The kid glove treatment – why airline passengers need to behave

New recruits to the so called “hospitality” industry are taught that in all things, the customer is always right. Obnoxious fools that complain unfairly about the standard of food or service, are to be treated with the utmost politeness and servility according to management instructions. I envy the patience and fortitude that is often displayed by shop assistants, waiters and hotel staff towards customers who are rude and insulting and who should be thrown out on their ear. Yet it is ultimately the customer who pays the money that keeps the employee in a job, and puts food on the table. This applies from the manager of a business right down the line to the newest employee. Keep the customer happy and you eat – it is as simple as that.

In the airline industry it is usually the cabin crew who come face to face with the loud mouths, the drunks, the ungrateful, and sometimes the dangerous. One written complaint and invariably the flight attendant is before the management court with his or her job on the line. There is no grilling of the customer, but the flight attendant will be interrogated with the view of guilty of upsetting a passenger unless irrevocably proven innocent. Membership of a strong trade union will sometimes balance the scales of justice.

The customer is always right.
Not true, but sometimes you have to act like it.

Occasionally a nasty passenger will get just deserts. Like the groping Kiribati seaman in seat 75A of the Air Nauru Boeing 727 which was en-route from Hong Kong to Tarawa via stops at Taipei, Guam, Ponape and Nauru. With other members from the crew of a cargo ship, he had been paid off after the vessel had completed its voyage to Hong Kong. His six month contract completed, the seaman was returning to his island home. The sight and close proximity of beautiful Pacific Islands air hostesses was all too much for him after the hardened whores in Hong Kong.

A few beers, and the seaman became bolder in his advances towards the No. 4 junior air hostess working in the rear of the cabin. Her training had briefly covered the handling of cranky customers and crying children, but she was ill prepared for the groping hand of a leering seaman. She snapped back which caused much loud laughter from the rest of the seamen in adjoining seats. The culprit grew angry at the lack of interest from the young air hostess who was from his own island, and renewed his passes at her. Eventually she complained to the captain who decided to personally sort out the chap in 75A.

Leaving the first officer at the controls, the captain entered the cabin and ordered the seamen to keep his hands to himself. He also instructed the cabin staff not to serve any more alcohol to the man.

The seaman was unimpressed by the presence of the captain wearing four gold bars on his epaulettes, but agreed to behave. Shortly after the captain had returned to the flight deck however, the seaman made a drunken pass at another of the air hostesses, and it became obvious that the situation was deteriorating with the junior hostesses fearful of continuing with cabin service at the rear of the aircraft.

The aircraft had just started to descend toward Taipei, when the captain again appeared in the cabin and, shirtfronting the seaman, threatened to have him put off the aircraft on arrival at Taipei. The seaman considered himself somewhat of a bush lawyer and argued with the captain over his rights as a fare paying passenger.

Angry airline passengers
Things can get rowdy back there…

The captain calmly played his trump card and told the passenger that unless he promised not to make a further nuisance of himself, not only would the captain have him arrested by the airport police on arrival at Taipei, but that arrangements would be made to have him tortured in prison. This threat had the immediate desired effect, and to twist the knife a little further, the captain ordered the seaman to apologize to each of the cabin crew individually. The remainder of the flight was uneventful, with the seaman and his ship mates being model passengers all the way to Kiribati. There were no complaints made to the airline management.

A few years later I was in command of G-BKMS, a British Paramount Airways Boeing 737 operating a holiday charter flight from Berlin to Tel Aviv and return. We had a full load of passengers for the return trip, which meant we could not take enough fuel in the tanks to get to Berlin with normal reserves. The problem was exacerbated by strong forecast headwinds and poor weather for the arrival.

We contacted our company agent by radio who advised that approval had been received to land en-route for fuel at Linz in Austria.

After take off from Tel Aviv, I made a PA to the passengers that our arrival into Berlin would be behind schedule due to a requirement to refuel at Linz. Most of them were Germans nationals returning from sight seeing tours of the Holy Land. An hour into the flight, a German cabin attendant reported that one of the passengers, who was a journalist for a Berlin newspaper, was being generally rude and unpleasant to the cabin staff and making pointed criticism of the decision to stop at Linz.

Now German female cabin attendants are invariably tall, blonde and beautiful. Our crew were no exception, and certainly they are no shrinking violets when it comes to handling prickly passengers. I was surprised therefore when a little later the senior hostess appeared on the flight deck with tears in her eyes. She said that the journalist passenger had been complaining to all around that the service was poor and that in his opinion there was no reason for the aircraft to land at Linz.

You're driving me nuts
Sometimes they deserve hazard pay.

I made another PA apologizing for the delay into Berlin due to the intermediate landing, and stated a requirement for passengers to remain on board at Linz while refuelling took place. The senior flight attendant repeated the message in German. Apparently this did not satisfy the journalist, and he continued to annoy the staff with continuous pressing of his service call button.

