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Turbulent times ahead for cabin crew this summer

By Tom Baum - Posted on 26 June 2014

Human Resource Management Professor, Tom Baum, looks at the not so glamorous life of cabin crew as they potentially play host to disruptive passengers on flights this summer…

‘Tis the season to be jolly'…. Words we normally associate with a very different time of the year. However, for airline staff responsible for flights to holiday destinations,  “jolly” passes for a euphemism for passengers who are inebriated, blind drunk, abusive and/or violent – reactions to excess alcohol which are frequently bundled together as ‘air rage’.

This behaviour can have serious implications for the safety of the aircraft and its passengers, stuck in an aluminium tube at 35,000 feet. With the summer holiday season on the horizon, it’s reasonable to suppose that the airlines, security agencies, and retailers at airports are bracing themselves for an upsurge in (mainly) minor incidents. But, in all probability, there will be one or two that will be more serious and lead to either spoiled holidays or  simply leave families longing for a peaceful and pleasant flight. There is also a fair chance that some of us may witness unacceptable and, potentially, safety-threatening behaviour when heading for the sun this summer.

Alcohol, of course, is not the only cause of what the airline industry calls “disruptive behaviour” – unfamiliarity with flying, stress and panic attacks as well as mental illness can all trigger behaviour which threatens safety and security.

The recent DISPAX World International Conference on Disruptive Airline Passenger Behaviour in London addressed a wide range of themes in this area, including legal, cultural, medical and policing. The range of delegates represented also highlighted that the problems associated with unruly passengers are by no means confined to these shores.

The message that came out of discussions was that disruptive behaviour requires the collective responsibility of stakeholders - airlines, airports, retailers, medical professionals and police – and action which is preventative and pro-active whenever possible.

My own research interest in this area is in cabin crew, often those at the frontline in handling onboard ‘issues’. My presentation to DISPAX World focused on major changes over recent decades in the socio-economic and cultural demographics of cabin crew, in line with those to be seen among their passengers. This elimination of the ‘social distance’ between travellers and airline employees places them in a common world in terms of their social interests and ways of communicating.

At the same time, cabin crew of both traditional and low cost airlines face workplace pressures and demands which mean that they frequently have little time to engage with their passengers, especially those who might be recognised as potentially disruptive. Having the time to defuse the situation - maybe by sharing an interest in music or sport, instead of confronting passengers with extreme measures (physical restraint, off-loading into the arms of a waiting police force) - has to be the answer in, probably, 99% of cases – but do a reduced number of cabin crew on aircraft have the opportunity to do this?

So, as we all head off for that well-earned break this summer, spare a thought for the cabin crew (and their ground colleagues) and show them the respect they deserve as your friends upon whom you will depend in an emergency.

Have you been affected by cutback related issues which may have been avoided with more staff on duty? Let us know in the comments below.

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