Friday, June 24, 2005

Air rage, manners and plastic cutlery

I wrote this article for the magazine I am working for, Asian Airlines & Aerospace. Thought it would be suitable here. So here you are, dear readers, for your eyes only. Err...readers? Hallo? Anybody there...there..there...there...(freakin' echo).

Air rage, manners and plastic cutlery

Picture this: A passenger suddenly jumps out of his seat, grabs a piece of plastic cutlery and holds a flight attendant hostage with said piece of the cutlery pressed firmly against her jugular vein.

A Terrorist? A raving maniac? An unhappily married man?

Lets continue with the scenario: The passenger, tears streaming down his face moans, “can you ask my neighbour to put his shoes back on. His feet stink!”

Terrorists don’t necessarily come in the form of religious zealots or sympathisers of a certain political belief. They can also be disgruntled passengers.

We have all gone through this before: The neighbour with a serious leakage problem. The man who is not satisfied with one arm rest and who clings to both as if his life depended on them. The passenger in front who is constantly shifting the position of his chair. The passenger at the back who keeps kicking the seat in front of him. I could go on and on.

And let’s not forget the most potent ingredient in this fatal recipe, which causes us to shed our manners like a cat’s fur on a carpet - alcohol. How often have you read reports of passengers misbehaving due to being under a ‘spiritual’ influence?

Who do we then blame? Aliens from Mars? The tiny devil that lives in bottles of liquor?

Inevitably, we blame the government. However, we can’t blame government or the authorities for everything. We may be able to blame them for almost everything but here we have only ourselves to blame.

But before we psychoanalyse ourselves, lets see what the statistics have to say. As we all know, some major decisions in our lives depend on facts and figures, or else how would you decide on choosing between fish and chicken for your meal in the air.

The following is from Public Agenda, a US based non-partisan public policy research organisation. Although the data is American, most of us of this region can still relate to it. Here’s the report:

“Sixty-five per cent of passengers say rudeness is a serious problem in travel these days, and 52% of travellers say rudeness is a major cause of stress. 54% of travel employees say passenger rudeness is a top cause of their on-the-job stress and tension.

“Nearly half (49%) of travel workers say they have personally seen a situation where disrespectful behaviour threatened to escalate into physical confrontation. And an additional 19% say disrespect had led to a situation actually getting physical.

“Sixty-two per cent of travel personnel say they sometimes or often see their fellow workers being rude, and another 50% admit that they have lost patience and been impolite to passengers themselves. But when this happens, 56% say it is typically because employees were provoked and treated badly by passengers. While most passengers give travel personnel high marks for overall courtesy, 67% say that when they have a run-in with rude travel employees, they are likely to be rude in return.

“Nevertheless, 62% of transportation employees say rude and disrespectful behaviour is ‘mostly limited to a few people,’ and 45% say they are often treated with courtesy and respect.

“According to Public Agenda president Ruth Wooden, 79% of Americans say lack of respect and courtesy is a serious problem. And where do we see some of the worst behaviour in everyday life? Where do we see good people go bad? Too often we see it - or cause it ourselves - when we travel. Bad manners and rude behaviour can make modern travel a trying and sometimes unpleasant experience."

“Passengers (52%) and travel workers (69%) say a decline in values and morality leads people to be less polite and respectful, and 63% of passengers and 72% of travel workers say the problem is caused by too many parents ‘failing to teach respect to their kids’.

“Travel conditions, too, are taking their toll. About 7 in 10 (69%) travel workers cite "stress due to lack of adequate staff and resources" as a major source of rudeness, and most (66%) acknowledge that crowds and long lines lead people to lose their cool. 51% of travel workers say that things are so hectic and people so rushed that they forget to be polite.

“Parents may not want to hear this, but topping passengers' list of rude behaviour is ‘uncontrolled children’ (80%). 80% also point to passengers who kick the back of the seat in front, followed by swearing (67%), loud talking (66%) and littering (55%).”

That’s a lot of numbers. Writing for, Eric Maryanov was sympathetic of the service providers. “Imagine a service job where your daily objective is to assure that airplanes depart safely and on time, and to keep customers happy,” he wrote. “That’s a lot of pressure to manage for eight hours a day. The least we can do as customers is behave.”

Chicken and egg. Where do we begin? As a customer? Or as the service provider?

“For the most part, the airline employees handled it like the professionals they are,” wrote Maryanov. “But come on, some things are simply beyond human control yet travellers feel compelled to blame the airline.”

