How Airline Workers Learn to Deal With You

How Airline Workers Learn to Deal With You

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Instead, I did the next best thing and hopped a couple of United flights to Wyoming for a seven-hour Verbal Judo class, which I completed alongside 20 mild-mannered court clerks from around the state and one soft-spoken security officer. Taught by Joel Francis, a two-decade veteran of the New York Police Department, the class involved no physical grappling.

Instead, Mr. Francis billed his discipline as a martial art of the mind and mouth — a curriculum that has put thousands of airline workers, corrections officers and a handful of Chicago Cubs security guards in a better position to persuade customers and members of the public to follow rules without feeling as if they were losing face.

The tactics are not new. In fact, they echo common-sense practices that flight attendants and training specialists described to me all week. But getting inside the heads of airline workers can go a long way toward understanding the particular stresses they face — and help passengers avoid provocations that can lead to those rare instances of viral meltdown.

Worrying about all of this was not always necessary. Flight attendants were nurses first, given the somewhat primitive nature of pressurized cabins back in the day. Then they were more like waitresses who had to graduate from “charm farms.” By the 1970s, hot-pants-wearing Southwest hostesses were flying in and out of Love Field in Dallas, and the airline’s stock symbol was LUV.

The romance ended abruptly after the terrorist attacks in 2001, and a tumultuous decade followed. Demand for air travel wavered, pricing came under pressure, fuel costs spiked, and the industry endured a wave of bankruptcies. Airlines cut staff, costs, legroom and amenities, even as security hassles grew and confusion reigned.

“Never was the need for better customer service greater, and never was the money more scarce,” said Tom Murphy, a veteran trainer of airport and airline workers.

All that cost-cutting got very expensive, since the employees who endured it were not always particularly happy when they showed up for work. Neither were passengers once seats narrowed and the space between rows disappeared. Perhaps they were worried about missing their cruise ship’s departure. Or maybe they were sick, or stressed out, or scared of the hostile passenger staring at them. Or perhaps they let their little-bit-racist minds wander to the intentions of the darker-skinned person minding his own business while scribbling math equations in a notebook.

Whatever it was, once passengers were packed in a narrow tube six miles high, it was only natural that many of them would lose their patience. Not long ago, passengers knew that airlines didn’t care about their comfort, but at least those carriers abused their front-line employees, too.

“In many ways, there had been this common bond,” said Sara Nelson, a United flight attendant and international president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “But since the airlines started making money again, the empathy is not necessarily there.”

The Voice

Mr. Francis cut his professional teeth on New York City subway trains, not planes, and often lacked any backup when he worked underground as a transit officer starting in 1981. He used his fists for self-defense when necessary but found his words much more useful. His own experience learning Verbal Judo led to full-time work as a roving instructor after he retired from the New York Police Department.

On Thursday, in front of a hotel conference room here filled with women nibbling clementines and brownie bites, he cut an imposing figure, with his physique still fit from actual martial arts, his booming voice and his skill with a well-placed swear word.

But one of his first lessons for pupils is vocal modulation. “Can you start a fight just by being sarcastic?” he asked. Then he answered by demonstrating just how easily people can perceive a profane insult at the end of the phrase “Have a nice day!”


Credit
Kopp Illustration

So when gate agents or flight attendants slow down dramatically, lower their voice or get down on one knee to address you, it’s probably on purpose. And you’ll probably calm down, lest you feel utterly hysterical and completely ridiculous.

The Explainer

“Working for an airline is almost like being in Scientology, because the language they use is one that people don’t understand,” said Heather Poole, an American Airlines flight attendant and the author of the best-selling book “Cruising Attitude.” “I kind of wonder whether it was a way to keep passengers from understanding.”

