Experts say Ryanair row demonstrates need for urgent training on handling racism

Customer-facing staff ‘failed to prioritise diversity or human understanding’ when passenger was abused

The failure of Ryanair staff to appropriately respond to a major racist incident on one of their flights has highlighted the severe consequences of diversity and inclusion policies being treated as a ‘tick-box’ exercise, experts have said. 

The budget airline faced international criticism this week, after crew members failed to remove a passenger who subjected a black female passenger to horrific verbal abuse on a plane taking off from Barcelona for the UK. 

A film recorded by a fellow passenger, which has been viewed more than three million times, shows the man verbally attack an elderly disabled woman in the seat next to him, calling her a “black bastard,” and shouting “don't talk to me in a foreign language, you stupid ugly cow."

Reports from witnesses suggest there was no initial response to the tirade from cabin crew, with another passenger the first to intervene. When staff arrived, they relocated the victim of the abuse to another seat rather than remove the passenger responsible from the flight. 

Speaking to The Guardian, the woman’s daughter said employees denied hearing racist slurs, and told her to ring customer services on Monday.

“Ryanair have stressed that their staff are heavily trained in keeping a situation calm and safe for passengers, so that might have kicked in,” Lauren Touré, senior consultant at global diversity and inclusion consultancy Frost Included told People Management

“However, it looks as though that focus on safety wiped out any thought of human respect or understanding of diversity. So while they were focusing on keeping things calm, they failed to acknowledge there was a woman being abused, which should always override any other training.” 

Despite the airline’s terms and conditions explicitly stating that an individual can be refused carriage should their presence “endanger or affect the safety, health, or materially affect the comfort of other passengers or crew,” or their “mental or physical state or attitude, behaviour or demeanour [...] present a hazard or risk to yourself, to passengers, to crew, or to property,” cabin staff ignored calls from fellow passengers to remove the man from the flight, even after he made threats to push the woman. Towards the end of the video, he is overheard telling a crew member “I’m all right now,” following the relocation of the woman to another seat. 

“Dealing with racism should be a core part of training. This is not an either/or situation – the most important thing is to say ‘this is unacceptable, and if it continues you will be removed,’” warned Stephen Frost, CEO of Frost Included and author of The Inclusion Imperative. 

“Most major companies say they think about diversity or respect training, but often it comes from a compliance perspective or a ‘tick-box’ exercise, which does not equip people to confidently deal with these real-world situations.” 

Responding to the incident, a Ryanair spokesperson told the BBC: "We operate strict guidelines for disruptive passengers and we will not tolerate unruly behaviour like this. We will be taking this matter further and disruptive or abusive behaviour like this will result in passengers being banned from travel."

In response to a request for comment from People Management, the airline said: “We have reported this to the police in Essex and as this is now a police matter, we cannot comment further.”