At the Airport, Training for Heightened Diplomacy
May 7, 2008


At Fordham University, students can take courses in "personal branding" and "sales management."

But what could a course called Resiliency Edge mean? A revolutionary razor blade, perhaps? Or practical ways to survive in the woods? Maybe the latest in computer-aided design?

No, not any of that.

It is how to deter an airline passenger from, to exaggerate somewhat, ripping out the throat of an airport worker.

At Terminal 4 of Kennedy International Airport on Tuesday, about 40 workers from airlines, parking facilities, concession shops and other terminal operations learned how to deal with passengers who have been infuriated by canceled flights, slow baggage inspections or packed planes. The 75-minute seminar was the first of what could become a regular offering for industry workers.

One exercise was role-playing, where one student pretended to be an airline passenger and the other pretended to be, well, an airport worker.

Vik Louis, 40, a plant supervisor for AirTrain, played a passenger who had been bumped from an important flight. Pat Thompson, a customer service manager for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the region's largest airports, played an airport worker just off her shift and rushing to a birthday party.

"Miss! Miss! Miss!" Mr. Louis shouted, trying to get Ms. Thompson's attention.

"Sir, I've got to go," Ms. Thompson said, walking briskly past him.

Mr. Louis opened his mouth, stopped, and said, "I can't say the next word." Laughter erupted.

Thomas A. Murphy, director of the Human Resiliency Institute at Fordham and the instructor of the class, suggested putting the customer's needs first.

"Miss! Miss! Miss!" Mr. Louis shouted again. Ms. Thompson, stopped, listened, and said, "Oh, what airline are you flying?"

After the class, Ms. Thompson, who has grown children, said, "Whether they're little people or big people, you always need to try to find out what they want."

Many people in the class had a story about dangerous confrontations with passengers. Maria Vinas, 28, is a customer service manager for parking at La Guardia Airport. She saw a man unexpectedly punch a customer service representative. The worker, a woman, was not seriously hurt, Ms. Vinas said, but the man was arrested by the airport police.

But why did it happen? "She wasn't the nicest of responders," Ms. Vinas said.

Stacie Porosky, 30, is a training manager for parking at Newark Liberty International Airport. She once got into a dispute with the driver of a sport utility vehicle in the parking lot.

"The customer pushed my body with his vehicle," she said. "It's not like he ran me over, but he was definitely insisting that I allow him to go where he wanted to go."

What did Ms. Porosky do? "If somebody's in a big truck," she said, "you move out of their way. I'm not going to try to get to the bottom of that person's anger."

Still, it helps to empathize, workers said. "When you get somebody at a high stress level," Ms. Vinas said, "you know he was already upset to begin with. Maybe his flight was delayed, maybe his luggage was lost, and maybe he sat next to somebody who couldn't stop talking. Maybe he was stuck on the tarmac for five hours."

Ms. Vinas said that over the years she had learned some tricks: calm tone of voice, direct eye contact and hands at waist level or lower.

"It's a signal downward," she said, "subliminal calming, without ever saying, .Calm down,' which is the absolute worst you can say."

For some airport workers, it is hard not to yell back at irate passengers.

"I'm ex-military," said Anna Hoyte, 38, a customer service representative for Delta Air Lines. She was a soldier in the army of Trinidad. "Being in the military," she said, "you learn things by the book. But I had to make a complete turnaround and forget military life."

Ms. Hoyte forces herself to think of her elderly mother helpless in an airport. "I would hope someone would be as helpful to her as I am to other people," Ms. Hoyte said.

According to Mr. Murphy, the class's instructor, the situation is only going to get worse for airport workers. He cited a USA Today study that found domestic flights in 2007 were 76 percent full, up from 60 percent in 1997. "They're only going to get fuller," he warned the participants in the class. No one seemed surprised.

For the record, "resiliency edge" refers to the ability of a worker to "bounce back" from stressful actions, like passenger insults, Mr. Murphy said. Resilient workers, he said, are adaptable (multitask easily), optimistic, engaging ("great listeners"), and pro-active ("they don't see problems, they see only challenges").

Gregory James, an electronic technician for AirTrain, seemed unflappable. No tale of outrageous customer conduct seemed to surprise him.

"It's because of my previous background," Mr. James said, after class. "I used to be a telephone repairman for Verizon."

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