Anyone who works with the public understands the difficulties of dealing with a disgruntled customer. When service doesn’t live up to expectations, when someone thinks he or she isn’t getting what’s been paid for or if rudeness is embedded in a person’s DNA, employees can become punching bags for ire and disappointment.
When airline passengers make unreasonable demands and lash out at flight attendants for failing to comply, we’re trained to apologize. Reassure. Give options that may help resolve the problem.
Sometimes the problem can’t be solved. If the verbal pummeling intensifies, sometimes we get defensive.
I did. I’m not proud of my response. I should have taken the professional high road. For the first and only time in my more than 30-year career, I lost my cool while dealing with a difficult passenger.
It happened aboard a Boeing 777 in business class during a long-haul flight to Buenos Aires. The dining options that day were filet mignon, baked halibut, cannelloni pasta or jerk chicken.
After I recorded orders from most of the passengers, I moved to the seats occupied by a man and a woman. He looked to be in his mid-60s. He was elegantly dressed as was his wife, who was sitting in the window seat beside him.
I greeted them and asked whether they’d had a chance to look at the menu.
“But I must apologize,” I said. “All our main-course choices are available except the jerk chicken.”
The man replied, “But that’s what I want.”
I tried again. “I’m really sorry, sir,” I said. “But we’re out of the jerk chicken.”
He replied, “But I want chicken.”
Still trying to appease him, I said, “I’d be happy to retrieve a chicken dinner from the main cabin. But it’ll be an economy setup. I believe it’s chicken cacciatore.”
He glared at me, jabbing his index finger at the business-class menu and said, “It says here that you have jerk chicken. I want jerk chicken.”
I took a deep breath and apologized a third time. I told him I understood his frustration.
The airline understands too. That’s why up until 24 hours before departure, first- and business-class passengers can call reservations and select the meal of their choice. It’s the only way to guarantee you’ll get your meal choice.
He remained unhappy. “I don’t care,” he said. “I want jerk chicken.”
I’ve found myself in this predicament many times. When I explain catering, however, most passengers begin to understand the limitations of in-flight dining.
“Sir,” I said, pointing my pen at the catering information on my seating chart. “All 52 seats in business class are occupied. We’re catered with 52 business-class meals: 18 steaks, eight pastas and 12 halibuts. We had 14 jerk chicken meals as well. But they’ve all been spoken for.
“I now have three meal choices to offer you. The steak. The pasta. Or the halibut. Which would you prefer?”
He replied, “I want the jerk chicken.”
I tried another strategy. “Sir, we’re on an airplane, climbing to 30,000 feet. We’re down to three meal options. Jerk chicken is no longer one of them. So of the three meal choices remaining, which would you prefer?”
He crossed his arms but said nothing.
“If you don’t answer, sir, I’ll be forced to move on to the remaining passengers,” I said. “When I come back to you, your three meal options might be reduced to one or two.”
He glared at me. So I asked his wife what she would like for dinner.
“Pasta,” she replied, happily.
After taking down preferences from the remaining passengers, I returned to the disgruntled man and once again asked for his choice. His options were now reduced to steak or halibut.
He greeted me with steely silence.
As I served drinks and dinner, the man’s scowling intensified. It was as though he decided I had jerk chicken in my pocket and refused to part with it.
After he devoured most of his wife’s pasta, I asked whether he would like dessert.
“No,” he growled. “More red wine!”
The man had become downright hostile. He took a couple of sips from the glass I delivered. As I walked away, he screamed as though I were a peanut vendor at a Dodgers game. “I want more wine!”
His voice was so loud and his inflection so vile that business-class passengers looked alarmed.
I approached the man’s seat. My blood was boiling.
“Have you completely lost your mind?” I asked, realizing the inappropriateness of what I said. But I couldn’t help myself. The words came pouring out like lava from a dormant volcano.
“There’s no more jerk chicken. You’re acting like a 6-year-old. Grow up!”
Which is what he seemed to do. For the rest of the flight, he used “please” and “thank you” during every interaction with my colleagues and me.
When we finally landed in Buenos Aires, he apologized for causing a spectacle, thanked us for the “great flight” and left the aircraft with a smile on his face.
After all, we had been stocked with plenty of red wine.