It's one of the oldest adages of the retail world: "The customer is always right."
Of course, very often the customer is wrong. Every day customers behave in ways that make the lives of waiters, cashiers, customer service reps and other retail workers miserable. And in many cases, these customers don't even realize how annoying they're being.
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To rectify this, we've decided to talk to the people on the other side of the desk, with the hope of educating consumers on what sort of behavior makes life difficult for the people serving them. In the first part of the series we spoke to people in the restaurant industry, and in part two we asked hotel workers how to be a responsible guest. We turn now to the airline industry, where we asked flight attendants and customer service representatives for tips on keeping the skies friendly.
Get Off the Phone
This is a common complaint in most retail industries, but it bears repeating here: It's rude to talk on the phone while interacting with the person behind the counter. And when you're at the airport checking your bags, it slows things down for everyone, says Mary Ann DeVita Goddard, a former customer service representative for Continental Airlines.
"Passengers would walk up, stand in front of you, continue their conversation, and expect you to know where they were going and how many bags they were checking," she recounts.
Respect the people behind the counter enough to put your phone away when you're speaking with them. And if not for their sake, do it for the people behind you who are delayed by your chatty ways.
We Don't Want Your Germs
If there's one thing worse than seeing a passenger approach with a phone glued to his ear, it's seeing a passenger approach with a ticket in his mouth.
"When they had to show their ID, they would walk up with it in their mouth," recalls Goddard, who worked at both baggage check and at the gate. "It was the same with the boarding pass. And they would expect you to take it."
We've all been there -- you've got your hands full with bags, and you want easy access for your ID or boarding pass, so you wind up holding it in your mouth. But handing someone a ticket that was just in your mouth is extremely gross. Put it in your pocket.
The Tray Table Is Not a Changing Table
Speaking of gross, please note that the tray tables are for eating, not for changing diapers.
"There are passengers that are traveling with babies who don't realize the airplane has changing tables in the lavatory, so they'll try to change babies on the seat or tray," says Bobby Laurie, a flight attendant who blogs about his experiences on the Inflight Team blog network. "People will eat off that table, and it's not cleaned after every flight."
We repeat: The tray tables are not cleaned after every flight, and even if they were, changing a diaper on a surface that someone is going to eat off is not OK. Be considerate of future passengers, and don't put the flight attendants in the position of having to stop you mid-diaper change.
Speaking of Babies ...
There are few air travel topics more controversial than babies and small children on planes, and if it's a headache for passengers, it's a safe bet that it's a major headache for the flight attendants who have to deal with both the crying babies and the passengers complaining about said babies.
Laurie acknowledges that there are no good solutions to the problem, short of RyanAir's (probably fake) plan to offer child-free flights. He does recommend bringing ear plugs if you don't have noise-canceling headphones, and suggests that passengers traveling with babies bring a supply of earplugs for surrounding passengers.
Most importantly, he says to recognize that flight attendants aren't babysitters.
"Some people just pass their babies off to you when they go to the bathroom, but we're not here for that," he says. "[And] realize that airlines don't have stuff to keep kids occupied, so come prepared with games and books."
Everyone Has to Be Somewhere
When flights are delayed or overbooked, the customer service representative manning the gate can quickly become the most put-upon person in the terminal. And that's especially true if there aren't enough passengers willing to be voluntarily bumped from the flight, which means that someone with a ticket isn't getting on.
"Some people come up and bang on the counter and scream and yell," recounts Goddard, who says she always had a lot of sympathy in these situations. "If I thought I was going on vacation and I got bumped, I would be disappointed, too."
Still, she urges travelers to understand that shouting your way onto the plane means someone else gets bumped instead -- someone who could have an even greater need for getting to their destination on time.
"Everyone has to be somewhere, but some people really need to be somewhere, like if they're visiting a sick family member or going to a funeral," she says.
Situations like these aren't fun for anyone, and passengers have a right to feel aggrieved. But screaming will only make someone else's day worse, and if you have a pressing need to depart on time, your best bet is to politely state your case.
Take Your Seat ...
Not all seats are created equally, and if you're on a flight that isn't sold out you might be inclined to stake out better real estate -- say, a seat that's further from the lavatory or that has more leg room. But wait until the plane is in the air and the seatbelt light is off to go searching for greener pastures, because the plane can't take off until you're seated.
"There is tremendous pressure on gate agents and flight attendants to get flights out on time," says Erik, a flight attendant for a major airline who asked that we didn't use his full name. "We have to answer for it later if the flight is late, so someone wandering around the plane looking for that first-class experience that they didn't pay for when everyone else is ready to go ... is obnoxious."
... And Listen to the Flight Attendants
Sure, the flight attendant said to stow your carry-on bag under the seat in front of you. But as long as it's out of the way, it doesn't matter where you put it, right?
"Let's say you abort the takeoff and come to a screeching halt on the runway, or skid off the edge of the runway and come to an abrupt stop -- the bags are going to move forward," explains Erik. "No one is going to want another persons' or their own carry-on bag sticking out and blocking their egress in a smoke-filled cabin."
In other words, it's for your own safety. The same holds true for putting your tray up ("Nothing like getting snagged on a tray table while trying to escape from a burning airplane," he says) and turning off your cell phone. That last one has plenty of dissidents, who argue that a single phone can't interfere with the plane's communications. But phones can also serve as a distraction during take-off and landing, when accidents are most likely.
"The overhead bin is shared space, and each bin should fit three people's luggage in it," says Erik. "But sometimes that one passenger will put their jacket, briefcase, and roll-aboard suitcase in there. What about the other two people in that row?"
Hogging the overhead bins is not only inconsiderate to your fellow fliers, it also makes things tough for the flight attendants, who get blamed by the other passengers when they can't find room for their own luggage.
And when it comes to actually loading your luggage, don't just set your bag down and expect the flight attendant to do it for you. Laurie says that workplace safety regulations dictate that flight attendants are only supposed to help you guide the bag into the compartment -- not lift it for you.
"Passengers will pack their carry-on to the point where they can't even lift it, then expect us to lift it for them," says Laurie. "Technically we're not supposed to lift it unless you're disabled or elderly."