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TinotopiaLog → Why We Love The Airlines, Part CXVII (18 Jan 2004)
Sunday 18 January 2004

Why We Love The Airlines, Part CXVII

On a flight into Tampa:

John McLeod didn’t immediately return his seat to its full upright position as a US Airways jet approached Tampa last month, and he was shocked by the consequences.

The 60-year-old small business owner from Asheville, N.C., said a flight attendant rebuked him and gave him sharp pokes in the shoulder.

After McLeod complained, the crew member reported him as a disruptive passenger and had Tampa International Airport police escort him off the plane.

Police questioned McLeod, who teaches Bible study at his church, and several passengers who backed up his story, then decided the flight attendant’s call was unfounded.

So: the passenger is assaulted by a flight attendant — admittedly, it was a minor assault, but certainly it would have been enough to get a passenger arrested, had the roles been reversed — and the flight attendant makes a charge against the passenger that the police find to be unfounded. What happens?

Several passengers “are advising the same circumstances as the accused,” reads an airport police report. “No further action will be taken.”

Ahh, yes. Assault, making false reports: never mind. As long as it’s been established that a passenger hadn’t, you know, raised his voice or anything. Whew. The airline appears to have the same view of the incident:

“We do not discuss personnel actions or issues involving our customers,” said [US Airways] spokesman David Castelveter. “Though we will not discuss the circumstances of this matter … in no case should a customer interfere with flight attendants in the discharge of their duties.”

So the airline will not discuss the particulars of this case where a member of their staff assaulted and made a false charge against one of the their passengers — one of their customers — but they will use the opportunity to warn passengers against annoying their staff — which the police determined didn’t happen in this case. Gosh. Maybe this attitude is part of the reason why US Airways isn’t profitable.

In my experience, many flight attendants are rude and have this withering disdain for passengers; I’ve never seen a flight attendant assault anyone. But stories like this one are not rare, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of thought to figure out why.

Flight attendants are, in 99% of their duties, flying waiters and waitresses. They give the speech about the oxygen masks, they bring you drinks and peanuts, and then they clear out the larger pieces of trash. In any other job, we would say: this is the job. In the case of the flight attendant, though, they’re told that their job is to ensure the safety of the passengers in an emergency. In truth, this justification is the result of lobbying by the flight attendants’ unions, aimed at making their members more indispensable. It’s worked: commercial aircraft are required by law to carry X flight attendants for every Y seats on the plane. If the pilot shows up but the flight attendants are stuck in traffic, the plane can’t legally take off.

This is all fine; the whole point of the union is to make sure that its members have jobs. But when you take what is essentially a low-skill, low-pay job, require all kinds of training for it — training that has little to do with customer service — and dress it up in all this safety mumbo jumbo, you’re going to have frustrated people working that job. If you then give these frustrated, low-skill, low-pay people the opportunity to abuse their customers and broad powers to have these customers arrested if they don’t sit down and shut up, you’re going to wind up with a certain percentage of petty tyrants in the sky.

Aside from being bad business all around, this kind of thing is dangerous as well. The airlines are losing money as fast as ever, but this kind of thing seems to be more tolerated today than it has been in the past, because of The Need To Fight Terrorism.

But tell me: wouldn’t Fighting Terrorism be easier if you could be reasonably sure if a passenger who the flight attendants had determined to be a risk was, you know, actually a risk and not just someone who had bruised the flight attendant’s fragile ego? Does not the flight attendants’ lofty position as the Thin Beige Line protecting us from those who would hijack planes demand at least a little more professionalism from the flight attendants and their employers?

Posted by tino at 12:09 18.01.04
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