American tries to learn from United's mistakes after video of employee-passenger confrontation goes viral

American Airlines said it has grounded the flight attendant who got into a verbal confrontation with a passenger on Friday. The move, experts said, signifies a trend of airlines to deescalate tense situations during air travel after United's incident. 

Alan Diaz/AP
An American Airlines passenger jet takes off from Miami International Airport in Miami in June 2016. The company said it grounded a flight attendant who got into a verbal confrontation with a passenger on a flight from San Francisco to Dallas-Fort Worth on Friday.

Another day, another cellphone video of a conflict on an airplane.

American Airlines said it grounded a flight attendant who got into a verbal confrontation with a passenger on a Friday flight from San Francisco to Dallas-Fort Worth.

Spokeswoman Leslie Scott says the airline is looking into whether the male flight attendant violently took away a stroller from the female passenger just before she boarded a Friday flight from San Francisco to Dallas. He has been removed from duty in the meantime.

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.

The incident comes less than two weeks after video of a man being violently dragged off a United Express flight sparked widespread outrage.

United initially blamed its passenger, 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 Dr. 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.

In the case of the American flight on Friday, a video that passenger Surain Adyanthaya posted on Facebook shows the sobbing woman holding a small child and saying, "You can't use violence with baby."

Later, an unidentified male passenger confronts the flight attendant, telling him, "You do that to me and I'll knock you flat." The flight attendant responds with, "Hit me. Bring it on."

Another passenger on the flight, Olivia Morgan, told the New York Times that the flight attendant nearly hit the baby with the stroller when he jerked it away from the woman. Ms. Morgan, an executive with an education-related nonprofit, said when she complained about the woman's treatment, the flight attendant pointed his finger in her face and yelled, "You stay out of it."

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."

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