Federal Government

Cockpit Voice On Flight Rage Case

The GUARDIAN contacted a working airline captain to put last week’s story of flight rage into perspective. It is a little long–he may be the one who chatters on the P.A. when you are trying to grab a power nap. Here is his informative report.

As a starter, all airlines have an internal governing document for the flight crew (includes pilots and another manual for flight attendants), which attempts to encapsulate all applicable regulations in an easy to use format like a handbook. We call ours a Flight Operations Manual (FOM). The FOM outlines processes to be used which ensure compliance with all applicable Federal Air Regulations, codes, laws and other pertinent FAA and corporate documents so a crewmember can act with a bit of confidence that they are within the confines of all directives in any given situation.

All bets are off in a true emergency, which allows the Pilot in Command to exercise his/her emergency authority specifically spelled out by FAR’s as an option. Most pilots do not hesitate to use this increased authority as the situation dictates. This option is available on the ground or in the air. The one thing to keep in mind here is that if you do elect to operate under this provision you had better be ready to justify your actions in front of a panel of “experts” after the fact (assuming you lived through the event).

You should also be aware of the flight chain of command in most companies. The flight attendants report to a purser or the “A” flight attended – this is the designated “senior” / lead flight attendant in the cabin. It is not always the most “senior”/experienced flight attendant for a variety of reasons; pay incentives, headaches of first class support, motivation of senior folks etc. At any rate we shall call him/her the “Purser” in this discussion. The purser reports directly to the Captain who is also, on domestic flights, the PIC. The First Officer in my company also moves into that role on International flights when the crew is augmented for rest requirements based upon length of flight.

In the case presented, in my opinion and in my experience, if this truly took place on the ground in Las Vegas prior to departure as reported and if I were the PIC I would have acted to have the individual removed from the aircraft given the events as reported. I personally have had four passengers removed form my aircraft for a variety of reasons prior to departure. One for drunkenness which obviously compromises safety for the individual and others on the aircraft in the event of an evacuation and is generally in poor taste in public venues; two for absolute rudeness/behavioral issues and non-compliance with valid crew member requests. The last one for hygiene! Absolutely stunk and was on a full flight causing gag reflex of those who came near him! Where possible, I always try to resolve the issue through practices gained through experience. When a flight attendant approaches me with a problem I always ensure he/she has gone through his/her cabin supervisor the “A” or purser I mentioned in the beginning. I enforce this up cannel work to allow the Purser to do their job and try to “fix” the problem before I leave my primary cockpit duties. If this has been accomplished and the purser has asked for me to intervene I then ask the Purser to geographically separate the folks involved. If it is two passengers, reseat them away from each other – if it is a crewmember and a passenger move the crewmember to a zone not interacting with that passenger. If the geography trick does not work then I get up and go back and investigate myself. Taking all input from crew, surrounding passengers and the individuals directly involved d in the event. At this point I have to make a decision based upon safety of all involved and ask myself a few internal questions such as is the person calming down or escalating? Are they more compliant or more arrogant with me? Are they willing to chat privately in the galley or the jet way or are they making a public scene? Are they foul mouthed or reasonable? Is it a full airplane or not? Is it a long haul international flight or Boise to San Fran? For obvious reasons all of these area’s in conflict resolution have to be explored, all bets are off if there has been any aggressive/threatening physical contact; I would have them removed! As a side note, if any passenger touches a crewmember in any manner considered to be aggressive or threatening, it can be a federal offense, just as briefed in the preflight briefing that hardly anyone listens to anymore; you know the one on how to wear a seat belt!

Jurisdiction is not my forte but I can tell you I keep the FBI field offices on my speed dial. Usually we call our local operations people and ask for the “local” authorities when removing a passenger for obvious reasons. I did have a Canadian citizen removed by the federales in Guatemala one night and his final destination was Costa Rica with us after a short stop in Guatemala and I do not know what became of him in Guatemala. Tough situation for him I am sure but he was absolutely drunk and belligerent. So you ask why did we keep serving him; we did not this was pre 9/11 and he had a bottle in his bag he was nipping on the entire flight. Same thing happened on one of my flights going into Chicago, businessman drunk on his ass but he was a nice drunk, just couldn’t stand up any more! Jurisdiction may not be the correct term here, it just happens to be where I toss the person off.

Crimes over airspace issues are another area we are not trained in nor have sufficient knowledge in to discuss- we just toss them off and the law figures out the rest.

Yes if it is worth reporting, then taking care of it at the origin is best. But…. If the cabin crew made a decision to “deal” with it then had a change of heart after airborne, or if it was not made aware to the PIC until after airborne or if it escalated after the crew was airborne then these circumstances might explain the delay in dealing officially with the situation. Or just possibly the minor involved was intimidated by the events and then got up and spoke with a crewmember after departure highlighting the sequence of events thus the crew was informed after departure. There are far too many vague descriptions on the sequence of events to cast judgment at this point.

