The pushback of a fully loaded domestic Iberia flight, perfectly on time for its 7:15 a.m. departure, suddenly stopped. Moments later the Captain told us that one of the runways of Madrid Barajas had just been closed because of a technical problem. He gave a lesson about why a broken ILS is not good for safety on a foggy day and how squeezing all incoming traffic into a single runway had resulted in a new departure time of 10:05h. No fun. A public uproar occurred.
The crew did a great job: the pilots informed regularly (saying that there was no change) and the flight attendants, far from hiding, walked permanently up and down the aisle, first informing that eventually lost connections would be resolved in Madrid (this is not Ryanair!), then distributing cushions and blankets with good sense of humour (while supplies lasted…), offering beverages and cookies (for free!) and finally entertaining toddlers to give stressed parents a relief. Although Iberia is not among my consulting customers, I felt some kind of professional happiness when I found how brilliantly well the crew was doing their job.
But suddenly a couple of passengers started arguing aggressively with flight attendants. The discussions became loud and unpleasant for the rest of us. The situation exploded. A particularly hysterical lady started insulting crewmembers and other passengers that were trying to calm her down. Control was lost. She found some allies. Unreasonable claims were voiced and verbal violence escalated. An otherwise reasonably “pleasant” waiting period had been spoilt.
Let’s face it: rude customers are at least as frequent as rude employees. Both can spoil the travel experience of the “innocent” passengers. We talk a lot about motivating and training employees. But can we do anything to “civilise” unreasonable passengers?
While customer experience is not a six-sigma discipline in which the input can be controlled in order to get a reliable output, there are some things to prevent the situations, which usually occur when things already went bad for some reason:
- Of course, crew members need to be trained to deal with stress – their own and that of passengers. Training to handle angry people is not just a one-shot exercise; it requires regular refreshers. And not just a slide in a half-day course.
- If you are a frontline person, you probably went through one of those “relax-listen-empathize-act if possible-don’t scapegoat others” sessions, so I am not going to repeat them.
- Current airline advertising tends to avoid “material assurances”, substituting them by emotional, “experience” based marketing “promises”. But this also creates an expectation. An internal review of which frustrations may be generated by the failure to deliver those “invisible” promises is always a good idea. Seating the marketing guys and the people from the trenches in one room is an even better one!
- Air travel is a stressful experience for most customers and even a scaring one for about 5% of them. Sometimes people lose control because they are just frightened. Understanding this helps to control your own emotions while assisting the passenger to calm down. Well-run “fear of flying” courses can help to reduce incidents and even produce some ancillary revenues for the airline.
- Set limits. If one individual spoils the travel experience for the rest, he must know that that is unacceptable. In extreme cases, don’t allow him/her to board the aircraft. But then, don’t let that person alone. Everyone can lose control if the circumstances are bad enough. After a cooling down period, rebook him on the next flight. Charging a penalty in this case is plain stupid (but it happens because people at certain airlines only work to rules!). If he shows signs of understanding our point, giving him a generous meal voucher may be a good investment to convert him from detractor to fan of the airline. People with empty stomachs can be really dangerous!
- Can you convert this into a documented process for your quality system? Probably you can’t. This is not a Six-Sigma discipline. Rather, you will need empowered smart and human employees with a mature personality! How do you get them? Easy: hire the right people, train and motivate them (don’t forget the last part, nothing comes for free).
So, is it possible to educate passengers? Well, yes, you can adjust your marketing promises and set expectations. You can help them to handle their stress and fear of flying. You can also make a point tell certain persistent individuals that they will not be transported as long as their behaviour causes great discomfort to other passengers.
But above all, you need to have the right people to handle those passengers who are not unruly enough to call the police but who can intoxicate a whole load of passengers’ good will. Isn’t that a small investment compared to the benefit obtained?