Air rage starts on ground, GAO finds in survey of airline customer service agents

The frustrations of air travel sometimes boil over -- and airline customer service agents at airports have suffered the consequences, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office study.

A survey of 104 airline customer service agents by the GAO found that 61 of them reported assaults by passengers including "verbal threats, attempted physical acts, or actual physical acts" in the last year,

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Representatives from airlines, airports, law enforcement and prosecutors interviewed for GAO's study released Tuesday said "alcohol consumption, frustration over airlines' business practices (e.g. fees for checked or carry-on baggage), and long lines can contribute to these incidents."

“For example, if bad weather causes an airline to delay or cancel flights, harried passengers trying to make connecting flights or get to a destination may take their frustration out on a customer service agent,” the GAO report said.

Nearly all of the agents surveyed said they had been verbally harassed by passengers, “such as passengers yelling, cursing, or being argumentative,” the GAO said.

In the survey of experiences on the job in the last year, 46 reported verbal threats and 22 said a passenger attempted to physically assault them such as by trying to push them. Thirty-four reported “other types of harmful actions” such as passengers destroying property, recording video of agents, grabbing their ID badges or stalking agents after work.

Union representatives told GAO that incidents can increase stress and anxiety for the customer service agents.

A dozen of those surveyed reported being physically assaulted.

A prosecutor told GAO that “the transitory nature of airports makes it difficult to get witnesses to testify at trial” because they are often only connecting through the airport. And “when prosecuted, passengers generally face misdemeanor charges.”

The prosecutors and representatives from airlines, airports and law enforcement interviewed also said state and local laws sufficiently deter and address such incidents.

Several years ago, the International Association of Machinists union, which represents customer service workers at some airlines, advocated that it should be made a felony to assault an airline customer service agent. The union said without a federal law governing such assaults, there is no uniform enforcement.

A 2018 FAA bill passed by Congress required the GAO to conduct the study, and required airlines to train employees in de-escalation and detail how they respond to passenger assaults.

The Communications Workers of America union issued a statement saying “the assault of passenger service agents by passengers is a serious problem,” and said more needs to be done to enforce laws to protect agents.

Many of those interviewed for the GAO study cited alcohol consumption or drug use as a contributing factor to incidents, such as when customer service agents deny boarding to intoxicated passengers and the passengers become aggressive.

Representatives from one airport told GAO that tablets at the boarding area that allow passengers to place orders for drinks while seated at the gate increase opportunities for passengers to drink alcohol while waiting for their flights.

Some cited other factors such as long lines and crowds that can increase travelers’ stress, and said flight delays, cancellations or lost baggage can exacerbate the issues.

Of the agents who said they reported passenger conduct, more than half said airlines, law enforcement or airports took action in response. But 26 of the agents said no action was taken in response.

Union representatives told GAO that if airline management gives passengers’ seat upgrades or airline miles to diffuse incidents, “it can appear to be condoning or rewarding any passenger behavior.”