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Terri Morrissey and Richard Plenty provide their thoughts on dealing with difficult customers.

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.

Arrivals and departures

Budapest Airport CEO, Jost Lammers, is to replace Dr Michael Kerkloh as the managing director of the Flughafen München GmbH (FMG) Group on January 1, 2020. He will also become the future chairman of FMG’s management board when Kerkloh steps down at the end of 2019 after more than seventeen years with the airport. Minister of State and chairman of the Supervisory Board of FMG, Albert Füracker, is confident that Lammers will make for an “excellent” addition to the team.

Avinor has rejigged its executive team, with Oslo Airport director, Øyvind Hasaas, swapping jobs with the Norwegian airport operator’s executive vice president for operations and infrastructure, Stine Westby. “This is a solution I am certain is good for Avinor,” enthused CEO, Dag Falk-Petersen. “It will contribute to develop both Oslo Airport and the operations and infrastructure unit. Such an exchange creates dynamics and innovation, which is particularly important in times where we are trying to find new and more cost-effective solutions through a major cost-reduction programme.” Westby, who joins a fairly exclusive club of female airport bosses, says: “I’m looking forward to starting one of Norway’s most interesting jobs, and am humbled by the task. This is a job with great social responsibility that I am looking forward to get to grips with.”

Guam’s Antonio B Won Pat International Airport has welcomed John Quinata (JQ) onboard as its new deputy executive manager. He joins operator, Guam International Airport Authority (GIAA), after a 38 year career in the military and will work alongside executive manager, Thomas Ada.

About the authors

Terri Morrissey is chairperson of This Is… and was CEO of the Psychological Society of Ireland from 2015-2019. Dr Richard Plenty is managing director of This Is… and runs the ACI World Airport Human Resources Programme. Contact them through info@thisis.eu


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