Dozens of airline customer service agents report abusive customers

Airline customer-service agents face verbal and, in some cases physical, threats from passengers, according to a study released this week by the Government Accountability Office.

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The report raised questions about the customer service agents overall safety in their workplaces and pointed to the availability of alcohol in airports as a possible culprit.

The GAO surveyed 104 agents employed by six airlines at five major airports where assaults had been reported, and more than half of those airline employees faced verbal threats and other harmful actions because of passenger unrest. Passengers are often verbally disruptive, physical assaults are less frequent, according to Congress' independent watchdog agency. About 10 percent of those agents surveyed experienced physical confrontations.

The congressional investigative agency said comprehensive figures, such as frequency and the nature of the assaults are hard to find. However, the report cites alcohol consumption, frustration over fees for checked or carry-on baggage, and long lines as factors that can contribute to agitation among passengers.

The accountability office was ordered by Congress to investigate these violent occurrences after media coverage revealed passengers being disruptive or violent toward airline customer service agents, which raised questions over agents' safety.

In 2017, a "near riot” ensued at a Spirit Airlines ticket counter at a Florida airport after the airline canceled several flights. Following the unrest, three passengers were charged with disorderly conduct.

In the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, airlines were required to provide de-escalation training to all employees. They were also required to submit plans to the FAA by January 2019 over how airlines will respond to passenger assaults. In July 2019, FAA issued a notification to airlines reminding them to submit their plans, according to the report, which added that officials will continue to follow up with airlines, who missed the deadline, until they receive the plans.

The accountability office said a number of laws generally prohibit certain intentional acts of verbal and physical aggression against another individual, adding that these laws, though not specific to customer service agents, can be used in charging and prosecuting passengers.

Of agents who reported an incident with a customer, more than half said they believed that somebody from their airline, airport or law enforcement took action ranging from talking to the passenger to arresting them.

Interfering with an airline crew on board a flight, however, is considered a federal crime, while incidents at airports are usually covered by state or local laws.

GAO said the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Security Administration said their roles in handling passenger assaults at airports were limited mostly to in-flight incidents or airport security, respectively.

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Five of the airlines refused to share information about incidents with the accountability office. The sixth, which was not identified, said its records for the second half of 2018 showed 1.2 assaults for every 1,000 passengers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.