The lack of reseating may again be based upon when it was reported. But I have already offered my opinion on this one; as soon as I may have heard of the vents that is my first course of action (it could be a full flight as well and you will have to direct another passenger to sit next to the offender) typically I would ask the biggest toughest looking guy on the airplane or an off duty law enforcement official or military guy. I do have some tricks like that to employ.

Now let’s talk cell phone regs. First, I have always been skeptical of the “interference” claim but I can tell you I have personally heard side tones and static on my radio communications headset in the cockpit that were directly attributed to a cell phone. I also know that the FAA certifies aircraft for flight in “environmental” conditions that they can replicate. I do not know if there has ever been a test with 250 cell phones on in an aircraft to determine effects on navigation gear. I also know that cell phones a typically a “ground based” system (look where your antennas are) unless you spent a couple of grand on a SATCOM phone yours won’t get a valid signal above about 10,000 feet any way and probably more like 6-7000 feet AGL. I also know that cell phone etiquette is not typically the traveling publics strong suite and that I have seen many a frustrated passengers who are compliant with the FAA instructions about turning off their gear yet there are always those who feel the rules simply do not apply to them.

As a person intimately familiar with all the problems of mass transit, I would NEVER want to add cell phones to the mix of overcrowding, flight cancellations, baggage fees, alcohol, drugs, steroids and other personality altering substances and wide ranging personalities shoved together in a way too cramped space! You are brewing a toxic stew! Yes we have found illicit needles in between seats, in the seat back pocket and in the restroom garbage bins. This is one reason you see flight attendants smashing down the garbage with the base of wine bottles so as to prevent being stuck by bad things! As a side bar, it always amazes me when I see adults and children saunter up the aisle way to the restroom in their socks! Would you do that in the local bus station? This is mass transit-pure and simple and it comes with all the nice smells and sounds. Think personal safety and hygiene.

I digress, to your point, yes the suspect should have called a crewmember to handle the situation, and they are trained and have a great deal of experience in dealing with passenger and their quirks. I am always impressed with the experienced cabin crewmember that disarms a passenger with skill and interpersonal communication techniques not learned anywhere else but in the commercial airline world! It is fun to be a passenger incognito and witness the events unfold and how they are resolved.

Many great examples. At the same time it is amazing how many people do not pay attention to simple safety tips that literally mean the difference between life and death. Air travel is very safe but if you are in a true emergency there is little time to prepare and wish that you knew where your closest exit was to egress a very fast burning jet. All of the cosmetics in the cabin do not make you safer, only complacent. As you eat your steak and sip your scotch winging over the vast and deep Atlantic/Pacific Oceans at 40,000 feet it is tough to stay ready for the worst-case scenario. Can you say Hudson River?

Comments & Discussion

Comments are closed for this post.

  1. Cell phones are to be turned off when the cabin door is closed. Sounds to me, that in this case, if this idiot kid were trying to get to something in his sock, or trying to ignite his underwear, the old guy would have been a hero. What if the kid was using the cell phone to detonate something in the baggage compartment? At this point, I fail to see why this is now Boise’s problem. “What happens in Vegas should stay in Vegas!!!”

  2. Thank you Captain, It would seem in this case the guy was in the wrong… but the courts will figure all that out, I don’t think we should know his name or face unless a conviction happens though.

    The case has brought to mind a few bad experiences of my own however: Something to think about is how the judgment and witness statements of cabin and flight crew can impact a person’s freedom and reputation. The traveling public should do their best to comply with rules and crewmember instructions; most are written in blood from past mishaps. If you are having a bad/unreasonable experience due to a crewmember, remain calm and compliant. Wait until outside the jurisdiction of the crewmember and TSA to contact the company and make a objective report about the bad experience. Don’t settle for getting the brush-off with a free ticket or something. If you were wronged, insist on communication with a high company officer about the matter. (Make a police report if it was criminal misconduct.) Crew members who rack up several complaints get negative employer attention.

    As far as I know? Cabin and flight crewmembers are not held to account for errors in their performance-of-duty in the same way as in other societal venues, such as a restaurant/bar/roadrage/etc. Nor are they personally held accountable in the event of some kind of malpractice such as injury from turbulence associated with a decision to skirt too near a thunderstorm. Yes they may get investigated, retrained, or maybe fired, but the payout comes from the company. I think this is good, and makes use of common sense. It allows the crewmember to make the call on the spot without the worry of “what if” the lawyers have thrust into daily life. I do wish or society made better use of this simpler process.

    However I caution the captain and crewmembers that the the federal shield of “safety” is not flawless… and it may be more than a panel of experts you answer too if you error in ambiguous situations. The traveling public is getting very cranky now that we might have a dirty rubber glove exam before getting to your aircraft. At some point in the future, the lawyers will probably find their way to the flightdeck. Since the relationship with the employer is not at all as warm and fuzzy as it was in the good-ol-days… I predict crewmembers will need to carry insurance much like doctors and nurses do. This might be prevented by careful self-policing of those crewmembers in your ranks who push the limits just because the feel invulnerable. The police have identified a problem they call “contempt of cop” which often leads to bad cop behavior. I’ve seen this happen with air crews as well. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contempt_of_cop

    Fly Safe!

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