The JetBlue Potty Incident: What Was the Flight Attendant Thinking?

Jetblue plane on the tarmac
Jet Blue had to make an apology this week after a furious mom made the news with an allegation that the flight attendants caused her three-year-old to wet the seat, then almost kicked her off the plane because of it.You can read the full story here but the key points are that the flight had been delayed on the tarmac, her daughter had to use the bathroom, but the flight attendant refused. Thirty minutes and one wet seat later, it got worse for the mother when she tried to clean up the result. She got reprimanded by the same attendant, who then reported her to the pilot for non-compliance. The plane returned to the gate to remove the mom and daughter, yet they were saved at the last moment by an off-duty pilot who convinced the crew to let them stay.
That is one harsh story – and one frozen-hearted (sounding) stew! As with any time that I give an opinion on an incident in the news, it has to be said that we only have one side of the story here. Very often there are details missing that might provide crucial context.In the spirit of recognizing that, it’s worth putting out there that passenger loo requests are perhaps the most common thing to put us in an awkward situation in terms of enforcing FAA rules versus, well, reality. As any regular flyer knows, there are simply long, unpredicted periods of time when passengers are not allowed to be up. When it comes to the tarmac, the rules are particularly clear. Generally, if a passenger gets up we are to break sterile cockpit to inform the pilots, who then have to get out of any take-off queue, wait until all passengers are again seated, then apply to Air Traffic control and wait for release to re-join. Especially in times when delays are putting pressure on the whole system, take-off slots are at risk. I’ve had whole flights cancel when the situation just couldn’t support one more delay. In certain circumstances – say, we doubt we’ll be moving any time soon or have a passenger we know may have special bathroom “needs” to consider – it’s tempting to let it slide. But it’s not nothing. If something were to happen to put such a decision on record (be it an incident or just someone who reports us), we’re on the hook. And of course, let one person slide, and everyone else wants to slide, too. Count on it.This is what lies at the heart of flight attendants getting in a twist over seemingly innocuous bathroom requests. I’m at odds with colleagues who get really worked up about people needing the bathroom. I don’t appreciate when passengers get rude about it because they don’t understand our situation, no, but that aside, we can understand their situation. Even the best passengers get caught out by unexpected periods when the lav is not accessible. It certainly happens to me.When in comes to *in-flight* situations, I think we’re moving to better days. At my company, at least, it is finally becoming explicit policy that we are to “advise” (not command) when it comes to these situations. But no, not all companies are the same. (I have always been struck by how uniformly militant some international carriers are about anyone being up when the sign is on.)
On the tarmac we don’t have such wiggle room, however. The pilots may openly permit passenger movement if the delay is expected to persist. Otherwise we, back in the cabin, are sometimes left guessing about the overall situation. In this story, since we don’t know the flight attendant’s side, we have to imagine what that might be. Maybe she didn’t feel comfortable “letting it slide”, yet also thought they would be moving any moment so she should not risk their place in the queue? That is possible. If the crew member felt they were about the be in the air – when they’d soon be in the situation with more “wiggle room” – I can comprehend a denial.
However, I would have recommended the flight attendant explain her decision as to work with the mom through any further delay.
Then again, the (alleged) tone of the flight attendant and what followed – the immediate jump to reporting the mom to the captain as noncompliant – doesn’t paint the “stew” as sympathetic. That, plus the off-duty pilot’s fight to keep the woman aboard would suggest that she was, erm, having an “off” day – in which case I can only shake my head.While I would suggest to any parent traveling with a young child’s undependable bladder abilities to use a pull-up for certain situations (like an airplane, where bathroom access often isn’t quick and handy), that is not an attempt to excuse the flight attendant. I think most us, by far, would say yes to a child’s need and make the necessary call – unless take-off felt immanent. Otherwise, I got nuthin’ as to why you wouldn’t just let a little girl use the bathroom already!
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Comments (Showing 3 of 3)

  • overdahill at 4:52pm June 17, 2014

    its the lack of good automation which can track the combinations of geometric positions, rules
    and parameters and keep all posted on the schedule….FAA dysfunction, in my opinion.

    its not hard an todays software can handle this pretty easily,

    but what does this dummy know…orals in experimental design, permutations and combinatorics, geometrics, and optimization…..50 years ago….

  • ChrisCooke at 4:14pm June 26, 2014

    Sara’s post was excellent. Who knew that getting up at certain times while the aircraft was on the ground could jeopardize the departure time? Not me, a million-miler on American and Delta and retired Navy pilot. Good job to the off-duty pilot and best wishes for everyone else involved.

  • hatailor at 8:19pm June 28, 2014

    This unfortunately is a standard story. Women often get nasty with other women, and then higher-authority males save the victim.

    The flight attendant would have treated a man with a child with much greater respect.

    I am glad that the off-duty captain believed the woman, because women are deemed as less credible than men. It would be her word against a flight attendant’s.

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