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 de-escalate 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, Dr. 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 de-escalate a situation and he (the flight attendant) was throwing gasoline on it."
Days after 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."
According to Adyanthaya's post, the confrontation started when an "AA Flight attendant violently took a stroller from a lady with her baby on my flight, hitting her and just missing the baby. Then he tried to fight a passenger who stood up for her."
On the video, the flight attendant is seen challenging another passenger who came to the woman's defense.
Another passenger, Olivia Morgan, was standing near the door of the plane with her 8-year-old daughter waiting to board when she saw the altercation, she told a Los Angeles television station.
"The flight attendant wrestled the stroller away from the woman, who was sobbing, holding one baby with the second baby in a car seat on the ground next to her," she said.
The male flight attendant was "violent" when he took the metal stroller away from the mother and nearly hit the baby with the stroller, she said.
"He stormed by me with the stroller and I said something like, 'What are you doing? You almost hit that baby!' and he yelled at me to 'stay out of it' just like he does in the video," she said.
The woman told Morgan that a female flight attendant said she could look for a place to store the stroller because it folds up, but if there was no space she would have to check it at the gate, KTLA-TV reported.
"She was looking for space when the male attendant tried to take it away from her — and she told him the other attendant told her it was OK to look," Morgan said.
In the video, passenger Tony Fierro says, "I'm not going to sit here and watch this" and asks for the flight attendant's name. The situation escalates as Fierro tells the attendant, "Hey bud, you do that to me and I'll knock you flat."
The two confront each other after the flight attendant says, "You stay out of this." He also challenges Fierro: "Hit me."
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."
American Airlines said in a statement that the flight attendant was suspended while the airline investigates the confrontation.
"What we see on this video does not reflect our values or how we care for our customers," the airline said in a statement. "The actions of our team member captured here do not appear to reflect patience or empathy, two values necessary for customer care. In short, we are disappointed by these actions."
Information from the Dallas Morning News and Associated Press was used in this report.