Travesty on American Flight 1758

Travesty on American Airlines Flight 1758

An Open Letter to American Airlines President Thomas W. Horton

My wife and I stood in the priority line to board American flight 1758 from Miami to Boston at 3 pm on January 14. We were returning from a week’s vacation in Puerto Rico and a speech that morning in Ft. Lauderdale.

I have flown about 3.5 million air miles, over a million of them on American alone, an indication that I like the carrier and think its employees do fine work on the ground and in the air. In fact, American provides me with recognition slips for employees, and I gave one to flight attendants on the flights to San Juan and back.

Let me also state that flight attendants have a tough job, they are not always treated well by the company or passengers, and 95 percent of them are terrific. But now I will take you on a sorry trip.

There were four people ahead of us in line. At the front were two women, apparently in their 70s, short, not very mobile, and moving with difficulty. One was both deaf and blind. The other—whom I took to be a partner, companion, or relative, because they had obviously traveled together before—guided her companion carefully, and I marveled at their mutual tough determination. Behind them was a man with a severe walking problem who relied on a cane, with his wife beside him.

Boarding commenced and we slowly walked to the plane, with the first class passengers behind us. At the door of the 757, coach is to the right, first class to the left. But the two women had stopped in the intersection, and seemed to be struggling. Three female flight attendants stood within five feet, unmoving. After two minutes, I excused myself and moved forward to find the two women struggling with their carry-on bags. The sighted woman was struggling to lift one, staggering under the weight of the bag, and the blind woman was afraid to sit down or move. The man with the cane obviously could not help.

“Why don’t you help them?” I said to the three immobile flight attendants. All three simply stared blankly.

“For goodness sake,” I said, and moved over to help the women lift their baggage into the overhead bins. Bear in mind that 200 people were waiting in line in the jetway and out into the concourse to board that plane. Once we were able to clear the aisle, I turned to go to first class and said to the still-motionless troika, “Why didn’t you help them?!”

“We’re not allowed,” said one. “If we hurt ourselves,” said another, “the company won’t pay our insurance claims.” “No wonder American is bankrupt,” I said, “given this kind of nonsense.” I was aghast at the callousness of these three, watching two poor women struggle in front of them. The third flight attendant, Mariellen, had a brief fit, said I didn’t understand and stomped to the galley, proclaiming loudly into the open cockpit door, “I’m not arguing in the aisles. You wouldn’t believe this!” Apparently the pilots didn’t believe it or had better things to do, since neither emerged.

Meanwhile, I watched a gate agent board the plane and lift luggage into an overhead, then go down to ground level and help baggage handlers with late checked luggage. Apparently, he wasn’t afraid of hurting himself, or had special insurance.

I’m assuming these three flight attendants met or exceeded American’s standards for health, fitness, and intelligence. Lifting a bag into an overhead bin on occasion certainly can’t be a threatening part of the job unless you have no inclination to help. I’d say American does not have a compassion test, because these three would have flunked it.

How do you stand there, watch disabled and disoriented elderly women struggle, and not have the heart to help, feeling that (I assume) union work rules take precedence? How effective will you be in an emergency, helping people when personal sacrifice might be required to assist others? Or would you be worried about cracking a nail?

I’ll repeat that my flying experiences have been enriched by the hard working people on the ground and in the air working for airlines around the globe. I do not mean to generalize.

But what I saw, sir, today, when I’m writing this, was egregiously poor judgment, a lack of decency, and a callousness that is hard to comprehend when most people I know are constantly reaching out to help others, especially those so clearly in need. They’re not worried about what their insurance will or won’t cover when they see people in extenuating circumstances.

I don’t know what you should do with these employees, but I wouldn’t board a flight they’re working with a bad back and a large bag.

Mr. Horton, I’m not asking you to lift a bag, but just lift the phone, personally, and tell me you’ll fix this.

Sincerely,

Alan Weiss


20 thoughts on “Travesty on American Flight 1758

  1. I can’t believe I just read that!
    Is this because of a fear of the compensation culture, or to save money by minimising customer to staff contact for cheaper insurance?
    Shocking!

  2. I can’t speak for American, but as a human being it’s hard to grok not coming to the assistance of these paying passengers (who could have seriously hurt themselves and then possibly created a huge liability for the airline). That all three didn’t move to help, and even refused to come any closer, one merely pointing to the seats, was incredible.

  3. Sorry Alan, I did present that as a question that wanted an answer. It was really a cynical opinion of modern legal fears by large companies who would rather see people struggle than risk liability.
    Although, as you pointed out, they are risking worse by doing nothing!
    It is sad and sickening.

    ‘I’m not allowed’ ?
    I wouldn’t have the heart to let them struggle.

  4. Unfortunately the type of service you described is closer to the normal experience I receive when I am forced into no other option than to fly American (albeit not to that callous extreme). As I write I can think without much effort of six instances I was met by large amounts of attitude. I’ve worked in 26 countries and flown more miles than I can count. Once you fly Thai Air, or Emirates, or Royal Jordanian then come home and fly American (or Delta) you: A) can’t understand why service is so poor on American carriers and B) understand fully why bankruptcy looms.

