Aberrations Underscore Flight Crews’ Usual Excellence

By Apr 5, 2012, 8:01 AM Author's Blog  

JetBlue Flight 191 was supposed to fly from New York to Las Vegas. Instead, the copilot was forced to lock the pilot out of the cockpit, take control of the plane and land in Amarillo, Texas.

Since then, many have called for improved mental health screening for pilots, and there has been a wave of interest in similar cases of erratic behavior on the part of pilots and flight crews. Along the way, the extraordinary daily efforts of airline and airport personnel to keep passengers safe and reasonably comfortable have been, perhaps understandably, overlooked.

The problems on Flight 191 began when the pilot, Clayton Frederick Osbon, began speaking incoherently about his church and religion during take-off, after missing the routine pre-flight briefing. In the air, according to crew members, he said “We need to take a leap of faith” and began drawing connections between unrelated numbers. Crew members lured him out of the cockpit and then locked the door. Passengers then subdued Osbon as he banged on the door to be let back in. He now faces criminal charges for interfering with a flight crew.

Just two weeks earlier, a flight attendant on an American Airlines flight to Chicago alarmed fellow crew members and passengers when she too started speaking incoherently, over the public address system. Like Osbon, she was subdued by passengers. The flight was still on the ground at the time, and the flight attendant was escorted off the plane.

These two recent incidents have brought back memories of Steven Slater’s arrest in August 2010. Slater, a JetBlue flight attendant, became frustrated with a passenger who stood to retrieve his baggage from the overhead compartment too soon. He swore at the passenger and then activated the emergency-evacuation chute and slid away.

All these incidents ended without injury, but for those of us old enough to remember, they are an unsettling reminder of the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 in 1999. While the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority concluded that mechanical error caused the crash, a separate investigation by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board found that the crash was deliberate, caused intentionally by Relief First Officer Gameel Al-Batouti.

Black box data from the flight revealed that Batouti softly said, “Tawakkalt ala Allah,” which roughly translates to “I rely on God,” and then apparently cut the aircraft’s power. As the plane began to fall, he repeated “I rely on God” several times. Flight 990 hit the Atlantic Ocean with 14 crew members and 203 passengers aboard. For the crew members on Flight 191, Osbon’s “We need to take a leap of faith” must have carried an ominous echo.

These cases, however, are extreme outliers – cause for concern and maybe for preventive action, but certainly not indicative either of the day-to-day performance of crew members aboard the planes (and the airline agents and security officers on the ground), or of the occasional incidents that bring forth examples of rigorous training and selfless heroism.

A case of such heroism that comes to mind is that of an Air France jet that skidded off a stormy Toronto runway in 2005, bursting into flame as it came to rest in a ravine. More than 300 people were aboard, yet all were evacuated in less than two minutes – the copilot was the last to leave – and nobody died. Another memorable instance occurred in 2009, when U.S. Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger performed an emergency landing on the Hudson River, enabling all 155 people on board to make it to safety. I’ll add the quick-thinking copilot in the recent JetBlue case to the list of crew members who came through in extraordinary circumstances.

There is no doubt that our air travel system is overstressed, made worse by some airline managers who seem to believe that you can inflict almost any abuse on passengers without consequence, as long as you identify a few big spenders for special treatment. “Customer comfort” is an oxymoron on too many aircraft, and even in many gate areas.

Yet I am consistently impressed with the flight crews I encounter on my frequent plane trips. This may be partly because I am picky about the airlines I fly, and my favorites are those with reputations for particularly good service. JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America are my preferred domestic lines; Brazil’s TAM, Germany’s Lufthansa and Air France/KLM are my top picks for foreign trips. But all airline and airport personnel – including gate agents, TSA officers and check-in personnel, as well as flight crews – deserve a lot of credit for working in difficult situations, dealing one-on-one with a traveling public that, often, doesn’t travel very well.

Just hours after Osbon’s breakdown, a passenger on a US Airways flight offered an illustration of a much more common variety of in-air disturbance. She became intoxicated and then attacked a flight attendant who refused to serve her more alcohol. Last year, actor Alec Baldwin also temporarily put the spotlight on rude passengers when he was kicked off a flight for refusing to turn off his phone for take-off.

Most unruly passengers, however, are not tossed from flights. Instead, they are gently coaxed into minimal compliance by hard-working crew members, whose jobs should not have to include adult babysitting. I have watched passengers throw tantrums when their seat-back televisions malfunctioned. I have watched them refuse to turn off and put away electronic devices when asked. Most frighteningly, I have watched them bolt out of their seats while the aircraft is taxiing across some of the nation’s busiest airports. And, in most of these cases, I have watched crew members respond skillfully and tactfully to ensure the safety of all passengers.

I often sit in emergency exit rows, which offer extra space – and on some airlines, extra amenities – in exchange for passengers’ willingness to help with evacuation in an emergency. Flight attendants must provide a special pre-flight briefing to exit-row passengers and obtain verbal confirmation that they have understood prior to take-off. Often, when I fly in these rows, the attendants must make several requests before my seatmates will deign to look up from their smart phones or remove their ear buds long enough to hear the briefing. I almost never see these seatmates examine their instruction cards for further information on what to do if called upon to help.

But on one flight I took recently, one of the exit row seats was occupied by a uniformed pilot with the word “Chief” emblazoned on his shirt. Clearly a very senior member of the flight staff of the airline I was flying, this man surely knew nearly everything about the Airbus A320 in which we were sitting. But he pulled out that safety card and spent at least three minutes methodically studying it. Pilots are trained to review aircraft safety features prior to every flight. Even though he wasn’t in the cockpit, this fellow traveler was doing exactly that.

In an era of widespread nickel-and-dime fees and reduced amenities, it can be easy to see air travel as a zero-sum game, with flight crews and passengers pitted against each other. For passengers committed to this negative worldview, incidents like the one on JetBlue provide fuel to an already hot fire. But most flight crews are committed to passenger comfort and safety, and are willing to do what it takes to achieve those goals – whether that means landing in the middle of the Hudson or just repeating, once again, firmly but politely, that exit-row passengers need to pay attention to the pre-flight briefing.

Despite these efforts, flying is still stressful and frequently unpleasant. As much as I fly these days, I don’t particularly enjoy it, and I don’t go out of my way to board extra flights. Yet I appreciate how safe I am when I do fly, and I appreciate how hard these people work, in an overstressed system, to make my trip as comfortable as they can. Being nice to them in return is the least I can do.

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