A flight attendant’s view of how to deal with passenger fears

I wrote recently about how Southwest Airlines had been involved in a series of incidents where Muslim passengers had been kicked off flights, the latest where a Berkeley student was kicked off after another passenger reported him for suspicious behavior.

Southwest Airlines issued a statement saying that the complainant also spoke Arabic and that the issue went beyond the suspected passenger signing off a phone conversation by saying “inshallah’ but did not elaborate on what he was supposed to have said. The FBI did say that there was no threatening behavior, suggesting that the content of the phone call was innocuous.

Gillian Brockell used to be a flight attendant and has written about the recent Southwest Airlines incident and says that dealing with passengers’ racism is part of their job and that dealing with the fears of passengers in part of their training. What surprised her was that incident was not handled according to the extensive training that she received on how to deal with passenger suspicions and behaviors to look for.

This past week, Southwest released a statement saying that the passenger who reported Makhzoomi also spoke Arabic and was alarmed by the content of his conversation, not the language itself. Makhzoomi says he was telling his uncle in Baghdad about attending a speech by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and made a passing reference to the Islamic State. The airport police agency says Makhzoomi made no threats and broke no laws. It is not illegal to mention the existence of the Islamic State on an aircraft.

But to me, the most shocking thing about the whole story is that, according to Makhzoomi, from the time the other passenger reported him to the time he was asked to leave the plane, he had no interaction with the flight attendants.

Flight attendants are trained extensively in evaluating suspicious behavior with videos, checklists, regular exams and drills. (And drills and drills and drills.) This infuses you with an automatic, paranoid vigilance that follows you forever and insists that you take all threats seriously, since the cost of being wrong is too high.

But nowhere did our training recommend that we accept a passenger’s assessment of a situation, and nowhere did it teach that speaking Arabic is cause for suspicion. It’s unlikely that any airlines do. I contacted all of the major U.S. airlines this past week to ask about training procedures. United Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Southwest declined to reveal any details. A spokesman for American Airlines said the company never trains crew members to perceive the Arabic language, Arab- or Muslim-style clothing or a Middle Eastern background as suspicious.

She describes one case where a woman passenger who boarding the plane told her that she was suspicious of a fellow male passenger who was a few people behind her. Brockell said that her training kicked in and she quietly observed and spoke with the suspect passenger and found his behavior to be perfectly ordinary.

In fact, the only thing he appeared to have in common with the 9/11 hijackers was that he was brown. He could have been Punjabi or Puerto Rican; I have no idea. He could have been a Catholic, or a Sikh, or one of the many hundreds of millions of Muslims who have nothing to do with terrorism. I let it go and had no further discussion with the man or the woman, other than to serve them drinks and bid them well when they disembarked.

I hope, and I think it’s likely, that the man never noticed what was happening.

When passengers report an issue, it’s impossible to know what their life experiences are. That’s why it’s so important to make assessments based on training. In this case, being polite and being vigilant should have called for the same thing: a conversation. Anyone who makes a snap judgment from the cocoon of the galley has no business being a flight attendant.

Brockell added in an NPR interview:

You can’t make an assessment based on the training that you received if you haven’t talked to the suspicious passenger. Not being biased about our passengers – it’s important for their comfort, but it’s also important to protect them from terrorism. If Islamic State gets the impression the flight attendants are only flagging Middle Eastern, Arabic-speaking or Muslim-appearing customers, that’s a weakness in the system, and then they can say, OK, cool, let’s just go send the blonde-haired, blue-eyed guy and make sure he speaks German the whole time. So removing ourselves from bias and relying on our training is also safer for the passengers and protects them from terrorism.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    My first thought here is: just who was the complainant? Because it sounds like the flight attendants in this case gave really disproportionate weight to her opinion. It’s easy to reach for “racism” as the single-word kneejerk explanation, but as you’ve pointed out, that alone doesn’t cut it. If it’s reasonable to expect the flight attendants to have been trained extensively and drilled how to assess “risky” passengers, then it’s reasonable to ask why they didn’t follow that training in this case. Racism alone wouldn’t make them ignore their drilled procedures. The most obvious answer there (to me at least) isn’t racism, it’s something related to the status of the woman doing the complaining. Is she someone “special”? (E.g. an executive at the airline?)

  2. says

    #1 sonofrojblake- I didn’t see the flight attendant implying that the attendants on that flight acted out of racism. It seems she was focused on the fact that it was strange that they did not follow training because passenger complaints are often driven by racism and thus not reliable. I think the statements quoted above leave open just the sort of possibility you suggest. My impression is maybe the passenger was overly aggressive or threatened to get the whole flight upset. Your suggestion makes a lot of sense, too. She used some sort of position of power to get them to not follow protocol.

    Or it was just a set of poor employees.

  3. DonDueed says

    I wonder how much difference there is in flight attendant training practices from one airline to another. Maybe Southwest doesn’t put as much emphasis on this area as Gillian Brockell’s employer.

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