Every day, flight attendants face difficult decisions that have no real precedent. Just look at the recent incident in which a United Airlines passenger went to the lavatory and hanged himself. The logistics of how he accomplished this — not to mention why — are a bit puzzling (though I have been in a few airplane toilets that made me want to cry). What would you have done had you been the flight attendant who discovered the body?
In the 17 years that I have been flying, I have faced many tough decisions. Some I handled well, some not so well. After a difficult incident, people are happy to tell you how they think it should have been resolved. I am going to present you with 10 situations and ask you, the passenger, to make the call. The way each was actually handled — correctly or incorrectly — is given at the end of the list.
1. A male passenger plays a pornographic DVD on a portable player. I notice there are children within sight and that other passengers are becoming annoyed. When I ask the gentleman to please put the DVD away, he refuses, citing his personal rights. What do I do?
2. A female passenger, acting strangely and smelling of alcohol, asks for another drink. I decide she’s had too much already and cut her off. She informs me that she is not drunk but has multiple sclerosis and would still like that drink. Do I serve her?
3. On a long international flight, a first class passenger airs his intestines continuously. I mean, he passes gas big time. It gets so bad that most everyone has a tissue stuffed up his nose, and a couple of passengers are getting sick. One flight attendant decides to go on a smell hunt and tracks down the culprit. Should she say something?
4. A male passenger is reading a book on how to build bombs. The title is in large print, and surrounding passengers become alarmed. Should a flight attendant do something?
5. A couple joining the Mile High Club in one of the lavatories makes their intentions clear by vocalizing loudly. You knock on the door, hoping they will either stop or become more discreet. When they don’t stop and passengers start to complain, what do you do?
6. You find a roll of money on the floor of the lavatory. It carries no identification. You count it and find it totals well over $500. Your paychecks have recently been cut and you could really use that windfall. What do you do?
7. A female passenger comes to the galley and tells you that her husband has just passed away. The couple knew this might happen, as the man had a serious heart condition. There are no empty seats to which he can be moved, and you know that if you report the death before landing, all the passengers will be quarantined for several hours. What do you do?
8. You are on an eight-hour flight that has been delayed for two hours due to mechanical trouble. When it finally takes off, you get a note from Operations saying that everyone on board will miss their connecting flights. Do you tell the passengers right away, knowing that everyone will be put in a foul mood, or do you wait until nearer the end of the flight? Or do you not tell them at all?
9. A passenger boards wearing an extremely racist T-shirt. Having had several complaints from passengers during boarding, and fearing World War III could break out in flight, what do you do — if anything?
10. One of your pilots is late and boards in a hurry, smelling of alcohol. He is not acting peculiarly, but the smell is obvious. How do you handle the situation?
The solution to these dilemmas is not always straightforward, and different people may handle them differently. The following, right or wrong, is how each was in fact resolved.
1. I confiscated the DVD player and returned it after the flight. The passenger took my name and employee number and promised a lawsuit. Yes, I do believe in rights — everybody’s rights. Two years later, I have yet to hear of a lawsuit.
2. There was no way I could determine if this lady did indeed have MS. I kindly refused the drink, citing my responsibility to monitor onboard alcohol consumption.
3. I believe the brave flight attendant who did the investigating went beyond the call of duty. In the end, she did say something, as it had gotten to the point of making people ill. The passenger confessed but said there was nothing he could do. The flight attendant directed him to a restroom that had not been utilized, where he was able to air out his laundry more appropriately.
4. I had no problem telling the man to either put the book away or hold it more discreetly. It was a no-brainer after 9/11.
5. The knocking did not help so I unlocked the door. Conveniently, this action automatically turns off the light. The couple got the hint and curtailed their activities. My next step would have been to open the door. No, not because I am a voyeur, but because she was a screamer and the other passengers were getting annoyed.
6. I made an announcement that something valuable had been found in the forward lavatory but I omitted any description. An elderly lady came up to me almost in tears saying she had lost her money. I happily returned it, feeling guilty that I had entertained other plans for it. When she gave me a $2 reward, the guilt quickly disappeared.
7. Nothing was done until after landing, when we officially “discovered” the death. The wife, who had pretended her husband was asleep, was grateful that no spectacle had been made.
8. The purser decided to delay the bad news, which ended up being the right move. The pilots had made up much of the time in flight, and half the passengers were able to make their connections after all.
9. I greeted the passenger in a kind but firm tone, saying, “You can wear something over your shirt, turn it inside out, or get off.” He quickly reversed it and said nothing the remainder of the flight.
10. I spoke to the other pilot and told him of my concern. It turned out that someone had spilled a drink on the pilot, who was willing to take an alcohol test if I so wished. There were no hard feelings, and he changed his shirt. I think both sides handled that one well.
How did you do? Did you make the same calls? What would you have done differently? E-mail me and give me your opinions. I can take it — I think!
James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please or . Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting .