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How to Deal With Upset Passengers

“This is a courtesy call. Due to weather, we need to rebook your flight.”

Yes! My sister was ecstatic. We were in the car on our way to the airport. On the other line, she’d been on hold for over an hour in order to do just this, hoping to avoid the chaos that waited at the airport. We already knew she was destined to miss her connection and get stuck in Chicago. A few days earlier, the airline had issued fee waivers for flight changes, but they’d still wanted $400 more for the alternate flights! She had declined to pay more and waited for the inevitable cancellations to start.

“If you’d like to rebook now, say ‘Agent’.”




She switched frantically back to the other line, now also disconnected. I’ll leave the cursing that ensued – and worsened once we entered the airport and joined the approximately 2,794 other bodies in line for rebooking – to your imagination.

I know this is just one example of what Passenger Joe may have dealt with before he got on my flight. No wonder he’s sweaty with frustration. No wonder he needs to vent! It helps a lot that I am myself a commuter by plane. It’s one of the things that I think keeps me a good flight attendant. I spend a lot of time in your seats, dressed like anyone else. I know how much a bad staff member can ruin a day.

Between that and the strategies we are formally taught for dealing with angry passengers (and taming emotions isn’t just a concern of customer service, but also one of safety), here are a few effective tips:

Physically get down on their level.

Squatting, kneeling, or even slipping into an empty seat next to an upset passenger so we are eye-to-eye immediately changes the dynamic. It shows I’m listening as a person, not an authority. It indicates a “time out” from everything else and being dedicated to their concern at that moment. I use this one a lot.

Bring down the volume.

This one takes real effort, but getting on their level also helps here (as it’s harder to yell right in someone’s face than it is to yell up at them). When someone is raising their voice to you, make sure to lower your own instead of matching it. It holds the energy down instead of ratcheting it up and keeps you in control as the one not losing your cool.

Offer information.

Honestly, sometimes I just tell them whatever situational factoids or context I can think of, even if it’s to say that I’ve been searching for information, too. Anger is often about feeling out of control and being kept in the dark. People think we know things we’re just not telling, so simply engaging goes a long way. Even if I have no direct answers, anything that broadens their view of the situation is helpful. The point isn’t to offer excuses, but to help the person understand what is happening around them and behind the scenes.

Ask what you can do for them.

Even if it is not something you can do, it helps to define the conflict – or allows a passenger to vent. If they have a solution in mind but it’s not within your power, at least it gives you a goal for the conversation. If you can’t accomplish the request yourself, this is an opportunity to explain why and brainstorm other ways to get what they want (even if only for “next time”). At least make a show of getting them as far as you can. Walk them to see the right person, write down the address they need, or tell them what words or phrasing might get the attention of the right person when they do reach them.

If there’s no time for a drawn out exchange, just offering to ask someone something on the passenger’s behalf can be incredibly effective: “Hey [Purser/Captain], I know this isn’t likely, but I promised I’d ask, so,” is something many colleagues have heard me say a lot. Once in a while I get lucky with the response, but the real purpose is that it’s almost a miracle what being able to reply, “I tried,” will accomplish for a passenger relationship – and attitude.

[Photo: Getty]

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