Monday, December 28, 2009

Pass The Peanuts

Very seldom does a cockpit crewmember have to get involved directly with a passenger in order to settle a particular issue.
In all these years at this airline, I can count on one hand the times that I've had to step in and attempt to diffuse a passenger problem.

After 9/11, the interaction between the cockpit crew and the passenger cabin has become even more insulated. If there is any kind of passenger problem inflight, the cabin crew is expected to deal with it and that's that! The cockpit door will not be opened under any circumstance. If it's a security issue, the pilots will defend the cockpit as necessary and continue to fly the airplane. If the particular situation in the cabin cannot be resolved and requires an unscheduled landing, then the pilots will proceed accordingly. If it seems like the cabin crew is left hanging, that is absolutely true. But the objective is to get the airplane safely on the ground as quickly as possible.

Medical situations are the most common form of inflight irregularity. Quite often a passenger will become ill and require immediate medical attention. If the attention they receive inflight doesn't correct or improve their condition, then sometimes an unscheduled landing is called for.

So with all that in mind, whenever there is a possibility of a potential inflight problem, the best course of action would be to deal with it before getting airborne. In other words, REMOVE the potential problem!

That was the case recently when we were just about ready to push back from DFW with a full boat headed for Maui. Five minutes prior to pushback the purser advised that we had a first class passenger that was traveling with his family and that one of his children had a peanut allergy. This passenger was insisting that he had advised the airline when he purchased his ticket of his child's condition, and that he was supposedly told that no peanuts would be served on the flight. The passenger was apparently making a scene.

The purser said that the passenger manifest showed no such information and that he was catered with cocktail nuts for the entire first class cabin. The purser also advised that the passenger was getting unruly and demanding that the cocktail nuts and any peanuts be removed from the aircraft. what? You'd think that the captain would have the authority to make a decision right then and there, but that's no longer the case. At this airline, the captain only gets to make captain-like decisions once the flight is underway. It's ridiculous, but that's how it is. So I just stayed put in my seat for the time being.

So the first thing to do was to call the gate agent down to the plane and get her involved. Big mistake. All she did was infuriate the passenger even more. I know gate agents have an insufferable job and I sympathize, but her people skills were lacking this day. She and the passenger were having a shouting match on the jetbridge.

Next step was to call in a supervisor. No help there either. I could hear the shouting from the cockpit. The supervisor was rudely telling him that he and his family could get off the plane or basically take your seat and "shut up". The passenger was countering that he was a million mile customer and that the airline should do whatever was necessary to protect his child without regard to the rest of the first class passengers. This was going downhill in a hurry!

So by now we were 15 minutes late when the purser asked me if I would talk with this guy and see if I could influence him at all. The beach in Maui was waiting so I gladly accepted the challenge.

For emphasis, I put on my hat and walked out to meet this guy. I introduced myself and explained to him what the options were. I politely told him that I was expecting to operate the flight without any passenger issues and if there were going to be any, that they had to be resolved right then and there. I offered for him and his family to get off the plane and be re-booked or to stay on but with the assurance that if he caused any more problems, that we would be landing somewhere between DFW and the west coast to have him removed. He seemed to understand and was calming down.

It was then that he mentioned that he was traveling with an emergency epinephrine injection just in case his child had an allergic reaction. Seems like he could have mentioned that earlier!! So I asked him "Sir, are we going to have any more problems today?" He quietly said "no" and went back to his seat.

So I don't know if he was just intimidated by having the captain have to come out and talk with him or if he just wanted someone with a little authority to hear him out. Who knows. But the gate agent, supervisor, and purser all commented on how the mans demeanor changed dramatically when I came out to speak with him.

Perhaps it was my charming personality? Or maybe it was just the hat!!

So off we went!

Several times enroute I asked how the peanut family was doing and was told "no problems".

Amazingly, after we landed and everyone was getting off, the peanut guy approached me and apologized (sort of), and even thanked me for a good flight.

I think it was the hat!

For a look at some more of my photos, please aviate over to Plane & Simple.


Anonymous said...

