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Airplane Etiquette

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Photo: Jean Philippe-Delhomme

“We’re a new airline, and we’re rewriting the training as we go,” says Doreen Lawrence, who oversees flight attendants and catering. “Air travel isn’t as easy as it used to be. We are trying to improve it.”

To be fair, they have the benefit of learning from Virgin Atlantic, as well as the examples of JetBlue and Southwest, both pioneers of a more relaxed and responsive style of customer service. But Virgin America is taking it a step further, by enabling its employees to respond intuitively, intelligently, and compassionately in an era when passengers are acting increasingly erratically.

For Virgin America, it all begins with self-awareness. Adopting the rigor of clinical psychologists, the airline’s on-staff educators introduce employees to the concept of emotional intelligence, dubbed EQ, explored by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his best-selling book about managing and using emotions to successfully navigate social environments and interactions. In seminars, employees (referred to, always, as “teammates”) are asked to consider how they feel—and act—when under stress. They identify the “hot-button issues” that set them off. For some, it’s being called “Miss.” For others, it’s being tapped on the shoulder. Employees are then asked to consider the kinds of things that would be upsetting to them if they were passengers. Being spoken to in the inhuman “airline-eze” of technical terms and FAA regulations tops the list. Other button pushers for passengers include receiving misinformation and being told there’s no space for luggage.

“More than anything, people want control when they travel,” said Todd Pawlowski, a vice president in charge of Virgin America’s airports and guest services. “We are trying to give it back to them.” Training emphasizes this idea at every turn. If passengers arrive late, instead of giving them a cold and infuriating “no,” Virgin America employees encourage them to make a run for it. When there are weather delays, they don’t hide from angry passengers. They are even encouraged by management to distract delayed passengers, in appropriate situations, with playful activities such as water-bottle bowling, Elvis impersonations, and hula-hoop contests. Some passengers might find these antics irritating, but for most the playfulness can help ameliorate annoyance and anger.

Which is not to say things are perfect. Some people, it seems, will never behave. They board planes inebriated and won’t turn off their computers. They get into terrible fights over personal space, stand up during takeoff, and watch porn on their DVD players. In October, an intoxicated Mathias Guerrand-Hermès (of the famed fashion family) became so unruly in the first-class cabin of a flight from Paris to New York that three flight attendants and the captain ended up having to restrain him with handcuffs and tie him to a seat.

“I am not going to behave myself,” he yelled.

Maybe if he’d been flying Virgin, things would have turned out differently.

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