Aches On A Plane – The Butterfly Effect Of Ambiguous Company Policy

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What happens when management makes a decision that will affect their staff on the ground, but fails to explain to that staff why the decision is being made?

Let’s call it: The Great Disconnect.

This past weekend, I had the privilege of visiting my 50th country. I only share that pompous numeric fact to cement home that I’ve seen my fair share of stories when it comes to schlepping people in confined spaces.

I’ve seen bus drivers pull machetes on passengers.
I’ve shared space with goats.
I’ve seen unattended x-ray machines at airports as we went through them.

And now I have a new absurdity to add to the mix.

On the flight home from Turks and Caicos I was confronted by a flight attendant with a unique rule on Air Canada, namely:

You are not allowed to wear over-the-head earphones during taxi, takeoff and landing (the critical phases of flight). The only headphones that were allowed were earbuds.

Why?

She didn’t know why. In fact she said, “I would like to know why too. You can contact the Transport Canada offices if you’d like to find out.”

That wasn’t helping. And since the best way to wind me up is to present me with something illogical and then point at it like it makes sense, I kept pressing.

Me: But there must be a logical reason for the rule. That’s all I’m wondering.
Her: Some rules just are.
Me: But clearly this is not one of them since this one just came into existence recently.
Her: It’s just a rule. Like, why do we ride on the right hand side of the road?
Me: I’m sure there’s an answer to that we can find out in 30 seconds.*

I wasn’t asking her to explain the spin state of an electron, here. I thought my question was as big of a softball as “Why can’t I open the exit door and sit on the wing during flight?” After all, she’s a flight attendant. Shouldn’t she know why there was a rule that affects passengers? I wasn’t mad at her, I was mad that no one explained it to her.

*You can thank the Romans and the fact that world is a majority right-handed if you drive on the left. And you can thank Napoleon, Henry Ford and the teamsters in America if you drive on the right).

Alas, we were at an impasse. I couldn’t watch an on-demand movie for 15 minutes and I was perplexed as to why I couldn’t. Other passengers whispered to me their support of my questioning.

Luckily I had a 2nd flight after a layover.

As I watched another movie on their in-flight entertainment (IFE) system during taxi, a flight attendant came up to me and informed me about the headphone rule. Before I could ask the question he said excitedly, “Do you want to know why?”

Yes, yes I did!

He said: “Because with the over-the-head ear phones, if the pilot brakes suddenly and the headphones fall down or you have to get up quickly for an evacuation, there’s a chance the headband part could choke you or impede your exit whereas the ear buds would simply fall out of your ears.”

Ok, I could live with that. I then said, “Is that what they told you?” He said, “No. They didn’t tell us why but I felt like an idiot not knowing the answer to a rule especially if it sounds dumb, so I did my own research.”

…so I did my own research.

That’s how he found out?! I love this guy for his resourcefulness but he shouldn’t have had to do that.

Apparently he had to because even Air Canada didn’t know why Air Canada was doing it. Here’s the actual answer from Air Canada’s service director on their website. Warning this answer will confuse you.

Only ear bud type earphones connected into our in-flight entertainment (IFE) system are allowed for…“Critical phases of flight”. If a cabin crew needs to make an important safety announcement, the IFE is paused allowing the announcement to be heard through your earphones. Other types of earphones (over the head, noise reducing, etc) are not allowed during critical phases of flight as they would prevent you from hearing safety announcements.

What? So I’d hear the announcement more clearly if I had noise-cancelling headphones on? Mind you, you were not allowed to have any other electronic devices on during taxi, takeoff and landing, so if I had headphones on during one of these times, the only thing I would be hooked into was the IFE.

Furthermore, since these earphones (over the head, noise reducing, etc) could cause passengers to trip and impede an evacuation, they are only allowed once the seat-belt sign has been turned off.

This entire argument has more holes than a storm drain. Wouldn’t the headphones now resting around my neck and not my ears also cause me to trip? And if I was just holding them during take-off and we needed to evacuate, I would likely throw them down in chaos, creating an otherworldly tripping hazard anyway.

Shouldn’t the rule read, “No overhead earphones can be seen during taxi, takeoff and landing?

You might think I’m being ridiculous, but otherwise, what is the point of the rule if I’m allowed to sit there with my over-the-head earphones around my neck, plugged into the armrest jack?

If you’re only going to partially administer the rule, why administer it all?

Just like Captain Marquet in Turn This Ship Around states: “Move decisions to where the information lives,” so too we need to:

Explain New Policy To Those Nearest A Complaint

I know Air Canada is one of the most respected airlines, and my experience with them overall was lovely, but by just talking to two flight attendants I’m wondering if there is a grand disconnect between management and staff.

I only have three words to hammer here: Clarity, empathy and perception.

If you’re rolling out new company policy, make sure the staff closest to the first customer complaint knows why it’s happening. If not, your team may feel like you aren’t really concerned with – or interested in – the team’s well-being. In turn, your customer might think that the blind are leading the blind, however incorrect that perception might be.