An Open Letter to Continental Airlines

1 Oct

Dear Mr. Smisek and Continental Staff:
I’ll begin by acknowledging that flying has changed a great deal for all of us since 2001. I have been traveling with Continental since the early 1990s, and I recall that it used to be easier for all of us on both sides of the experience. Am I correct in assuming that your recollections are like mine, and that the relationship between travelers and airline staff has not always been this adversarial? Because I travel often, and we see a lot of each other, I think we need to talk.

You all have tough jobs: you shepherd thousands of people every day. Lots of them are tired and cranky. Some of them have a sense of entitlement to perks that no one can really promise them. And the ones that put their luggage in the front overhead bins before going to their seats at the back of the plane? They make me crazy, too. I am sure all of you have been tempted to pull the escape hatch and run down the tarmac at one time or another; so have I. So I understand if many of you feel as frustrated and put upon as some of us passengers. On occasion, I remind my seatmates that you are on your feet all day (and that you have to eat the same airport food we do).

Still, I have to tell you something: I have been stunned and discouraged by several instances of incivility and outright rudeness that I have seen on Continental flights of late. Below, I list a cross section of actual remarks I have heard over the last year, all of which were said quite audibly and in hard or sarcastic tones:

• “You want to go to the counter and buy a ticket? That’s how you get to be up there.” (to a passenger asking to use the forward restroom)

• “Nice try, buddy.” (to a passenger wishing to use a first class overhead bin)

• “Oh, don’t feel like you have to hurry.” (to passengers arriving late and approaching on the jet way)

• “C’mon people, this isn’t brain surgery!” (to people putting bags in the overhead bins)

Add to that the increase in angry body language that I have observed: audible sighs, eye rolling, head shaking. How did the passenger/crew relationship deteriorate so badly? How did we get to this point?

I won’t tell you that you have it easy; I have seen the people in the seats get surly, I’ve seen them refuse help when it was offered. A badly behaved passenger can make a flight hard for everyone, can put a flight off schedule, or wreak all kinds of havoc. I know it. And I don’t envy you having to deal with it. But I do think that Continental’s employees have the responsibility to model civility and understanding. Yes, it feels good to repay rudeness with rudeness, at least for a moment. When you lose your temper, you make things harder for all of us. It’s like the teacher losing control in class, or being insulted by the cop who pulls you over. It only makes things that much worse.

I am asking Continental to step up and deal with this before things get out of hand. I am not saying you should start punishing flight attendants for getting snippy in a moment of weakness. I am saying: give your people tools to help them cope with the pressures of today’s airport culture. Teach them techniques for redirecting bad behavior. Get an efficiency expert to help you find a better solution for the overhead bin problem.

Continental has a big merger on the horizon, so your company has a lot at stake. The Star Alliance partnership has brought you into contact with a whole new community of travelers, and you are about to introduce yourself to a lot more. But if you ignore this growing problem of conflict between your crew and your customers, I fear that incivility will be come a part of Continental’s culture. If that happens, I certainly won’t want to be a part of it anymore.

After I send this letter to you, I am going to post it to Facebook, LinkedIn, and on my blog. I’m asking all of my fellow passengers to think about this issue, too. Remember that your flight attendants and pilots work long hours. They want you to be comfortable, and they want things to go smoothly, because when we are happy they are much more likely to have a pleasant flight. They hate travel delays, just like you (and maybe because of you). Swallow the spiteful comments. Remember to say thank you. Don’t be a space hog with your luggage.

And Continental…we need you to lead by example. Diffuse tension rather than aggravate it. Keep in mind that people need understanding when they are tired, and cramped, and sore. You don’t have any idea why they are on that plane, if they won a trip to Tahiti, or if they are going to their brother’s funeral. If you go out of your way to be kind (or to be hateful), that’s the thing that I’m most likely to remember when I get home.

So, can we start again? I really don’t want to have to fly American.

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