Survey: Nearly all airline customer service agents report harassment

Alcohol consumption cited as a factor

By Gregory Wallace and Rene Marsh, CNN
Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images via CNN

Nearly all airline customer service agents recently surveyed by the government reported being verbally harassed by passengers and about 1 in 10 said passengers attempted to assault them in the last year.

(CNN) - Nearly all airline customer service agents recently surveyed by the government reported being verbally harassed by passengers and about 1 in 10 said passengers attempted to assault them in the last year.

The Government Accountability Office findings, published Tuesday, are from surveys earlier this year of more than 100 agents who find themselves on the front lines of dealing with agitated passengers at major hub airports.

Roughly a third said they experienced other forms of agitation, including "passengers destroying property, taking video of agents, grabbing agents' identification badges, and stalking agents after work."

The report found "interactions with passengers can range from pleasant to routine to contentious." GAO defined verbal harassment as "yelling, cursing, or being argumentative."

It described a toxic mix of aviation hassles -- such as lost luggage, baggage fees and delayed flights, mixed in some cases with alcohol -- as leading passengers "to be aggressive toward customer service agents."

The agents surveyed include those who work at check-in counters, as well as those who check boarding passes at the plane's gate and operate the luggage office.

Alcohol consumption was also cited as a factor contributing to some assaults.

"Airlines strive to make sure every employee has a safe working environment and every passenger has a safe and pleasant travel experience, and abusive behavior is addressed promptly," said Carter Yang of the industry group Airlines for America. "Employees receive extensive customer service training, including de-escalation training, to ensure the safety and well-being of our passengers and the employees themselves."

Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said the report shows "a pervasive problem with aggression against Customer Service Representatives," and that airlines need additional staff in the terminal to prevent issues from spilling onto aircraft.

The report found a lack of general data on the issue. Some airport police departments contacted by GAO said statistics specific to customer service agents could only be calculated through manually reviewing police reports.

GAO did not publish formal recommendations, but said some experts believed more law enforcement resources or additional employee training would be beneficial.

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