Impulse Control Anyone?

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You’ve probably heard the term “silo’d” as management consultant-speak for an organization that operates with multiple independent entities that don’t talk to each other. At AVweb, we don’t quite fit that definition but we have a certain intentional insularity. Thus, over the weekend, when I saw early Saturday morning the story of yet another airline cabin dustup—this time American Airlines, complete with video—I thought, hmm, what’s Russ gonna do with this? There was second incident in a terminal involving a commuting pilot.

I got my answer in an email two hours later: “Despite the high profile of these I’m going to skip them. Nothing to do with flying, really. Let me know if you disagree and I’ll follow up in the morning.” To me, that was the right news judgment and I’d have made the same decision. So why did we run the United story, but not the American story? It’s one of the ineffables in the news business that’s hard to explain. But one reason was that the United story was completely over–the-top abusive treatment of a passenger on a scheduled airline. It may have been a first. We cover the airlines, so it made sense to cover the story. And it had video. So did the American incident, but in the end, it was just a spat of the sort that happens frequently, I’m guessing. It just happened to be caught on video, but it was nothing but a version of road rage that, at least, happily ended in first-class seats for two passengers. American learned the lesson from United and got right ahead of the PR loop. Kudos.

But there is a point to be made here and I’m taking the time and pixels to make it. You can see the video here. In my view, it doesn’t matter who was right or wrong, how the incident started or that it’s a federal rap to threaten a uniformed crew member. It’s far more elemental than that. It has to do with how we, as members of a civilized society, should treat each other in public settings, or anywhere. If the two guys involved in this incident can view that video without being properly appalled, they both ought to stay off airplanes for a while, if not permanently. Maybe both were having a bad day, but given contemporary security considerations when flying and the overarching stress of the process itself, you can be forgiven for being impatient but you surely better be able to summon some impulse control.

Some years ago, when I was doing business reporting, someone explained the process of negotiating not as a zero-sum game, but as a question: What do you want to happen and how do you get there? This applies directly to a cabin confrontation. Clearly, no one wants a physical beat down nor a loud verbal altercation. With that in mind, threatening to flatten a flight attendant or a return provocation to “bring it on” is not helpful. It’s just two guys preening their testosterone. The better option is to skip right past the threat and find the conciliatory gesture or words that immediately defuse the situation. That’s a lesson we should all take from that video.

But there’s another point to make. I had actually written a blog about this a month ago, but never published it. I fly enough to have gained some sense of what flight attendants have to put up with. I think the job is harder and more stressful than ever and that airlines expect more for less from these trained professionals. Remember, they aren’t there to serve drinks, but to maximize cabin safety and, if necessary, drag passengers out of a wrecked airplane.

On a Southwest flight home, I saw two things that just astonished me. Southwest is famous for its quick turns and that depends on passengers getting to their seats efficiently. In the midst of boarding—early in boarding—an aisle passenger three rows ahead of me got up, grabbed his bag from the overhead and placed it across the seat armrest while he rooted around for something, clogging up the aisle for what was more than 30 seconds but maybe less than three minutes. I could see the flight attendant biting her lip and not saying anything. Well, next time, I will. “Excuse me sir, a suggestion…”

An hour later, after drinks had been served, an aisle passenger in the row ahead of me decided he needed more room for his magazine on the tray table, so he placed his half-filled drink on the floor under his seat where it took, oh, about 10 seconds for the passenger behind him to kick it over. Well, guess who has to clean that up? That will explain, perhaps, why flight attendants can get testy. And why I might get a little testy myself, since I have to occupy the same cabin that guys like this mess for lack of common sense and courtesy. So next time, I’ll have a polite suggestion for that situation, too.

I’m usually more succinct than this, but that’s 841 words to say: Don’t be a butthole. I’ll try to do the same.

Comments (38)

It's always funny when people try to use the language of logic and rationality to explain what people should do when they're pretty clearly drunk on emotion. The FA certainly was in the emotional state, and the passenger allowed himself to get swept up into it. They weren't negotiating toward an end, they're just emoting. Viewed through that lens, it seems apparent that what people in this world need to learn is how to recognize their own emotional state and respond in an appropriate manner. In nearly every case, that means doing nothing about the situation until you've calmed down and your mind has returned to the thinking state is the best option.

