Airlines are advised to find ways to truly hear flight attendant concerns. Rona Gindin provides further highlights from the WATS 2022 Cabin Crew stream.
Today’s cabin crew world involves staff shortages, odd hours, an infusion of new hires, and a continued surge of unruly passenger behavior – despite disappearing mask mandates. Yet we want flight attendants to be friendly, alert, educated, safety-savvy and able to assist all passengers, even those with special needs. To reach that multi-pronged goal, airlines need to listen to their cabin crew contingent – especially the Millennials and Gen Zs. See them. As people. Who are heard. With respect.
That’s a main takeaway of three days of talks in the Cabin Crew forum at the World Aviation Training Summit (WATS) 2022, where presentations were universally followed by pointed audience questions and vibrant discussion.
At the conference, the cabin crew room was filled with a mix of long-time aviation cabin crew trainers and industry newcomers. Gathering in a post-pandemic world, the professionals tackled topics as diverse as the use of virtual reality and related tech techniques, sex trafficking, and how to de-escalate unruly passenger behavior.
How Air Canada Approaches Unruly Passenger Situations
Masks are still mandatory on Canadian flights. And, as everywhere, inebriation-induced unruly behavior continues to rise. What’s an airline to do?
Nuh-uh. Not to my cabin crews you don’t. That’s the attitude Ian Mitchell takes. To that end, Air Canada’s lead cabin crew training designer updated the airline’s cabin crew training with this primary goal: Keep flight attendants and passengers safe.
First, of course, flight attendants are urged to try an array of tactics to resolve the issue before it escalates. “That means asking questions, providing choices, reacting positively, reframing statements, explaining the consequences in a nonconfrontational manner, taking action and following up if necessary,” Mitchell said.
Step one was making Air Canada’s blanket rule clear: “Cabin Crew need to understand our standard operating procedures as well as our policy with respect to interference with crew members and unruly passengers,” Mitchell said. Flight attendants are taught to label all interference at one of four levels: 1 - minor, 2 - moderate, 3 – serious and 4 - flight deck, all in accordance with Transport Canada regulations. The airline spells out an appropriate action when faced with each level of offense.
To diffuse situations before they escalate, cabin crew are taught the importance of early detection, intervention and prevention of a potential incident, as well as steps to prevent escalation. They learn techniques for maintaining their personal safety and defusing volatile situations, as well as techniques and skills for managing conflict.
While the training spans several formats, role playing is the most effective. At Air Canada, cabin crew members enact conflict resolution scenarios, Mitchell said. All participants run through two scenarios. And everyone takes a turn playing three roles: the passenger and the flight attendant, with a turn as an outsider evaluating colleagues to provide helpful feedback. “Passengers” are given several aggressive things to say. Cabin crew are taught the means for a safe application of restraints during incidents, including the safety of the restrained passenger.
Assisting the Sight-Impaired
While dodging danger and calming the inebriated, cabin crew also have to be mindful of passengers with special needs. Vision-impaired passengers are among this sub-population. A Chicago-based organization called Open Doors specializes in this area. Program Manager Katy O’Reilly and consultant Pat Pound shared some tips which will help cabin crew and contractors provide safe and courteous assistance to passengers with vision loss.
Teach your ground and cabin crew employees these:
- Don’t assume what type of assistance someone needs or prefers. Instead, greet each such passenger by introducing yourself with your name and position with the airline, then asking, “How can I best assist you?”
- Ask how the passenger would like to be assisted or guided. If the person has a guide dog or a white cane on one side, position yourself on the opposite. To initiate guidance in either case, rather than grab an arm, touch the back of your hand to the back of the passenger’s hand. Then, give the person time to find your elbow at his or her own pace.
- Let the passenger set the pace when you’re walking somewhere together. As you progress, describe the surroundings to help orient the passenger to the environment. For example, “We are passing the bathroom on the right. On the left is the service animal relief area.”
- In the cabin, explain where things are onboard; that will help with independence. As you’re walking to the assigned seat, state where the bathroom is, the row numbers as you pass them, and, upon reaching the passenger’s assigned seat, where the exits are in relation to it.
- Explain what each control does. Physically touch and identify the air control, power outlets, call button, seat recline button, and inflight entertainment screen controls. Talk about each as the passenger touches each.