It’s the kind of thing you don’t notice until you aim to notice. On my United flights to Wyoming, there was an unexplained delay, chirpy insistence that an obviously delayed flight would leave on time, a failure to explain how easy it was to make up time en route when so much padding is added to the actual flight time and, finally, the seeming foolishness of forcing frazzled people to stuff wheelie bags that will fit in the overhead bins (with room to spare) into a gate-side sizer (where they may not).

“What is the most American question of all?” Mr. Francis asked his court clerks on Thursday. “Why!” they shouted in unison, as if they’d taken the class before.

He learned from his mentor that 70 percent of people will do what you ask them to do as long as you explain why you want them to do it, and the women in the room — who deal with far more criminals than airline staff members do — did not challenge him on the statistic.

It’s not clear that every airline employee has figured out how to anticipate the whys, however. Passengers are often in the dark about why employees need to bump people off a flight or whether there is any good reason not to bribe them with more money before forcing them off.

“What are we doing when we explain why?” Mr. Francis said. “We are showing people respect.”

Many flight crews do quite well at this, and some extremely frequent fliers don’t want to be bothered. Then, however, there are the employees who don’t want passengers challenging their authority and resent innocent questions born of ignorance created by the silence from those very employees.

Mr. Francis has no patience for such people or the managers who muzzle them. “My job is to create a situation where people can comply with me and still save face,” he said. “If they do, I won just because they got an explanation.”

The Choice (Is Yours)

This bit of context setting is part of a five-step process that begins with an employee’s ask and ends with a confirmation and the requested action. After the why, there may need to be a set of options if someone is not satisfied with the explanation and proceeds to do his own thing in spite of the ask.

Take the airplane standers who defy the sit down-seat belt sign and threaten the on-time departure that is the subject of so much management attention. Ms. Nelson, the flight attendant union president, knows just what to do with them.

“‘Sir,’” she demonstrated for me in a phone interview. “‘If you don’t sit in your seat, you are going to be removed. You have a choice here, and I want to give you that choice. But I want you to be really clear about what your options are.’”

Mr. Francis endorses this, sort of, but he likes his students to present a positive choice first. Someone who jumps at that choice straightaway may not need to experience the ill will that a threat might sow.

This was something I struggled with as Mr. Francis and I acted out role-playing parts in front a room with cattle-branding irons on the mantel of a stone fireplace. My instincts, apparently, were a tad too confrontational: I kept wanting to threaten him with arrest for staying in an imaginary park in Brooklyn for too long rather than shooing him off to a nice diner down the street. He kept calling me “Rookie.”

The Switcheroo

While there are fewer flight attendants on many flights than there once were, those on a team will sometimes substitute for a colleague stuck with a hard case.

Gary Leff, whose trenchant blogging about the airline industry gives some executives fits, witnessed one save two years ago that was particularly memorable. His seatmate in first class turned up with her own wine, having dumped her drink from the airport club into a to-go cup.

A flight attendant, who had clearly seen this transgression before, moved in for the confiscation, since it’s against the rules to uncork your own booze on a commercial flight. But the passenger refused to give it up, even though she was offered a positive choice in the form of replacement wine post-takeoff.

At that point, the flight attendant had had enough and threatened to call in the police. “It would not have been wrong,” Mr. Leff said. “But there was an easier way to solve it.”


Credit
Kopp Illustration

Indeed, before anyone picked up the phone to call the people with the handcuffs and the guns, a role switch took place and a calmer member of the team swooped in to defuse the situation.

The Bum Pincher

Yes, these people are still out there. Most flight attendants have at least one story.

When it happened to Ms. Poole not so long ago while she was up in the air, she had a choice to make. Drawing a hard line might mean alerting the captain, diverting the flight or at least having the police waiting upon landing to file charges. At that point, she might miss her connection or not get enough rest and then not be able to legally work flights the next day, which would have threatened her livelihood.

So she told the man to sit down, but later he pinched her again. “If someone is a jerk to me, I am probably not going to see them again the way I would if I worked in a bank and someone pinched me,” she said. “It is a little easier in my industry to let that go.”