Posted by: Brad Koehn | April 25, 2017 12:20 PM    Report this comment

The video provides excellent evidence that the FA abused his authority and that he appeared to use his federal protection to intimidate and "control". American Airlines responded well. The protective male passenger reacted, confronted and forced a fix. We are all better for it. Kudos to the male passenger.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 25, 2017 4:20 PM    Report this comment

Being a respectful member in a civilized society on an aircraft means that you stay seated with the seat belt on and stay quite and look forward. If being that ideal passenger is not enough to let you complete your flight on an airline in peace then the "problem" is not with the passengers. Re-think it Paul.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 25, 2017 4:47 PM    Report this comment

In my career, I have flown over 1.5 million miles on Continental/United, as well as plenty on the other named carriers. Over the years I have seen a steady decline in the manners of the passengers as well as a distinct decline in civility of the flight attendants. Part of this is due to the ever increasing crowding of the planes coupled with a decline in the level of service provided. But, there is plenty of blame to go around. Cheaper air fares have reduced airline travel to a commodity, like shopping at big box stores. Crowding and long lines are just part of the "experience". Unfortunately, too many travelers now feel that the flight attendants are there at their beck and call, and treat them accordingly. On the other side, the flight attendants have become the front line troops in enforcing baggage size limits, getting the plane loaded and ready to go on time, and dealing with drunk or obnoxious passengers who threaten to make a scene. All the while, everyone stands ready to film the event on their cell phones to be posted on Facebook or YouTube at the first opportunity.

The bad news is that I don't see things getting better on either side of the argument. We all need to take a deep breath, treat each other with common courtesy and behave. In the meantime, I now fly myself whenever possible. Much more pleasant.

Posted by: John McNamee | April 25, 2017 5:37 PM    Report this comment

No rethink from me. The pax didn't force a fix, he escalated what was a situation that was slowly calming. He made it worse. Physical violence or the threat of it is justified if anyone is in physical danger. He was not in danger nor was the upset mother, from what we can tell in the video.

If he felt the need to intercede in the mother's behalf, he should have done so cautiously, without the threat. He may be your knight in shining armor, but he's not mine.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 25, 2017 6:22 PM    Report this comment

Who was the coolest customer there? The toddler. Observing, relaxed, patient, not judging, not angry, simply pacified and waiting for the adults to become like him.

Posted by: Dave Miller | April 25, 2017 7:10 PM    Report this comment

The PIC was not. The female FA was more pacifying. The male FA was a bully. The male pax assist was appropriate at that moment. The sequence of events terminated in a win for passenger protection. This episode has legs and will improve the culture.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 25, 2017 7:26 PM    Report this comment

Acta est fabula plaudite.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 25, 2017 8:25 PM    Report this comment

Simple solution - just follow the rules set out by the airline and you will be just fine. If you do that, there be no need for this kind of idiotic high drama. But people these days think the rules are OK, just as long as they're not personally inconvenienced. Oh my no, we can't have that. This "ME" attitude really has become a poison in our society. Where will it end?

Dave has it exactly correct - the toddler was by far the most mature person involved.

Posted by: Ken Keen | April 25, 2017 9:53 PM    Report this comment

As I explained to a colleague the average IQ is 100. That means half of all people have an IQ less than 100. Expecting everyone in a group of 150 or so to act rationally is irrational. This is the world we live in. The pros accept the responsibility to deal with it.

Posted by: Dennis Wolf | April 26, 2017 4:00 AM    Report this comment

I'm with Mark F and Ken K ... follow the rules, comply with instructions (whether you like it or not, whether you are inconvenienced or not), try to be considerate of your neighbors and crew and mind your own business unless someone is about to die. Try to remember that we're now living in a post 9/11 world where everyone is cocked to the PO'ed position and the slightest infraction will bring unwanted scrutiny upon your paradigm.

And, I think you may have 'hit' on a solution to the problem. If you -- as a passenger -- cause a serious ruckus on an airliner, not only will you be asked to leave the aircraft but your name will be added to a TSA temporary no fly roster for -- say -- six months. No one time 'get out of jail' card. Do it again and you get a year. Do it a third time and you're now driving to your destination permanently. Only fear of drastic consequences is going to back down some of the people in the "it's all about me" and "I have a video camera in my pocket" society we now live in. Think of how courteous everyone would likely get ... fast.

Had the good Dr Dao practiced this MO, he'd still be anonymous. What gave him the right to refuse an instruction from uniformed crew members who were -- at first -- trying to courteously negotiate with him? Once it became necessary to summon security, HE became complicit in what occurred. Once he TOLD them they'd have to drag him off the airplane, he defined the direction of the interpersonal transaction! I don't disagree that what ultimately happened to him was drastic but what are the alternatives. What if every passenger on an airliner wanted everything their way or refused to follow instructions. I think that's called anarchy?

