Torqued: Professionalism, Integrity and Videotape

 - July 6, 2017, 6:00 AM

Like many of you, I’ve been shaking my head at the recent viral videos of passenger encounters with airline and airport personnel. Starting with the violent removal of a doctor from a United flight, videos have emerged—and gone viral—of an American Airlines crew encounter with a tearful mother with infants, and a Delta flight attendant threatening a passenger with jail because he wanted to use a seat he had paid for to transport his infant in an approved child seat. This last incident particularly infuriated me because of my long-time position on the importance of proper child restraints for children under the age of two. Not only was the flight attendant unprofessional, but the claim that infants are required to travel as lap children and are safer that way is particularly galling.   

But even before this recent spate of airline-contempt-for-passenger videos, there were other memorable videos for those of us who make our livelihoods in aviation. A number of videos have been posted on YouTube over the years of baggage handlers tossing and kicking passenger bags, in the U.S. and this past March in the UK. Many maintenance workers on the ramp are clearly visible from aircraft cabins and the terminals themselves. Just the other day at a major mid-Atlantic airport, there were far too many examples of unprofessional conduct by maintenance workers to list here. Among them, I noted a maintenance worker shaking a ladder with a worker on it—hard enough that the worker dropped his tool. Judging from the animated response from the worker on the ladder, which I could see but not hear, the worker was not pleased. Whatever the point of shaking the ladder (perhaps trying to get the worker’s attention?), it was inappropriate and unprofessional.

My point here is not how many instances of unprofessional behavior are out there but, rather, how important it is in this age of ubiquitous video recording to be professional and demonstrate integrity. It used to be taught to all aspiring aviation workers—from the cockpit to the hangar to the ticket counter—that it is always important to do the right thing even when no one is looking. For years, I have taught this mantra to my aviation safety classes and in appearances before aviation groups. But I’ve always known—as you all know—that it’s an easy thing to say but difficult to do with the constant pressure of moving aircraft. Cutting corners can quickly become the norm. Threatening passengers to the point that every incident becomes a security threat, with calls to airport police for enforcement, has become the far too frequent response to passengers who are the least bit assertive.

Act as if You Have an Audience

If we needed reminding, the recent rash of viral videos has done just that. Certainly those in the industry who are the face of aviation to customers should know that passengers are watching them. And that at the first sign of a problem, they’re whipping out their phones and taping. (I was on a flight the other day where my seat mate checked his phone to make sure he had enough battery life—“in case I need to video anything.” That’s the new norm, I guess, for air travelers: check your cellphone for enough battery to record an in-cabin outrage.) And, yes, another viral video captured a United Airlines ticket agent canceling a passenger’s ticket for taping her at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans, claiming, incorrectly, that taping her in a public place was somehow illegal.

But those who work out of view of passengers are also under constant surveillance by cameras of all kinds in almost all places. Certainly the airports themselves, large and small, are under video surveillance. Hangars and baggage areas are as well. And while few cockpits have cameras now, many—corporate jets among them—have voice recorders, with cameras likely in the future. The NTSB has been pushing for cameras in airliners for years. In the aftermath of the Gulfstream accident at Hanscom Field in Bedford, Mass., in which the NTSB determined the long-time corporate pilots routinely failed to do critical flight-control checks, I myself have recommended cameras in corporate aircraft to help ensure that safety procedures are routinely followed.

The question now becomes doing the right thing when you’re pretty sure at least someone or something is watching…and recording. So what should aviation workers do, knowing both that they’re judged by their employers on how quickly and efficiently they move aircraft and knowing that sometimes speed and efficiency don’t either jibe with the regulations or provide the best customer experience?

For one, employees should follow procedures. But not so mechanically that when a difficult situation presents itself—especially one involving an unusual circumstance—they don’t stop and seek further guidance. The just-get-it-done mentality needs to slow down when there are changes in normal circumstances. This applies to every aspect of the operation and is a good thing to do from a safety perspective, in any event.

And if, in the wake of all this bad publicity over viral videos, managers and supervisors don’t do this on their own, I would recommend that unions and other employee groups address this concern to management so that individual employees, under the pressure of a quick turn-around, aren’t stuck making these decisions at the risk of their and the company’s reputation. Employees should have clear instructions on how to address unusual circumstances and guidelines on how to elevate concerns to supervisors and company management quickly when a situation they’re uncomfortable with begins to develop. Yes, this might mean slowing down sometimes. But clearly a little time up front can save lots of time and money down the road. I bet the CEO at United would agree.