Some Jokes Are Not That Funny

8 Nov 19 13 Comments

I originally saw the headline on BBC news: Southwest Airlines pilots livestreamed plane toilet on hidden camera.

A Southwest Airlines flight attendant has filed a lawsuit accusing two pilots of livestreaming a plane’s toilet on hidden camera.

The cabin crew member had been asked to the flight deck while the captain used the lavatory, standard procedure for those airlines who have a rule of never leaving a pilot alone in the cockpit. While waiting, she saw an iPad showing video and recognised the captain entering the lavatory. Shocked, she asked the first officer if that was live video of the toilets whereupon the first officer first tried to deny it and then claimed that it was a new security measure, top secret, and she must tell no one.

The cabin crew member was unconvinced by this explanation and took a photograph of the iPad in order to report it to management. However, they dismissed her complaint without action. The cabin crew member says that one supervisor told her to keep quiet about it because if it went public, no one would ever fly with the airline again. Distressed by the idea that crew and passengers were being filmed in the lavatory without their knowledge nor consent, she refused to drop the case. Now she has filed a complaint against Southwest the airline and the two pilots in question. Southwest Airlines, meanwhile, have released a statement saying they have no such policy and that there was no camera installed in the lavatory.

I was disappointed that Southwest had not taken action but honestly, I considered this to be more about creepy men than about aviation, so I didn’t really dig any further. Another explanation had not occurred to me until I saw a post on PPRuNe by a long-time member.

PPRuNe: Southwest Airlines B-738 ‘Secret Lavatory Cameras’ Lawsuit

This appears to be a variation of one of the old lavatory privacy pranks that pilots would play on flight attendants. Years ago on the 727 a gullible stewardess would be called to the cockpit. After some conversation the captain would have the FE ‘check’ to see if the forward lav was unoccupied so he could go back. The FE would open some panel (was it fuel dump?) on the aft cockpit bulkhead and pretend to look into the lav to verify that it was available. ‘Not many people know about this’ etc. and the word would quickly spread among the cabin crew.

Sure enough, the next post on the thread backs him up.

Yes it was a (grey/red) panel.

Knowing this long-standing prank immediately changed the perspective of the whole situation. There was no camera in the lav, just as Southwest had claimed. The two men had almost certainly filmed the captain earlier (so much for the two staff in the cockpit rule) and then timed it to play back when the captain left the cockpit so that it appeared to be live-streaming video of him entering the lav.

But what the flight crew (and 90% of the PPRuNe commenters) failed to recognise is that this variation of the prank simply isn’t funny.

Ignore for a moment the questionable practice of hazing and trying to make someone look stupid for your own amusement. In the 727 version of the joke, the hatch offering a view of the lavatory is built into the aircraft, rather than finding out that your captain is a pervert who is spying on people while they go to the toilet.

This flight crew, on the other hand, set up a situation which could easily be interpreted as an isolated act by the two men. A hatch installed by Boeing and approved by Southwest is hard to believe, and so the joke, if we accept it as such, is funny. A hidden camera in the toilet is less easy to dismiss as impossible and more importantly, such invasions of privacy have happened before.

In contrast, it is extremely difficult to find a single incident of an aircraft manufacturer installing a hatch into the cockpit to allow the pilots to look into the lavatory. Because it has never happened and, more importantly, if it did then the person inside the lavatory would surely notice the sudden cool breeze and the pale face of a pilot peering in.

Now maybe the flight crew who planned the prank really didn’t realise this. Maybe they didn’t understand that what made the hatch funny was how truly unbelievable the hoax was upon reflection. Maybe they truly thought that the gullible cabin crew member would believe their story that it was an airline wide security measure which had been kept top secret until they had blown it by leaving the iPad out.

But that’s part of the problem: if you want to enjoy a laugh with your colleagues about a practical joke you played on them, you need to let them in on the joke. Haha, it worked! Of course there’s no camera in the lav!

Instead, they stuck to their guns, even after the cabin crew member correctly concluded that Southwest Airlines would not place hidden cameras in the lavatories for the pilots to watch, even after the cabin crew member took a photograph of the iPad in order to report it. The pilots still had an opportunity to ‘fess up and explain that it wasn’t true, haha, sorry to have shocked you.

That’s how funny jokes work, you see, where we all get to laugh together at the punch line. So I have very little sympathy for the repeated complaints that “We aren’t allowed to have fun any more” on PPRuNe and other aviation forums. This was not an attempt to have a laugh with a cabin crew member. This was an attempt to laugh at her and worse, making her feel unsafe and gawked at in her working environment, by the captain and his first officer who are supposed to be taking responsibility for the flight and the well-being of those on board.