Of course it was the hat. And maybe the fact that he wanted to get to the beach and you actually talked to him like a human being instead of just self-loading freight.

Len (Barfbag) said...

Yeah, I think you're probably right! My personality isn't usually very charming!!


Mark Lawrence said...


Interesting story - I wonder if at times, the platinum type of travelers (million milers, etc) think they can actually push over everyone to get their way, and only when something happens like you stepping out, seems to overshadow what authority they think they have and get quietly put in their place! But, what a way to deal with it - that's just the perfect way - quietly. I wonder if the rest of first class clapped when he sat down and you were able to push :)


Len (Barfbag) said...

Hi Mark,

I don't know if anyone clapped but I'm sure some people probably offered him their peanuts!!

Flying Kites Mom said...

As a result of lots of observation in T5 London Heathrow where flight crew goes through the Departure Lounge to their aircraft I'm bound to say that I think that the HAT does make a diffeence- but why, I don't know. It's not as though it's a symbol of authority in other spheres of life. And in the case of your encounter I'm sure that your hat was, in fact, drawing inspiration from the head on which it sat! LS-P

Len (Barfbag) said...


Love your comment and your humor!
Thanks for reading.


Lily said...

The hat helps a lot! (hee hee!)

Too bad that the passenger was so miserable! I work as a teacher and we have numerous students with peanut allergies. Parents know that we can't promise them a nut-free environment...all we can do is try. They don't make a fuss and try to close the school down. Some people are rude, I guess.

Just curious, the parent only had ONE epipen? Once given, it lasts about 15 minutes and another dose would need to be that enough time to land? So worrisome.

Oh well, thanks for the stories. They are very interesting.

Anonymous said...

This sort of situation has happened to most peanut-allergic flyers at least once. They tell everyone inside the airport about the allergy, receive assurances every step of the way that there will not be nuts, but once they get on the plane, out come the nuts. There seems to be some sort of breakdown of communication between everyone inside the airport and the attendants on the plane.

Food allergies are considered a hidden disability under the ADA, giving the allergic the same right to fly as anyone else. Epinephrine is only a mitigating measure, and those who receive it must get to a hospital in 15 minutes. The shot itself can cause heart problems, and it is not fail proof. The shot can misfire, fail to fire, and even when given properly, epinephrine does not always work to stop a life-ending reaction. No matter what, all of these senarios would result in an emergency landing.

Tell me, which would have taken less time and effort on the part of the airline - going through 4 different staff members to try and diffuse the parent, or going through the cabin, explaining the problem, and politely asking everyone for the nuts back and either replace them with something else or ask them to forgo? Trust me, witnessing a child die on an airplane is much more inconvenient to people than giving up a snack. A person's rights end when another person's rights begin. A peanut-allergic child's right to breathe safely trumps an adult's right to a salty snack. Period.

Len (Barfbag) said...

Dear anonymous,

Thank you for your input.
I knew this would be a controversial post!
Please understand that I do not in any way represent the airline I work for. I was only relating a situation that happened and posting it to my insignificant little blog that I write purely for entertainment.

In this case, I was completely sympathetic to the passenger's case...I'm sure he told the airline when he booked the ticket about his child. (why wouldn't he for God's sake?) And as so often happens (as you mentioned), that information didn't make it to the right people.
As I mentioned in my post, at this airline the captain has no decision making authority at the gate whatsoever when it comes to an issue such as this.
It was only when I was asked for assistance, that I attempted to diffuse the situation and get the flight underway. The passenger was quickly becoming a problem and before it degraded into a situation to where the authorities had to be called, I spoke with him.

Given the proper authority, I would have asked that no nuts be served on the big deal. But I don't get to make that call and the powers that be chose to see it the other way.

The passenger was asking for any nuts to be removed from the airplane before departure. Now this would have involved having the catering trucks return to the aircraft, go through the catering carts, and remove the nuts. Sounds simple right? Well I can tell you that this would have taken at least 45 minutes to an hour. In the meantime another aircraft is waiting for our gate with a planeload of passengers waiting to connect to other flights, etc. Then once we finally get airborne, we are late arriving to Maui...the plane is scheduled to return to DFW, but now they will be delayed causing untold inconvenience to 225 more passengers. It's a snowball effect!