    • An American flight attendant once slammed a headrest down on my shoulders because she didn’t think I had heard her instructions to lower it for landing.

  5. Thanks for writing, Alan. Too many folks complain to seatmates but don’t take the necessary steps to change things. I woudl love to see/hear what the response is.

  6. This sounds to me like unionized employees rigidly sticking to their union rules out of animosity and antagonism for the employer. They know that nothing will happen by lifting the bags, but they also know they don’t have to. And since they hate their employer, they won’t.

    It’s a product of union-company relations.

    That’s not an excuse. Just some insight from a guy who knows unions. What you’re seeing here is a symptom of broken union-company relations. Shame on the flight attendants for putting politics ahead of doing the right thing.

    • Eastern Airlines went out of business because of intractable conflict between CEO (Frank Borman, ex-astronaut?) and the unions.

  7. This was sad indeed Alan.

    I read your experience on American Flight 1758, and felt sick to my stomach. It’s sad on 2 levels:

    1) American Airline’s insurance wouldn’t pay their claim if they did get hurt.
    2) They didn’t help an elderly person, even though their insurance wouldn’t pay for it. IMO sometimes you just have to do what’s right anyhow.

    Wow.

    • I have no verification about whether American would pay or not, but I have my own eyes to tell me that these three women didn’t see any accountability or obligation to help these disadvantaged passengers. Did I mention that no drinks were served on the ground in first class? Apparently, they don’t knock themselves out providing customer service.

  8. Thanks for sharing Alan – even as just a lesson on basic civility.

    I’m not sure how responsive they’ll be – the CEO resigned over his disgust with the decision to use bankruptcy as a means to climb out of the hole they are in.

    Unfortunately, this is the way our legal and insurance system has conditioned people to think on every level. I find myself telling managers in our local Little League some absurd things they need to pay attention to simply for those reasons. The logic is twisted, yet over time people forget that and start to speak it as a new language….

  9. Pathetic that they couldn’t at least say, right up front, “Sorry, I wish I could help, but the rules don’t allow it.” Also pathetic that they can’t do what they expect thousands of paying customers to do every day.

    Sadly, if there are in fact rules against this (which I highly doubt), they would probably be fired for helping.

  10. Alan,
    I have also observed this behavior, with the same excuse, on United. But, as you say, most flight attendants are equipped with better judgment (and, more importantly, are not afraid to use it).

    I’d be interested to hear the response from American on this, as I suppose that there is honestly some sort of policy that the air crew can hide behind if they so desire. The gate agent, as a ground crew member, likely is under a completely different set of rules.

    I just recently read a book called “Practical Wisdom” by Barry Schwartz that deals with just this sort of mindless regulatory morass that eliminates our collective need to exercise judgment – to our detriment. It takes someone willing to bend or break the rules to even return to what would be considered normal human behavior – let alone simply accomplish their jobs effectively. Indeed, a good time to be a contrarian!

    • These were three fit women who regularly lift their own bags into the overheads. I’ve been on many flights where the flight attendants’ bags took room away from the passengers, because they had no where else to stow them. I’m stunned at anyone standing by and watching someone else suffer, let alone elderly women clearly unsteady and infirm. Their immature reaction to me was icy the entire trip. It was like being in a schoolyard where the “in” group doesn’t want to be seen with anyone else. American hasn’t responded and I’m sure some scared, conservative lawyer in some cubicle is telling them to ignore it and it will go away. Is there any great wonder why this airline filed for bankruptcy if this reflects the judgment being used daily?

  11. Hi Alan,
    My name is Chris and I live in Brisbane, Australia. I am married to Ann whom is from Boston and I met her here in Australia in 1994. I have been travelling to the US regularly since 1995 wih Qantas and their codeshare partner American Airlines. We have 3 kids under 10 and the experience you describe with American has unfortunately been the norm for us over the last 16 years. Frankly they have been terrible and customer service has been rotten. My general experience of customer service in the US has been overwhelmingly positive except for the airlines. I dont understand why Qantas partners with them. Havent flown a lot of other airlines in the US but Virgin America were a fantastic positive contrast to the grumpy American employees.

    • I’ve been to Australia 17 times now, I believe, most recently in November. I’ve been to 59 countries, and generally find service standards in the US better than Australia, Canada, or the UK, but not as good as, say, Singapore Air in the skies. My experiences on Qantas have been quite good, except for their chronic lateness. But the people are quite helpful. If you’ve had that extended poor experience, however, that’s hard to ignore.

  12. You are right Alan, service standards in the US are most definitely better in the US than in Australia (as a business owner out here I have a number of theories on this), but the US airline industry is an anachronism in my opinion. They are the one service business that are consistently poor by comparison. Having said that, on my last trip in December I said thank you to an attendant who had a great sense of humour. She seemed a little shocked when I pulled her aside to congratulate her for creating such a pleasurable trip. there is hope!

    • Airlines, newspapers, banks: Probably the worst industries for innovative leadership in this country. The exemptions were Gordon Bethune at Continental, and Herb Kelleher at Southwest.

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