Maybe in the “good old days” this was considered a good time. These days, it’s considered harrassment and quite frankly, I’m still disappointed that Southwest did not take action but simply brushed it off as an inappropriate attempt at humour.

If you ask me, it’s not the cabin crew member who had a sense of humour failure.

Category: Miscellaneous,


  • I quite agree, that was definitely NOT a funny prank and the airline should have taken some action, even if at the very minimum obliging the cockpit crew to offer a sincere apology. This should have been treated and investigated as a disciplinary incident, however minor.

    I once played a prank on a colleague:
    A new captain had joined the air cargo company that I was employed with. The task of introducing this pilot on the line network fell to me.
    He did not need any other training, he was a very experienced captain in his own right.
    This particular flight involved night cargo from Southend to, if I remember correctly, to Cologne and return to Southend.
    I invited an old friend, whom I knew from the Tiger Club, to join us in the cockpit. But my friend Derek could not find time and asked if his son-in-law would be allowed to come along in his place. Derek, as an active private pilot, would have some form of ID. His son-in-law could do even better: he was an active member of the UK police force.
    So we discussed a prank. The idea to have my colleague “arrested” was dismissed. Instead we agreed that it should be me who would be “charged”. The charge we concocted was suspicion of bringing illigal immigrants into the UK via Heathrow airport.
    I gave Derek some details about an actual flight on which I had indeed been the captain, flying through London Heathrow. And so it was agreed.
    As it turned out, the new captain was doing the turn-around checks whilst I was collecting the paperwork. A plain clothed policeman walked up to the aircraft, showed my new colleague his badge and asked him about the other pilot – me.
    And so, as I returned to the aircraft I was “formally charged” on suspicion of bringing illegal immigrants into the country via London Heathrow and I was actually handcuffed – to the absolute consternation of my other crew member, who kept saying that there had to be a misunderstanding and that there would be no need to handcuff me.
    Of course, it was the more realistic because the officer was a real policeman with a real badge.
    This happened years ago, the other captain and myself have become, and still are, friends. I consider this a good prank, we all had a laugh about it.

    • Would not the effect have been greater if he had waited until you were airborne before arresting you? Imagine the consternation of a newly hired flying officer being told that he had to complete the flight unaided because the only other pilot on board was in handcuffs.

      Of course there’s probably some silly rule against practical joking on the flight deck while airborne…

  • The 727 joke was pretty hokey and after even a moment’s thought, an obvious ruse. This one was a bit more high tech and therefore more plausible. We do need a sense of humor, but there are some situations where humor conflicts with decency and respect.

    A woman I have known and respected for many years worked at a place where a manager apparently planted a camera in the ladies room and was caught after this had been happening for a long time. A lot of people felt that their privacy had been violated and indeed, it had. This was a major breech of trust and decency.

    So while it was a clever prank (from a strictly technical standpoint) it was much more a cruel prank that these pilots played. In a world filled with sexual harassment problems, one of the best things anyone can do is to avoid even the appearance of such conduct. I doubt that these pranksters meant any harm; they probably just became caught up in the cleverness of their joke, but they definitely crossed the line with regard to their treatment of a coworker.

    The one additional factor here is that it involves aviation. I’ve always felt that aviation was a serious business and that all horseplay should be avoided when it comes to any aspect of aviation. While this was unlikely to cause a safety of flight issue, it’s still better to keep it serious in the air.

  • I must admit – as a passenger – I’m uncertain. Was this is true – or was there in fact a camera? Because it’s entirely feasible to place one, entirely easy to quickly remove it, and entirely believable that someone would do it. Being in a responsible position doesn’t ever seem to have stopped people from behaving badly when they can. In other words – convince me it was a prank and not an actual camera?

