Impulse Control Anyone?


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.