Many years ago when I taught A&P classes at a local JC, during the first hour of class I explained why it was necessary to learn discipline as a mechanic ... to develop SELF-discipline when no one was looking. That pretty much covers a lot of situations in life. In that respect, I agree with the title of this blog.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 26, 2017 5:36 AM    Report this comment

My observation is that flight crews have become more aggressive and do not interfere when co-workers cross the line and become outright bullies.
I am old enough and have seen enough to say the same thing happens in all uniformed environments (police, army, hospitals) where there are weak leaders / officers.
In commercial airlines the ranking officer is now locked away behind a steel door in the front of the aircraft -- and the troops feel they can do what they like.
Cabin crew seniority seems entirely based on length of service and minimal administrative ability, not on leadership ability. It makes for a very unpleasant atmosphere, and sooner or later, mutiny.

Posted by: John Patson | April 26, 2017 5:38 AM    Report this comment

Ever since dueling was banned, civility has gone to hell.

Posted by: Richard Montague | April 26, 2017 7:25 AM    Report this comment

Paul, you touched on a basic operating principle that unfortunately took me about 40 some years to figure out; i.e. "What do you want to happen and how do you get there?"

I call it outcome-based decision making. Whatever you do (or whatever you say) MUST contribute towards that eventual outcome that you are seeking, otherwise you are just wasting precious time and resources. Many people will rise to a challenge to their manhood, etc. and think they are getting the "best" of their opponent, but if you truly are seeking a certain outcome this rarely has any benefit; and sometimes it is done only to draw the gullible into a trap. ONLY do things that matter and otherwise shut up; if your pride gets in the way of this, then you are likely the problem my friend.

Posted by: A Richie | April 26, 2017 9:13 AM    Report this comment

I no longer fly airlines unless there's no other choice. But when I do I consciously and deliberately get my SENSE OF HUMOR out and installed right up front. That not only keeps me from getting riled, it also helps me have patience, which is a must.

Posted by: Bob Key | April 26, 2017 9:31 AM    Report this comment

It's bad business, unaffordable, unpleasant and dangerous to ignore the problem. The spotlight is on it. The recent events demand a better understanding and relationship between company, crew and passengers. Things will improve.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 26, 2017 9:42 AM    Report this comment

Rafael. The way I see it, the male passenger who got up to protect the virtue of the woman was way out of line and only escalated the situation.

Thankfully there weren't 10 other male passengers of whom 5 decided they needed to protect the flight attendants from the male passenger and 5 decided they needed to protect the male passenger from the flight attendant and the 5 male passengers who were protecting the flight attendant.

Just imagine where that might have gone.

Posted by: STEPHEN EGOLF | April 26, 2017 11:04 AM    Report this comment

Paul, What we don't see nor do we know what an earlier video would show and/or the earlier confrontation that escalated and caused this problem. We have some later verbalization about the incident but are missing what started this. I'm surprised more passengers did not step in when the women was surely being harassed. I'm sorry I disagree with your take on this incident. I know that I would step in if I felt someone is being bullied, and it appear quite evident by the actions of the FA little big-man syndrome I saw. I would step in to stop this type of treatment for anyone whether it was in an airplane, (I am a pilot-flew charters), or in a Walmart parking lot, etc. This woman with the two children was definitely distraught and it didn't appear to be because of unruly children!
Seems like a plane load of lemmings just shutting themselves in their cocoons. They would only look away, because something bad is not happening to them. That's a major problem with our society. But I digress!

Posted by: Stan Fillips | April 26, 2017 11:33 AM    Report this comment

After spending the time to view the video, I still didn't know squat about the incident. Following up by researching some supposedly eyewitness comments it appears the initial problem was that the woman wanted to bring a stroller on board (to her seat? to put in the overhead?) and became abusively non-compliant when told she could not. The male flight attendant then lost his cool and "harassed" the woman, who went into the hysterics documented in the video.

There has been considerable research into the behavior of lab rats who are intentionally confined into overcrowded conditions so it isn't like we shouldn't expect more & more of this sort of thing. Just wait until Airbus puts their newly patented "slave ship" reclined vertical style passenger compaction scheme into use!

Posted by: John Wilson | April 26, 2017 1:35 PM    Report this comment

"I know that I would step in if I felt someone is being bullied, and it appear quite evident by the actions of the FA little big-man syndrome I saw."

So might I. But I would choose my words and actions carefully to avoid inflaming an already tense situation. And that's the point perhaps I didn't make very clearly. I wouldn't open negotiations by offering to flatten the FA, which is what the male passenger did. That just doesn't help and if it leads to violent confrontation, it helps even less.

