8 MAY 2017
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By the time you read this, there will almost certainly have been at least one further example of the “new” cult of air rage. New in inverted commas because as all who travel regularly on aircraft know, it’s a phenomenon that has been going on for quite a while. It’s quite possible, though unrecorded, that Wilbur had an argument with Orville on the sands at Kitty Hawk, but we digress.
What is new is that passengers now come armed with mobile phones complete with video with which to record the incidents. It is a lesson too late in the learning for United Airlines, American, Delta and others who have been caught up in the latest turmoil but let’s hope the message is sinking in. One, the customer is always right; two, the customer is always right. Three, sometimes he (or she) isn’t and that’s when the training is supposed to come in. And four, tempting though it is, if you are a crew member, don’t lose your temper.
A glance at Google’s air rage news round-up is enough to show few airlines are immune. Among others, British Airways, easyJet and Flybe have had incidents recorded, though the severity of the cases varies widely and many examples are clearly caused by belligerence on the part of passengers rather than incompetence or unprofessional behaviour by the crew. The danger now, with lawyers having become involved, is that every incident is going to be recorded and analysed to death in the fond hope of securing a settlement from airlines who, first, don’t understand public relations and, secondly, misuse it. Cover-up is not an option, nor should it ever have been, but nor is over-egging the pudding to the degree we are beginning to see.
While comment and the number of incidents in the UK have been relatively restrained and UK airlines avoiding fanning the flames by maintaining a discreet silence, things in the litigation-minded US are different, with video and sometimes hysterical comment posted daily on social media. Fox News went so far as to quote a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found air rage incidents are rare “but when they’re recorded on video, the public is quick to defend the passengers – and blame the flight crew”. There is also debate on whether there are more incidents or just more cases of mobile phones recording them.
One flight attendant quoted said the problem is the incident has already escalated when the cameras start recording. What isn’t seen is how it started. “They’re shaming us on the media, without knowing the whole story,” the woman said.
Sara Nelson, international president of the US Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, says almost all the tens of thousands of flights that take off every day are uneventful but “a lot of unresolved issues” are causing the recent incidents.
In comments that apply equally to the UK, she added: “There’s been a major change in the aviation industry. People are packed in closer together. Seats are closer together. Seats are physically smaller. Passengers are getting charged for their bags. They have to go through security, and they feel like their space is being intruded upon.”
But, she added, central to the misunderstandings was the public’s perception that flight attendants were simply servers in the sky. “Flight attendants are certified safety professionals, and the number one reason they’re there – in fact, the reason they’re required to be there – is for the safety, health and security of the passengers on the plane,” Nelson said.
With several airlines forced to merge as business dried up after 9/11, four major carriers now account for 80% of US domestic seats sold, according to the New York Times. Cutbacks have also produced smaller flight crews who find themselves trying to please more passengers burdened with less room and more irritating fees.
It’s all summed up by Heather Healy, a clinical social worker who works with the US flight attendants’ union and who estimated that before 9/11 she would see one in 12 flight attendants. Today, she said, she sees one in seven. “They need to be treated as the first responders they are,” she said. “Those considerations aren’t given to them. If we truly treated them the way they deserved to be treated, there’d be a lot less incidents.”
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I have learned that the letter of apology or explanation sent by United Airlines to non-English-speaking travellers was not translated by professional translators, but was culled from Google Translate. Another United Airlines false economy.