“I sense a disturbance in the Force…”
We are living in historic times. We’ve all experienced the far reaching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in some form or fashion—life has changed in ways we never expected. Travel has become a more valuable commodity, one not so easily achieved as before. We’re navigating a new world with uncertain footing and new rules that may shift depending on where we are. On top of this, emotions have been high due to other factors ranging from political tensions to unprecedented weather events.
It’s been a weird year, and I think it’s safe to say we could all use a peaceful vacation…
These singular times have had a particularly strong effect on those who work in the travel-entertainment industry, such as the flight attendants who help get us from home to destination and cast members in popular destinations like Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando Resort. For the sake of brevity throughout this article, when I refer to one, you can assume the same information applies to other travel-service professionals as well.
Video: YouTube, Jett Farrell-Vega (@My Kingdom for a Mouse)
It has been a difficult year to work in these industries. It’s been a time of tenuous job security and mass layoffs, of unpredictable tempers and shifting boundaries. A certain amount of stress is expected with any guest service job—where there are human beings, you will find conflict, even on matters as innocuous as differences of values.
The problem is that these strange times have triggered a shift in the emotional burdens expected of the professionals who make our favorite vacations possible…
Cast Members & Flight Attendants are having to become emotional babysitters
There’s not really a better way to put it—it seems like more than ever, travel service professionals are having to walk on eggshells with guest emotions for fear someone might lose their cheese at any time.
This isn’t an unusual scenario in the service industry, but the frequency and intensity of these encounters are increasing in disturbing ways. We tend to notice situations that get lots of press, but how many of these scenarios never make the news? Cast members, for example, are already dealing with the stress of park closures, mass layoffs, budget cuts, and keeping themselves and their families safe in the midst of a global pandemic—if you add to this the stress that any given interaction with a guest (particularly involving pandemic policies) may result in instant rage and people are going to wear out fast.
It’s the tiredness in the eyes behind the smiles… the overheard conversation about the weariness of the times… the breaking of the mask when another guest spits venom over being asked to follow the rules.
While I’ve seen this phenomenon on previous visits to Walt Disney World after the parks reopened, it really struck me on a recent Southwest flight across the country. There was a strange tension in the air as passengers slowly boarded the plane. The attendant making announcements had to do a lot of over-clarifying, and I immediately picked up cues in his voice—attempting to speak gently but firmly, choosing words with great caution.
Onboard the plane, guests looked about the cabin uncomfortably as one passenger’s voice rose above the others—he was speaking harshly, spewing passive-aggressive insults seemingly to someone nearby as if they’d had an argument. He got upset when people talked over the flight attendant announcement, purposefully getting louder and making lots of fuss and huffing to be heard. His tone was such that I questioned if he might be unique case of someone who just didn’t recognize social cues. The tension thickened—was this going to be one of those flights we’ve all read about in the past months?
The flight crew gave every announcement in the gentlest emotional-support tone I’ve ever heard on a plane, a soft voice that seemed to say, “We’re all in this together… Please help us keep this a blow-up free flight.”
Fortunately in the case of this flight, the man in question calmed down quickly and things went smoothly, but it’s not unheard of these days for people to lose their calm on planes. Over 2000 passengers have been banned by major airlines in previous months for unruly behavior, often regarding mask rules. As for theme park professionals, several incidents at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort made national news, including physical altercations between guests and even a case of a man attacking at EPCOT security guard over mask rules.
I’m not saying these occurrences happen every time--the majority of guests are following the guidelines the best they can. However, even when full-on belligerence isn’t an issue, confrontational or snippy attitudes are becoming a more regular occurrence. The human mind isn’t designed to be on alert all the time—the burden is starting to trend beyond what is reasonable for our service professionals due to the increased intensity of these incidents.
What’s behind this uptick in tensions? A few factors are worth considering…
Unpredictable responses to pandemic rules still happen
The first issue surrounds a topic that isn’t surprising in these times: enforcement of mask-wearing and social distancing rules. I’m not going to touch the rules themselves or the conflicts of values and politics that have become attached to them. The issue is that these concepts have become deeply polarizing in the first place—emotional weight tied to deeply held personal values are being challenged at times during travel and vacations in connection to these new rules.
This is tricky ground, but here’s one way to break it down. We tend to sometimes view situations like vacations or flights like we are purchasing the right to a pleasing experience. While this is true to a point—good guest service is important--the truth is that when we visit a theme park or fly on a plane, we still have to follow some rules and guidelines set by that entity to keep the integrity of that experience and keep other guests safe. The owners of an airline or theme park can set whatever guidelines they feel are appropriate to accomplish those ends. A less controversial example is the way Disney used to actively discourage the use of flash photography on rides—it breaks the integrity of the experience for others. If we do not like those rules, we can certainly write emails or voice our opinion, but ultimately, the most appropriate protest is simply to not purchase that service.
We cannot feign ignorance of rules flying on a plane or visiting Disney parks right now. With Walt Disney World, it is basically impossible to even get a reservation for the parks without being made aware of the rules regarding mask wearing and social distancing. No bait and switch tactics are involved… the expectations are made clear. These rules may be uncomfortable for some at times, but in the case of Disney, some accommodations have been made, such as the implementation of distanced relaxation zones and freedom to remove your mask if eating and drinking while stationary.
I know the rules can be awkward at times—I had a hilarious incident during my last visit to Magic Kingdom staring down a quickly-melting Dole Whip float while I searched for an appropriately-distanced spot to stop and enjoy it. Despite the discomfort, I recognized that those are the rules, and I wanted to honor the effort Disney cast members are putting forth to keep the parks safe.
Why are we snapping at the messengers required to enforce these rules when the expectations have been made clear? They aren’t the ones in the board rooms making the decisions in the first place.
The cast member who asks you to stay distanced in a queue isn’t trying to wreck your vacation or belittle you—they’re doing their job. In the case of flight attendants, the situation is even more unique—most people do not realize that a flight attendant’s primary job is not to serve passenger needs. Particularly since September 11th, 2001, it is above all else to keep passengers safe, with courteous service and assisting needs as a secondary function. The secondary job is still important, but it does not override the flight crew’s primary duty.