Martial arts training for airline staff is a new low for the budget flights industry

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Management at Pobeda Airlines, the Russian low fare subsidiary of Aeroflot, has responded to a spate of violent attacks on staff by training staff in the martial art of Sambo. The latest attack took place in February at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow was caught on CCTV and shows a passenger who – having missed his flight and having been refused a refund – throws a series of punches at a customer service manager.

An airline spokesperson said the airline would train staff in the Russian martial art so that they are better able to deal with disgruntled passengers. Pobeda is not the first airline to adopt this policy – it appears to be a wider industry approach to dealing with rising levels of violent customer behaviour towards their staff. Hong Kong Airlines and its low fares’ subsidiary, Hong Kong Express, have trained their staff in kung fu.

The martial art of Sambo. CFS Sambo France / flickr, CC BY-SA

There are very different ways of seeing this policy. The first is that it is an investment in training for the benefit of staff. It can be seen as an expression of what is known as organisational support, where the investment symbolises the esteem in which airline management hold staff. It may even be seen as an example of a caring senior management team demonstrating their concern for staff by investing in this training to ensure the welfare of the workforce.

A very different perspective is that it’s an abdication of responsibility by airline management: passing the buck for the problems created by the strategy of the airline and the low cost business model more generally. In offering training to staff, airline management make the tacit connection between passenger disaffection and the performance of staff. Training is then a means of redressing the deficit in their skills to do their jobs properly.

The low cost model

A key component in the success of budget airlines is the extra revenue they make from various additional charges. An important one is excess baggage charges. And it is the frontline worker who is responsible for carrying out company policy – and must then face the consequences of customer discontent when this happens.

Blame for the incident at Vnukovo Airport might be assigned to the passenger whose behaviour was unreasonably violent. Blame might also be assigned to the airline whose policy it is the worker’s job to enforce. But by no means should we assign blame to the victim: the customer service representative who carried out the company policy and was physically assaulted for their efforts.

Yet, the airline’s solution to this problem – training staff in martial arts – shifts responsibility onto staff to deal with angry customers. And it totally fails to deal with the heart of the problem: the unusual rules that low fare airlines use to generate additional costs from passengers.

EasyJet, for example, introduced a policy in 2016 where it would turn away passengers who were less than 30 minutes early for their flight (informing them in small print on their boarding card) and then charging a further £80 to switch to another flight. Meanwhile, 5,000 passengers launched a £400m class action law suit against Ryanair because of what they claim to be hidden and unfair charges. Often it is these policies that cause many customers to get so frustrated in the first place.

Lower wages, worse for staff

Shifting responsibility of dealing with angry customers onto frontline staff is part of a wider problem of how airline staff are treated in general – especially those that work for budget carriers. The competition among airlines to attract customers has reduced the costs of air travel. But, in order to offer low fares, airlines must reduce costs. The cost of staffing an airline is significant and among the largest single operating costs for an airline. Airline management is also able to exert control over this cost in a way that it cannot control other sizeable costs such as the price of fuel.

So the low cost model is then invariably bad news for staff. Low fare airlines generally offer lower terms of conditions of employment and expect high levels of productivity and flexibility from staff. Indeed, repeated industrial action by British Airways staff has come about because the airline created its own low cost workforce in response to low cost competition.

So staff are getting hit by the low cost business model – not just by disgruntled passengers. Low fare airlines are creating the conditions for passenger discontent that staff must then bear the brunt of. It’s a worse work environment as well as lower wages.

The response by airlines to “arm” staff to deal with the inevitable outcome ignores the fundamental problem. It also potentially does more harm than good – what happens if and when an employee actually uses their new martial arts skills to defend themselves against a customer? Putting the onus on staff to defend themselves puts them in harms way in order to defend the policies core to the low cost model.

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