Training

​Air rage is an escalating problem. So why don't airlines adequately train their employees for this risk?

By Kathryn Tyler Sep 1, 2001
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HR Magazine, September 2001

On Feb. 4, 1997, Christa Tess was the only flight attendant aboard an American Eagle flight from Cincinnati to Chicago when an inebriated male passenger became agitated. As we went for our descent, he stumbled to the back of the plane, Tess recalls. He grabbed my arm and squeezed. He said somebody in the front of the plane had a gun and [a] bomb. He refused to sit down. We couldn't land because he was out of his seat. We had to divert the plane and fly around twice. He grabbed me, pulled me down on top of him and kicked and hit me.

He started choking me.

Eventually, another pilot, from Continental Airlines, who happened to be on the flight, helped strap the man into an empty seat so the plane could land; however, Tess says she received no assistance from the flight deck crew or the other passengers. During a flight, the pilots are only supposed to leave the cockpit during a fire or if a crew member is in danger, explains Tess. They [the pilot and first officer] didn't understand how much danger I was in.

Security was called, but it took more than 30 minutes for the officers to arrive. Finally, the man was escorted to jail. He was so violent, they had to take his mug shot through the prison bars, says Tess.

I was beaten up pretty bad. But the company refused to prosecute because he didn't do any damage to the airplane. They didn't back me up at all, says Tess.

The FBI did prosecute and the man went to prison for a year. His probation is up in March. I loved my job.

It was all I ever wanted to do, recalls Tess. I went back for a month [after the attack], and I couldn't do it anymore. She resigned her position as a flight attendant as a result of the incident.

American Eagle and its parent organization, American Airlines, declined to comment for this story.

The Situation

Tess is a victim of what has been called air rage. There is no accepted definition. The term encompasses everything from a passenger who refuses to turn off his cellular telephone to one who attempts to open an exit door mid-flight to one who physically harms another passenger or a flight crew member. In general, air rage is considered behavior that threatens the safety of the passengers or crew members.

Even discourtesy can cause safety problems, according to Dawn Deeks, spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) in Washington, D.C. When a flight attendant has to spend an inordinate amount of time on one passenger to get that passenger to comply with simple instructions, the attendant is taken away from performing essential safety duties, she says.

Between boarding and takeoff, flight attendants have a small window to perform numerous Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-regulated pre-flight safety checks. This includes making sure all passengers are seated, have their seatbelts fastened, tray tables stowed and seats in an upright and locked position. Luggage must be properly stowed, aisles cleared and movable equipment secured. Flight attendants must make sure their equipment is working properly, and exit doors and windows are unobstructed. If any one of these or other safety provisions aren't in compliance, the airline could be fined.

For HR professionals in all customer service-related industries, this is a warning signal. Air travel is a microcosm of what is happening all over the country in terms of impatience, frustration and stress among customers. Front-line employees who aren't trained to handle delicate situations can exacerbate the problem. By facing those risks and developing training programs and policies and procedures to manage them, HR can prepare employees and the company as a whole to deal with crisis situations.

Any encounter with an angry individual has the potential to escalate into violence, warns Mike Sheffer, director of The SKYRAGE Foundation, a non-profit organization in Charlotte, N.C., that works to increase awareness of air rage and to find ways to reduce it. Sheffer and his wife, a flight attendant, created the foundation after a passenger attacked her.

HR Magazine spoke to flight attendants and pilots as well as trade unions and conflict-resolution experts who agreed that airlines simply are not doing enough to train employees on how to cope with unruly passengers. Only one major airline--United Airlines--would talk to HR Magazine on the record about its conflict-resolution training. Other airlines referred questions to the Air Transport Association (ATA), the trade association for the airlines. But despite repeated attempts, the ATA failed to return calls from HR Magazine. Reasons the airlines gave for not wanting to speak ranged from a potential breach of security to the belief that the more the problem is talked about, the more it perpetuates itself.

The airline industry does not recognize the seriousness of air rage, many people interviewed for the story say.

HR professionals [need to] understand that air rage should be regarded as a workplace violence issue, Sheffer stresses. HR managers should prepare their offices to respond to an incident quickly and efficiently. Physical injury, emotional trauma, criminal investigations, workers compensation and other insurance claims can combine to overwhelm an unprepared HR staff. An employee who falls victim to a violent encounter may not be emotionally prepared--or physically able--to file the claims, complete the forms and address the other requisite paperwork. A large measure of guidance and understanding would provide an immeasurable service to the victim, who will need as much support as they can get.

The Problem Takes Off

On the surface, it doesn't look like there's much of a problem. Air rage violates the FAA regulation that states that no person may assault, threaten, intimidate or interfere with a crew member in the performance of the crew members duties aboard an aircraft being operated. The FAA shows there were only 266 violations of this regulation in 2000, down from 310 in 1999.

