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Airplane Etiquette

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Photo: Jean Philippe-Delhomme

At a Virgin America employee seminar last fall, it was time for some role-playing. Patrick Cournoyer, an in-flight manager, was pretending to be a tricky female passenger.

“I am not putting my bag on the floor of this airplane,” he snapped.

“How about in the overhead bin?” asked Patricia Nobles, the bubbly flight attendant assigned the role opposite Cournoyer’s difficult It Bag owner.

Outside, over the bay, planes were drifting down to land at the nearby San Francisco International Airport. Inside the Virgin America headquarters, emotions were rising.

“Do you know how much this bag is worth?” Cournoyer countered.

“Yes I do, and if I had one I wouldn’t want to let go of it either,” Nobles replied with the reverence of one who knows her Hermès from her Hervé. “But how about I wrap it between two blankets for you, stow it overhead, and as soon as the seat-belt sign is turned off, I’ll run down the aisle and give it back to you?I promise! Please!”

Even the prickly-fashionista impersonator had no choice but to relent.

After that came other tough scenarios to reenact: the classic angry-passenger-with-child-behind-him-kicking-the-seat scene; the woman with too much carry-on luggage; and the man in a childish rage because his personal entertainment system isn’t working.

“We push all our role-playing to the limits because that’s how things really happen,” said industry veteran Cournoyer, whose official title is “manager of in-flight learning.”

Much has been made in recent years of the lack of civility when it comes to flying, with the term air rage now part of the daily lexicon. Many point to post-9/11 security, which forced a focus on safety over service, as the cause. But in the past two years, flying has become even more trying: in addition to security hassles, there are fuller flights with smaller staffs; increased airfares, even as airlines charge for food, pillows, and checked luggage; and a spike in flight delays. It’s no wonder that increasingly beleaguered passengers are looking to reassert their control—even over issues as seemingly inconsequential as where their It Bags are stored.

At the same time, rudeness has been on the rise in every corner of society. As standards of dress and politeness have relaxed, so has a basic understanding of proper decorum in public spaces. Add to that all kinds of service-industry workers with entitlement issues as great as those of customers, and you’ve got trouble.

Last summer, just as Victoria Osteen, wife of mega-church pastor Joel Osteen, was on trial, accused of accosting a flight attendant over a small spill on the armrest of her first-class seat, Nikki Blonsky, the teenage star of the movie Hairspray, was arrested with her father for assaulting fellow passengers in a brawl in a crowded Caribbean airport lounge. Not long after that, Ivana Trump made news by allegedly calling some children on her flight “barbarians” and telling their father to “shut them up,” provoking the father to file a complaint with the airline. In another recent incident, a man threw ice around the cabin after being told by a crew member that he couldn’t have a fourth cocktail. Then there was the first-class passenger who became so incensed when several coach passengers were allowed to exit before him that he opened an emergency window and slid out of the plane on a safety chute.

Passengers are rebelling, and flight attendants, who once seemed to hold some of the world’s more glamorous jobs, have the unenviable task of keeping them in check at every turn.

Virgin America’s bushy-tailed new staff, intentionally chosen for their humor and spunk, aren’t ready to give in to the prevailing gloom and doom—at least not yet. The year-and-a-half-old airline, ranked first among domestic carriers in Travel + Leisure’s 2008 World’s Best Awards, is breaking new ground in the area of employee training. The airline has developed a two-day-long training session to educate employees—from flight attendants to ground crews—on theories of empathy and stress management. Senior staff lead morning sessions on politeness, demeanor, and attitude; in the afternoon they tackle conflict resolution, with breakout groups for role-playing exercises and discussion. There are worksheets, instructional videos, and skits, along with theory-laden PowerPoint presentations full of flowcharts and bar graphs. The curriculum—all aimed at keeping employees flexible, enthusiastic, and adept—is a cross between Oprah and Emily Post, with ample doses of B. F. Skinner and Conrad Hilton, and a touch of Confucius, too.

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