Another airline passenger's video is going viral this morning. This one shows a highly unfortunate incident on a Southwest Airlines plane, and highlights a fundamental and difficult challenge that faces leaders in any situation

First, the video. It shows the latter stages of an incident in which two Southwest flight attendants are calmly but firmly insisting a man, woman, and 2-year-old leave the plane.

Apparently, this is because the toddler had previously been unsettled and unruly while the plane, heading from Chicago to Atlanta on Wednesday, was either taxiing or getting ready for takeoff.

The video doesn't show that part. However, I talked early this morning with the woman who filmed it, Alexis Armstrong, who is a mother herself, and is also a college junior at the University of St. Francis in Illinois.

Her anger at the situation was exacerbated, she said, after one of the flight attendants had told her to "shut up" after she objected during the incident, and another told her to stop recording, and warned she would be kicked off the plane herself next.

Armstrong told me she shared the video on Facebook within minutes, even before the plane took off. As of this morning it has more than 160,000 views and is climbing fast. It's somewhat heartbreaking to watch, because by this point in the scene anyway, the little girl is calm, quiet, and frankly adorable. 

The child "had a fit for about three minutes... WHILE still boarding and people were seating," Armstrong told me. "Then the flight attendant in red came over and said she needs to calm and sit or she will be escorted off... The man calms the child, gets her popcorn, sets her up."

A few minutes later, as the plane was getting close to the runway, the captain announced they'd be returning to the terminal.

The video is embedded at the end of this article. The audio is difficult to hear at some points, but it's clear that other passengers began to object to the ejection.

"With a 2-year-old, you're not going to give her like two minutes to sit?" another passenger (not Armstrong) can he heard asking.

"We're cleared for departure," one of the flight attendants says, addressing the rest of the plane. "We all need to understand the operation, unfortunately. This is not helpful guys. Do you want to go to Atlanta? The decision's been made."

As the travel site One Mile at a Time wrote this morning:

"I understand that flight attendants need to enforce FAA regulations, and that the daughter needed to be in her seat. I also understand that at a busy airport you're potentially holding up other planes if you get out of sequence and delay the flight until someone is seated (though returning to the gate also delays a flight).

"However, she's also 2 years old. If she was scared to fly on this flight, can you imagine how scared she'll be next time, after she was kicked off a plane once?"

As the parent of a toddler, I feel terrible for the man and woman in this video (it's not clear whether they were the child's parents, or possibly other relatives). Kudos to them for 
actually getting the child to calm down and be quiet--and for keeping their cool while they were being kicked off.

These flight attendants are facing a difficult leadership situation, however, and it's one that gets to the core of the toughest challenge most leaders face every day. It's especially hard for people in their kind of position, who are more like middle managers than entrusted leaders.

That challenge: how to balance the immediate goal you're trying to accomplish against the much larger issue of how it reflects on you as a leader, and your future ability to lead. 

It would seem the situation here calls for some flexibility. But truly, what do you do in this moment as a flight attendant, called on to act quickly, and keeping in mind we are only seeing video of the latter parts of this exchange?

  • Do you give in, and let the passengers remain--notwithstanding that you've already disrupted the airport's schedule once? What if you start taxiing again, and the man and woman lose control of the child again?
  • Do you stand fast, as these flight attendants did, knowing full well that in 2018, other passengers are filming the incident, and will likely release it to the world--literally within minutes?

Southwest provided a statement after this article was originally published:

After pushback Wednesday evening, Flight 1683 to Atlanta returned to the gate at Chicago Midway to allow supervisors to board the aircraft. Our initial reports indicate a conversation escalated onboard between the crew and a customer traveling with a small child. We always aim for a welcoming and hospitable experience and regret the inconvenience to all involved. The traveling party was booked on the next flight to Atlanta after the original flight continued as planned. We will reach out to the customer to listen to any concerns they have about their experience and look forward to welcoming them onboard again soon.

"All I really wanted was it to be seen by [Southwest] and apologize to this family. I am a mom and my heart was hurting for this dad. Southwest owes them an apology," Armstrong told me. "I did NOT think this would blow up, I am not sure why I even began to film, I just knew from the woman's attitude and security approaching it wasn't going to end well."

Published on: Mar 15, 2018
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