121pilot, our resident commercial pilot on Live and Let’s Fly, sent me his thoughts on the controversy involving a Delta captain and a passenger who refused to affirm that she would leave off her obscene hat during the flight.
It’s as simple as this: many airline pilots will stop even attempting to mediate disputes if they are subsequently mocked on social media for being peacemakers. The result: more people will be thrown off flights than should be.
By now the story of the Delta captain who wasn’t wearing his mask when he confronted a passenger with an offensive hat has made the rounds in the travel blog sphere. Some of the coverage on this incident has been less than balanced especially Gary Leff’s poorly-titled piece that implies the passenger was kicked off for not wearing a mask and goes on to essentially label the captain a racist.
I found Matthew’s coverage of the incident to be fair and well-balanced and was initially going to leave it at that. But his piece hit on an interesting note that I thought was worth discussing.
“Bravo, captain…though at this point he probably should have just left the problematic passenger to a customer service agent. Nevertheless, I respect him for trying to solve the situation himself (instead of being a coward, like the captain who threw me off a flight).”
For those who don’t remember Matthew, back in 2013, was kicked off a flight for taking a picture of his seat, even though he complied with every request made by the crew. The captain in Matthew’s case failed in his duty and supported a lying and out-of-control flight attendant.
You WANT Pilots To Get Involved!
Now why do I think this issue is worth talking about? Because, the general reaction in most pilot forums has been that this incident serves as a reminder of why pilots should never get involved in customer service issues. As the argument goes, we have other people who are trained for that, so let them handle it. In the age of cell phones where everyone is recording and videos never show the entirety of an encounter, it is far too easy to be unfairly characterized. Quite a few of my professional colleagues simply will not get involved in customer disputes because of events exactly like this one.
Folks, let me caution you that you don’t want captains refusing to get involved. Because when you have a runaway flight attendant, it is far more likely that the customer service agent called to handle it is only going to care about getting the flight out on time. They aren’t going to ask questions and make sure they are getting a full picture. That takes time and usually these things crop up just before the aircraft door is about to close. When a confrontation with a FA occurs where the customer is actually being reasonable and compliant, your best bet of staying in your seat is to talk to the captain.
As the captain my first and foremost consideration is safety. Is the customer going to follow crew instructions once we get airborne? Or are they going to create problems and force a diversion? If you can convince me that you’re not going to be a problem in-flight then my default position is to let you fly. If I get involved, I’m going to take whatever time I need to make my own decision even if that means taking a delay. I don’t want to kick anyone off the flight but if you’re determined to be a problem, like the the passenger in this incident, then you’re not going to stay on the airplane. But if you’ve truly done nothing wrong and promise to follow flight crew instructions, then I’m your best bet.
Gary referenced a Southwest pilot who gave a woman his own T-shirt so she could fly when gate agents decided her outfit was too revealing. Do you think that would happen with a “not my problem” captain?
The Problem With Blaming The Pilot
Since I’ve mentioned him a couple of times, I think we need to talk about Gary’s article too. First the title: “Delta Captain Kicks Black Women Off a Plane, But He’s The One Not Wearing a Mask”. The title implies several things. First, by telling us the customer was black it implies that race was a factor. Second, the fact the captain wasn’t wearing a mask implies that she was kicked off for not wearing one, which we learn isn’t true at all.
It gets worse quickly. Gary writes:
“Apparently a flight attendant asked the woman to remove her hat and she wouldn’t. And that’s when the captain got involved. He’s objecting to the hat she’s wearing, but the bigger problem seems to me that he isn’t wearing a mask.”
(Emphasis provided is Gary’s)
Uhh, no Gary, the real issue isn’t whether the captain has a mask on. It may have been a simple oversight. There is no indication that he was deliberately disregarding protocol. More likely, he was simply preparing for departure and did not even think of it.
The real issue is that this passenger refused proper requests to remove her hat and when she did finally remove it, refused to say she would leave it off during the flight. Given her behavior to this point, the captain makes an entirely reasonable request that the passenger affirm she won’t put the hat back on during the flight. All she needed to do was say, “Yes” but instead she played games. Frankly, the captain’s biggest mistake was in not walking away the first time the passenger declined to answer his direct question.
Gary’s entire article essentially ignores the bad behavior. He brings up that you can wear an F-12 shirt in a courtroom, implying that Delta should allow it as well. He quotes Delta’s Twitter response, again implying the captain was racist.
Yes, the captain should have been wearing a mask. And yes, he could have handled this better. But to me, that’s not the story here. The story here is that the captain was the passenger’s best hope for remaining onboard the flight.
Bottom Line: Captains Will Refuse To Intervene, Hurting Innocent Travelers
My point in all this is that if you want to see more people being kicked off airplanes who do not deserve it, perspectives (and articles) like Gary’s make it far more likely. Sadly but undeniably, the more incidents like this that happen, where a captain is burned at the stake for trying to give a customer a break instead of just kicking them off the moment they so much as look strangely at a flight attendant, the less likely we as pilots are going to be willing to ever get involved.