Air Rage: Changing the Mindset
What if every senior airline official had to spend several days a year behind the gate, at the help counters, or working as a flight attendant?

By Mel Copen

Recently there has been a major outcry from airline employees who are concerned about growing incidents of "air rage."  The concept is similar to "road rage." It usually results from frustration with the overall system. It is hard to stay relaxed when things are not going the way "they should" -- that is, the way you anticipated. A feeling of helplessness leads to frustration and anger, with the effect often becoming cumulative over time.

Most people learn hold it in and live with that frustration and anger. But some cannot control their feelings. An incident may trigger a release that goes far beyond acceptable boundaries and into uncivil behavior. In the case of "road rage," the cause and effect are usually linked, and the rage, although out of proportion, is usually directed at the perceived cause. "Air rage," on the other hand, tends to fall on whomever happens to be at hand.

The situation begins as a result of problems inherent to the system. Weather conditions, not only local but at the departure points of incoming planes, may result in unanticipated delays. The passenger waiting for the delayed flight may have just experienced airport parking problems, long check-in lines as well as security checkpoint delays. Then add mechanical problems, a portion of which are unavoidable, and a host of service issues ranging from cramped seating, to poor or no food on the flights to long waits for both baggage check-in and retrieval. These days, particularly for people who have to do so frequently, air-travel is seldom a pleasant experience. In essence, the stage has been set.

Then a serious problem arises. A flight is cancelled. A connection is missed due to a late arrival. A bag doesn't show. A person with a confirmed reservation is denied boarding due to overbooking. To whom does the aggrieved passenger turn for help and relief? Senior managers are usually totally disconnected - back in corporate headquarters behind an incredible set of communication "firewalls." Often their primary concerns relate to the financial aspects of running the company and reactions of the investor community. At times it seems that the customer -- the passenger - is just a necessary incidental. The only points of contact for the harried passenger are the airline employees in the airports and on the planes -- and often there are too few of them to deal with major crises. When a storm front moves in, the impact is not gradual. It tends to hit everyone and all at once.

Senior managers are often totally disconnected. At times it seems that the customer -- the passenger - is just a necessary incidental.

Usually, the problems are compounded by failure to provide information. In some cases, good information about the immediate situation may not exist (e.g. how quickly will the storm front move through and when will the planes start flying?). In other cases, the information does exist, but neither the on-site employees or the passengers have it. (What is wrong with the aircraft and how long will it take to fix or to send a replacement aircraft?)

Solutions to the problems may contain many uncertainties. However, there is no excuse for airlines to be unprepared to deal with the effects of the problem (i.e. what they will do in the interim to alleviate the discomfort of the passengers). But it is very rare to see an airline voluntarily take initiative in this regard or to inform passengers of their rights if they miss a meal or have to sleep over or if their bags don't show up and they have no clothing for tomorrow's important meeting. Some airlines seem to have a conscious policy of withholding information on passenger rights unless the passenger is experienced enough to ask the right questions and to insist on getting the right answers. Many passengers have learned that they can only get action by ranting and raving in an attempt to make the situation equally uncomfortable for the airline.

But it is not the airline that receives the brunt of their anger. It is the ground staff or flight crew. Unfortunately, airlines are impersonal things. When the people who hold authority are far removed, the entire load falls on the shoulders of the employees on the firing-line. The fact that they may not have the answers to the questions being asked is of no consolation to the angry passenger. Often they lack the authority to deal with the problems. Since problems don't necessarily confine themselves to the working hours of the head office, their ability to obtain guidance or approvals may be very limited.

All this leaves the gate agent at the airport or the flight attendant holding the bag and becoming the main target for customer anger. It is unfair. But what is happening is also unfair to the passenger. What is the solution? The best solution to the problem lies in removing its causes. This is not meant in any way to condone uncivil behavior on the part of irate passengers. But, as in so many cases today of poor service and customer frustration, much of the problem can be placed at the feet of senior management rather then at the customer/employee interface. Two critical ingredients are needed. The first is the expansion of the front-line resource base, particularly to anticipate crises and to bring more resources to bear when they arise. This includes expanding the number of available personnel, improving the flow of information, and granting the authority needed to make decisions on the scene. The second is the creation of a true orientation to customer service needs and the removal of many of those irritants which lie within the discretion of management.

When airline employees demand action to stop growing incidents of "air rage," they are absolutely right. However, focusing on the passengers as the primary source of the problem and increased security as the solution only deals with symptoms. The focus should be on eliminating the causes -- on getting airline officials to care.

Sometimes I like to dream. In my dreams I see a simple solution to do this, although chances of the dream becoming reality seem slim. What if airlines voluntarily accepted the following rules:

1. No airline executive may fly business or first class on his/her own airline.

2. All airline employees must make their own reservations on their airline by using the same facilities (telephone number, website) as "non preferred" customers do.

3. When overbooking occurs on a flight, airline managers flying on that plane will receive the lowest priority number.

4. Every senior airline official will spend several days a year behind the gate or help counters on the concourses or as a flight attendant, dealing directly with customers.

Wouldn't that be great? Think of the likely improvement in air travel. Why stop with the airline industry? What about all the other service businesses? As we computerize and automate more tasks, large businesses are becoming more impersonal. It is important that key decision-makers do not become remote and that they see -- and experience -- the world through the eyes of their customers. Unfortunately, when demand is high, there may not be much concern over disgruntled clients -- there are always others to take their places. We need to develop a new mind-set to focus on the customer. If, as customers, we don't take the initiative to force the issue, then, as with government, "we will get the service we deserve."

Dr. Melvyn Copen of Cumming is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in dozens of foreign countries and provides consulting services for businesses and organizations throughout the world. Please share your comments with him via email at