenger may have threatened a Flight Attendant with violence, which is a violation of federal law and no small matter. Air rage has become a serious issue on our flights.”
— David Koenig (@airlinewriter) April 22, 2017
Now, let’s just make it perfectly clear that the actions of the male passenger were unlawful. That’s taken care of by Section 91.11 of the CFR: “No person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.”
The Flight Attendant’s reaction to the threat was a natural human response – fight or flight. But was it acceptable for a highly trained member of Cabin Crew, qualified to ensure the safety of those onboard, to become so emotionally charged?
IATA Guidance on Unruly Passengers
So how should the Flight Attendant have reacted? The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has published rafts of information on this subject. Their research estimates that between 2007 and 2015, over 49,084 unruly passenger incidents were reported on aircraft.
We don’t know the precise AA policy for dealing with disruptive passengers but they’re likely to follow the IATA guidelines (and be broadly similar to comparable airlines). IATA classes “profane language”, “unacceptable behaviour towards a crew member” and “challenging authority” as a ‘Minor’ Level 1 offence.
More information can be found in the IATA manual: ‘Guidance on Unruly Passenger Prevention and Management’. Warning: PDF link.
The FA should have done everything in his power to de-escalate the situation, creating distance between him and the passenger. He could have issued simple, clear and lawful instructions and immediately sought help from his colleagues and the Captain. Wading into the situation is not on the list of appropriate actions.
How This Could of Been Avoided
So why did this Flight Attendant think it his responsibility to grab a stroller from one passenger and then start arguing with another? This whole sorry scenario could have been avoided if simple customer service principles had been adhered to.
If (and I stress if) the female passenger refused to hand over her stroller the FA should have recognised this as a situation that required mediation and negotiation. Should that have failed, all he needed to do was escalate the situation to a senior manager.
It sounds all too simple – but it really was that easily avoided. Hiding behind federal law is not an acceptable excuse for what happened in this sad incident.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.