An irate traveler once raised his hand threateningly at Kaisy Belfon when told a flight was overbooked. Another petulant passenger tossed a piece of luggage at her.
Such stressful moments can happen anytime at an airport, but they're never more likely than when people are trying to get home for the holidays. So Belfon and hundreds of other workers at Newark Liberty Airport are getting a crash course in keeping their cool.
"Pressure causes people to do a lot of things," said Belfon, a 27-year-old customer service representative for US Airways. "Afterward they can't believe they acted that way, but under pressure they just tend to react, and then later they say they're sorry."
Stress may be higher than usual at airports this Thanksgiving, with 24 million passengers expected in the air and many airlines cutting back on numbers of flights due to the weak economy. To help employees cope, Newark Liberty is offering a customer service program with roots in the aftermath of 9/11.
"Resiliency Edge" was developed by Tom Murphy, a longtime aviation trainer and head of the Human Resiliency Institute in Fordham University's Graduate School of Education. About two dozen people got a first look at his presentation Wednesday on the concourse inside Terminal B as travelers hurried past to their gates.
"Understand where they're coming from, so you can put yourself in their place," Murphy told the group. "Understand that they're basically not bad people."
About 500 employees at Newark are scheduled to undergo the 90-minute training program, which received high marks when it was introduced at New York's JFK Airport in May.
Murphy is the author of "Reclaiming the Sky," a book recounting the stories of aviation workers who returned to work in the weeks and months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. His program borrows from the book's themes and cites four traits of effective airline customer service workers: adaptability, optimism, engagement and proactivity.
Sounds easy in theory, but imagine doing it with a line of 20 people seething over missed connections and misplaced luggage.
In a role-play sequence, one employee played a man who needed to make a connection in Chicago to meet his family, whom he hadn't seen in six weeks, while another played a ticket agent whose shift was nearing an end and who had an after-hours appointment to get to.
The conversation was played two ways, first with the agent putting her needs before the customer and shunting him off to another agent — causing him to get even more angry — and the second with her calmly offering him a list of options to consider.
Murphy illustrated the contrast with a drawing of an empty box between the customer and the employee, symbolizing the choice of whose point of view the interaction will reflect.
"Get the need met," he said. "The minute the customer feels that you're putting them in the box, they begin to calm down."
Abusive behavior isn't confined to the terminal or to peak travel times, said Emma Nikoi, who works as a cashier for Five Star Parking on the airport grounds.
"People don't read the signs, and then you tell them the fee and they yell at you and call you names you wouldn't want to print," she said. "You have to stay calm, but you're also human."