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Air Rage: Why the Caged Bird Sings

It seems that barely a week goes by without news stories about air travel angst. Consider the spat last year over a man using a Knee Defender apparatus to try to keep the woman in front of him from reclining her seat (her response: to throw a cup of water at him). Or the scathing letter written by an air traveler to the fellow passenger who kicked the back of her seat and positioned his “putrid” stocking feet between her seat and the window. Or the airline executive who made a flight attendant kneel after being served nuts in a bag rather than on a plate.

Even the airport isn’t safe from passenger rage. Cranberries singer Dolores O’Rioradan is facing charges for allegedly assaulting police officers at the Shannon airport in Ireland.

While the stories vary from week to week, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t encountered some plain old garden-variety nastiness when placed at the mercy of our airlines, whether from a fellow passenger, a gate agent or a flight attendant. So it’s no surprise that on a daily basis, nastiness is met with nastiness in return. The result: air rage. What can you do about it? Read on….

Who’s to Blame for Air Rage?

There’s plenty of blame to go around. First, airline policies seem to encourage employees to deny and dissemble instead of trying to inform and instruct, which would seem almost to be our due as paying customers. Second, passengers with a short fuse or too much booze can poison an entire plane or gate area for hours, and everyone suffers the consequences.

While we all share the blame, we all also share the pain; on the front lines, we’re all foot soldiers, travelers and airline employees alike. Members of the traveling public, by virtue of having paid for their transport to go visit Grandma or see the Eiffel Tower, have a legitimate expectation to be treated fairly. But across the counter, the front line employees of the airports and airlines, while paid relatively well, are getting a raw deal just the same; they get all of the problems and not so much of the massive profits the airlines are raking in these days.

Under most circumstances, I admit my sympathies are with travelers. Folks who hate their work as airline agents should make an effort to find new, more amenable jobs. And in my experience, shoddy treatment at the airport is so routine that just getting off the ground is cause for considerable relief. Thus, it’s a little galling to some that the phenomenon of “air rage” is generally thought to apply primarily to passengers — as though only passengers misbehave, and never airline employees. The more likely truth is that only passengers have little or no recourse in the transaction — and when they are given no information, and stripped of control and perhaps even dignity … well, we know why the caged bird sings.

How to Avoid Air Rage

Since there’s no reason to expect things to get better at the airport any time soon, here are my tips for a clean getaway every time you pass through an airport:

1. Pay the lowest price possible. Unless you are in business or first class, the treatment you receive isn’t going to vary one whit whether you paid a little or a lot for your ticket. Much of the mail I receive from airline professionals complaining about passengers includes comments such as: “People want to pay next to nothing for a ticket, and then expect service!” Well, we don’t set the prices; we just pay them. And we don’t expect that much service either, just not browbeating, scolding and general unpleasantness. If we’re all going to be painted with the same cheapskate brush, we may as well not pay a lot for it.

2. Avoid human contact. Like some kung fu master, your skills of evasion and avoidance will trump debating and argumentative tactics every time. More to the point, if you don’t interact with anyone who can mistreat you, you can’t be mistreated. Check in online, check your bags at a kiosk for minimal exposure, board swiftly and silently, and BYO whatever it is that will get you through the flight.

3. Avoid surprises. Check ahead for parking info (on your airport’s website), sign up for text alerts from your airline in case of delays, and if you end up talking to an agent at any point, find out if your flight is full, empty or otherwise. The idea is to arm yourself with information at every stage of your trip.

4. Plot your route. Particularly if you are traveling through a large airport, a look at a map of your airport could save you from encounters of the unpleasant kind. For example, if you checked in online and know your gate ahead of time, make sure you choose the airport entrance that gives you the most direct line to your gate. That will save you the trudging and end-arounds that force you to talk to people and cost you minutes when time gets tight and lines are long. Running a little late seems to be the worst offense a traveler can commit, and can ultimately be held against you — although the airlines are quite good at running late themselves!

5. Take a step back. As a youngster in a retail job, my cousin Debbie had a formula for dealing with difficult people: “Kill them with kindness.” Though you won’t want to talk about killing people while trekking through an airport these days, a little understanding could go a long way. Airline employees and flight attendants have a difficult job dealing with travelers who are justifiably grumpy at the airport. What if every person you spoke to in your job was ticked off before they got to you? You can disarm a potential antagonist as well with cheer as with churl. If you cut them some slack, you might walk away unscathed — or at least not unhappy.

6. Revenge is best served up cold. Don’t feel like you have to have your say, or God forbid the last word, on the spot when subjected to bad behavior. Simply get a name and a flight number, and write a short note to the offending company when you return. If the agent refuses to give a name, ask for a supervisor. When you write the letter, there’s no need to overdo it; unless you have a very specific complaint, the more brief and cool-headed the letter, the better. (See our guide to complaining effectively.)

You might get a form letter in return, but if you send a copy to the FAA, at least it will register somewhere. The airline might send you peanuts and golf balls, but when the next batch of stats comes out, your complaint will be in there.

Finally, don’t be afraid to take your concerns to social media such as Facebook or Twitter. Because complaints can easily go viral on these platforms, you’ll often find that the airlines will be quick to respond and cut off any potential bad PR.

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