However, this number is misleading. This statistic shows only the number of incidents that were prosecuted. It does not include the hundreds--possibly thousands--that were not reported to the FAA or that were reported but not prosecuted. The FAA does not require airlines to keep records of air rage incidents. Most airlines keep track of these complaints, but many will not make them public.

One that will, United Airlines, documented 737 incidents--or about two per day--on its flights last year alone. We track incidents by categories: bomb threats, smoking, passenger vs. passenger, employee misconduct, security violations, criminal acts, FAA violations, threatening behavior, unruly passengers, verbal abuse, crew assault, sexual harassment, safety and miscellaneous. Of the 737, about 300 were unruly passengers, says Joe Hopkins, media relations manager at United Airlines in Chicago.

Another issue that may be skewing the accuracy of the numbers is underreporting by the victims of air rage. Many flight attendants do not want to report incidents. They feel they may get fired if they complain, says Ann Meili, who was a victim of air rage last year when she worked as a flight attendant for American Eagle.

As someone who travels more than 300 days per year, I haven't seen more than a dozen cases of people moved to physical violence, but I've seen verbal abuse on a daily basis, says W. Lee Fjelstad, vice president of The Verbal Judo Institute Inc., a conflict resolution and behavior modification training company in Sarasota, Fla., that provides training to United, Delta Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Southwest Airlines and USAirways.

Does rudeness constitute air rage? For me, air rage is a safety issue in which employees or other passengers are in imminent jeopardy, Fjelstad explains. A difficult person complaining vehemently does not necessarily classify as a dangerous individual.

Theories abound on the root causes of air rage. Some blame airlines for overbooking flights to reap more profits. Others blame an antiquated air traffic control system that cant accommodate more airplanes on popular travel routes. Some blame society in general.

One of the primary causes is passenger frustration with the increasing Air Traffic Control System (ATCS) delays, says a pilot with a major airline who asked not to be identified. He attributes the ATCS problems to the deregulation of airlines and the resulting increased demand for air travel without the expansion of airport infrastructures.

However, Fjelstad believes the increase is a symptom of American society's growing intolerance. In our generation of cell phones, faxes and e-mail, we have grown accustomed to having what we want when we want it. People consider rudeness a right whenever they do not get instant gratification. They have also been led to believe that if they complain they will receive some type of compensation for their inconvenience. Sadly, they are often proven correct, so the situation feeds on itself, he says.

US Airways flight attendant Sam Bishop agrees. For years, it was accepted policy to give a free drink to someone who was yelling. The industry constantly rewarded bad behavior. So now, it has become ingrained in some people that if they yell, they will get something for nothing.

It strikes conflict-resolution experts odd that airlines would give free drinks to an already agitated passenger. The vast majority of air rage incidents appear to involve alcohol; however, airlines are reluctant to stop serving drinks because those tiny bottles are lucrative. The AFA opposes serving any drinks before the aircraft takes off, giving free alcohol as a reward and giving free drink coupons if a flight is delayed. This is not an appropriate gift, says Deeks.

Training Is Not Mandatory

No matter what the causes, the AFA believes if the airlines provided comprehensive, intensive training on an ongoing basis, it would give employees tools to prevent small incidents from turning into threatening situations. The AFA has lobbied the FAA for years to mandate this type of training. Due to the seriousness of air rage, the AFA believes training needs to be directed from the FAA, rather than individually by airlines. In November, the AFA filed a petition with the FAA to make training mandatory. At press time, the FAA had not ruled on the petition.

The FAA believes its system works to discourage air rage. The repercussions for passengers who engage in unruly behavior can be substantial, explains Elizabeth Isham Cory, deputy of public affairs for the Great Lakes region of the FAA. They can be fined up to $25,000 per violation by the FAA or prosecuted on criminal charges. One incident can result in multiple violations. Cory says because the agency recently instituted the $25,000 fine limit, she has no data on what the average fine is.

There isn't one specific thing that causes air rage in all situations, so there is no magic bullet, admits Deeks. But, she believes the main problem is that the FAA does not mandate air rage preparedness training. They have an Advisory Circular, which [contains] suggestions from the FAA that the airlines are free to accept or reject. That means some airlines do some education, while others do nothing.

Aaron LeBoutillier, spokesperson for R.E.A.C.T. Systems, a conflict resolution training company in the Channel Islands, United Kingdom, agrees. Only a handful of carriers around the world train their staff to deal with this escalating problem.

