An observation occurred to me in LAX yesterday as I bordered the plane for Chicago. And it occurred for the oddest of reasons. I still find the reason bizarre, and I suspect you will, too. I’ll get to that in a moment, though. But first, the observation.
I think that airline personnel on the ground have lost sight of the concept that, to a great degree, they’re in the customer service business. Instead, it’s more like they’re solely working in Transportation or with some commodity product, “airplanes.” Moving around cargo. It’s just that the cargo isn’t boxes, but people. On board, we always get that announcement how, “We know you have a choice of many carriers, so we really appreciate that you are flying with us today.” It’s a nice speech, but on the ground I don’t think they’ve gotten the message.
To reiterate, I’m not speaking of flight attendants. They have a different job to do, one that involves passenger safety under unique conditions. And yet, they actually do tend to do a respectable job of customer service, even in cramped spaces and with occasionally annoying, demanding patrons, crying children, medical issues and drunk.
I’m talking about those who have their feet on the ground. Those at the ticket counters, the check-in booths, the gates and such, even reservationists on the phone.
It’s not just the lack of smiling at customers, or the relative brusque manner of dealing with the next-next-next person in line, but the curtness of announcements, which is most symptomatic of the overall issue. That dead-voiced monotone almost mumbled into the mic that gives the least-possible information in the quickest and most indecipherable way.
I know that it’s a very hard, demanding job with a crush of customers, at times an onrushing tsunami of waves slamming the shore and never stopping with the next flight and the one after, and people both coming and going – but lots of service jobs are demanding and have their crush. In fairness, airports are often unique. It’s deeply apparent. But what I’m suggesting here isn’t that travelers be treated like they’re manicured guests at the spa. I’m talking about the recognition that on the ground, a huge part of this is, actually and truly, a customer service business, not just moving bodies, and that people really, honestly do have a choice of a great many carriers. I’m referring to relatively simple and basic things like – smiling, taking the time to phrase your announcements with a recognition that what you’re saying is important to those customers trying to listen, a regular “thank you,” an awareness that the next customer in line isn’t a “next” but a “customer.”
Nor am I suggesting that airline employees be like they’re a part-time worker at McDonalds, all chipper and McCheery. It’s a far more serious job at an airport and people expect and indeed want a more serious attitude than when they get an order of fries. But a monotone attitude isn’t more serious and professional, it’s disinterested.
In truth, I fully understand that the job with an airline can be deadening at times. I really do get it. I’ve worked in customer service businesses. And I know, too, that airlines and airports are different. And serious. And important. But I think most people – and I’ll bet this includes airline personnel – would recognize that what I’m describing isn’t “at times,” but all the time. It’s how airports are. And I know, as well, that some airline workers do make the magnificent effort to put customer service at the forefront, and some airlines are even known for stressing this, as well. So, clearly it can be done, because it is. But these are the exceptions. And we all know they’re exceptions.
Again, I feel it’s important to keep reiterating that I’m talking only about those on the ground, who don’t have all the same restrictions and constant life-threatening challenges of those in the air. And I’m talking only about truly basic levels of interaction that simply recognize this is indeed a customer service job, not sheep herding.
And the reason this all came to mind and the reason it felt so visceral on this day more than from all other airports over the years was for something that shocked me. And that reason is –
I had a great experience at the TSA check-in area.
Okay, I’m guessing you probably have to stop a moment and re-read that to make sure you got a right. But you did – at the American Airlines terminal at LAX, I actually had a great experience at the TSA check-in area.
If any division of an airport today can be justified to be completely dead-focused without an ounce of customer service, it is the TSA. The seriousness of the job is the whole point of its existence. Travelers don’t expect warmth from the TSA, and I think most would probably be put-off if there was too much. Yet this group of TSA workers got it right.
It wasn’t that they were funny. God forbid. Yet there was a lightness in giving those monotonous, important orders. “Please be sure to remove everything from your pockets. Make sure everything is removed.” But then, to my astonishment, I heard, “Lint is okay.”
However, it was more than that. I thought that, okay, one guy changed the speech to keep himself interested. Fine. But as I approached the full-body scanner, the next fellow was saying, “Please move forward. You have a great group of passengers traveling with you today. Things are going well.”
Imagine that. He was talking to people. And in a warm, positive, almost nurturing way. And then, as I stood inside the scanner, the young woman in charge there said, “Could you forward a little. Great. Thank you.”
“Thank you.” She said thank you. So, I tried something. As I lowered my arms from that awkward, touch-your-fingertips-over-your-head position, I said, “Y’know, this is always how I pose for pictures.” And she smiled and chuckled. And added, “Right.” Not much, but the point was she had listened.
And after her, the fellow there kindly directed me to my bag. And I saw a TSA woman behind the conveyer belt helping a traveler, lugging his backpack on her back.
It was at this point, I recognized something that had happened earlier that seemed odd, but hadn’t registered. But now it all made sense. At the front of the line, one of the TSA employees went out of his way to get a carrier bin and brought it over to a traveler in line who was in need of one.
I marveled at all of this, and then I decided to do something – I went up to one of the TSA workers, and said, “I must tell you, this is the greatest TSA experience I have ever had in my life, at any airport. You people are really wonderful.”
He gave a little smile and expressed his thanks. A fellow-worker next to him overheard the conversation, and she beamed, “We hear that. We like each other. We have a really good team.”
Her supervisor came over, as well, and nodded his agreement. I mentioned that it was the first time I’d ever had a TSA employee even smile at me. The young woman was bewildered at the concept. “Never??” I corrected myself and said there were a couple of times in Chicago when I got a smile, but that was it. I added my thanks, and they all seemed appreciative – but then just went back to their work, diligently, but pleasantly.
And as I walked away, I realized how that had changed the whole, typical airport experience. In that cold, dispassionate, drudging, sometimes wary environment, here was the TSA actually starting it off happy and friendly. And I walked down the corridor in a cheerful mood. I almost didn’t want to leave.
And I’ll bet it makes them better, more diligent employees. When you’re more involved with your job, you probably do it better.
All of which is what came rushing back after the monotone experience at the boarding gate, as I got on the plane. If the TSA could be so warm and endearing, surely the customer service employee making the update announcement of a delay could have at least begun, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.” Surely the customer service representative at the counter could simply have said first, “Hi, how may I help you?” Surely the customer service agent taking my ticket when I wished her a good day could have said, “Thank you.”
I know it’s a tough, unrelenting job. But I don’t think these observations are unreasonable. Alas, at its core, the standard of “next” and sheep herding is the accepted norm. And it has been for decades. This isn’t a 9/11 security-related demeanor. This is airports. The overriding specter and importance of being part of The Transportation Industry, of moving people from point A to point B, of the onrushing mass of humanity ever-swarming has overwhelmed the concept of true customer service, as opposed to the lip service of it and your “pride” at providing it. God love all the exceptions that exist…
In the end, it's almost a matter of perspective, the difference between seeing someone as a passenger only, rather than also a customer.
From my trip today, it opened my eyes to something that’s always been there, which I suspect is why we take it for granted. After that wonderful time with the TSA guards – and make no mistake, it was wonderful in good part because I sensed they were all doing their jobs and doing them really well – and how I reacted to it, I don’t think there’s a recognition how much customer service makes the drudging airport experience worlds-better for the passenger. But this isn’t merely self-serving for the customer. I think it would actually create brand loyalty for the airlines. And probably make the job more enjoyable.
And this is the operative point, and why Ii don’t think I’m saying anything unfair or unreasonable:
If one, remarkable TSA team could do it, I have a feeling that everyone could.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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