    • Keyan, that’s a fair point because it isn’t in fact possible to prove that there was never a camera there. However, the explanation of the prank made a lot of sense to me. It puts Southwest’s response into context — their internal investigation concluded that there was never a camera there and then there’s the statement that it was an ill-advised attempt at humour. I feel like most potty-cam-perverts (for lack of a more technical term) seem to be working alone, so for the two of them to bond in the cockpit over this shared interest seems unlikely, although clearly not impossible. A camera could be installed very quickly, as you say, but aircraft lavatories are pretty simple so it would be hard to hide; it seems like other crew members would notice. The stupidity of leaving it in plain sight for the cabin crew member to see, having asked her into the cockpit is no more or less stupid than the prank, so that’s hard to judge. But finally, the most recent lawyer comments are worded somewhat more carefully:

      > [Southwest] admit that a video was played on an iPad in the cockpit while Ms. Steinaker was there, showing the captain in the lavatory. The purpose of that display cannot reasonably be construed as intending anything other than to horrify Ms. Steinaker by leading her to a reasonable belief the video was live and that her privacy, and that of others on the flight, had been invaded,” wrote Ronald L.M. Goldman, a Los Angeles-based aviation attorney representing the Steinakers.

      So although the original claim was that the two men had installed a camera, the more recent statements seems to allow for the idea that the film was faked (but clearly meant to distress her and should be dealt with).

      This is, of course, why Southwest should have dealt with the two pilots when the cabin crew member reported it, immediately on landing. That would mean that we could better know what they actually did and what they intended (leaving them no time to remove the camera, if it was installed, and allowing access to the CVR for the conversation before they called the cabin crew member in). But Southwest didn’t do this, instead leaving the flight crew to continue their day as normal and only later starting an investigation.

      • The iPad would have the video file on it, and the file would be dated. There might also be testimony of other attendants who had been pranked before. It’s not impossible to prove that there was no camera. But that still doesn’t make it ok, and I’m happy that you chose it as topic for one of your posts!

  • This story fills me with an almost overwhelming desire to sneak aboard a Southwest plane, plant a hidden camera in the cockpit, and mount the monitor in the forward lavatory.

  • “The two men had almost certainly filmed the captain earlier (so much for the two staff in the cockpit rule)” Couldn’t they have filmed when the plane was on the ground?
    “That’s how funny jokes work, you see, where we all get to laugh together at the punch line.” For certain immature minds (which it seems we have here), a joke is funnier if shared among “peers”, omitting “inferiors” and especially the butt of the joke. (cf the “jokes” interns played on nurses when there was a near universal male/female MD/nurse split.) That doesn’t mean it’s defensible; some people need to be told their sense of humor is out of place — which Southwest failed to do.

    You ran a column some time ago in which cockpit hazing was a pointer toward an almost-disaster at Ketchikan. IIRC that was at least 20 years ago; I would have hoped we were done with this kind of twit behavior by now, but I guess we aren’t. Southwest could have saved itself trouble if it had disciplined the pilots immediately instead trying to hush up this mess; watching it play out will be interesting.

    • Fair point about two-in-the-cockpit, I think I was just feeling very snide by then!

      But as per my comment to Keyan above, I agree that if Southwest had dealt with it on the spot, it would have made the whole situation (including the question of whether there was a camera or not) a lot easier to unravel now.

      • No disagreement there; SWA should have jumped on this. But I suspect nobody present thought they had the power to do so, and everyone but the attendant thought their main job was to turn the plane around for its next segment. (SWA does lots of short segments; I wouldn’t be surprised if they taught new hires to move past anything that doesn’t seem actively dangerous — for loose values of “actively dangerous” — to make sure the schedule doesn’t fall apart.) If SWA is smart they’ll use this as a teaching moment; how long does it take to copy a CVR?

  • As a reply to Harrow: I don’t really see how we could have taken a cop as a guest and then, after getting airborne, playing the “You are under arrest, anything you say can and will be taken down and used in a court of law…” joke. No, the way we did it had the efftec, we all had a good laugh and P.C. Kenneth enjoyed the trip.
    A prank may be good and well, but it has to be funny and must not carry the risk of going beyond the cockpit, maybe involving people who have nothing to do with it. And, important: it must be possible to end it instantly, cleanly and clearly.

  • Jokes intended to upset, frighten, or horrify someone aren’t funny. There’s a really fine line between what is and isn’t an appropriate joke.

    Funny joke: The first place I went to work left me a phone message to return to a Mr. Bayer. Of course the number I called was the Zoo and I asked for “Mr. Bayer” until I realized what I was saying and hung up. I did get a laugh out of that.

    Not funny joke: While on deployment a Cobra pilot told me how much he enjoyed taking target practice out on pods of dolphins. He really enjoyed watching me get upset and told me it was a “joke” when I threatened to report him. I still don’t know if it was a joke or not because he had the means, opportunity, and personality to do it.

    Making someone think they are being filmed in a bathroom is NOT a funny joke. The motive, means, and opportunity are available and it actually happens distressingly frequently.

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