It has been exactly 28 years since I undertook my initial training in aviation.
My first job as cabin crew was with an ACMI (a wet-leasing arrangement whereby one airline leases an Aircraft, complete Crew, Maintenance, and Insurance to another) airline based in the Middle East, operating for a large national carrier. My flights included various destinations in the Middle East region itself, and in Africa, many of which were considered high-risk and politically unstable areas (and some still are).
A few years later, having taken on a management role, my work included operations to and from mainland Europe, the Caribbean, USA and even domestic flights within Iceland.
Although I considered retiring from aviation a few years ago, I was offered an opportunity to participate in a start-up airline in Iceland, which I agreed to on a ‘temporary basis’.
Well, off we went with a flying start and we are growing rapidly. This year WOW air will serve an estimated 3 million passengers, operate a fleet of 17 aircraft (mostly brand new equipment) and, yes, I am enjoying every minute.
I have been fortunate to enjoy a diverse work environment and experience amazing changes in the industry. But what has not changed so much during this time is international regulation and requirements for security training for cabin and flight crew.
When a new regulation is implemented, it’s often a reaction to an incident or even due to public demand for immediate action, and implementation occurs almost overnight without any crew training or consultation.
What’s even worse it that these new requirements may not even enhance flight safety or security. Indeed, they can be a hindrance.
What should be emphasised for cabin crew?
Based on experience, the first indication to crew that a passenger may become a threat or disruptive are behavioural signs, irrespective of area of operation.
What is most alarming is that, when de-briefing crew after incidents, they will often tell you that they noticed that “something was off” or that the passenger “did not behave in an expected manner”…but they did not follow up before departure.
Crew must be well educated in cultural diversity in order to avoid misunderstandings and to avoid ‘stereotyping’ those who may be considered a threat. In addition, crews must be encouraged to follow up on, enquire and report whenever they have a reason to believe that a passenger may be showing early signs of disruptive behaviour, even though it may only be a ‘gut feeling’.
Even though this is a very well-known fact, the approach the industry is taking does not necessarily reflect this.
…operators may be reluctant to offload a passenger due to lack of evidence and fear potential complaints or, worse, litigation…
Who else should be trained?
Ground staff may not be receiving sufficient education on behavioural signs and signals, which may be the only indication of a threat. In some cases, they may not even be communicating this to the crew who then could follow up.
All airlines strive for great on-time performance (OTP). Offloading a passenger may cause operational disruption but, while OTP is important to all airlines, the OTP must never negatively affect standards.
Some operators may be reluctant to offload a passenger due to lack of evidence and fear potential complaints or, worse, litigation. Duties other than safety and security may cause distractions; this may be due to passenger service during boarding or insufficient time allocation to pre-flight duties.
Competition, branding and service is also a factor. It’s almost certain that if any operator has any kind of incident on board, it will be broadcasted on social media by other passengers (or even crew!).
Airlines must exercise support to those employees who act in the interest of safety and security and apply just culture. The crew is, after all, the last line of defence, and safety and security training must include behavioural and culture awareness and be directed to detect suspicion or dangerous behaviour in the early stages.
Regulation and training requirements should encourage an up-to-date approach for crew, and new procedures should prevent actual ‘successful’ attacks.
The training itself must be audience-appropriate and provide insight and practical tools relevant to the role of today’s crewmember. Detailed knowledge of the wording of Annex 6 alone, for example, is not that useful as I’m pretty sure it’s not the first thing crew consider when faced with a critical security incident on board.
Regulators, training directors and policy drafters may have years of experience but, equally, they may not necessary consider today’s generation’s learning and training expectations. In my era, we used paper to transmit information; today’s crewmembers operate in a digital world. So, airlines have to change the way training is presented and embrace new technologies to reach, motivate and engage them.
Reporting incidents and suspicions is also easier on digital devices; likewise, they afford the airline the opportunity to provide feedback and appreciation to the crewmember.
I still fly, occasionally, as crew. While I sometimes know, not only the parents, but also grandparents of fellow crewmembers, being the senior on board takes on a whole new meaning. I’m grateful to see how ambitious and hardworking crews generally are.
And finally, the industry must also adopt a ‘zero tolerance’ stance for disruptive behaviour, and the legal environment should be adjusted so that offenders can more easily be brought to justice.
Ragna Emilsdóttir is Manager, Cabin for WOW air, Iceland