We travel a lot. Our experience is mixed. Most of the time our journeys go without incident, but there are times when adverse weather conditions, delayed and cancelled planes and long queues can make a simple trip less than a straightforward experience.
Sometimes, though, it isn’t the conditions at the airport but people’s reactions which turn a difficult situation into a nightmare. Recently we have both had the misfortune to have been on delayed flights with a number of disgruntled and aggressive passengers who seemed to believe they had the right to take their anger out on everyone around them.
Whilst we didn’t enjoy the experience, it must be even more difficult for frontline airport and airline employees. It’s all very well being taught that the customer is ‘always right’, the customer is king, that customer service is of the utmost importance – but this is not always easy to put into practice when faced with passengers behaving so badly.
What is it about airports that can sometimes bring out the worst in people? In an insightful article, ‘Helping to reduce fights before flights: How environmental stressors in organisations shape customer emotions and customer-employee interactions’, published in this spring’s edition (2019) of Personnel Psychology, DeCelles et al investigate this issue in depth. They distinguish between two key types of stressors:
- Situational stressors – security line waiting time; time to departure gate; number of oversold seats; longest queuing time at gate counter; time passengers started to queue up at the gate; flight delays: weather/non weather.
- Physiological stressors – noise; babies crying; subjective temperature; subjective levels of crowding; numbers on passengers in the waiting area.
They found that situational stressors were related to customers experiencing fear (for example, fear of missing a flight), and that these fears could be amplified by the physiological stressors. In some situations, fear can then turn into anger.
Indeed, it can be very difficult and, sometimes dangerous, to deal with angry people. In order to express empathy, we need to be able to value the welfare of the other. Service employees who have to deal repeatedly with abusive behaviour can end up with emotional burnout.
Threatening and aggressive behaviour which causes us to feel anxious and fearful is less likely to encourage us to be helpful than responding to someone who appears to be anxious or fearful.
What can be done to improve the situation? Environmental factors can be addressed through well designed spatial layout, encouraging less alcohol consumption, communication and information.
Training can support employees to deal with irate passengers by working through different scenarios in advance and developing strategies for coping. Well-trained staff are able to understand better the differences between fear and anger and are more likely to adopt the most appropriate responses
Organisational support is vital. Employees need to feel safe in their work environment. Knowing that there are sanctions on customer’s rudeness and aggression which will be acted upon can help reassure them in their work.
The customer may be king, but the customer isn’t always right.