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A Captain’s Perspective: How Passenger Disturbance Affects Your Safety And Comfort.

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(Note: This is a guest post I wrote for AirTransparency.com a blog created because "It has become an American pastime to hate the airlines." Air Transparency is trying to change that.)

Clear skies, smooth ride, and tail winds means we should arrive at our destination a few minutes early. It is a great day to fly and once again welcome aboard." As I ended my passenger announcement I couldn't imagine a better day to fly. This is going to be a stress free and relaxing day. So I thought.

Just yesterday my friend asked me what the most difficult parts of my job is as an airline pilot. I said "closing the cabin door". He smiled and shook his head in acknowledgement since he was a frequent flyer and understood my statement. Today was going to be one of those difficult days.

Bags on board and pre flight checks complete, we where ready to go until the flight attendant pokes her redden face into the flight deck and says "Captain I'm having a problem with a passenger can you help me".

I knew there was trouble because the flight attendant knows my name and was using it up until this point, so I knew she was frustrated. In a flustered voice she related how a passenger was unwilling to check their bag and it would not fit in the overhead. The person was being rude and she was at her wits end.

I told her to calm down and I would have a supervisor speak with the passenger. Years ago I would go back to talk to the passenger but I have learned some people have no qualms in attacking a flight crew member. Besides, if I was hurt during the process the flight would be delayed even further or possibly cancelled. Supervisors have training in defusing these types of situations and many do so with incredible ease and professionalism.

After the supervisor came on board the situation was quickly resolved and we were on our way with the passenger’s bag safely stowed in the cargo compartment. The passenger seemed satisfied when we told her we would bring the bag up to the gate and she would not have to go to baggage claim to retrieve it. Feeling confident in an easy day ahead I smiled at the flight attendant and said “crisis averted”. Maybe I should have remembered my friend telling me that bad things normally happen in threes.

Pushing back from the gate the flight attendant noticed someone hunched over talking on their cell phone as if no one would notice. I could tell the flight attendant was having a problem because she made the announcement to "turn off all cellular phones and electronic devices" numerous times. Again she poked her head in the flight deck and said we have a lady who is still talking on the phone. I said ok let me see if I can fix this.

I then proceeded to make an announcement to the passengers again reviewing the flight time and weather and then stating that we will be departing the gate once everyone has turned their cell phones off". With some confidence I look at the first officer and said "wait for it".

The flight attendant then came up front with a smile on her face and said "that was great! After I made the announcement everyone turned to look at the lady speaking on her cell phone. The ladies face then turned red and she quickly turned it off." Another minor crisis averted and we haven't even taken off.

Why Airlines Have Flight Attendants

I am amazed at how some flight attendants can take a bad and sometimes volatile situation and diffuse it with ease. I many times find myself saying, I'm sure glad we have a flight attendant on board because they did a much better job than I could have ever done dealing with that passenger.

These situations remind me why we have flight attendants on board. First and foremost the flight attendant is on the aircraft for your safety. There is a reason the FAA mandates we have on board the aircraft a flight attendant for each fifty passengers. In the rare occasion that we have an emergency, the flight attendant will be the first to help and give directions in exiting the aircraft. More commonly there might be a problem with the health and wellbeing of a passenger.

If you have a life threatening medical condition the first person helping you and getting you further medical attention is the flight attendant. One of the first things the flight attendant will do after helping you is inform the captain of the situation. The pilots will communicate with air traffic control and with the airlines operations to speak with the physician on call.

So next time you see a flight attendant helping a sick passenger you should help by keeping the isle clear and allowing those on board who may happen to be physicians or paramedics to get to the passenger.

I remember one day while flying hearing a loud thud thinking something fell from the overhead to the floor. It turns out a lady had passed out on her way to the lavatory.

The flight attendant was able to find a doctor, get her some orange juice, and revive her before she even called us in the flight deck. She said the passenger was fine and that she would fill out the report when we landed. Crisis averted before I even knew about it!

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The Instructions Are For Your Safety

I am a passenger on the airlines almost every week since I live in a city over a thousand miles from work. I normally travel in my uniform and have noticed the most common question asked by passengers sitting next to me concerns what the flight attendant is telling us to do before we depart the gate.

On one of my commutes home the passenger next to me leaned over and said "do you mind if I ask you a question". "Of course not" I said. He then asks with a smirk on his face "Do we really have to put our tray tables up and seat backs in the upright position for safety?". I said "yes, because it makes it easier to evacuate the airplane if necessary". He then looked at me with a more serious tone and said "oh, I see."

Again, most of what we do is for your safety. For example most would argue that turning off cellular phones and electronic devices are not necessary because they read that they really don't interfere with the electronics on the airplane. I know first hand that cell phones do at times interfere with our communications. As far as other electronic devices, until we have a definitive answer as to whether they interfere or not with the airplanes electronics, we will still have to turn them off. Personally, I would love to keep my electronic reading device on during taxi and take off but until they say otherwise I'll have to turn it off.

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Service With A Smile : How Treating the Flight Attendants With Respect Can Make Your Flight More Enjoyable.

