As air rage—and the incidence of airline passengers behaving badly—skyrockets, it seems that airplane etiquette is disappearing along with free meals and pillows. But one carrier is advocating a return to civility.
Credit: © 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.

“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.