Sea-Tac staff excelled in storm
Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Normally it takes two minutes to check your bag at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. But last Sunday was not normal. The line was two miles long, or so it seemed, as it snaked past the empty Smarte Cart rack, the depleted newsstand and a line coming the other way filled with weary people waiting to rebook flights.

The irony is that three days earlier, which is when I began my trip from New York to Seattle, I had stood in front of a group of New York airport workers giving them tips on how to handle the stress of holiday air travel.

That's my job. I develop programs to help airport employees handle stress. Now I found myself caught in one of my own nightmare role plays!

So what tips from my workshop can I share with you to help you get better service when you're whipsawed by air travel delays?

First, let me tell you what I saw this past weekend: I saw true heroism. I don't mean the kind that pulls a plane out of a swoon. I mean the quiet heroism of ordinary workers who buck the headwinds of an emotional storm to save people their holidays.

As we prepared to land in Seattle on Saturday night, the pilot told us the storm was so bad we had to divert to San Francisco. Today, the airlines don't give free hotel rooms in such cases. When we landed we were given a paper with an 800 number. Even at a reduced rate, a hotel was too costly for some, and many slept in chairs. I saw gate agents, overwhelmed liked corks bobbling in a sweltering sea, grab blankets and make funny faces for crying babies.

The next morning we arrived at Sea-Tac just as the snow began to swirl. The Departures board flashed the word "Cancelled" more often that a network announcing the fate of its fall sitcom line.

As the terminal teemed with haggard travelers, I saw dozens of people who do desk jobs for the Port of Seattle aviation department crisscross the floors with phones, clipboards and signs on tall posts that read, "The line ends here."

I asked one woman why she had volunteered to come in on her day off, and she said, "Today it's all hands on deck."

I saw an agent for Horizon Air named Jacqueline approach a woman in near tears after her Boise flight was canceled. Jacqueline pulled out a cell phone. The case might be hopeless, but Jacqueline did not give up. I asked her how she was able to stay so nice.

"People want to get home for Christmas," she said. "I understand that."

After my own connection to Bellingham was canceled, I went outside in the slanting snowstorm to find a bus. A tiny woman named Fiona ran hither and fro in the slush placing people on the right conveyance. I asked her how she was able to stay calm.

"If I move fast it keeps me warm," she said.

What's the point of these stories?

All the employees I observed engaged their customers. Often maligned in the media that rightfully chronicles the devolution of air service, the workers I spoke with made a choice to meet their customers' needs, or try to.

It's not easy to engage, especially under pressure, but these workers prove the value of the human factor in a crisis. There will be more storms and with the economy the way it is the airlines will continue to automate, meaning the future of air travel promises fewer staff to do more with less. That's when engagement will become an even more precious commodity.

So how do you get better service in turbulent times? When you travel, especially in quiet times, look for workers who engage you, and compliment them.

The goal is to get more of what you'll need when you need it. Engagement, the choice people make to connect with others, is a resource we all should covet.

Tom Murphy directs the Human Resiliency Institute at Fordham University. He wrote "Reclaiming the Sky: 9/11 and the Untold Story of the Men and Women Who Kept America Flying."

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