Details have emerged of the latest incident of a passenger behaving very badly – in this case, a flight attendant was left bleeding when a passenger bit her arm after charging towards the cockpit. And all while the plane was coming into land. It was undoubtedly a serious incident yet questions are being asked about whether the flight attendants reacted appropriately to this unfolding drama.
On 31st January, American Airlines flight 1033 was preparing to land at Charlotte Douglas Airport in North Carolina after a two-hour flight from Dallas Fort Worth, Texas. The flight attendants had prepared the cabin for landing and were themselves seated in their jumpseats when a passenger sat in the very back row suddenly got up and charged towards the front of the plane.
According to the criminal complaint filed by the FBI, the flight attendants shouted at Charlene Sarieann Harriott to sit back down but she ignored their demands and continued to run towards the cockpit. At the time the plane was on final approach, just 200ft above the ground when the flight attendants took the drastic decision to apprehend Harriott.
Just as the wheels touched the tarmac, the flight attendants managed to get hold of Harriott. They told investigators they decided to leave their jumpseats because they were “concerned for both airplane and passenger safety.”
Duct tape and zip ties used to restrain unruly passenger
At this point, it’s alleged Harriott lashed out at the flight attendants – becoming “aggressive and physically violent towards the flight crew.” As the crew struggled to restrain Harriott in the First Class cabin using duct tape and zip ties, Harriott bit one on the forearm, another was hit on the arm and a third crew member was kicked in the leg and abdomen.
Luckily, the flight attendants managed to restrain the 5’4″ 170 pound Harriott and she was promptly arrested by law enforcement at Charlotte Douglas Airport. The three injured crew members had to be treated at an onsite airport medical facility for AA staff.
Could flight attendants have handled incident better?
Understandably, Harriott has been charged with the federal crime of interfering with a flight crew member and is currently being held in custody until her next court appearance. But while, if proven, Harriott is solely to blame, the question still remains – did the flight attendants make some bad decisions in this case?
Of course, it’s easy to pass judgement and make recommendations with perfect 20/20 hindsight, but this incident raises a number of concerns. First and foremost – why did the flight attendants put themselves at such risk during a critical phase of flight? Could they have waited? Perhaps observed and reported what was going on to crew sat at the front of the plane?
And what good would the flight attendants have been to anyone if they were injured during the landing? After all, the reason for having everyone sat down and buckled in is to minimise the risk of injury. Even more worrying is the question of what would have happened if the plane hadn’t landed safely – with the flight crew nowhere near the exits to direct an evacuation.
One also has to wonder how much risk Harriott posed to the safety of the airplane. Since 9/11, we know cockpits are protected by locked and reinforced doors – clearly, Harriott didn’t have the tools to force entry.
The role of Crew Resource Management
These are all questions to consider but that’s not to say there is a right or wrong answer. The flight attendants would have been forced to make a split second decision yet other recent incidents raise concerns about AA’s training in Crew Resource Management (CRM).
Take the October 28, 2016, case of American Airlines flight 383 from Chicago to Miami which was operated by a Boeing 767 and carrying 170 passengers and crew. As the jet was hurtling down the runway for takeoff, the engine on the right side of the airplane suffered an uncontained failure and subsequent fire.
Luckily, the flight crew managed to abort the takeoff but the resulting evacuation left a lot to be desired. Noticing a large fire outside the aircraft, flight attendants took it upon themselves to self-initiate an evacuation without waiting for an order from the commander.
In the circumstances, the NTSB says that was probably the right decision, as the flight crew weren’t aware of how serious the fire was (in part because of a checklist that didn’t differentiate between an engine in-flight or on the ground). The problem is, however, none of the crew used either the plane’s interphone system or even the evacuation alarm to alert the commander they were about to evacuate.
Flight attendants self-initiated an evacuation
As a result, the one working engine was still running when a flight attendant ordered passengers to evacuate – one passenger was seriously injured from jet blast before the flight crew could shut the engine down. According to the NTSB, only two out of the seven flight attendants attempted to communicate with the flight crew using the interphone system – but even then, they couldn’t remember how to use it.
Another flight attendant attempted to alert passengers to the evacuation using the public address function of the interphone – but again forgot how to use it correctly. The video below shows the confusion onboard as the evacuation unfolded…
Nonetheless, everyone was evacuated from the plane quickly and the NTSB points out that “flight attendants made a good decision to begin the evacuation given the fire on the right side of the airplane and the smoke in the cabin.”
Training in communication should be improved
Unfortunately, they also concluded that once the evacuation was complete the flight attendants “did not coordinate in an optimal manner” with the flight crew. But this isn’t about pointing the finger of blame at flight attendants.
In fact, the NTSB has launched a scathing attack on the FAA, saying they must “improve guidance and training on communication and coordination between flight and cabin crews during emergency situations, including evacuations.”
That, of course, is the whole point of Crew Resource Management – improving communication and reducing “human factor” mistakes. American Airlines should be seriously considering if their flight attendant training is currently up to scratch. No one knows how they might react in the face of an emergency but the right training can go a long way to help airline staff cope appropriately.
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.