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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Alex Cross Faces Authority Responsibility and Accountability

Recently,  as reported by James Fallows in The Atlantic, a Captain diverted his plane to Chicago because a mother and father assertively complained that the movie Alex Cross was inappropriate for their 4 and 8 year old children. When the parents asked the crew if the overhead monitor in their area could be stowed, they said they did not have the authority to do that.  When the plane landed in Chicago, numerous law enforcement officers, LEOs, were there to meet the flight and remove the family.  After a very brief interview by the LEOs the airline placed the family on another flight to Baltimore.   The movie, rated PG-13, is about a criminologist/detective pushed to his limits protecting society from a serial killer.  Is there a little irony here?

I want to emphasize that only the crew and the passengers involved in the incident know exactly what happened.  Presumably, the cabin crew is trained to deal effectively with unhappy customers.   If the Captain felt that the aircraft, crew or passengers would be harmed if the flight continued to Baltimore, its scheduled destination, there is an obligation and responsibility to land the aircraft as soon as possible.  I don’t think anyone would disagree. 

When in command, an airline Captain’s power is absolute.  However, there are moral and ethical considerations to the application of that power.  How authority is exercised  says volumes about a person in command.   Legal authority is given those with positions of responsibility.  That authority is tied to the position.  In reality, authority is much more complex. It requires judgement, integrity and respect.  Over the centuries many noteworthy people have weighed in on this subject.  Throughout our own lives we see that authority or power does not change a person’s morals or ethics, rather it more clearly defines them. Here are a few examples.

William Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham and British Prime Minister from 1766 to 1778.

"Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it"

Historian and moralist, known as Lord Acton (1834–1902).

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States (1809 – 1865).

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

This is what I understand the terms authority, responsibility and accountability to mean.

Authority; jurisdiction; the right to control, command or determine.

Responsibility; answerable or accountable for something within one's power.

Accountability; subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something.

Whether it is legally granted, as an airline Captain’s or voluntarily given by respect, authority is derived from and therefore must be balanced with responsibility and accountability.  If there is no accountability there is no responsibility and if there is no responsibility there is no authority.  It is an equation.  The equation becomes invalid when these values are unbalanced.  When accountability and responsibility are diminished, by definition, so is authority. 

Speaking of responsibility and accountability, what about the person at the airline who chose the movie Alex Cross to be shown on cabin monitors throughout the plane.  The person with the authority to make that decision should have known that it was not suitable for all audiences.  I believe they have an obligation to explain themselves.  That decision was certainly a contributing factor to the cost, inconvenience and operational disruption that the diversion caused.

People who exhibit authority, responsibility and accountability effectively are referred to as leaders. Leadership requires constant pursuit of a balanced relationship between authority, responsibility and accountability.  The most effective leaders will err toward the side of responsibility and accountability.  These leaders enjoy additional authority earned through the respect they have acheived.  These leaders go above and beyond by supporting others and are not afraid to explain their decisions, objectives or methods when asked.

Airline crews universally agree that conflicts involving passengers or crew define the most dreaded part of their career.  However, it is part of the job. In fact, it's an opportunity to have a positive impact on the success of the flight.  Almost every airline passenger, executive, and crewmember would agree that customer service is second only to safety in defining the success of any flight.  These two goals are juxtaposed, however, they are not mutually exclusive either.  Good customer service need not and should not be abandoned in the pursuit of a safe operation.

In contrast to the “Alex Cross” incident, here’s how a colleague of mine handled a passenger issue on board his flight.  The situation this Captain had to deal with involved a conflict between passengers over reclining a seat back and a knee getting pushed out of the way.   The cabin crew thought LEOs might need to get involved at the destination.  Granted, an escalating conflict between a crewmember and a passenger is different than a complaint about a movie, but only if it involves some sort of a threat or defiance.  According to reports, no threat was made in the movie incident.  By the way, writing a complaint letter is NOT a threat, especially if the employee is acting appropriately.  In his situation, my colleague simply asked the flight attendant if she could facilitate a solution to the conflict and gave his support to cabin crew to use their training to reach a effective outcome.  After a few minutes she reported back to the Captain that the situation was resolved. 

As I have said before, “Captains have to meet the safety objective 100% of the time, because there are no do-overs.”  However, there is no reason they can’t provide effective customer service while maintaining a safe operation.

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