Both BWIA and Mr Gaul should apologise
Stabroek News
March 29, 2002

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Dear Editor,

As the Gaul affair spirals out of control, like a hijacked plane piloted by an Al-Qaeda, let me try to offer what I hope may be an objective and slightly different perspective:

a. In many international airports, aircraft taxi right up to the terminal building, and all passengers - regardless of race, color, nationality, passport or the class in which they are traveling - must embark and disembark through one door alone. Passengers, including, as I recall, those on BWIA flights out of London, must access the aircraft through a retractable walkway that meets the fuselage at the front (first class) door. On Mr. Gaul's flight from London, he would have been boarding like everyone else from the front, and would have reached his seat much easier on that leg of his journey. He could have requested from the BWIA check-in staff in London a more convenient seat assignment for the Bridgetown-Georgetown leg, or from the staff handling the intransit passengers in Barbados, before he attempted to board flight 431. Alternatively, he could have requested special assistance from the BWIA personnel.

b. But really, if in those major airports everybody must board through the front, what damage, what harm, what wrong would have been done to the privileged passengers in first and business class, if one person and a child were allowed to walk through their rarified champagne and crystal cabin, to get to the front of economy class? Sometimes before a flight departs, the airlines remove the back stairs, and an economy class passenger who is late must also board through the front. Mr. Gaul's dilemma arose in part because unfortunately, in his estimation, he thought he was entitled to a choice of stairs to use, to board his flight out of Barbados.

c. How was the pilot to know - and all those reputable witnesses willing to testify on Mr. Gaul's behalf- if, had he been allowed to stay on the plane, Mr. Gaul would not have gotten up in mid-flight and headed towards the cockpit (or the forward bathroom, or a stewardess). In life after 9/11, can one really, really be too cautious? The terrorists on those four planes in September, and Richard Reid in December, had only displayed nervousness, and, in the minds of some, were acting suspiciously. In this case, Mr. Gaul had actually been aggressively vocal, although he had (temporarily?) calmed down. Let's not forget the passenger some months ago on a BA flight over Africa, or more recently, the man on a Latin American-bound flight from the US, both of whom had to be restrained from entering the cockpit by passengers, and both of whom had not presented any earlier signs of aggression. Or the passenger with Middle Eastern features who was denied boarding in the US last year because of his behavior, even though he belonged to President Bush's Secret Service detail and could have proved it.

d. Is it that the time that the Barbados police took to intervene allowed Mr. Gaul a cooling-off period? Had they reacted when he was voicing his objections, would the force they used still be considered by the majority to have been excessive? e. If as seems to be the case, the Barbados police would have reacted differently if they knew beforehand that Mr. Gaul was travelling on a European passport, then, with all due respect to the Barbados tourism industry, that would be unfortunate.

It seems to me that this matter could have been over before it started, if Mr. Gaul had made a clear and proper request earlier, either for another seat assignment near to the rear door or, if the flight was so full that it was not possible, if he had asked for special assistance. BWIA could have assigned a ground staff to help with the child, or could have flexed the rules to allow him to board from the front, at no real, grave, irreparable damage to their more privileged passengers.

In my opinion, what is really at issue here are more the questions of bad judgement, than issues such as the mistreatment of Guyanese, stereotyping, airlines regulations and what-not. BWIA's pilot made a bad judgement about the threat-level presented by Mr. Gaul. Mr. Gaul was also at fault for not presenting his needs properly and in a timely fashion, and the Barbados police should explain their determination of the degree of force required to respond to the situation that they confronted.

To resolve the consequences of these errors of judgement, I suggest the following courses of action:

1. BWIA apologizes to Mr. Gaul, flies him back at no cost, refunds the balance of his ticket and pays him reasonable compensation.

2. The Barbados government apologizes to Mr. Gaul for the use of excessive force and pays him reasonable compensation.

3. Mr. Gaul apologizes to the airline and makes a donation out of his compensation payments to a Guyanese charity of his choice.

4. Mr. Basil Williams and Dr. Faith Harding offer their services in this matter on a pro bono basis.

5. The Guyana Ministry of Foreign Affairs pursues the avoidance of future incidents of this kind, particularly the aspect of differential treatment for passport holders of different nationalities, with its Barbados counterpart.

Yours faithfully,

Frequent Flier (name and address supplied)