“A 300-lb man has gone berserk toward the back of the plane! …. And he’s taking off all of his clothes!”
That explained the loud ruckus I heard on my early morning flight, Southwest Airlines 947 on Aug. 20 about 30 minutes outside of Oakland en route to Las Vegas.
I suddenly realized I needed to be awake, alert, and prepared …for almost anything… especially since I was sitting in the exit row a few rows in front of the action.
As the co-author of Leading People Through Disasters , I’ve experienced my share of crises, either first-hand or vicariously. But never anything like this incident. A man exposed himself to a passenger. She screamed. He punched her, and then he stripped off all of his clothes.
Even though I’m sure no playbook existed for this exact situation, Southwest’s flight attendants and pilots handled everything extremely well. For example, they:
Mobilized help fast from available resources. The flight attendants quickly enlisted several big male passengers to provide them with back-up support. These volunteers were ready to help subdue the wild passenger. Others stood guard in front of the cockpit door.
Adjusted their communications to fit the situation. The pilots and flight attendants chose not to use the PA system to make any announcements. They did not want to do anything that might further agitate the naked man. Instead, they went up and down the aisles speaking in soft voices saying we were returning to Oakland and asking us to stay in our seats. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked as everyone cooperated.
Acknowledged that the crisis you plan for is seldom the one you face. As I later learned, Southwest had removed all of its blankets on board as a precaution against spreading swine flu-related germs. However, the blankets would have been a handy tool for wrapping the naked passenger when escorting him out the rear door of the plane.
Delivered support before asked. While law enforcement interviewed the immediate witnesses, the rest of us stayed on the plane. Those of who had missed our connections in Las Vegas, the plane’s first scheduled stop, were then able to get off the plane for rerouting. Ground crew members helped us get new flights. They also provided us with vouchers for future travel with no questions asked. Then the next day, I received an email from Southwest’s Assistant Manager of Proactive Customer Service Communications (What a title!) thanking us passengers for our patience and cooperation as well as letting us know Southwest values our continued patronage.
And as a participant in this strange situation, I recognized the importance of going with the flow and also depending on the kindness of strangers. I was trying to fly to Philadelphia; however, Southwest had no more empty seats that day. I thought I could fly into Baltimore and then take Amtrak from the Baltimore airport station to downtown Philadelphia. But since I seldom travel the Northeast Corridor any more, I wanted to validate my travel plans with people who might know. I asked some travelers who were from the East Coast if my plan made sense and they said yes.
So I traveled to Philadelphia by plane and train, arriving at my hotel more than six hours late. But at least I hadn’t spent the night on the tarmac. Plus, I had a great story to tell my meeting colleagues.
This incident also reinforced the importance of being prepared for emergencies. And while it’s important to be lean and act just-in-time most of the time, it helps to have “just-in-case” emergency supplies.
Now’s a good time to prepare and plan. September is National Preparedness Month in the United States.
How ready are you for a crisis, naked or fully-clothed?