Men behaving badly can tarnish corporate image

 

An investment banker accused of defecating on a plane's food service cart and threatening a flight attendant told a judge that he was angry because he had been refused another glass of wine. In a plea agreement he promised to reimburse United Airlines $49,029 for cleanup and re-routing of passengers who had an unexpected landing at Miami of their Buenos Aires to New York flight.

This incident took place in the first class cabin, the man involved was the managing director of an investment company. His name and his company name were mentioned all over the Americas, he was lampooned on national television on the David Letterman Show. The actual cost of this incident in real terms was a lot more then the $50,000 odd that had to be paid. Imagine the embarrassment to his friends, colleagues and clients. The damage to reputations incalculable.

In another incident, a businessman from Nottingham was overpowered by cabin staff after turning violent at 35,000 feet. Another passenger on board took pictures as he was being restrained by crew and fellow passengers. The photograph appeared in the Mail on Sunday, and it identified him. Yet another business class incident that brought attention to a company from an unexpected source.

What would you do if it were one of your employees? Do you sack them for gross misdemeanour, reprimand or laugh? Who do you blame? The airline for giving him too much alcohol or your company for putting him under so much stress that he cracked in such an extraordinary fashion?

Does your company have a "duty of care" for an employee's behaviour while on company business? This has yet to be tested in court but it will happen. How many employers write expected behaviour into employment contracts or travel policies? One Irish company who had a report of two of its staff very inebriated leaving an aircraft, severely reprimanded both and has since written expected behaviour into its travel policy.

At a recent meeting of the International Business Travel Association (IBTA), Captain Seppo Kirjonen, Director of Flight Safety for Finnair, said he always reports incidents of air rage to the employer of the culprit. He thinks it is important that a company knows when an employee has exceeded the bounds of acceptable behaviour.

In a discussion that also included Captain Thomas W. Baberg, General Manager Flight Safety, Lufthansa German Airlines, Mr Andreas Welleaur, a travel management consultant and editor of Galiant Desknotes*, and the president of IBTA Germain Birgen, the subject of the human factor in flight safety was covered.

The perception of travel has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. Flying is generally perceived as safe. Air travel is available to all society. Cheap flights have increased passenger numbers. High density seating and flights of up to fifteen hours are not uncommon. Passengers expect a high level of service and reliability.

The number of incidences of "air rage" have increased 400 per cent since 1997 and all western airlines have agreed to take a "zero tolerance" stance on incidences of abusive behaviour. But can some of those instances be attributed to the airlines and the business of flying?

"Airlines treat people in a childlike way, they tell you when to wait, eat, sleep, sit," said Captain Kirjonen. Causes of the recent increase in passenger misconduct fall into three categories - airlines-specific factors, airport-specific factors and social factors. The combination of those works like this.

Getting to the airport is the first to affect behaviour. If a passenger is caught in traffic and then loses minutes trying to find parking, the stage is set. On arriving at the check-in there are delays. The person in front cannot find their passport, or has packed their medication and is fumbling in four bags. Looking for a comfortable place to sit down and have a sandwich or a cigarette is impossible, because he now has to rush to his flight. On arriving at the gate, the plane is inexplicably delayed. So now he is hot from running, hungry, dying for a fag and getting angry. He dwells on the meeting he is trying to make. The stressors are building. On finally boarding some girl, younger than his daughter, tells him he cannot fit his case in the overhead locker and must put it under his seat.

It is a 13-hour flight, nothing to do except eat, drink, sleep and read some paperwork.

But now his real fears are starting to come to the fore. He has a fear of flying, he is worried about his job, he has missed a family birthday, he is hungrier now and still wants a cigarette. Is it any wonder that people start getting angry?

What can employers do to lessen the strain on their employees? How can they make the business of travel more comfortable for their most important asset? Planning for decent travel conditions is the start.

A flexible travel policy that takes stress into account. Working closely with your travel management company to provide the best service for your employees. Scheduling travel at a convenient time. Early morning starts into a long day are not conducive to a productive day. Across Europe the busiest times at airports are six in the morning and seven in the evening which means staff have been travelling and working more than 15 hours.

Captain Kirjonen says the best way for employees to enjoy travelling and to behave themselves is to travel with their spouses. So Irish employers take note. It might be more productive in the long term to include spouses on those harrowing business trips.

Galiant Desknotes is a daily email newsletter for those interested in the business of travel. www.galiant.com