British MPs have joined a flood of criticism levelled at budget airline Ryanair for their failure to deal with the racist tirade of one passenger at another on a London bound flight departing Barcelona on October 19th.

Fellow passenger David Lawrence filmed the events on board as the plane prepared for take off. During the film a man is seen and heard clearly shouting “don’t talk to me in a foreign language you black bastard”, one of what Lawrence says was a  string of racial slurs and abuse levelled at the woman occupying the seat adjacent, a 77 year old Jamaican resident in Britain since the 60s as one of the Windrush generation.

It appears that the man who occupies the window seat is objecting to the woman sitting next to him. Though there is no direct evidence to say his objection was of racist motivation, the woman’s daughter who was accompanying her mother on the flight is in no doubt that his objection was entirely due to not wanting to sit next to a black person.

During the tirade the man calls the woman “an ugly cow” and tells staff to move the woman to another seat, adding, “if you don’t go to another seat I’ll push you to another seat”.

A Ryanair steward is seen speaking with the passengers on two occasions, and tells the man he must calm down. He then leaves the area and as the situation deteriorates it is left to another male passenger in the row behind the protagonists to step in and create a barrier preventing the man from laying hands on the woman. Other passengers are heard berating the man for his behaviour and expressing their views that the man should be ejected from the flight.

The steward returns and is heard speaking to his colleague off camera down the aisle of the aircraft saying “we need to move this lady, we need to find her another seat”. The video ends with the man sitting alone in his row of 3 seats.

Lawrence posted the video to social media and it gained immediate attention – though not from Ryanair who he says took 2 days to make any response.

The abused woman’s daughter said that she spoke to Ryanair staff on the flight who said they had not heard any racial abuse and suggested she call customer services. Given the clarity of at least one racial slur in the proximity of cabin staff, and the reaction of other passengers then and ongoing, it may prove difficult for Ryanair to convince any 3rd party that their staff were not aware that the confrontation minimally included racist language.

Public response

MP Karl Turner was in no doubt that a criminal act had been perpetrated.

Other prominent figures joined in the attack on Ryanair.

Editorial Comment

It is hard to judge in so far as we do not know exactly what the cabin crew staff heard during the exchanges, but given the reaction of other passengers, it takes some generosity of spirit to believe they did not know that the man was both aggressive and racist. Neither are acceptable in any circumstance however that the attack was levelled at a 77 year old woman makes it all the more despicable.

The lack of response by Ryanair crew goes against everything we are being told regarding zero tolerance of aggressive behaviour on flights. The plane had not yet departed and the removal of the man would have been a relatively straightforward proposition compared to the risk of an escalation once in flight.

Perhaps it is the lack of response of other passengers that is most remarkable. With the exception of one young man, and all credit to him, the passengers around the incident do nothing to interject in a situation that we would all surely hope to have a level of social responsibility that would not allow us to watch unaffected. I can understand why people would be less willing to do so on a flight than they would in other walks of life. Cabin crew can be an unpredictable breed. I have seen situations on flights where behaviour that would have you thrown off summarily on one day would go by without comment on another. Sad as it is to say, I think many people will not want to risk ‘getting involved’ in any dispute on board certain budget airlines.

And it is sad, very sad. The issue of racism on public transport provides us with one of the landmark cases in 20th century civil rights. One black woman’s refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama resulted in a Supreme court ruling that deemed segregation unconstitutional. We look back on that event 68 years ago as something in history, something in the past, of a different time.

If the simple tenet of humanity does not warrant sufficient focus in the training of cabin crew staff to be mindful of racism and to deal with it effectively, then for anybody in the public transportation business, the memory of Rosa Parks should.