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The Saga of Steven Slater. Bend over Backwards for Guests, but….

The Saga of Steven Slater. Bend over Backwards for Guests, but….

Like most of the rest of the country I have been following the saga of Steven Slater, the Jet Blue flight attendant, who after reportedly being verbally abused by a passenger  and hit in the head with a carry on that the passenger was removing from the overhead bin before it was permissible to do so, cursed out the passenger on the PA, activated the emergency slide and fled the plane.

Just when we have been talking in this blog about dealing with complaints and difficult guests, a story about how one person dealt with a particularly difficult customer has made national news.

What seems particularly newsworthy is that Slater became an instant folk hero.  He even got the lead story in the Sunday New York Times Week in Review:

The Folk Hero Playbook

By BENEDICT CAREY

Published: August 14, 2010

The man does not have his own talk show. Not yet, anyway.

But if there were a formula for becoming a folk hero … then Steven Slater, formerly an active employee of JetBlue Airlines, may as well have discovered it. Read the full article…

For me a far more interesting issue is how much abuse a service worker should be required to take from a customer.  I wondered whether Jet Blue has a policy on this issue, so I went on their blog and asked.

The exchange between Jet Blue and me follows.  Let me know what you think.

Me:

Without prejudging what actually happened on that aircraft I think it would be helpful for Jet Blue to post it’s guidelines for flight attendants on how to handle abusive passengers.  Assuming that the passenger did act as reported, cursing him out and hitting him in the head with a carry-on she was removing from the over-head bin, what does Jet Blue expect their flight attendants to do in such a situation?   Grin and bear it?  Sue the passenger for damages?  Jet Blue, this is a serious question that does not effect this specific case.  You really should take the trouble to post an answer.

Jet Blue:

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your comment! We actually do have extensive training for our Inflight Crewmembers, but unfortunately the details of that training are confidential for security purposes and cannot be freely shared.

Me:

Jet Blue, I asked you what you expect your flight attendants to do in the face of abuse. You answered that you cannot give the “details” of your flight attendant training “for security purposes.”

I’m sorry, but that is just the kind of nonsensical  typical corporate cop-out that has inspired so many people to make a hero out of your employee who cursed out your customer on your public address system and activated your emergency slide, which according to the police gravely endangered people on the ground.  If you treat your employees in the same kind of mealy-mouthed  way you answered me no wonder they get frustrated.

As someone who has run a service oriented company for over 30 years, I could never excuse what Mr. Slater did, but has his employer you should understand that if you do not talk straight to your employees and your customers you share responsibility for these kinds of incidents.  Making it clear that there is decency line that when crossed by customers will result in appropriate consequences,  makes it a lot less likely that your employees will reach the point of having to take matters into their own hands.

Many years ago I realized that it is very helpful to divide difficult guests into two general categories, “needy”  and “nasty.”  As professionals it is our job to effectively help needy guests no matter how difficult and unreasonable. Nobody should have to put up with nastiness. Admittedly the distinction is sometimes hard to determine.  In unclear cases give the benefit of the doubt to the customer. But when a guest is clearly abusive, it makes no sense to reward abusive behavior with impunity.

The way we express it to our people is: Bend over backwards for guests—-but do not bend over forwards.  Perhaps not a very elegant way to put it, but our people remember it.  And knowing that they will be supported if guests cross the line inspires them to go to extraordinary lengths to make our guests happy.

So Jet Blue,  I am asking again.  How much do your flight attendants have to put up with?

Jet Blue:

Hi Michael,

We seek to prosecute anyone who harms or threatens to harm any of our Crewmembers. That is not something we take lightly.

Me:

Jet Blue, that’s a good start.  I suggest that you take it one small but important step further.  Publically announce that you will refuse future service to passengers who gratuitously abuse your employees.  Whatever tiny percentage of passengers you lose will be replaced many times over by passengers who appreciate the policy and your crew will handle these situations much more capably, consoled by the knowledge that they will not have to deal with the offending passenger again.

One the plus side I am impressed and appreciative that you care not enough to respond to my comments and look forward to your response.

Jet Blue:

Hi Michael,

There absolutely are cases in which we will refuse service to Customers that pose a risk to our Crewmember (and Customer) safety. These decisions are not made lightly and are determined on a case-by-case basis. Thanks for reading!

Me:

I was hoping for refusing service for passengers that pose a clear danger to your crew member (and passenger) mental health,  but I realize that it is a lot to ask from a response to a blog post.  Perhaps some Jet Blue folks with decision making authority will contemplate a change in policy.  Thanks for answering.

End of exchange with Jet Blue.

So what do you think?

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4 Comments and 0 Replies

  • At August 24, 2010
    7:14:49 am
    Shannon Borrego said:

    As a former flight attendant for TWA, I have been very interested in the Slater case. TWA’s policy was that in a situation in which a passenger was harrassing a flight attendant, the captain should be contacted and he (or she, nowadays) was the ultimate authority regarding whether the plane should be met by security personnel upon landing. Unfortunately, this policy relied completely on the discretion of the individual pilots. Some of them were quite supportive of the flight attendants and would come back into the cabin from the cockpit to deal with unruly passengers. Others couldn’t have cared less.
    I think it all boils down to mutual respect between employer and employee. The rules themselves can be more flexible in a small company, where the employer is able to be personally involved. In larger companies, rules which protect both the employee and the customer need to be established. My life as a flight attendant would have been much easier if I could trust that I would have “back up” should a passenger get nasty with me. And passengeres did–I often had to bluff my way through it.
    I suppose the most important first step in avoiding this sort of disaster is an efficient and thorough interviewing process before hiring. If the employee is going to be faced with irate customers on a regular basis, a very patient personality is more important than if the job requires sitting in an office and not dealing with the public. I also think that employees (especially in the airlines) are worked to the point of exhaustion which invites a meltdown. Sufficient vacation time is vital for maintaining fresh and enthusiastic employees.

    • At August 18, 2010
      9:45:36 am
      Mike - Boulder said:

      I think that anyone who feels the need to walk out on their job because the conditions have reached their personal tolerance limit should be able to do so. Even in a tough job market, one needs to hold true to ones own sense of self worth.

      • At August 18, 2010
        9:45:09 am
        Ron Richards said:

        Michael, what a great case story, and dialogue with Jet Blue — and best of all your analysis of what matters, why, and what to do about it. Fascinating and valuable regardless of context.

        – Ron

        • At August 18, 2010
          9:44:36 am
          Michael Epstein said:

          Good going Michael. I believe that your path or philosophy is the right way to live , to be, not only for plane companies, but also for any service oriented company. We could also apply this in a micro way between people.
          I don’t usually reply to this column, but in this case I couldn’t resist.