SAN FRANCISCO -- American Airlines said it grounded a flight attendant who got into a verbal confrontation with a passenger after taking a baby stroller away from another passenger on a Friday flight from San Francisco to Dallas-Fort Worth. The incident comes less than two weeks after video of a man being violently dragged off a United Express flight sparked widespread outrage.
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In an age of cellphone videos and social media, airlines are learning the hard way that it is essential to deescalate tense situations that occur during air travel, even as there are more passengers, less room and fewer flight attendants than ever before.
United initially blamed its passenger, Dr. David Dao, before finally apologizing days after the incident, fanning the public's fury. American, by contrast, seems to have learned from United's mistakes: it immediately said it was sorry, that it had grounded the flight attendant while it investigates the incident, and that it had upgraded the passenger involved and her family to first class.
"American doesn't want to become the next United, but then, United didn't want to become the next United," said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. "No airline wants to be seen as being anti-consumer or anti-passenger."
Smartphone cameras and social media are shifting power to consumers who can share customer relations gaffes with the world. They're increasingly making confrontations with customer-facing staff headline news, making it harder for companies to sweep complaints under the rug. The faster companies own up to mistakes, the quicker they can start to do damage control.
American's fast reaction to the incident could be helpful, said brand consultant Allen Adamson, CEO of BrandSimple.
"The quick reaction will prevent it from escalating further, but it won't mitigate the perception among flyers that flying is becoming a less enjoyable experience every day," he said.
Overall, airlines must start to put more of an emphasis on customer service, he said.
"It's another example of airlines struggling to treat their passengers with the traditional 'customer is always right' attitude," he said. "Good customer service is finding a way to deescalate a situation and he (the flight attendant) was throwing gasoline on it."
Days after Dao was dragged off the United Express flight from Chicago to Kentucky to make room for airline crew, his lawyer spent a good part of a news conference railing against what he said was the industry-wide shabby treatment of airline passengers. Dao lost teeth, suffered a broken nose and received a concussion in the incident, which also was captured on video.
Traveling is stressful under any circumstance, and conflict resolution training is an essential part of being a flight attendant, Harteveldt said.
"If airlines aren't going to improve staffing or restore leg room for customers, they should at least provide flight attendants with better, more relevant training about how to handle these types of situations," he said.
At the same time, passengers should also be respectful of flight attendants - who often work long hours on multiple flights - as well, he said.
A union that represents American Airlines flight attendants said in a statement that not all of the facts are known about the incident so there shouldn't be a rush to judgment. If a passenger threatened a flight attendant, that would be a violation of federal law, said Bob Ross, president of The Association of Professional Flight Attendants.
"Air rage has become a serious issue on our flights," he said in a statement. "We must obtain the full facts surrounding these incidents. Our passengers and the flight attendants deserve nothing less."
American Airlines released this statement to ABC7News:
We have seen the video and have already started an investigation to obtain the facts. What we see on this video does not reflect our values or how we care for our customers. We are deeply sorry for the pain we have caused this passenger and her family and to any other customers affected by the incident. We are making sure all of her family's needs are being met while she is in our care. After electing to take another flight, we are taking special care of her and her family and upgrading them to first class for the remainder of their international trip.
The actions of our team member captured here do not appear to reflect patience or empathy, two values necessary for customer care. In short, we are disappointed by these actions. The American team member has been removed from duty while we immediately investigate this incident.