It’s akin to the scenario about the weather. Everyone feels the need to blame everyone else for the state of the weather. I recall a public relations officer who took us for a media tour of an engine manufacturing facility, who related how another group of media personnel complained of the weather. “How can we (PR folks) control the weather?” she moaned.

Maryanov must have thought of the same thing when he wrote that foul weather is probably the most frequently heard complaint we get in the travel industry. “A bad storm closed the airport, but travellers act like the ticket agent personally cancelled a flight just to unravel a finely crafted itinerary,” he wrote. “Rain ruined my resort vacation; too much snow prevented me from getting home on time; I got sunburned. We hear it all, and there isn’t much we can say or do to make it better. That’s an issue to take up with Mother Nature.”

Alas Mother Nature usually has the attention span of a three year old. No point arguing with her.

Maryanov asks us to be patient with the airline employee (at whom we are forever throwing our grudges). “…airlines are keeping are keeping their cool and doing the best they can with the resources available,” he advised. “Even though many carriers are understaffed, with employees working long hours and are often powerless to make any significant decisions to improve customers’ experiences, air travel continues steady.”

He wrote that the customer might not always be right, but as professional travel service providers, we need to make certain they feel like it regardless of the situation. He quoted Theodore Roosevelt who once said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Yes, lets face it. There is but only one ultimate horror (besides the thought of planes crashing down), and that is YOU!

Now, before you start picking up the phone and dialling the number of your favourite assassin, listen to this:

“Abuse of airline workers and property is well documented, and it's safe to say that passengers out-thug employees by a heavy margin.”

That was written in by Patrick Smith. The writer, though, is a bit hesitant in presenting his views.

“I'm a tad hesitant to dissect the matter, lest it become bogged in an unsolvable quandary of cause and effect,” he wrote. “Has a sense of entitlement -- an assumption of privilege -- caused passengers to grow more pugnacious than ever? Per the evolution of technology, flying is no longer the rare and special event that beckoned our imaginations and, in turn, our best Sunday suits and behaviour. Are we spoiled, and thus more liable to whine, complain, and start screaming? Or have the affronts and hassles of flying, in and of themselves, reached a tipping point and blown out our patience? Are we coarser and more unruly as passengers, or as human beings? Or a measure of each?”

That, dear readers, equals Hamlet’s confusion. But rudeness, which could also translate into what is now universally known as ‘Air Rage” could have other reasons. Or so thinks Diana Fairechild, retired stewardess and author of Jet Smarte”.

Fairechild blames it on the ‘oxygen deprivation’. She specified the world of Vincent Mark, MD, an ‘environmental physician’ who explains: "Curtailment of fresh air in airplanes can be causing deficient oxygen in the brains of passengers, and this often makes people act belligerent, even crazy."

Does that include the inability to tolerate smelly feet of your neighbour’s? I don’t think so. And so, I believe, does Smith.

“The tendency here, as with any curious societal anomaly, is to engage a simple problem through needless layers of nonsense, pop psychology and overly academic scrutiny,” says Smith. “A year 2000 report from London Guildhall University, Managing Disruptive Passengers: a Survey of the World's Airlines, lists alcohol and ‘personality of the passenger’ as the most commonly cited contributing factors in, respectively, 88% and 81% of violent episodes. No offence to anybody's devotion to scholarly inquisition or the scientific process itself, but how many research hours did the professors exhaust before concluding that excessive amounts of liquor served to habitually belligerent people in an overcrowded airliner is a recipe for trouble?”

Smith is right. Sometimes, stating the obvious takes millions of dollars and man-hours

Having had discussed that, let us not discard Fairechild’s claim altogether. In fact, in her article she did point out some interesting advice as to what to do in case you find yourself on a flight in an air raged ‘unruly’ passenger.

--Rather than confront the offender directly, leave your seat and seek out the purser or senior flight attendant. The purser is usually found in first class, so bypass the flight attendants in coach. Give the purser the row and seat number of the unruly passenger. Remain calm and communicate clearly.

--And if you have a tendency to be an unruly passenger, here's what you might consider. The airplane is a microcosm of humanity. There are high-techies next to hikers, politicians next to pilgrims, and business flyers next to bawdy kids. Keep in mind that the trip is a challenge for everyone on board. Tolerance and gestures of gentility could make your flights more pleasant--for you, and for everyone around you as well.

--Please! Think what you can do to make it easier for others. Say "please." Be kind. Act on your compassion.

So there you are, it has all been all laid out for you. So, the next time your neighbour removes his or her shoe, you know what to do; just make sure the plastic cutlery is strong enough.

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