There is intense pressure on gate agents to get a flight out on time. Sometimes common sense is clearly not used and this was a good example. It could have been resolved in a much simpler way.

Like I said, I was sympathetic to the passenger...but he was getting unruly and something needed to be done. All I did was say a few words and everyone seemed satisfied.
I just wish we had a little more authority and the freedom to use it once in a while. Sometimes the flight crews actually do have the big picture...not always, but in this case we did. Unfortunately sometimes we don't get to make all the decisions.

Thanks again for your input and I appreciate you taking the time to visit my blog.

Anonymous said...

Len - I think you handled it just fine, and it sounds like you understood that the father of a peanut-allergic child is already anxious, and clearly got more anxious when he saw the mixed nuts. I'm a peanut allergic adult - I understand the issues. And as someone else pointed out can tell the check-in person, customer service/disability when you book, the gate agent, the head flight attendant, etc. and then there could still be a miscommunication. Further - American Airlines (I see images, I'm guessing that is the airline) does not serve blatant peanuts at all in the snacks. The mixed nuts in First class are peanut free (though I think they are a 'may contain') and the snack mix in the little bags in coach have roasted SOY nuts in them, not peanuts (many people confuse that, until you read the ingredients).

American is an airline I fly regularly b/c of the no-blatant peanut policy.

However, I can understand an anxious parent with an allergic child. Possibly was a new diagnosis? I think you diffused the situation well, and I'm glad to hear the child had no reaction, and I'm glad the father calmed down a bit.

Having a life threatening food allergy is stressful just for me, I can only imagine having a child with a life threatening food allergy! yeeps!

And't believe he had just 1 Epipen. I carry 4-6 when I fly "just in case" (though of course I don't eat airline food, bring my own, but you have to be prepared).

Yeah, flying with a food allergy (especially if one is touch sensitive or airborne sensitive) is really stressful. Do-able, but stressful.

Jenny Bob said...

I think it was a combination of 2 things...the hat and your charming personality.
Thanks for letting me visit your interesting neighborhood!

Brian said...

Len, I'm late to the party, but an excellent write-up as usual. Thanks again for the look behind the curtain.

I come on a completely unrelated manner, however. I was cruising through YouTube last night when I came across this video of an ANA 747 on takeoff.

I had two questions and I hope you could help when you got a chance.

1. The pilot spools up the engines then takes his hand off the throttle altogether. The throttle then automatically advances to TO thrust.

I always thought - though without any real-world experience to back it up - that you just pushed the thing forward to the stops and that there was some sort of governor, if you will, on the FMC. Am I wrong on this? Does the TOGA system push the throttles right where they need to be?

2. What's up with the white gloves? (Come to think of it, they'd make you look even more authoritative, at least when properly used with the hat.)


Len (Barfbag) said...

We manually advance the throttles about 1/4 of the way and then engage the autothrottles. We don't ever let go of them however. The autothrottles automatically advance the throttles to the computed power settings as entered in the FMC's. The EEC's (electronic engine controls) limit the engines from overboosting or overspeeding. Yes, the pilots can advance the throttles all the way to the stops without any damage as long as the EEC's are operational. I'm sure some airlines operate this way but at my airline, the captain always keeps his hands on the throttles throughout the takeoff roll. That way we can initiate an abort much faster (if necessary).
I couldn't get the You Tube video to work, so I can't comment on the white gloves.

Hope this helps!!


Brian said...

Thank you, good sir. Your insight is appreciated!

Raoucus said...

People can be so inconsiderate sometimes. It's ridiculous to think that one person thinks they are so "privileged" over every other passenger on board simply because of a status symbol they carry, or maybe they use the airline a lot? Being a round-the-clock customer is cool, and you might get a little leniency. But seriously, flipping out over peanuts... I wanna cuss, but I reserve that for my own personal blog :P

Chrissy said...

First of all he was an a**hole... Secondly, it was THE HAT...People these days are such crass individuals. Its not just in your industry, its all over...