The London-based International Transport Workers Foundation, which represents 600,000 aviation workers in 110 countries, released a study in July that found only half of airlines have policies to tackle the growing problem of air rage. Two-thirds do not provide any training for the cabin crew in tackling disruptive passengers. Fewer than one in five provided disruptive passenger training for ground staff. And a majority of airlines do not carry equipment for restraining passengers in cases of extreme violence or aggression.

Not only do they [airlines] not prepare employees, in many circumstances, they actually expose employees to risk and danger, says Shane Enright, head of civil aviation at the ITF. They offer no protective measures to deal with workplace violence. Moreover, he says, the lack of information given to ground staff related to flight delays and problems with service prohibits staff from preventing the escalation of passenger aggravation. The airlines make a bad situation worse by failing in the basic obligation of communicating relevant information to passengers.

The AFA recently interviewed 17 flight attendants from as many carriers on air rage preparedness training. Three flight attendants said their employers adequately trained them to deal with air rage situations, five said their employers did not have any type of policy or training regarding air rage incidents and nine received some training but said it wasn't enough to feel prepared.

Up until four years ago, we got no training, says Bishop. Then, we started to get 90 minutes in our recurrent training. They vary it every year, but, basically, it is how to spot someone who may be a problem and how to keep the situation from escalating. The main flaw with that approach is I have never had trouble with passengers who looked like they might be a problem. The man who attacked me was well-dressed and neat.

LeBoutillier adds, The stereotype of the tattooed thug from economy [class] is far from reality. These offenders spread the full length of the aircraft--economy, business and first class.

Most of the training consists of case studies, what-would-you-have-done discussions and lectures on company policy towards abusive passengers, Bishop continues. We learn how to handle the easy problems, who to file reports to and by when, but very little about what to do to regain control of a situation that has turned out badly.

One pilot says his air rage preparedness training is done on his own time. We view [company-provided] videotapes on a variety of subjects, one of which is on unruly passengers.

A lack of training and support led to Meili's resignation after she fell victim to an abusive passenger while working on a flight from Jacksonville, Fla., to Miami on Jan. 4, 2000. I was finishing the boarding process and closing the door when a male passenger and a female passenger came to the back of the aircraft, describes Meili. The man told me his wife had left her purse in the terminal and he wanted to look for it. I told him that since one of the engines was running and there was no one on the ramp to escort him, he couldn't go, but that the terminal staff would look for the purse.

Meili informed him that the purse could not be located. He got out of his seat and grabbed me from behind by my upper arms. He told me he had waited for us--the aircraft was late departing due to crew rest time--and I could [expletive] wait while he went into the terminal to look for the purse.

Eventually, an airport employee located the purse and delivered it to the woman. The man was escorted from the plane by security, but Meili was unable to speak to the waiting police officer because FAA regulations do not allow her to leave an aircraft while passengers are still on board.

All the airline offered in the way of training was to call on the cockpit if you have a problem and how to fill out a form, Meili says. Shortly after the incident, she resigned. I quit because I did not feel that my airline was protecting or assisting me.

Bishop has been involved in two air rage incidents: one in which the passenger was verbally threatening him and another that escalated to assault. Bishop describes the latter offense: In 1999, I was working a flight from Pittsburgh to South Bend, Ind. During the flight, a male passenger became enraged when I asked him if he wanted something to drink, yelling obscenities at me and screaming that I get out of his face.

Later, as I was collecting cups for landing, he demanded my name. I replied that I thought we'd said enough to each other and that there really wasn't anything more to talk about. He leapt out of his seat and grabbed me by the neck and tie. Three passengers jumped out of their seats to help me, and we were able to get him back into his seat. The man was arrested and fined by the FAA.

Concludes Bishop, If training were mandatory, and every airline did exactly the same thing in the same situation with the same penalties handed out, a lot of the problems would stop.

Ground staff and flight crews are in immediate need of training on how to properly respond to a disruptive event, Sheffer says. Diffusion, anger management, body language and actual physical intervention, including proper methods for applying restraints, would enable crews to protect themselves as well as the safety of their passengers. Flight crews are exhaustively trained to respond to any number of emergency situations. A violent outburst aboard the aircraft is such an emergency, and I am at a loss as to why many airlines do not provide such in-depth education.

So, why isn't air rage preparedness training commonplace? A lot of it comes down to money and image, Deeks believes. It costs more to train flight attendants, and if the FAA isn't going to require it, it becomes less necessary. Its [also] the appearance that flying may not be as safe as people like to think. Airlines do not want to make air rage appear to be a genuine threat, she adds.

The Training

Flight attendants at United receive eight hours of air rage training each year, while new hires receive 15 hours. The curriculum provides direction for issues of intoxication, anger, mental illness and physical abuse. During their crew resource management training, further information is provided about communication for safety, including the importance of direct and clear assertive communication, delivered with courtesy and respect, supported by sound decision-making skills, says United's Hopkins.

