Think your job is tough? Try being the human punching bag for airline passengers

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Which is the most stressful job at an airline? Pilot? Flight attendant? Lost-baggage troubleshooter? Chief executive?

If you chose one of those positions, I would respectfully disagree. As a flight attendant employed at a legacy carrier for more than 30 years, I’ve had a ringside seat to what customer service agents endure. From where I stand, they are saddled with an airline’s most stressful gig.

Under pressure to get flights out on time, an agent working the departure desk faces a barrage of questions to which they’re often forced to say no.


Will you give me a first-class upgrade? Can I change my middle seat for one at the window? The overhead bins are full; can I still carry on my luggage? Is the flight departing on time? Will I make my connecting flight in Chicago?

No. No. No. No. Sorry, ma’am. Sorry, sir. The answer, unfortunately, is no.

Displeased by such responses, some passengers lose it so completely that police officers are summoned.

In a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a watchdog organization providing Congress and federal agencies with objective, reliable information, 46 of the 104 customer service agents interviewed said passengers had verbally threatened them. Twelve said they had been physically assaulted, and all said they were verbally harassed.

I’ve heard passengers scream because the agent could not grant a business-class upgrade. One day, I saw a man sprint toward the departure gate, gasping for breath, and when the agent told him the flight had departed, he slammed his carry-on to the floor and directed a rage-filled expletive at her.

I’ve seen passengers burst into tears, pound their fists on the departure desk, berate, scold and threaten to sue agents for issues beyond their control.

I’ve even seen police officers come to the agents’ defense. One such episode occurred recently at Miami International Airport.


On Oct. 31, I prepared to work an all-night flight from Miami to São Paulo, Brazil. The equipment scheduled for that flight, a Boeing 777-300, accommodates 304 passengers: eight people in first class, 52 in business and 244 in the main cabin.

When my crew reached the departure gate, agents informed us of an equipment change. Instead of working the 777-300, we would be flying to São Paulo on a 777-200.

The change created challenges for our agents because the 777-200 has an entirely different seating configuration. This aircraft holds 273 passengers, which means 31 fewer seats. There is no first-class cabin. Business class consists of 37 seats.

Over the loudspeaker, an agent announced that passengers needed to check in at the departure desk to receive new seat assignments.

The outrage began.

Three first-class passengers were downgraded to business class. Eighteen business-class passengers were downgraded to coach. (Each downgraded traveler received a $600 travel voucher and a refund for the difference in airfare.) Dozens of main-cabin passengers received new seat assignments that were, in many cases, far from their traveling companions or in locations (center seats, for example) they deemed uncomfortable.

Although a few passengers volunteered to take a later flight, others had no choice but to do so.


At the departure desk, anger morphed into hostility. Passengers directed obscenities in English and Portuguese at the agents. Then a phalanx of passengers closed in on the desk.

When a frustrated passenger grabbed an agent by the arm, colleagues summoned airport police.

Moments later, when the police showed up, even the most vociferous protesters settled down. The passenger who grabbed the agent was not arrested. She was, however, banned from the flight.

Finally, about 1 a.m. — more than an hour after our scheduled departure — the boarding process began. Passengers filed onto the aircraft, shaking their weary heads in disbelief.

Bags were stowed. Everyone settled into their seats. My crew anxiously awaited the catering truck, which had been delayed partly because of the change in aircraft.

By the time the truck showed up and caterers finished stocking the galleys, our first officer had timed out because of Federal Aviation Administration crew rest restrictions.


The flight was canceled.

When the purser made the announcement, a collective groan echoed through the aircraft. All 273 passengers were instructed to remove their bags, exit the plane and stand in a long winding queue, at the front of which stood a beleaguered agent who provided hotel vouchers and apologies while police officers kept a watchful eye.

The Government Accountability Office report reveals, “no comprehensive data are available to determine the nature and frequency of passenger assaults — including verbal threats, attempted physical acts or actual physical acts — against airline customer service agents at airports.”

Although physical assaults by passengers are rare, agents are subjected to verbal abuse almost daily. It’s a thankless job requiring patience and thick skin. The same could be said about flight attendants with one notable exception: We aren’t tasked with explaining to passengers why their travel plans got flushed down the toilet.

Instead, when that São Paulo trip was canceled, all 16 crew members on the flight were removed from duty. As the agents processed hotel vouchers for 300 unhappy passengers, we flight attendants dragged our roll-aboards past the seemingly endless queue and headed for home.