Image: Frustrated passenger
Enrique Marcarian  /  Reuters
The quickest way to get a negative response is to shout at an airline employee. We will immediately put up our guard, and many of us can and will refuse to serve you or even speak with you further, flight attendant and columnist James Wysong writes.
updated 7/3/2007 11:08:46 AM ET 2007-07-03T15:08:46

There's been a lot of news lately about bad attitudes at the airport: flight attendants getting hostile, gate agents having nervous breakdowns, ticket agents who won't give you the time of day. It seems airline employees are mad as hell and have decided they aren't going to take it anymore. Is anyone really that surprised?

Airline employees have been kicked around a lot in recent years. Management has threatened their unions, cut their paychecks, eliminated their pensions, changed the work rules, reduced personnel and even hidden behind bankruptcy protection — and yet has found it possible to shower bonuses upon their CEOs and top brass. Let's face it, employee morale is broken and no amount of company pep talk is going to fix it. Just go to Chicago O'Hare or Atlanta Hartsfield airport during the peak flight hours. You'll see many employees doing their jobs, but their spirit is all but extinct.

Many people say, "If you don't like the job, you can leave," and in fact, many of the best employees are long gone. They took what was left of their pension and dignity and cleared out a couple of years ago. Many who remain feel trapped because all their work experience is in the airline industry they feel they are too old to start over and, with their pensions reduced, they can't afford to retire.

As for the new hires, most don't make enough money to control their tongues or aggression. I remember when I was a new hire, way back in the last century. I was always nervous about passengers becoming upset with me, but now there seems to be a competition for how many customers you can piss off on one flight. One new hire recently said to me, "What's the big deal? It's just a job with a crappy paycheck and no future. It's just not worth taking any passenger abuse over." It's a shame, as I still love this job, but I guess this is the new reality for thousands of airline workers in this country.

I'm not saying there aren't good and caring airline employees still working, but finding them is getting harder than ever. Odds are, the next time you fly, you'll find one out of every three employees in a bad mood or with a less than stellar attitude. I don't condone it, but I understand it, and I understand the traveler's frustration as well. Here are a few pointers for dealing with airline employees with bad attitudes:

1. Approach with caution. If the first words out of your mouth are something to the effect of, "Could this airline screw up my day any more?" you are probably not going to get a receptive response.

2. Practice awareness. Take a moment to understand what the employee is going through at the time you approach her. Is she getting shouted at by another passenger? Is there a delay that is out of her control? Are there not enough workers for this flight? Give her a little bit of leeway. More understanding is what this world needs.

3. Keep your hands to yourself. You might intend it as a harmless gesture for getting the employee's attention, but nobody likes getting poked or manhandled by a stranger, and some might take it the wrong way.

4. Don't yell. The quickest way to get a negative response is to shout at an airline employee. We will immediately put up our guard, and many of us can and will refuse to serve you or even speak with you further.

5. Watch your language. The minute you start with the harsh language, your case is lost. The offended worker will very likely claim verbal abuse, and you will have no further recourse. Plus, you will get a stream of nasty remarks in return.

6. Kill them with kindness. If you are really, really nice to those who are rude, sometimes you can wear them down and even improve their attitude. Besides, stooping to someone else's level of rudeness is beneath your dignity.

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7. Choose avoidance. If you notice that one employee seems more disagreeable than the others, go to the nicer one. Why set yourself up for a confrontation?

8. Get a witness. If you are subject to extremely abusive behavior, ask anyone who witnessed it to corroborate your story. Get a short statement in writing if you can, along with a signature.

9. Keep calm. In a rational voice, ask to speak with a supervisor, manager or someone else in charge. Most of the time, that will be enough to end the abuse. Whatever you do, don't make a scene at the airport.

10. Take action. If you intend to make a formal complaint, get the employee's name and employee number, along with the names and addresses of witnesses. Write a letter of complaint and provide as many details as possible. If the airline gets a certain number of complaint letters, action will be taken against the employee.

Airline employees have had a tough time of it lately and are less apt to take your abuse than before. Mind you, we were never the appropriate target for your frustration over a bad air travel experience — it's not our fault that thunderstorms roll in or that your seat mate smells bad. But by the same token, you are not the appropriate punching bag for airline workers' job dissatisfaction, either. It's unpleasant and it's counterproductive because, in the end, you are the customer who pays our salary.

Still, these are trying times, so try to observe the Golden Rule and try not to bite the hand that feeds you — even if it is only a bag of peanuts.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.

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