Passengers are powerless

Another week, another horror story about customer service on airlines. This time it’s about a woman who says she was told by United Airlines cabin crew to urinate in a cup.


Of course, there are different ways to interpret the story, but it does — once again — highlight an important issue: exactly how much control airline crew have over their passengers.

Nurse Nicole Harper said she was initially prevented from going to the toilet because the “fasten seat belts” sign was on. When she told them she simply had to go, even if it meant using a cup, they gave her a cup.

Eventually they escorted her to the lavatory.

First up, I have to say that the seat-belt signs are there for a reason: to stop people being injured in the increasingly-more-common event of turbulence. But it’s also fair to say (from my experience, at least) that many pilots seemingly forget that the sign is on or they are misreading the likelihood of further turbulence. That can mean tjat the signs are on for a long time — and when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.

I once saw a man who was prevented from going to the lavatory, and he wet himself. Not a good look — but at the time the flight was coming in to land, so I guess he should have planned things better. (Many pilots helpfully advise passengers to use the facilities well before landing.)

Still, I would argue that if it’s safe for the flight attendants to still be moving around the cabin (you know it isn’t when you hear the captain tell them to take their seats), then it should be OK in an emergency for a passenger to go to the toilet.

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Perhaps they could even sign a legal waiver if they want to do so — although I expect the fine print for every ticket transaction already exempts airlines from liability for  injuries sustained by those who disobey crew instructions.

Of course, this story has had more media traction because it follows closely the incident involving Dr David Dao, who was dragged from a United plane to make way for airline staff.

While Dr Dao did get compensation, his experience was a public-relations nightmare for United. This latest incident doesn’t help its attempts to rebuild its reputation.

The basic problem is that flight crew are in the business of customer service, and that can be a difficult job that requires the right kind of temperament.

I have a lot of respect for the crew because they cope with a lot. But it’s also fair to say that some flight attendants appear jaded and uninterested in their passengers. And this seems to be more common on certain airlines.

But, as the crew often say, they are primarily there for our safety, and I suppose that in some cases, wetting yourself is a better option than dying or being disabled by hitting your head on the cabin ceiling during heavy turbulence.

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