A Flight Attendant is an important job at the airline because they are ambassadors for the airlines they work for and are the person you will be in contact with most during the flight. They must relate all the safety information but they also must be service oriented.

During the flight the attendants normally call us on the flight deck to check on us. I can normally tell if they are having a rough time with the passengers in the cabin. If they sound flustered I usually ask "so is everyone behaving in the back". Then the truth comes out.

"The person in 12C is being rude". My answer always is "do you need assistance or do we need to call someone on the ground to help out?" Normally the flight attendant says "oh no they are just being rude. But I tell you I'm just doing a minimal service so I don't have to deal with that person".

It should go without saying that if you are rude or disrespectful to the flight attendant then you should expect a reciprocal level of service. But in most cases the person gets more frustrated because they notice they are not being checked on as often.

How Disruptive Behavior Affects The Safety Of Flight

Being rude and being disruptive are two different things. When someone is rude they normally hurt themselves but when a person is disruptive enough to warrant a call to the flight deck then this becomes a safety issue.

A passenger’s disruptive behavior or non compliance with the flight crew members instructions becomes a safety issue when it distracts the pilots from the task of flying the plane. There are two people in the flight deck for many reasons but primarily to ensure one pilot is always concentrating on flying the plane. The other pilot, known as the pilot monitoring or the non flying pilot, is working the radios and any other situations that might occur such as mechanical abnormalities, emergencies, and passenger disturbances.

While the Captain is communicating with the flight attendant and trying to assess the situation, the task of both flying the plane and monitoring the frequencies might then be placed upon the First Officer. This then gives the Captain time to communicate with the dispatcher, air traffic control, and decide if the disturbance warrants an emergency or a diversion from the original plan.

Passenger Disturbance

While flying to Asheville, North Carolina we were informed there had been an accident at the airport and they must clear the runway before we could land. Since it was going to take them a long time to clear the runway and we did not have enough fuel to hold we decided to go to Knoxville, Tennessee. On the way to Knoxville we had a failure of one of the airspeed indicators so we began working that problem.

As we approached Knoxville the flight attendant called us and said she had a passenger that was not willing to sit down during landing. I asked if he posed a threat and she said she didn’t think so because he said he had to stand because he was in pain due to a recent injury.

I then asked where the passenger was standing and she said next to the flight deck door. This was not good especially since security on airplanes is a much higher priority these days. I then asked if she could some how get him to sit down or at least move away from the flight deck. In the mean time we where beginning to run low on fuel and we had to land soon.

I then asked the controller if we could go directly towards the runway since we had a passenger that would not sit down and was near the flight deck door and additionally we where beginning to get low on fuel. The fuel was not so low that it could be an emergency but we didn’t want any delays getting to the airport. The controller declared us an emergency because of the passenger in the back refusing to sit down.

After we landed and taxied to the gate law enforcement was waiting for us. After the law enforcement officers boarded I looked at the first officer and said, "you know that was a pretty dangerous situation." We had many distractions, the mechanical issue, the low fuel situation, and then we had to deal with a passenger disturbance.

You never know what we might be doing in the flight deck at the time we must deal with a passenger disturbance. We may be trying to navigate around large thunderstorms or we might be working a mechanical issue, or simply trying to get a short cut to get to the airport sooner.

As you can see a passenger being unruly to the point where the pilots now must work on the disturbance can be a distraction from flying the plane and thus affects safety. A unruly passenger at the gate is very easy to deal with and has fewer implications towards the safety of flight compared to flying through the air at five hundred miles per hour.

Conclusion

Remember this during your next flight. It is true that the airlines have taken away much of your comfort items such as blankets and pillows. They have even started charging you for those items plus food and the extra bags you are carrying. We as flight crew members feel your pain because we also travel as passengers on our own airplanes.

Try to remember that we can’t do much about how the airlines are run. If you feel it necessary to take out your frustration on the flight attendant try to remember they are there for your comfort and your safety. When you make their life miserable you wind up making it miserable for yourself and those around you. If it gets to the point the pilot’s attention must be diverted to dealing with your bad behavior you take my attention away from flying thus increasing the level of safety you and the other passengers expect.

Flight attendants have been tasked with keeping you safe and comfortable during the flight. Most do a wonderful job of defusing problems you or the passengers around you are having, whether it be the wrong seat or being treated poorly by someone during their airport experience. I applaud those flight attendants that can turn a bad situation around and even have passengers laughing and singing their praise as they get off the flight.

My suggestion is that you try and leave what happened to you in the terminal behind and realize you finally are on your plane and are going to your destination. It might even help if you smile and say please and thank you. You might find you are getting an extra level of service you didn’t expect.

Welcome aboard. Sit back, relax, enjoy the flight, and let us provide you with the highest level of service and safety you deserve.

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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Rochelle August 16, 2011, 3:27 pm

    I agree totally, passengers(I am one too) should treat the flight crew with respect. We know you don’t control the airlines. We also know that when we are diverted to another airport and don’t get updates right away it’s not your fault, so people have some respect for your flight crew and let them do there job so that u can have a safe and comfortable flight.I found a new website to comment on air travel
    Airlineslodgingetc.com

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