Filling the Passenger Void

As airlines abdicate their customer service role, a training program tries to fill a void

Tom Murphy has made a professional living as a customer service trainer. In 1990, he met Sue Baer at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and has been involved with aviation ever since. On 9/11, he was on a flight diverted to Toronto — one of the many. With a background of having trained some 30,000 airline/airport-related employees, he discovered that he had a connection with many of the people touched by that tragic day. Along the way, he recognized that some were dealing with the agony of 9/11 better than others, and he decided to find out why. That led to the publication of the book, Reclaiming the Sky, the story of the men and women who kept America flying. It subsequently led to a training course on resiliency training that is undergoing its test bed at JFK International, with the intent to take it to airports nationwide.

Murphy has teamed up with Fordham University to create the Human Resiliency Institute ( The launch customer service training program at JFK initially involves employees of several tenant companies.

Once the program is completed, a model will be created and offered to other airports. The goal is two-fold: 1) empower employees to better address airline passenger needs and thereby relieve their own stress while improving productivity; and 2) create a network of airports which can share best practices while having the Human Resiliency Institute as an ongoing resource.

Murphy recently discussed his training program with AIRPORT BUSINESS. Following are edited excerpts ...

AIRPORT BUSINESS: How does the training initiative connect to the book, Reclaiming the Sky?

Murphy: There’s a whole business side of what we’re trying to do with the resiliency edge program. The four resiliency traits that I use — adapatability, optimism, engagement, and proaction — come from what I gleaned from talking with the aviation workers in Boston, New York, and Washington that I profiled for Reclaiming the Sky. Having trained 30,000 workers, I knew so many of those who were directly involved, but they didn’t know each other.

So, wanting to know the secret myself for the track back to recovery, how does one recover from the enormity of that? I saw people that I had worked with doing well; they were moving forward. I wanted to learn from them how to do that. I saw that there were four key resiliency traits that they had in common that allowed them to find a personal path to recovery.

The thought is that this can also be used by workers to deal with the everyday stresses of working in aviation today. I take those four traits and help people identify strengths and emerge with a personal resiliency profile that they can then use.

AB: Airlines seem to be abdicating their customer service role, leaving it to airports and their tenants. Would you agree?

Murphy: What’s happening is, cost pressures are forcing the airlines to cut in ways that create a customer service void that by default either falls to nobody or to pro-active airports. They bring me in to get the airports and the airlines back together again to work on these issues. If nobody takes care of them, the satisfaction levels will continue to plummet.

AB: Are there specific trends you see emerging?

Murphy: It’s well documented that travelers are under stress. In 2007, one in four flights were delayed. The New York controller’s office did a study that found that travelers using the three airports in New York had a $200 million loss in productivity as a result of the congestion and delays.

Intuitively, we can assume that’s having a spillover effect on the workers and stretching them like a rubber band to the breaking point. We measured it first, and we found that four out of five workers were affected by the stresses the travelers were experiencing.

Presumably, if four out of five workers are feeling the spillover effect from customers, their productivity is affected also. We need to make them more resilient. Studies have shown that people who are more resilient are better able to take control of the situation and handle stress better.

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