- To help provide directions, describe locations using the face of an analog clock as reference. Once the passenger has a hand on the air vent, for example, say, “From this vent, the call button is at 1 o’clock.”
- If the toilet has a flat flush button, share that information. Otherwise, the passenger has to ask, which is uncomfortable.
- Give a personal safety briefing to help prepare the passenger for an emergency. If the passenger boards with a service dog, also explain how to handle oxygen masks and evacuations with an animal.
Don’t Wince. It’s Time for Touchy-Feely
Passengers aren’t the only ones who need to be handled. Flight attendants require personal attention too. Yes, you’re hiring hordes at once and need to churn them through training efficiently. Still, they’ll fare better, and your airline will benefit, if your long-timers and new hires feel recognized for their hard work. “These people represent your brand day in and day out,” said Samie Al-Achrafi, CEO of the corporate training firm Marmalade Fish and author of the book #Time4Humanity. If you want them to care, you’ve got to demonstrate that you care about them.
Cabin crew members often receive conflicting messages, he said:
- I am integral to this team’ or ‘I am dispensable'
- ‘I am valued’ or ‘I am just a number’
- ‘I am connected to a bigger purpose’ or ‘I am doing something meaningless’
To fix this mixed message, empower the cabin crew. “More than ever, employees are craving investment in the human aspects of work,” he said. “Workers are hungry for trust and social cohesion, searching out organizations that nurture healthy cultures and provide a sense of belonging. They want to feel valued – that their contributions are recognized – and that teams are truly collaborative even when remote in nature.” In other words, if you want cabin crew to be hospitable to your passengers, be hospitable to them. Otherwise, they can take a job where they don’t work nights, weekends and holidays – or handle unruly passengers.
Pour on the “fluffy stuff,” Al-Achrafi suggested. Let cabin crew know that you know what their challenges are like and that you value the sacrifices they make. That will lead them to bring their “full selves” to the role, improving performance, resilience and decision-making.
Empowering is partly about teaching more than the rules. Training procedures spell out the steps to evacuate and deal with a fire, for sure. Even if every trainee absorbs every element completely (which studies show isn’t realistic), those who don’t feel ownership for the job might go into what Al-Achrafi called “negative panic.” If one element of the problem is out of place – for example, a door that was closed during training but is open during an emergency – the flight attendant might freeze. “You have to explore employees having some freedom within the framework,” he said.
Start by training the trainers the same way. Ask trainers to question, “What will make cabin crew members’ lives better so they’d show up for our customers?” To absorb their answers, find fresh approaches to engage with them, and prepare yourself to see and hear what they say in a new way.
Look at fatigue realistically, for starters. Think about how an exhausted flight attendant sits in the galley, head down in smartphone texting mode, instead of engaging with passengers. What causes that? How can you alleviate the fatigue, especially with crew shortages? How can you entice employees to rally when they’ve worked long hours? “If we are to bring humanity to business, it will require a new form of conscious leadership where values and culture are embedded across the employee lifecycle and energy invested in the new experiences that can be created for employees and customers alike,” he said. “Over time, these will shift the beliefs within the system and subsequently drive the actions and behaviors that produce the desired results.
Help Stop Human Trafficking
Sixty percent of human trafficking involves air travel, so cabin crew trainers received a detailed briefing from Michael Camal, Special Advisor, COR III, with the US Department of Homeland Security.
- The department’s Blue Lightning Initiative, now more than a decade in practice, was designed specifically for training cabin crew. It’s aimed at helping flight attendants spot potential human trafficking situations. When suspicious, cabin crew should be trained, take notes of every detail possible and report what you see as soon as possible. Do not say anything about suspicions to the suspected victim or perpetrator.
- Human trafficking is a $150-billion annual business. It happens in all 50 states, rural and urban areas, and in all parts of the world.
- All Blue Lightning Initiative materials are available for free. Those outside the US can have materials sent to a US Embassy on their behalf.
In the WATS Cabin Crew room, on the trade show floor and over lunch and drinks, the conversation about these topics and more was never-ending. Cabin crew trainers will meet up at WATS again April 18-20, 2023, again in Orlando.