“Customer service,” unfortunately, is not usually synonymous with the airlines. We’ve all heard or experienced the horror stories of lost bags, exorbitant fees, lost kids, and heaven knows what else. But in this era of COVID, customer service is taking on new meanings and new challenges.

In the post-9/11 world, it is all but impossible for a pilot to leave the flight deck to deal with an unruly passenger, yet more passengers seem to be more aggravated and aggressive than before.

With the proliferation of masks, there has been a rise in cases of people who don’t seem to be willing to fully comply with the new rules, though the rapid spread of the virus has helped to some degree. In my recent travels, I’ve seen a number of confrontations that could—and should—have been avoided, and in this case, most of the blame falls on the customers, not the airline.

Every airline is now not only requiring a mask, but also requiring passengers to acknowledge the new rules when a ticket is purchased and/or during the check-in process. There are also numerous announcements made at the airports (which have their own rules), as well as on board the airplanes.

Flight attendants routinely remind everyone of the requirements for a mask, usually as a part of the first public announcement, and then regularly thereafter. On top of that, most captains are also emphasizing the need for a face covering, with reminders that noncompliance will not be tolerated.

In my 20-plus years in the airlines, I’ve never seen such a universal effort to ensure compliance using such harsh measures. Instead of just offering a verbal warning, noncompliant passengers are being escorted off the airplane, and are quickly finding themselves on a list of passengers who are banned from that carrier until at least the end of the pandemic, and maybe longer.

Pilots can still help defuse some situations on the ground, but in flight, they are relying on the cabin crew and potentially any crew members riding along on the flight. There have been several cases of pilots witnessing a disruptive situation from afar, and stepping in to offer support of the employees on the ground (usually the gate agents).

Because the overwhelming number of passengers are folks who fly only once or twice a year, they may be dealing with situations where they have to keep the mask on for longer stretches of time than they are used to. This may make them uncomfortable or just frustrated. That’s understandable. But there are also other folks who are not totally sold on the stated efficiency of aircraft cabin filters, and those are passengers that we can’t afford to lose. Just about every flight in the air these days is losing money. Tickets are cheap and seats are empty.

It is imperative that we all be sensitive to one another, but it is also imperative that we understand that we tacitly agree to abide by certain rules when we go to certain places. That includes, for now, the masks. Speaking up so as to be heard, as well as speaking slowly and clearly, also help. Sometimes someone just needs to be vent and be heard. Often, if they feel some validation when they need to talk, they will readily go back to full compliance. Give eye contact and a genuine ear.

This new norm is going to be with us for a while, and we all need to work together to get to the other side of the pandemic. In the meantime, we all need to use our best “customer service” in all facets of our lives.—Chip Wright
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