On Being Nice to Airport, Airline, and Hotel Employees
Ok, so much of what I’m about to say may seem obvious, but I can personally vouch for the fact that most of what highly paid motivational and inspirational keynote speakers say is, after you’ve heard it, pretty obvious stuff. I’ve sometimes considered becoming a motivational speaker myself, with my “hook” being that I’ve heard hundreds of them and can boil most of it all down to about 10 salient points- but that, dear friends, is a story for another day. THIS story is about how I went from hating traveling to enjoying it, and it all started on a whim.
For a very long time, I really despised traveling. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the destinations, but I hated the journey. I was blessed that my parents wanted their kids to be exposed to other cultures, peoples, and places, and we traveled a fair amount both inside the US and even a couple times abroad. So now in my adult life, I really do love being in other cities all over the world, soaking up the surroundings, seeing how very different we all can be, and how very much alike we all are.
But the getting there... oh, man...
To start, there was the ear pain. Every time I flew, my ears would properly “pop” and pressure-equalize on the way up, but not on the way down. This would cause excruciating pain in my ears during decent, not unlike having your eardrum being squeezed by a vice made of ice needles. The pain would usually subside once on the ground, but one or both of my ears would remain clogged with fluid for anywhere from 1 to 3 days. After many years of trying every remedy people could think of - chewing gum, drinking water, pressure points, ritual sacrifice - I finally learned from my Dad, who had the same problem but to a much lesser degree, to use a special kind of silicon earplugs that cover the whole ear-hole. That’s a technical term, of course.
This worked like magic, but I had to wear them for the entire ascent and descent. It also had the secondary benefit of blocking out the other ear-holes on the flight that talked too much. A happy ending to at least that part of the story, but the number of years that I just suffered through the pain far outweighed the ones where I knew that particular solution.
Setting my medical issues aside, everything about airports and airline personnel just rubbed me the wrong way, and it seemed as though every travel experience was worse then the last. There was the time I was stranded in O’Hare overnight and slept on a bench (which I later turned into an unpublished short story called The Moving Walkway is About to End), or the time that I was stranded in the Bahamas with no money and a taxi voucher that no taxi driver would take.
Even in the years before 9-11, I always seemed to have issues with security. When my parents would swing through town, I would meet them at the airport for dinner, and if I even had a scrap of a gum wrapper in my pocket it would set off the metal detector. After 9-11? Forget about it. I was a constant subject of bag searches, pat downs, and explosive testing, mainly due to the large amount of electronics I have to bring along for the typical meeting production gig. Or perhaps I had a 3.25 oz tub of hair gel that just needed to be confiscated by the Federal Government.
At the ticket counter and in the air, I found the airline employees unhelpful, inflexible, and sometimes downright mean. During the times I was stranded, I was never offered a hotel voucher, bonus miles, or indeed (other than the useless taxi voucher) any compensation at all. After having been drinking alcohol legally in the UK for a full semester abroad at age 20, I was carded and not served on the flight back, due to “US Federal Law”. When I explained that there was no federal law regarding the legal drinking age in the US, I was told, “Then it’s Northwest Airlines Law.” No drinky-drinky for me. I settled back into my middle seat and scowled.
It definitely felt like every airport ticket counter person, every security guard, and every flight attendant in the world was out to make my travel life as miserable as they could. To add insult to injury, I was traveling more and more for work, pretty much insuring a future filled with increased pain and suffering.
And then one day, I’d had enough. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I was tired of feeling like a victim, tired of feeling helpless. It was time to do something radical. I decided to fight back in the only way I could.
I would kill them with kindness.
And so, on this utter whim, I decided one travel day to be just as unbelievably, doughnut-sprinkly sweet as I could, to every person I interacted with:
- Long line at the baggage drop off? *Big Smile* “Wow, you guys are really swamped today. Hope you get to take a break soon!”
- Bag check at security? *Big Smile* “Sure, no problem! I always get checked because of all the electronics gear I have to bring. What’s that? Oh that’s a wireless presenter mouse- pretty cool, huh?”
- Getting an ever-shrinking bag of peanuts? *Big Smile* “Thank you very much!”
At the end of the trip, I realized that I felt less tired, less put-upon, less grumpy. So on my next trip, I continued to be just as nice as I possibly could to everyone I met:
- At the gate- *Big Smile* “Hi how are you doing? Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Want me to grab you a coffee or something? You sure? Ok, well I was wondering if there were any aisle seats available since it looks like I’m in a middle seat. Oh, great, thanks!” (this was before it was so easy to see and change seats online)
- On-plane flight attendant safety briefing? I watched every second carefully with a *Big Smile*. I learned later that this is a big peeve of flight attendants all over the world- “At least pretend like you’re listening, won’t you? You think you’re tired of hearing it?”
