Europe

The Hardest Jobs

Airport of São Miguel, Azores (not Lisbon)

Here begins my list of the hardest jobs in the whole world.

Subject of today’s post: Airport workers.

I was thinking about this while stuck in Lisbon Airport on a Friday afternoon. I was near tears after a missed flight and going from balcony to balcony, talking to this person and that person, being transferred to another desk, another long line of frustrated travelers. In my despair, I found perhaps the slightest hint of comfort knowing that these long lines were full of other people with cancelled flights, missed opportunities, stress levels seeping out of their pores. At least in that degree I wasn’t alone.

When talking to the woman at TAP Portugal’s customer service desk, I became immediately aware of how hard her job must be. I had hardly explained the first third of my story when she interrupted me and started to tell me why my missed flight was my own distinct fault, and that TAP would not reimburse me for a new flight or hotel. When she should have been listening, she spoke. When she should have been a calming face, she seemed angry, frustrated. When I was hoping for a little understanding, I got what I felt amounted to disrespect.

I remember being a waitress at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC. I very much enjoyed my job. I loved meeting people, walking around, listening to music, socializing. If anyone knows anything about the service field, it’s restaurant servers. I loved working at what we lovingly called BBP, especially because most customers came with a smile and excited to have a good time (on weekend nights, everyone came to BBP before heading out to the club scene. It was so cute to watch people come in dressed in their best, ready for a night to remember). Yet it wasn’t always smiles and flowers. Sometimes you would get customers who were just impossible. It was as if they came in a bad mood, and there was absolutely nothing you could do to get them out of it, no matter how much you smiled, how much you commiserated, or how much you tried to help.

I know the feeling of being stepped on, and for this reason I am always extra super nice to people in the service field. Whether or not my overwhelming niceness is necessary for our particular encounter, I know that the service provider has probably already had to deal with a substantial level of shit, and I try to counter it with a good attitude and a smile. I know how much a nice customer helped me on a hard night, and I try to pay it forward in the same way.

Which is why I, in my shaking anger, tried to play it cool with this woman who was sucker-punching me right there at the customer service desk at TAP. Because I knew she wasn’t mad at me, at least not entirely. But she was probably pretty tired of dealing with angry customers all night. Not to mention, she had to deal with politics and bureaucracy at the same time. Unlike BBP, where I could try to calm people with a free dessert or a discount, she couldn’t offer anything with legally accepting that TAP made a mistake– and that could cost TAP on paper. So she was a player stuck in check, on many levels.

Airport of São Miguel, Azores (not Lisbon)

Imagine being a server at a restaurant where everyone comes in with a problem. No one comes by to say “wow, that was a lovely meal, thank you so much.” Every single person is telling you their burger is cooked medium-well instead of medium, every single person is saying there’s too much grenadine in their Shirley Temple, every single person is asking for their money back and it’s your job to deal with them. Now imagine working at the Lost and Found at an airport, the customer service desk, the sales desk. How many times does someone come up to my cousin Marina at the Lost and Found and say, “Wow, I just wanted to say, I found my bag while in transit and I wanted to stop by Portugal again to thank you so, so much for helping me find it. You guys are the best!” How many times does someone go to the customer service desk and say, “I just wanted to let you know that I had a really nice flight. Thank you so much for providing me with that.”

I would put my estimate at about zero percent of people actually go to the Lost and Found, the customer service desk, or the sales desk, offering their thanks. I would estimate that 100% of the people at an airport go to these places because they are having problems. And like me, I would imagine that at least 20-30% of these people are pretty darn mad, and like me, perhaps 5-10% of these people are shaking with uncontrollable anger.

So when this woman takes her brass knuckles and punches me in the face, I try to remember that her job is probably the Worst Job in the World. It’s thankless.

So what do you do so that she listens to you when you have a problem? Do you try to be sensitive to her, try to commiserate with how hard her job must be? At some point I would like to try this and see if increased sensitivity fosters increased kindness on her part. I haven’t quite figured out what the best approach is in order to get the best result. But certainly fighting fire with fire is not it.

Anyway, let us dedicate today’s post to one of the Worst Jobs in the World, the customer service/lost & found/sales associates at airports. Because airports are not only stressful locations for the travelers. And ain’t that the truth!

Beth Santos
Founder and CEO of Wanderful, creator of the Women in Travel Summit, enthusiastic lover of ice cream, picnics and art.

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