Pilot Program Ebbs Airport Stress
May 22, 2008

By Lee Landor, Assistant Editor

As air travel becomes increasingly expensive and check-in lines grow longer, airline customers' tempers are getting shorter and airport workers are bearing the brunt.

For them, relief is on the way. A new program has come to Kennedy International Airport with the aim of helping employees cope better with combative customers.

The "Resiliency Edge" training module, introduced for the first time earlier this month at Kennedy International, is the second piece of a three-part project developed the Human Resiliency Institute at Fordham University to improve customer service by reducing airport workers' stress.

An inaugural class of 30 at the airport's International Air Terminal (Terminal 4) enjoyed the session and learned about putting to use valuable tools for improving self-awareness and stress management, according to Yolanda Phillips, executive director of the Terminal 4 Airline Consortium, which represents the airlines in Terminal 4.

"They can control their anger. They can control their feelings. They can understand the passenger and, then, they can relate," she said of workers who would undergo this training.

This part of the Aviation Resiliency Project, designed by institute Director Tom Murphy, trains airport workers to identify the resiliency traits they possess and build on them, improving the methods through which they handle pressure. This, in turn, allows them to continue providing good services for distressed customers.

An aviation industry consultant for 20 years, Murphy has worked closely with customer service agents and other airport workers. After observing their use of inner strength to "chart personal paths to recovery," after Sept. 11, he began intensively studying this resiliency.

Murphy designed the Resiliency Edge module around four core buoyancy characteristics he found in airport workers he interview for his September 2006 book, "Reclaiming the Sky: 9/11 and the Untold Story of the Men and Women Who Kept America Flying."

His research showed that using traits of adaptability, optimism, engagement and proaction, airport workers were able to recover from Sept. 11. But this went unnoticed and airport personnel were overlooked. "That's why the book is called the ‘Untold Story,'" Murphy said. It tells "of how they put the uniform back on and kept the country flying."

Fordham's Human Resiliency Institute was the first to look at need from the workers' perspective, assess it and quantify it. It found that four out of five workers at Kennedy International experience what Murphy calls a "spillover" effect - they feel increased pressure when customers are distressed.

And, these days, customer dissatisfaction is almost expected: air travelers gave the airline industry a failing grade for 2007, according to researchers for the annual Airline Quality Rating survey. The industry received its lowest rating, -2.16, since the survey began in 1991.

"Passengers today want more than they did years ago," Phillips said. "They want to get on that plane, they want to get on their way and they don't want to be delayed. And, if they ever get delayed, it upsets their apple cart and they'll blame the agent at the counter."

Experts expect things to only get worse as fuel costs rise. The price of plane tickets and overall cost of air travel will go up, prompting airlines to take some planes out of service. This will then cause greater crowding, and possible overbooking, on many flights, which will lead to increased airport congestion and more frequent delays.

Already, the affect of congestion and delays are being felt, Murphy said, noting the findings of the institute's study that two out of three Kennedy International Airport employees are not only stressed on the job - they carry those stresses home with them.

Another costly result of airport hassles is the $200 million loss of traveler productivity, according to a study conducted by the New York City Office of the Comptroller.

But Murphy and the institute hope that as more companies enroll in the Resiliency Edge pilot program, scheduled to run at Kennedy International through June, conditions will improve.

There were several indications of such, the author noted, including positive feedback from those in the inaugural class, the Terminal 4 Airline Consortium and the management of Terminal 4 - which assisted and supported the institute's study after Murphy proposed it in October.

One of the first and most important companies to enroll in the program is Swissport USA Inc., a unit of Swissport International Ltd. It employs the customer service agents who work for the 42 foreign-air carriers in Terminal 4 - one of the largest terminals in the New York area, serving more than nine million customers annually.

Researchers from the institute will study the effectiveness of the program at Kennedy International for the next month, and potentially expand it, first to LaGuardia and Newark Liberty Airports and then to airports nationally.

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