I felt very sorry for the hostesses who had had a long and arduous flight from Berlin, because by the end of the day they would have been on duty for 14 hours, and this clown had really upset their routine. I decided to have a chat with him during the stop-over at Linz. At this stage I was unsure of the ramifications of tackling a recalcitrant German passenger on the ground in Austria in a British registered aircraft leased by a Berlin tour operator!

Nevertheless, as the captain of the flight, I had a legal responsibility for its safe conduct.

After landing at Linz, the first officer took care of the refuelling and paperwork, while I jammed my uniform cap on my head to make me look taller, and went down the back amongst the sea of passengers to find my man. Fortunately he was a short-arse too, and he spoke excellent English.

He told me that he had done the trip several times with a German airline and had always flown direct Tel Aviv to Berlin without a stop. I tried to explain patiently that the hot temperatures at Tel Aviv coupled with strong return headwinds dictated that a landing was essential at Linz. He began to argue and at that point I blew up, and suggested somewhat incautiously that he fly the bloody aircraft himself. Our relationship deteriorated immediately, and I told him to stop hassling the cabin crew and to sit down and shut up. To my amazement there was loud hand-clapping and cheers from the rest of the passengers who had also been annoyed at his boorish behaviour towards the cabin crew.

I pondered my limited future with this airline if the journalist went to print, and decided reluctantly to write a short note of apology to him. I gave a brief listing of the weight of the aircraft, its payload, and the fuel requirements, stating that these figures would prove that an en-route landing was necessary. The note was delivered to the passenger just before landing. He tore it up in front of the air hostess who had given to him.

Rubber glove
This won’t hurt… much.

At Berlin the wind and rain lashed the aircraft, and as we landed my mood was as foul as the weather. The passengers disembarked and climbed aboard waiting buses while our company agent came into the flight deck to collect the paperwork. His name was Klaus, and he asked did we have a pleasant trip. The senior hostess had already mentioned the troublesome passenger to him, and as we talked I had a glimpse of the journalist stepping into a bus. I pointed to him through the cockpit window and told Klaus that this bloke had been a problem to us all, and could he perhaps take the passenger aside and have a word in his pink ear.

Klaus then said that he recognized the passenger as a regular traveller who was known to airline staff as complaining type. Meanwhile he promised to have a chat with the journalist in the airport terminal.

Twenty minutes later, and as we boarded the crew bus to go to our hotel, a smiling Klaus appeared in the doorway. He said that he had had a word with his colleagues at Customs and Immigration at the airport, and explained that a certain passenger had been a real pain in the neck to the crew, and could they suggest a remedy. They certainly could apparently, and the passenger was quickly separated from the rest and taken to a special room. There he was told politely to strip off and a full body search was carried out. When the passenger protested, a rubber gloved finger was unceremoniously shoved up his posterior and carefully rotated a few times. He was then left to shiver in the cold room, until his clothes were returned. Klaus said that the chap had definitely got the message, and doubted that he would cause any more trouble in the future.

So yes Virginia, there really is a Santa Klaus, and he lives in Berlin…

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10 Comments

  • John,
    I am still laughing. I repeat my statement that you are welcome at my table any time for a lingering dinner with plentiful food and beverages of your choice. To paraphrase the song, “I could listen all night.”

  • Wow! No comments, that is an achievement. I am a Captain for a major airline and found your post to be very close to home. Now of course, we are locked into the cockpit to never venture forth except for nature calls. But I have commuted to work for 28 years and have seen similar passenger behavior.

  • A couple of comments:

    Seat 75A on a 727? That seems like a very high number for a single aisle jet that carries 175 passengers at most.

    Also as cathartic as it may feel to see the flight crew get revenge on the journalist, is it really fair or reasonable to subject him to a strip search and anal penetration? I mean really, I understand he’s an ass but what justifies this type of invasive behavior? This little story has quite an authoritarian flavor to it and what went down is most likely illegal.

  • Completely agree with Michael: “is it really fair or reasonable to subject him to a strip search and anal penetration?”

    The glibness with which that story is told is stunning.

    • Ibit and Michael:
      I sympathize with your concerns, but not to the point of disagreeing with the Captain. A little accountability often is all that is needed to maintain civility on tightly packed, uncomfortable aircraft stuffed with people who can’t escape the boorish behavior of a small number of passengers. With no exceptions to date I’ve found cabin crews to be pretty tolerant. There are limits, however. Kudos for correcting two problems than begged for accountability.

  • Ohhhh yes. The fair is in August. This was a most deserving response. Authoritarian? For your much needed edification, the captain IS the authority on his aircraft. Along with a tremendous amount of responsibility comes the authority to keep things, and people in line.

  • As I was born and raised in israel I can suggest the following to any capitan: next time someone on the plane is pissing u off, find the biggest israeli guy In your passenger manifest, go and whisper in his ear that you need seat xyz to behave, and trust me, you won’t have anymore problems from that point on 🙂

  • Sorry, I HAVE to ask: was it absolutely necessary to combine that comment in the article, “a rubber gloved finger was unceremoniously shoved up his posterior and carefully rotated a few times”, with a mention on the same page, just below the comment, about a related article, “Sticky fingers”??

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