- The Washington Times - Friday, August 10, 2001

A flustered woman spots Chris Rupprecht near the Southwest Airlines departure gate.

"Can I ask you about the parking?" she begins, looking at his Southwest identification badge.

With 15 minutes left before her flight to Chicago, concern registers in her voice and on her face.

She explains that she has parked "on the roof" at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and wonders whether that is the right place to leave her car.

Mr. Rupprecht, a Southwest Airlines customer service manager, recognizes the roof parking as the hourly parking lot, which would cost her about $30 per day while she is away for three days on her trip. He recommends she park in the less-expensive long-term parking lot.

With a look at the flight schedule and a few quick keystrokes on a computer, Mr. Rupprecht books the woman on a later flight, giving her time to move her car.

One more problem averted, one more customer served.

Not all meetings with customers end so amicably for this customer service manager with a DisneyWorld style of optimism and close-cropped dark blond hair.

"As a customer service representative, you … field all the questions," says Mr. Rupprecht, who at the age of 25 is a six-year veteran of the airline.

He tells about one customer three months ago who had just been told that he and his 85-year-old mother were being bumped from an overbooked flight.

"One of the other guys said he thought he was going to hit me," Mr. Rupprecht says.

Similar stories prompted Congress to hold a hearing last month on "air rage," or the sometimes violent anger passengers direct at airline employees. As airline congestion and delays have increased in recent years, so have reports of air rage.

Unions representing flight and gate attendants want tougher criminal laws and prosecution of the offending passengers.

Among airlines, Southwest Airlines is one of the fastest growing. Its low-fare, mostly regional flights are cutting deeply into the customer base of larger airlines like US Airways and TWA.

Last Friday, 15,600 passengers booked flights on Southwest Airlines flights out of BWI. The most enraged among them on that day appeared to be a baby who cried until his mother gave him a bottle. Other passengers leaned against the railing in front of the gates, read magazines or talked on cell phones while they waited in line for their flights.

The airlines' busiest days tend to be Fridays, Sundays and holidays.

Mr. Rupprecht says instances of violent passengers are rare, but they do happen.

"You can see that look come into people's eyes," he said. "It's rage."

The most common complaints are flight delays, followed by long lines. Many of the passengers create their own troubles by poorly timing their schedules or bringing personal problems with them, he says.

He recalls the time a passenger on drugs started flailing his hands and feet and babbling incoherently about 15 minutes after his flight took off. Passengers held him down and police were waiting for him as the plane arrived at the terminal where Mr. Rupprecht was working.

The closest he came to quitting was shortly after he started working for Southwest Airlines at the Sacramento, Calif., airport. After promising more than 100 passengers their long-delayed flight would take them to Salt Lake City, the flight was canceled because of snowfall. Among the passengers were two sisters, both about 10 years old, whose parents had left them to ride the airplane alone. He rushed to find the girls an alternate flight on Delta Air Lines.

"You always know that yeah, this is bad, this is crummy, but at the end of the day you get to go home and tomorrow is a new day," Mr. Rupprecht says.

The thing he likes best about his job is "the teamwork." When problems arise, he says, his colleagues help each other work out solutions.

He has lived in Baltimore for two years. His job at BWI also is his first management job. He worked as a customer service agent for four years in his hometown at Sacramento International Airport. Afterward, he spent two years living in Long Island, N.Y., and working at Islip-MacArthur Airport.

"My last day on Long Island, we had a snowstorm," Mr. Rupprecht says. As all other airlines canceled their flights, Mr. Rupprecht and other Southwest Airlines employees shoveled snow from around an airplane and scattered salt on the runway.

"Everyone pulled together to get that flight out," he says. Four hours late, the flight left for Florida amid cheers from the passengers on board.

Mr. Rupprecht starts his day at 6 a.m. by helping the early morning passengers at the ticket counter. As the early flights leave, he walks back to the "piers," where gate attendants take tickets as passengers board their planes, to make certain no last-minute problems arise that could delay flights.

Much of the rest of his day involves troubleshooting. He checks the Southwest Airlines computer for a weather report and delays expected later in the day from an incoming thunderstorm. One employee calls in sick, prompting him to juggle work schedules.

Other times, he watches the lines forming at the ticket counter. As they begin lengthening with weekend travelers catching afternoon flights, he helps the ticket agents.

"Next in line please," he says to a man waiting for a ticket to Islip, N.Y. The rat-a-tat of his fingers on the computer keyboard shows he is experienced at entering the data needed to purchase the ticket.

He also enjoys the travel benefits. Whenever he has free time, and whenever an empty seat is available, Mr. Rupprecht can fly free anywhere Southwest Airlines flies in the United States. International flights cost him only the taxes on the value of tickets.

His destinations have included Australia for $50, South Africa for $22, several trips to Europe for $30 each and a free trip to Alaska.

He plans his first Hawaiian trip for his honeymoon, after he and his fiancee a Southwest Airlines flight attendant get married next year.

"This is a great job," he says.

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