How One Flight Attendant Deals With Passengers’ Racism

Image courtesy of John Kittelsrud

Whenever there’s any kind of friction between passengers, flight attendants have to get involved and try to sort out the situation. While sometimes it’s just a matter of smoothing ruffled feathers over a seating mixup or asking a rambunctious group to settle down, playing referee can get a lot more complicated when passengers turn nasty about their fellow travelers.

Gillian Brockwell, a former flight attendant “for a major carrier” writing for The Washington Post, explains how she learned to navigate the awkward situation of dealing with passengers who expect flight crew to be their accomplice “in their racism, their homophobia, their cruel joke about the larger person seated next to them or their conviction that the mother in front of them should drug their child to shut them up.”

She says flight attendants are trained extensively in evaluating suspicious behavior, training that infuses staff with “an automatic paranoid vigilance” that prompts them to take every threat seriously — if they’re wrong, the cost is much too high not to.

“But nowhere does it recommend you accept a passenger’s assessment of a situation, and nowhere does it teach that speaking Arabic is cause for suspicion,” she notes, referring to the recent news story about a Southwest Airlines passenger who was removed from a flight for speaking Arabic on the phone.

She gives the example of a woman she encountered on a flight in 2009 who had alerted her to a “suspicious” passenger. She thanked her, and told her she’d check it out.

“I watched the man closely as he stepped onto the plane, checking for signs of a terrorist. Was he jittery? Nope. Was he sweating? A little bit, but we were in South Florida; I was sweating, too,” she writes. “Was he wearing unseasonable clothing, like a big coat in the summertime? No. In fact, his Green Bay Packers jersey perfectly fit the season — football season.”

Upon further assessment, everything checked out — he conversed normally, he wasn’t sitting stiffly and clutching his bag in his seat, and was instead slouched in his seat, watching the seatback TV.

“In fact, the only thing he appeared to have in common with the 9/11 hijackers was that he was brown,” Brockwell writes. “He could have been Punjabi or Puerto Rican, I have no idea. He could have been Catholic, or Sikh, or one of the many hundreds of millions of Muslims who have nothing to do with terrorism.”

Instead of returning to the woman passenger, she says she simply let it go and had no further discussion with either passenger, beyond the normal scope of her duties.

When passengers reported an issue, it’s not like flight attendants know what their life experience has been.

“That’s why it was so important that we made assessments based on training. In this case, being friendly and being vigilant should have called for the same thing: a conversation,” she says. “Anyone who makes a snap judgment from the cocoon of the galley has no business being a flight attendant.”

I used to be a flight attendant. Dealing with passengers’ racism is part of the job. [The Washington Post]

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