Are Flight Attendants Justified in Duct Taping Passengers to Their Seats?

Airline Policies and Procedures Are Not Keeping Up with Real-World Challenges    

8/18/21 – – Have you seen the recent online videos of airline passengers restrained in their seats by duct tape? Even on short flights, coach-class seats are uncomfortable and claustrophobic enough without the tape. So what’s going on here?

Exasperated airline flight crews, faced with unprecedented numbers of unruly, noncompliant passengers returning to travel since the height of the pandemic, have been employing this heavy-handed de-escalation method with disturbing frequency. Captured by citizen journalists’ smart phone cameras, these scenes have gone viral online, creating serious public relations headaches for the airlines.

But before we blame this sticky situation all on the flight crews, let’s take a closer look at what they’re up against.   

Last week, United Airlines  – purveyors of the “friendly skies” – sent its flight attendants an email reminding them that, “There are designated items onboard that may be used in difficult situations, and alternative measures such as tape should never be used.” Crews are directed to, “Follow your regular de-escalation and training process and always use your best judgment.”

According to Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, United’s non-specific guidance demonstrates “a total lack of support and respect for the people on the frontlines.” She describes the company’s missive as “incredibly offensive, and clueless.”

One of the nine most common sources of reputational crises discussed in Chapter 3 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient is “policies.” Failing to adjust policies that aren’t working or implementing policies that create conflict and are difficult for people in the field to enforce equitably can create serious turbulence for stubborn companies and organizations.

Actually, the duct tape response doesn’t seem so crazy when you consider the dangerous passenger behavior prompting these drastic measures.  On a Frontier Airlines flight last month, a passenger walking around shirtless, spewing obscenities, punched and groped flight attendants. On a recent American Airlines flight, a woman attacked crew members and attempted to open the plane’s front boarding door in flight. And last week, also on American, a boy assaulted his mother and tried to kick out a window.

So, hopefully Sara Nelson’s outrage on behalf of the 50,000 flight attendants represented by her union will get through to United’s policy makers. “Always use your best judgment” could be interpreted as a green light for duct taping when you’re dealing with a passenger hellbent on opening the plane’s door at 30,000 feet. Clearly, the “other designated items onboard” and “de-escalation” techniques are inadequate. New training protocols based on real-world experiences are desperately needed.

How about your frontline workforce? Are they equipped to handle predictable customer confrontations without generating embarrassing viral videos?  Are your policies responsive to real-world situations? Do they unintentionally create conflict?  These are questions, for example, that municipalities should address before requiring restaurant operators to enforce COVID mandates. Is the typical New York deli owner prepared to demand proof of vaccination from his or her customers without creating a scene right out of an episode of Seinfeld?

We’ll find out in the next few weeks. In the meantime, there are reports of restaurateurs stocking up on duct tape.

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