Airlines need to wake up to the reality of YouTube

Delta is the latest US carrier to be caught on camera treating a passenger badly

"You're committing a Federal Offense" - a screen grab from the infamous video taken on a Delta flight
"You're committing a Federal Offense" - a screen grab from the infamous video taken on a Delta flight

Another day, another US airline engulfed in a YouTube controversy.

You'd think staff would have been alive to the dangers of getting caught on camera given recent events, but apparently not.

This time the villain of the piece is not United Airlines, which became byword for the unfriendly skies, and kicked off an intense debate about the behaviour of airlines after security officials dragged a doctor from one of its over booked flights, but Delta.

And the circumstances are somewhat muddier.

With United the case was pretty cut and dried. The flight was over booked, and the carrier needed space for its staff. Instead of seeking volunteers to take an alternative flight in return for compensation at the gate, it sought them after it had boarded, and then chose who to drag off when it didn’t get them. Literally, in the case of Dr David Dao, who suffered some nasty injuries as a result.

The Delta case is more complex. A California family, flying back to Los Angeles from a holiday in Maui, initially bought a ticket for their 18-year-old son on the red-eye flight, only to send him home early (purchasing an extra seat in the process) so their 2-year-old could take up the space, and use an airline approved booster seat rather rather than sitting on one of the parents' laps. It’s safer that way.

The father said they let the ticket agent know about their situation at the gate, and that the agent fixed it for the family to sit together.

After they had boarded, however, Delta agents said they would have to give up the seat for other passengers on stand by.

Technically the agents were correct. Seats are not transferable. But for them to threaten the parents with jail for committing "a federal offence" and warning that their children would put into foster care (watch it on YouTube it’s not pretty) was an over reaction to say the least.

After a heated discussion, the father agreed to give up the seat, but by then Delta staff had decided they were going to be booted and they were left scrambling to find somewhere to spend the night. It was the last flight of the day and they had no rental car.

Delta was made to look even worse by the apparent ignorance of the rules by its staff - it was stated that the US Federal Aviation Administration requires a 2-year-old to be sitting on an adult’s lap. The FAA in fact, “strongly urges” parents to secure small children in car seats or approved child safety devices. Which is what the family was trying to do.

Lessons for the industry? For sure. It has been argued, following the Dao incident, that flight staff are charged with the safety of passengers and that passengers need to comply with their instructions. Which is true. However, if that power is misused, or used inappropriately, as it appears to have been in this case; if flight staff over react, well it’s going to end up on YouTube, and then it’s going to go viral and end up all over the media. That can get very expensive, not just financially, but in terms of reputational damage too.

It's an industry wide issue, that airlines really need to wake up to, regardless of where they fly from. A start would be formulating policies, and training for staff, to better deal with situations like this when they occur. Quite apart from those of the unfortunate passengers, it's in their own interests to do so. YouTube isn't going anywhere, and airlines can't easily prevent people from filming, however much they'd like to.

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