Filling the Passenger 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.

The solution is to give workers tools to be able to reduce their stress and simultaneously enhance customer service. The resiliency edge does both of these.

AB: How did the JFK program come together?

Murphy: Sue Baer, a central figure in the book, had given me my start in aviation back in 1990. She was head of customer service for Newark at the time and asked me to adapt a taxi driver training program I did to airport workers. In fact, with her we created the Airport Ambassador Program, which was the first airport customer service training program in the country. Other airports then picked it up and we trained 30,000 airport workers in customer service. As you’ll recall, those were the days of air rage.

So when I wanted to explore how people recovered since 9/11, I began by going to Sue. I asked Sue if we could start the program at JFK, where she had taken over as general manager. We now have a model, and we are making plans to replicate it at Newark and LaGuardia.

What the program is intended to do is to teach front-line workers to become active problem solvers for the problems of congestion and delays that travelers are experiencing. So it mobilizes the workers and gives them tools to become active problem solvers using these four resiliency traits.

We teach workers how to identify within those resiliency strengths, the strengths that they possess already, and by focusing on them they can build upon and enhance to become active problem solvers.

AB: Does scale matter, or does this apply to commercial airports of all sizes?

Murphy: The large majority of airports today are affected by these issues of congestion and delays. A regional airport that feeds into New York is going to have delay issues because of congestion in New York. Our research shows that passengers with problems turn to anybody with a uniform to solve their problem.

AB: Where did the money come from for the JFK start-up?

Murphy: The way we structured it at JFK is we got leadership companies that wanted to get involved in this. We’ve got three that got us started: Swissport, the contractor that employs the customer service agents at the International Arrivals Terminal; Bombardier and the AirTrain workers; and Five-Star Parking and the parking cashiers. The funding can come from a range of sources. An airport can step up to get it going at their airport; a group of airlines can do it. The best way I’ve found is you put together partners to make it happen.

AB: And how does an airport start the program? Do you send the airport a disk?

Murphy: I would go there and institute it into the airport, and it can fit with any existing customer service training that’s being done. Then the other costs fall to the user to support it long term. They would have the Human Resiliency Institute at Fordham for support. We go in, set it up, and operation is done locally.

AB: And the workers’ response?

Murphy: Some 97 percent said they found it useful. Workers come in and figure, what’s this? But, by the end when they see how these tools can help them go home more rested at the end of the day as well as enhance the service — in essence, two benefits — they really respond positively.