That's why I used the term impulse control. If you're going to do this, you better be able to control yours.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 26, 2017 8:46 PM    Report this comment

I agree, kudos to American Airlines. Impulse Control or Fast Break? You decide Paul.

"The airline issued the following statement regarding the incident:

We have seen the video and have already started an investigation to obtain the facts. What we see on this video does not reflect our values or how we care for our customers. We are deeply sorry for the pain we have caused this passenger and her family and to any other customers affected by the incident. We are making sure all of her family's needs are being met while she is in our care. After electing to take another flight, we are taking special care of her and her family and upgrading them to first class for the remainder of their international trip."

The actions of our team member captured here do not appear to reflect patience or empathy, two values necessary for customer care. In short, we are disappointed by these actions. The American team member has been removed from duty while we immediately investigate this incident.

Read all about it:

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 26, 2017 10:09 PM    Report this comment

UH OH ... after the whole story gets told we have ANOTHER non-compliant customer who wanted it HER way. Has she retained a lawyer yet? I heard the barrister in Chicago was 'sniffing' the issue?

That's one of the two 'mantras' I used to use on a daily basis when I was in the military ...
"There's always two sides to every story" and "There's always MORE to every story"

Say ... I'm writing the movie about a C172 passenger who was bludgeoned because he wouldn't comply with orders of the PIC ... I need a few distinguished looking pilot/actors ... RAF ... ya interested? :-)))

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 27, 2017 12:31 AM    Report this comment

Larry, I'll keep your offer in mind. On the "Nothing to do with flying" topic, the resistance is securing gains. As a result, Pax will be more complaint, FAs will be in a better work place, the Pilot In Command and FOs will have better support and company management will reconcile with downline. Civility and friendlier environments will prevail. Ah, perfectness.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 27, 2017 3:10 AM    Report this comment

Only one person needed impulse control and that was the woman. No other dominoes would have fallen if she took responsibility for the rules, handed the stroller over and was respectful of others. The airlines should hold her completely responsible and act like a school principle instead of pandering to her and rewarding her behavior. The male pax was uniformed and obtuse and made a fool of himself.

We reward nitwits like her all the time who, through no cunning or skill of their own, constantly turn being a perpetrator into victim-hood - and she had the hat-trick going with sobbing, crocodile tears and children.

She should be banned from flying on the airline until she writes on the board 300 times ---
'The incident was all my fault, I apologize to everyone affected and I've learned my lesson.'

Then charge her for any costs incurred.

Posted by: Dave Miller | April 27, 2017 4:57 AM    Report this comment

On Checks and Balanced. Just in: "Responding to backlash, United said it will now pay customers up to $10,000 to give up their seats on overbooked flights and also vowed to reduce overbooking." Checks and balances.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 27, 2017 8:13 AM    Report this comment

On Checks and Balances. Just in: "Responding to backlash, United said it will now pay customers up to $10,000 to give up their seats on overbooked flights and also vowed to reduce overbooking." Good move by United. Now it's AAL's turn. Easy!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 27, 2017 8:27 AM    Report this comment

Well put, Dave M !! MY sentiments exactly.

Rewarding non-compliant behavior only begets more non-compliant behavior thereby bringing the ambulance chasing lawyers out who beget ... still more non-compliant behavior hoping for monetary windfalls. And once in a while, it also invites others to act the same way ... as happened here. Were I the CEO of UAL, I'd fight the upcoming lawsuit tooth and nail v. capitulating. They're going to pay so ... why not make a party of it all and make the good Dr wish he'da remained anonymous? I know, I know ... :-(

So now we've established a way to get a free first class seat. Throw a poop fit and get an upgrade. Wonderful.

As the popular anachronism of my day went, when a police officer or person of authority tells you to jump, your ONLY response should be ... "How High?" Then, take it up with the Captain later. Those that didn't comply got to find out how much fun overnight KP duty was v sleeping. It only took once to make a believer outta me. Fifty years later ... I still remember that exercise.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 27, 2017 9:47 AM    Report this comment

"Throw a poop fit and get an upgrade. Wonderful." Yeah, sh*t happens!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 27, 2017 10:55 AM    Report this comment

"As the popular anachronism of my day went, when a police officer or person of authority tells you to jump, your ONLY response should be ... "How High?" Then, take it up with the Captain later."

That sounds a lot like "if you have nothing to hide, you shouldn't have to worry about privacy". Admittedly, there is a certain point where one should simply comply with someone in authority, but as I've said before, blindly complying with unreasonable demands is not good for society. If it were, we wouldn't have the US of A at all.

