American Airlines CEO Doug Parker took to Instagram yesterday to condemn the brutal attack against a flight attendant earlier this week onboard a flight to Southern California. While the threat of prosecution and flight bans are important, it seems to me something more fundamental needs to change.
De-Escalation: How American Airlines Can Reduce Bad Behavior Onboard
New details have emerged concerning Wednesday’s incident onboard AA976 from New York (JFK) to Orange County (SNA). Initial reports that the skirmish was over a mask appear to be false. Instead, a flight attendant bumped a passenger with a beverage cart, apologized, but the passenger still responded by walking back to the rear galley later in the flight and striking the flight attendant twice.
In a video posted to Instagram, Parker condemns the poor behavior and calls for robust prosecution:
View this post on Instagram
And Parker is correct: the passenger should be banned for life from American Airlines and face federal prosecution for what occurred onboard.
But that does not get to the heart of why so many incidents occur on American Airlines.
Sometimes, I’m not sure there is anything that can be done differently, like the issue on Wednesday. If the passenger just came back and decked the flight attendant, how can you really prepare for that? Throughout the pandemic, though, we’ve covered far more incidents on American Airlines than other carriers.
View From The Wing wonders whether poor behavior is due to lower fares and American’s Miami hub. It’s true that $29 fares attract a different clientele…but we’ve also seen poor behavior from passengers in business class and I’m not convinced that American Airlines is simply attracting bad people and United and Delta are not.
Maybe the lack of legroom, in-flight-entertainment, and alcohol sales come into play…it’s true that American Airlines squeezes customers in and does not give them viable options to pass the time onboard (streaming entertainment without power plugs is quite limiting).
But I’m increasingly convinced it is simply the way American Airlines flight attendants handle conflict onboard. From all that I’ve seen, confrontation seems to be prioritized over de-escalation.
Let me be clear: this is not blaming the flight attendants. They are simply following orders handed down from management. And management is also not fully to blame: in terms of masks, they are simply following a federal mandate.
But let’s juxtapose United and American. I’ve seen it myself and heard from many: if you refuse to wear a mask on United Airlines, you may be scolded a few times, but will be ultmialtey left alone. That’s by design. Protocol calls for a flight attendant to write up the incident and that passenger will face a flight ban on United, but you won’t see a United flight attendant screaming in the face of passengers to put their masks on.
There’s advantages and disadvantages to that approach. The bad news is that encourages passengers to flout the rules because there will be no immediate consequences and none at all if a flight attendant doesn’t write up a report.
But the advantages are clear: the people who tend to act up onboard are often unstable (sometimes drunk with alcohol, sometimes drunk with delusion). Seeking to de-escalate, even if it means they are temporarily left to continue breaking rules, seems to me like a far wiser approach to protect flight attendants.
It seems to me that American Airlines encounter so many bad actors onboard at least in part because flight attendants want to enforce the rules and do so more aggressively than on Delta or United. While flight attendants cannot be faulted for that, I think the wiser approach as the pandemic winds down is to simply note the poor behavior, ban the passenger, and avoid the sort of confrontation that has led to repeated physical and verbal attacks against flight attendants.