An Open Letter to Surly Airline Employees

May 6, 2017

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Disclaimer: This post does NOT apply to airline employees who love their jobs and know how to treat customers (aka passengers) with respect. In my estimation, 95% of airline employees are good people doing their jobs all while being generally underpaid and underappreciated. To all of you: THANK YOU.

This post is for the ~5% of airline employees that give the others a bad name — the ones who view customers as an inconvenience and make up their own rules as they go along.

I get it, your job is stressful and the current spate of pro-consumer airline stories is making you even madder. If you look at each of these incidents, I’m sure you can easily peg the blame on the passenger — at a very minimum, for resisting crew instructions. But here’s the thing, the reason for this consumer backlash is that customers are sick and tired of being treated like trash. Yes, we may not be the easiest and we may not listen to all instructions, but the airlines have continued to change the rules, make planes smaller and add fees — and we understand this makes your job harder. But taking out your frustration on us, the consumers who pay your salary via fares and fees, won’t solve anything.

You may have realized lately that we are living in a new era, where smartphones capture everything, so to avoid being the star of the next viral video, here’s some advice from me:

  1. Be the bigger person. When you see a passenger behaving badly, don’t get out your gallon of gasoline and dump it on top of the situation (read: American Airlines employee who beseeched an angry passenger to hit him). Yes, federal laws are on your side and no one should ever hit flight crew, but encouraging someone to break a federal law and attack you (in front of a crowded flight), isn’t a good idea. Your main priority should be deescalating situations and not taunting someone into a federal crime.
  2. Stop lying. Delta had to apologize this week for a situation when a passenger got kicked off a flight because he thought he could transfer a ticket to another one of his children free of charge. At face value, you’d think the passenger was wrong (come on, everyone knows you can’t just give a ticket for someone who isn’t traveling with you to someone else without paying a fee to re-ticket), but in this incident the flight attendant/gate agent blatantly disseminated misinformation to help their cause. The Delta employee in the video can be heard giving misinformation to the family, such as, “With him being two, he cannot sit in the car seat. He has to sit in your arms the whole time.” Delta’s policy doesn’t actually say that — it states that children older than two cannot be lap children without a ticket. Additionally, the FAA strongly recommends that children should be placed in car seats — not in their parent’s arms.
  3. Stop hiding behind safety as an excuse. Yes, safety is your priority, but you should also have some tact and treat customers with respect at all times. Whether you’re a gate agent or flight attendant, you’re still in a customer service role and shouldn’t use the notion of “safety” to treat people with disrespect. I get that it’s frustrating when customers don’t listen to your announcements and that makes you want to strangle people, but barking even louder isn’t going to make the situation any better. Travelers — especially those who may only travel once or twice a year and don’t know the rules — are often confused, tired and stressed. And stop using police when you don’t feel like dealing with customers (like how United treated TPG staff writer JT Genter earlier this week); they’re actually needed for safety and not handling what you don’t feel like dealing with.
  4. Stop underestimating passengers. A female friend, who is an AA executive platinum member who travels weekly, recently posted about a male off-duty AA flight attendant who took her bag out of the overhead bin and said she would have to check it so he could fit his own bag into the overhead bin because he was connecting and didn’t have the time to check his bag. She resisted and won in the end, but fumed about it on social media, where she was met with tons of comments about similar situations. People are feeling emboldened more than ever to stand up for themselves and bullying in the cabin isn’t going to fly like it used to.
  5. Be nice; it’s contagious. Happiness is contagious and personally, I know my mood elevates when I get a flight attendant who greets me with a smile versus barking at me and asking what seat I have so they can scoot me along quicker. Yes, we all want the plane to leave on time, but I assure you it is possible to do that while being nice.

So instead of punching passengers who misbehave, be more like the Southwest pilot who recently rewarded his millionth passenger with Champagne and had the whole flight erupt in applause.

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