- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2001

CHICAGO — They've been screamed at, called names, spit on, choked and punched.
When thunderstorms, mechanical foul-ups or overbookings cripple the nation's air traffic and leave terminals packed with disgruntled travelers, being an airline gate agent can become a dangerous job.
"If there were a Purple Heart for working people, these folks certainly deserve it," says Frank Larkin of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), which represents customer service employees and ticket agents.
The dangers of in-flight confrontations with unruly passengers have been well documented, and lawmakers have reacted with tougher legislation against "air rage." But experts who analyze workplace stress and violence, as well as those who monitor the airline industry, say so-called "ground rage" has been overlooked.
And the people on the front lines agree.
"We're counselor. We're baby sitter. We're nurturers. We're mediators," says Sharon Caldwell, who has worked for Northwest Airlines for 17 years. "The job of customer service rep has expanded to a whole new level."
The International Transport Workers Federation, an umbrella organization for transportation workers worldwide, says ground rage will be a focus Friday when flight attendants and ground crews hold their second annual "day of action" against abuse of airline employees. Union locals plan meetings with employees, news conferences and informational picketing to call attention to the problem.
But if gate agents deserve Purple Hearts, then many air travelers and consumer advocates would argue that passengers deserve their own medals for putting up with unhelpful and rude airline personnel.
"The feedback that we get is that the airlines simply do not care," said Kathleen Lynch of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, a passenger rights group founded by Ralph Nader.
Miss Lynch said that gate agents too often aren't given timely information to pass on to customers — a complaint of the agents, too — but that they are not blameless.
"The airline employees either don't have the power or the will to deal with these confrontations," she said.
In one case, a Continental Airlines agent at Newark International Airport suffered a broken neck in a confrontation with a male passenger, who later was acquitted of assault.
Robyn Eulo, a United Airlines customer service representative in Chicago, said she also has had several encounters with angry travelers.
"I've had somebody throw their briefcase at me, swear at me — just demeaning stuff," she said, adding that she knows a colleague whose nose was broken when a passenger struck him.
Miss Eulo said that airlines appear to be more aware of the issue and that United will offer counseling and time off to affected employees. "But 90 percent of the time, they try to talk employees out of filing complaints."
United spokeswoman Whitney Staley, however, disagrees. "We will take all measures possible to ensure the safety of our employees and our customers," she said.
Frank Raubiskis, a customer service representative with United for five years and with Midway Airlines for 10 years before that, said he was attacked by an enraged passenger last fall who picked him up by the waist and threw him against a wall. He suffered some scrapes and bruises. Still, Mr. Raubiskis says that he mostly enjoys his work and that he is more concerned with newer employees whom he has seen quit shortly after emerging from training.
"They basically get baptized by fire," Mr. Raubiskis said.
Miss Caldwell, who is now a vice president with IAM, says agents feel they are on their own when tempers flare. She believes the public has become much more aggressive, noting a case in Detroit in which countertop holiday decorations became projectiles.
"The passengers were picking them up and throwing them at agents," she said, describing a near miss with a flying poinsettia hurled by one traveler.
Dean Headley, an associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co-author of an annual report rating airline quality, says the problems are numerous, including unrealistic flight schedules, overbooked planes and uninformed desk agents. "A lot of little things that add up to big things," he says.
Mr. Headley agrees that customer service representatives are often left to fend for themselves, and even worse, given bad information to relay to customers. What is most infuriating to passengers, he says, is when a 20-minute delay becomes another 20-minute delay becomes another 20-minute delay, or when a mechanical problem becomes, without explanation, a weather-related delay.
"The customer would be happy with the truth; just tell them the truth and get on with it," he said.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide