Stress Claim? Flying the Unfriendly Skies When Your Pilot Crashes Without His Plane

28 Mar, 2012 Bob Wilson


Chalk another one up for the passengers. They told us after 9/11 that the rules of flying had changed. Never again would passengers sit idly by while someone threatened the safety of their flight. Time and time again that has proven to be true. Yesterdays JetBlue Flight 191, bound for Las Vegas from New York, proved to be no exception to that new reality. Well, it might have been a slight exception.

The man running up and down the aisle, telling passengers they were going to crash; urging them to pray, and then pounding on the cockpit door demanding access, was the planes Captain. The pilot. The man responsible for the safety of all onboard. He was summarily tackled and detained by four passengers, who held him until the planes co-pilot could safely make an emergency landing in Amarillo, TX.

Bet they never planned for that one in flight safety school.

I fly quite often, and am not a nervous flyer by any stretch of the imagination. However, I think the sight of my planes captain being locked out of his own cockpit because of “erratic behavior”, would likely give me pause. And this is not the first airline employee meltdown to make national headlines. Last year a JetBlue flight attendant made a spectacular exit/resignation by telling a customer to “go f—k yourself” over the PA system and then sliding down the emergency chute into relative unemployment. Two weeks ago an American Airlines flight attendant went berserk prior to takeoff, again screaming about terrorists, 9/11, flight safety, Dancing with the Stars, and the fact that they were all about to die (so make sure your tray table is up and your seatback is in a full and upright position). The passengers also had to restrain her until the plane could return to the gate and she could be carted off by authorities.

A brief emergency landing....In the interest of full disclosure, and the risk of offending other airline's employees who read this, I am a nearly fanatical devotee of Southwest Airlines. I will travel hours out of my way to use airports serviced by Southwest. I am an A-List member, and my wife is a Companion Pass holder (a terrific program allowing her to fly free whenever I do. She rarely wants to, however. Those of you who have met me will understand). True, they broke my heart when their newly acquired AirTran unceremoniously dumped my hometown of Sarasota, but that is a topic for another blog…. The point is I cannot picture this happening on Southwest, simply because it would interfere with their schedule. And nothing interferes with a Southwest schedule. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor dark of night, nor big thunderheads (screw it, fly thru it!)  – not even my flight from Philly where something caught fire, and certainly not a namby pamby pilot crying to be let back into his cockpit, will keep them from their appointed rounds. Don't get me wrong. I think their sky jockeys are crazy, but damn if they can't fly that plane, and fly it on time.

But I digress….

I wonder what the ramifications are for the comp industry in all of this. Some jurisdictions recognize stress claims, and the two most recent examples, the JetBlue pilot and the American Airlines flight attendant, certainly exhibited potential signs of stress related illness. Both were treated for “medical issues” following their outbursts, although the attendant claimed to be bi-polar and off her meds the day of the breakdown.  Could our industry end up owning these situations? And are the stress levels increasing to such a point that we will see more of these in-flight personnel failures? They are questions to be concerned with, and the ramifications go beyond the immediate, yet significant threats to passengers and co-workers of those who experience these meltdowns.

Flying is stressful. Planes are often full. Airports are crowded. Security is a hassle (but at least I know I am polyp free courtesy of my continual TSA screenings). Stories of air rage amongst passengers are quite common. But when the stress and related breaking points turn to those who staff the planes and are charged with the safety and care of their (belligerent, overweight, and largely annoyed) passengers, we have reasons to be concerned. I do not know what the best solution is to deal with this proactively, but for airlines and their risk management people, it is a conversation worth having.

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