Mr Gaul and BWIA Editorial
Stabroek News
March 17, 2002

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The case of Mr Colin Gaul induced some BWIA heavyweights to leave Trinidad last week and sit themselves down in front of the local microphones in the company of the reclusive Ms Murray. It will be recalled that the incident began with Mr Gaul registering his annoyance verbally to BWIA cabin crew that he had been required to board an aircraft from the back and not the front at the Grantley Adams airport, Barbados. He claims that they told him that only first-class passengers could board at the front of the aircraft, although subsequently, other passengers on the flight were to report that they had boarded from the front in Miami.

For its part, the airline has stated that Mr Gaul became "angry and abusive at having to board the aircraft through the rear door when a wheel-chair bound passenger was being assisted to board via the front door." Mr Gaul, however, alleges that this is not true, because he only asked them the reason for being dispatched to the rear when his seat was near the front after he was already on board the aircraft.

After Mr Gaul and his small son who was accompanying him were seated, four security men boarded the plane, and informed him that it was the captain's decision that he should disembark. By all accounts, the exchange between the security personnel and Mr Gaul was civil, and while it was going on, some other passengers gathered around to listen. They told the guards that he had complained to the cabin crew about what he had perceived as mistreatment, but that he had been sitting quietly, and should be allowed to remain. After Mr Gaul did not move, officers of the Barbados police force boarded, and removed him by force, inflicting injuries in full view of his screaming child and the other passengers.

There is nothing that can justify the police action, but should the airline personnel shoulder any of the blame for what happened?

The first thing that needs to be taken into account is that airlines in general are far less tolerant of disruptive passengers than they were before September 11. They also have new safety guidelines in operation which insulate the captain from the passengers in a way which was not the case a year ago.

The second thing is that all of this occurred against a background of the appalling treatment of Guyanese passengers by BWIA in the past. Nearly every member of the Guyanese flying public has his or her horror story to relate. In the early days this was extended to the airport staff at Piarco, and now it has come to include Grantley Adams. It is true, of course, that it was the appearance of the 'huckster' culture on flights in and out of Guyana which first placed a strain on the norms of interaction between airline staff and passengers, but it is also true that all Guyanese, whether or not they were lugging the famous blue and red-striped bags, were treated with contumely by officials and cabin crews in the not-so-distant past.

Nowadays, of course, Barbados is hostile to Guyanese because some visitors from here have made their contributions in the criminal field in that island, but that, of course, does not excuse the official Barbadian predilection for profiling on the basis of nationality, let alone for physically assaulting a passenger who is sitting quietly.

Some passengers who were witnesses to the incident have complained that the captain never came out of his cabin to investigate what was really happening, but as BWIA has claimed, that is no doubt in consonance with the new guidelines. In any case, whether the captain's decision to require Mr Gaul to disembark was right or wrong, he had absolute authority to do it, and Mr Gaul should probably have complied, and then pursued the case with BWIA afterwards.

The question is, did the cabin crew exercise misjudgement in the first instance in reporting to the captain that Mr Gaul was "angry and abusive" and suggesting that he was disruptive in some sense. It really has no bearing on the issue that he had "demonstrated disorderly conduct" on an earlier flight from London to Barbados as BWIA has alleged, since the cabin crew of the Barbados-Guyana leg had no knowledge of that at the time of the incident. What suggests that they may have been overhasty, is the evidence of eyewitnesses to what happened. Respectable, sober passengers have gone on record to this newspaper as saying that they did not believe that Mr Gaul was threatening in his behaviour, that he did not abuse anyone - although he did complain loudly - and that when the security arrived he was sitting quietly.

It is true that cabin crew have to be careful in these difficult times, but a loud voice and a complaint about treatment do not in themselves constitute a danger. The case of Mr Gaul appears like a situation which was allowed to get out of control unnecessarily.