Verbal Judo may fail the airline worker here, since the violation of personal space is normally a sign that words have failed and that you need to take action. Mr. Francis, who has two daughters, had an instinctive reaction: What about all of Ms. Poole’s colleagues who will be subject to the passenger’s future advances if nobody teaches him a lesson?

“But that’s easy for me to say, because I’m not the one who has to get called in,” Mr. Francis said, nursing a glass of tequila after our day with the court clerks. “And depending on how the company handled it, it could be humiliating. Who am I to say what she should have done? It’s her choice. It has to be.”

Anyone intent on committing assault miles above the police, however, shouldn’t necessarily count on other flight attendants to make the same choice.

The Security Threat

The lady in 3B having a do-it-yourself happy hour was certainly breaking the rules. And no one should jump to the defense of the man with the wandering hands.

But were either of them an actual security threat such that they deserved to be tossed off the plane or isolated and handcuffed while still in the air?

Mr. Leff has been vocal about how airlines have watered down the definition of potential security risks — and not in a good way. “They’ve created a space in which you’re asking crew to evaluate what constitutes a threat,” he said. “Which could include refusing instructions, whatever those may be, which gradually gets interpreted as talking back to a crew member or just being rude, which may be unintentional.”

Here, he points to another blogger who was asked to leave a flight for taking pictures of the seat back in front of him. His eviction was based on a very loose reading of a no-photographing-the-crew rule and a reportedly false accusation that he did not comply with a flight attendant’s order to put down his phone camera.

Mr. Leff also has a friend, he said, who ran into a flight attendant recently who threatened to summon law enforcement when the friend asked the flight attendant to be careful of the delicate items she had placed in the overhead bin.

Hogwash, said Ms. Poole, the flight attendant for American. She would never come close to removing a passenger without careful consultation with colleagues to make sure everyone reads the situation the same way. Besides, she said, nobody wants to come in on a day off to have the inevitable talk with managers about an incident, let alone become an unwitting YouTube star. “We put up with a lot more than someone would put up with in any other job just to avoid those things,” she said.

Mr. Leff was quick to note that he does not know precisely which borderline passenger behaviors should be declared removal-worthy. “But I also think that airlines have allowed consideration of the question to take a back seat,” he said, “where they are too quick to tell people to call law enforcement and don’t draw a line in the right place or invest enough in the customer-service element.”

The union president, Ms. Nelson, agrees with that last point. One possible solution, she said, is to have more employees on the plane. If there are not enough eyes to see how a conflict began, it can be hard to adjudicate it. “If we’re not right there,” she said, “it’s either too late, or has become a really big problem by the time we can get there.”

The Mile-Making Machine

Things go awry. No airline is perfect, and no single flight is, either. Not everyone wants a free drink for the trouble, however, and airlines have typically had little else to offer angry people in the moment.

Enter Delta’s hand-held mile-making machine, which it uses for “service recovery.” Did your tray table fall apart in your hands as you attempted to use it? That will be 5,000 SkyMiles into your account. A Delta spokesman could not provide a menu of points possibilities for people who qualify for said recovery but said that flight attendants have flexibility in distributing them.

Ms. Nelson said any additional tools like this are a good start, but there will still be people who feel as if airline personnel are dismissing their concerns. Maybe they just want to be heard further. “Any parent would understand it,” she said. “It’s not going work every time to just offer the child a toy. Sometimes the child wants to cry and be picked up and held.”

Which is not to say that she wants to infantilize us all. It’s just that when they are up in the air with the scared and the sad and the glad and the mad, there may be only so much they can do when words fail utterly. “There isn’t one tool,” she said, “that will satisfy every single person’s concerns.”

Correction: April 22, 2017

An earlier version of this article misidentified which entity uses the letters LUV to identify itself. It is Southwest Airlines that uses LUV as its stock symbol. Love Field in Dallas does not use the letters as its official airline code. It uses DAL.

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