The Verbal Judo Institute conducts some of United's training. First, we teach them how to control themselves by staying detached from the situation, explains Fjelstad. They learn how to maintain calm in the face of verbal abuse and treat every customer with respect, to work as professionals in order to generate voluntary compliance. The delivery of information is critical to gaining compliance verbally; over 90 percent of our effectiveness comes from how we say things and not what we say. We teach the purposeful delivery of information. One of the training highlights is a five-step approach to working with people in conflict. These five steps are:

  1. Ask a close-ended question, such as, Will you move to another seat?

  2. Tell them why they must comply.

  3. Give them options. The options are the things people might think of themselves if they were calm and had enough time, or were more experienced travelers. Criticism is frequently overheard that if they only knew about that rule earlier they could have made other choices. With options we demonstrate empathy, perhaps the most powerful force in persuasion, says Fjelstad.

  4. Confirm they will not change their behavior by asking a question like, Is there anything that would allow us to work out the problem within the regulations?

  5. Act appropriately. We must ensure the action we take is in accordance with the protocol set by the organization. Such action must be defensible to people who were not there, but [who] will ask about the encounter later. We must be sure never to make threats we will not be able or allowed to back up, says Fjelstad.

Fjelstad describes a personal example of how he has put the training into practice. As I approached a gate in the Minneapolis airport during a snowstorm, I overheard an angry man pounding on the counter about possibly missing an important meeting the next morning if this flight did not take off tonight. I walked to the counter, addressed both him and the gate agent and said, I can appreciate your concern here, sir, with the delay.

Fjelstad had overheard the man say he had an important client who would be angry if he did not make the meeting. I stated that I, too, would miss an appointment in the morning but I cant change the weather. So, I casually glanced at the man and said, I better make a phone call to do some damage control so my client understands the situation. In fact, I better find a phone right away before everyone else finds out and starts calling their families. As I walked to the pay phones, I noted that the man followed me and started making his own calls. In truth, I never needed to make a call but dialed time and temperature to make the event look good. It is all about redirection and helping people think better for themselves.

Train All Employees

Although flight attendants receive the brunt of it when it comes to mid-flight air rage incidents, flight deck staff and gate and ticket agents all face similar challenges from problem passengers.

The training of gate agents and check-in staff has been completely neglected by most companies, says LeBoutillier. These staffs are the front line and must be given the tools to identify potential offenders and work more closely with the cabin crew and flight deck staff. Training these employees in how to deal with problem passengers may avert air rage crises before they escalate, he adds.

For instance, to combat in-flight intoxication, gate agents need to be trained in how to recognize when a passenger has had too much to drink, deny that person boarding and have the support of their airline, Deeks says.

The training of the flight deck to understand their responsibilities and those of their crew is also essential, says LeBoutillier.

Bishop agrees, It would be good to know that, not only am I getting the training, but the agents and pilots are getting the same training. That way, we are all working from the same book.

Training all levels creates a support mechanism within the organization, says Fjelstad. With a protocol in place, we have a consistent method of dealing with difficult people on the plane or in the terminal.

Stand By

Aside from training, the most important role of the company in workplace violence situations is aftercare of the affected employees. Meili and Tess both said the lack of support from American Eagle after the attacks were crucial in their decisions to resign.

The other problem with not training flight attendants is once [an incident] happens, the airline doesn't know how to handle the situation, says Deeks. No procedures are established for how to radio law enforcement, how reports are taken, how claims are filed, etc. There's no infrastructure to support prosecution.

Hopkins describes United Airlines stance: We have a zero-tolerance policy. If a passenger misbehaves, there will be consequences. We will seek prosecution of violations of the law. And we will seek restitution if we incur expenses diverting a flight. We will give our crews paid leave to prepare to testify. And in the most egregious cases we will ban passengers from flying on United.

Speak No Evil

Air rage is real and will not go away, and crews around the world should [be trained in how to deal with it], says LeBoutillier. All companies should have a comprehensive policy to deal with these issues and specific workable procedures to help staff face these incidents.

Summarizes Meili, No one wants to talk about air rage. Air rage is like the relative you don't want to be related to. You know they are there, but don't want to admit you know them.

Kathryn Tyler, M.A., is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich. She may be contacted via her web site at www.kathryntyler.com.

Web Extras

Web Link: Association of Flight Attendants AFL-CIO

Web Link: Air Transport Association (ATA), association of 14 airlines

Web Link: The Sky Rage Foundation

Web Link: AirRage.org, links to air rage news reports

Web Link: AirSafe.com, air rage Information page

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