OK, so I said this would seem obvious, didn’t I? But you can probably guess what started to happen. People started being nicer to me, and I started feeling... happier.
It felt like I was getting more aisle seats (again before the ease of online seat-change) and exit rows. Once I achieved medallion status as a frequent flyer, it felt like I was getting upgraded more often than my traveling companions. A couple times I bought a drink and had it upgraded to a double at no extra charge. “Here, have a couple of bags of peanuts. You want some cookies, too?”
A friendly TSA agent informed me as we chatted while he looked through my bag that one of the biggest reasons bags get pulled aside is when they look like a mess of jumbled cables and wires on the X-ray, and if you take the time to coil and pack them neatly they’re able to more easily see what everything is. And yes, I said friendly TSA agent. I would not have guessed such a thing existed previously. Guess what- they do. A lot of them.
Turned out he was right. I started very carefully coiling my cables and arranging the electronics gear neatly in my carry-on bag. The number of times it got searched went from almost every time to maybe one out of every twenty. Possibly even less, it happens so infrequently that it’s hard to remember. But when it does, I remember to smile and not get upset about it.
Just one week after I got it, I left my brand new iPad on the floor of the plane, next to my seat. Instead of it going into the black hole that expensive electronics left on airplanes go, I was called by Delta on my way home from the airport and told it was being kept safely (literally in a safe) for me in their office. To this day I am convinced this is because I was nice to the flight attendant sitting in the jump seat facing me. We chatted and I asked her where a safe place to put my iPad was, since I didn’t have a seat pocket in front of me. It was she who recommended putting it next to the seat against the wall of the plane (an unusual place, and likely why I forgot it), and I’m sure it was she that took the time to get my name from the manifest to get it back to me.
Another TSA moment- I realized I still had my Leatherman multi-tool on my belt as I stood in the security line, almost at the front. I looked around and saw a TSA agent standing nearby. I put on a *Big Smile* and waved to him with a questioning look. He came over and I apologized profusely for being so dumb as to forget to put my trusty belt tool in my checked luggage. Rather than just confiscating it on the spot, he pointed out that a nearby money exchange kiosk was now offering “mail home” services for small items at a reasonable rate. I thanked him profusely, left the line, and mailed it home for $10. Much cheaper than a replacement!
I returned to the security checkpoint and got in line, happy to have saved my trusty Leatherman from certain doom, and fully prepared to go through the whole line again. I saw the agent and gave him a “thumbs up” sign to let him know it had worked. To my shock and surprise, he waived me over to him and let me into the First Class and Über Status line, which had only about 5 people in it. Wow. I mean... just... wow...
Things were working so well, I started applying this bizarre concept (being nice to people) to the good folks who worked for the hotels I was staying at. Wouldn’t you know it? I started getting better service and nicer rooms- higher floors, beautiful views. I even got comped for no apparent reason to the “Executive Level” at a beautiful resort in California, with a private lobby and a fully stocked and staffed complimentary lobby bar that served breakfast and appetizers most of the day.
You see, faithful obvious truth-seekers, these people in the airline and hotel industry have to deal with hundreds and hundreds, sometimes thousands of people a day. Most of them don’t stand out- they’re just anonymous faces marching by. Which leaves only two types of people that do stand out: Those that are kind, pleasant, and brighten your day, and... assholes. And I realized that I used to be one of the latter.
I mean really. What flight attendant on an international flight with hundreds of passengers to take care of wants to be lectured by some smart-ass kid about the legal intricacies of state-based drinking age limits while over international waters? C’mon, son...
Put simply, I hated traveling, so traveling hated me. I started making the extra effort to be nice, and the whole experience was lifted up to not only tolerable, but down right enjoyable most of the time.
And there’s the key- it takes effort. The kind of effort that most of us can’t spare as we move through our busy lives. I’m not perfect at this, and believe me, if I could apply this sunshine and roses way of dealing with the world to the rest of my life 24-7, I would. I have good days and bad days like everyone. I have however chosen to try and make that extra effort in this particular area of my life, and it has paid back over and over.
In fact, I believe it was a flight attendant who finally suggested the cure for my painful eardrum issues. Sudafed. That’s right, the decongestant. Pseudoephedrine. Take it about an hour before the flight and my ears pop and equalize perfectly normally. No more earplugs. I can actually wear headphones, or I can carry on a conversation, just like everyone else. Though sometimes I do miss the quiet...
So there you have it. The Great Secret of Enjoying Travel: “Be nice to people.” Wow. Who’d have thought? I know. Crazy talk.
Studies have shown over and over again that even “fake smiling” can improve a person’s overall mood. It also might just get you a bulkhead seat with extra legroom. That can definitely improve your mood. So sit back and enjoy the ride!