Making an emotionally-led mistake or over-reaction should not lead to physical harm when the transgression was not that serious to begin with. In the case of the United incident, physical abuse was wholly uncalled for. Now, if he was clearly under the influence and acting in a threatening manner that clearly posed a harm to others, that would be a different matter.

Just because someone is wrong doesn't mean they should be indiscriminately punished. The aviation equivalent is that pilots shouldn't face immediate certificate revocation for something like violating 91.113(g) (lower aircraft has the right-of-way for landing).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | April 27, 2017 11:10 AM    Report this comment

United settles with Dr. Dao. The settlement includes a plan to make their customers more comfortable and preventives. A win for the pax!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 27, 2017 3:54 PM    Report this comment

A deafening silence? Pity, I just got new hearing aids. C'mon Larry.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 27, 2017 5:00 PM    Report this comment

I thought you were kidding, RAF ... but I now see it's true. I'm betting it isn't as large as you think.

This is a win for the PAX, alright ... now we're gonna see more disobedience. Hmm ... what color Cirrus do I want the airlines to buy me ...

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 28, 2017 12:42 AM    Report this comment

Larry: I expected reconcilement but not as quickly as it turned out. United fixed rapidly and for that I'm now willing to fly United anytime. I would think that AAL will do the same. Good lesson for everyone.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 28, 2017 7:50 AM    Report this comment

While I can agree with much of the sentiment in your article, what I take exception to is the belief that these passengers are at any fault in both the United and American incidents I fault the airlines entirely in the overall treatment of their customers. I believe both airlines are seeing the handwritting on the wall that you have to act with respect. Kicking a paying customer off a plane at the last minute in favor of company needs is the epitome of disrespect. Snatching something from a passenger, male or female, again is the height of disrespect, and in this instance came very close to injuring the lady and her child. I have flown extensively on commercial carriers, and find this lack of respect to be endemic within the industry. I believe the videos and public opinion to be the best weapons to defeat the attitude that the flying public is here to serve the airlines, and prevent the notion that we, the flying public, are just cattle to be herded onto and off of the aircraft. I have no doubt that the market pressure which United and American are dealing with, due to the recent incidents, has had a dramatic effect on the corporate philosophy of customer relations, or at least I hope it has. As a note; I have had enough rude incidents with United to the point that I never look at their flights no matter what the cost difference might be. They have jaded my view of their company to the point that my opinion cannot be turned and I will not fly on United.

Posted by: Steven Monica | April 28, 2017 8:08 AM    Report this comment

On time!

By Oscar Munoz, CEO, United Airlines
April 11, 2017

Dear Team,

The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.

I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.

It's never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what's broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We'll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.

I promise you we will do better.



Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 28, 2017 8:26 AM    Report this comment

"It's never too late to do the right thing". (Oscar Munoz)

Sorry Oscar, but United's well-earned reputation for poor customer service stretches back into the last century. You aren't going to change it by throwing money at Dr. Dao and promising to "fix" the problem. Upping the compensaton for bumped passengers to $10 grand will only incrase the expectations of those being asked to give up their seats. No one will even think about volunteering until the bidding crosses a grand.

Fixing the problem will mean a top down review of how United does its business and a major change in your corporate culture. Yes, dealing with the public is a far greater challenge than ever before. Many passengers know that they will get their way if they just raise enough of a stink. But running an airline is far harder than hauling coal around in a rail car - something you are more familiar with. Maybe the change needs to start with a CEO that understands the company's business.

Posted by: John McNamee | April 28, 2017 12:19 PM    Report this comment

Good lesson for everyone."

Agree, Raf. As John W pointed out, the lab rats had an incident. Bound to happen even going forward no matter how many changes occur in the corporate world.

What exactly do you see as the lesson given for the perpetrator-turned-victim who broke the rules and who is responsible for causing the incident? What's her takeaway?

After all of the policies and changes are implemented by the airlines from these incidents, another one will still happen in some new form. Then, with little blame to go to the airlines anymore, where will the arrow of responsibility land?

Mark my words, it will land right back where it belongs, on the perpetrator. But I agree with you that, for the moment, a stronger window will result from the kid who threw the rock. The existence of the FAR's proves that.

Posted by: Dave Miller | April 28, 2017 3:18 PM    Report this comment

Just wondering (for any CPA pilots out there) how would the $10,000 compensation land on your Form 1040? As earned income or maybe prize winnings? Or is it considered a non-taxable rebate like I believe FF miles are? Take home pay may be less than the starry-eyed volunteers realize...

Posted by: A Richie | April 28, 2017 3:49 PM    Report this comment

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