CHICAGO — They've been screamed at, called names, spit on, choked and punched.
When thunderstorms, mechanical foul-ups or overbookings cripple the nation's air traffic and leave terminals packed with disgruntled travelers, being an airline gate agent can become a dangerous job.
"If there were a Purple Heart for working people, these folks certainly deserve it," says Frank Larkin of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents customer service employees and ticket agents.
The dangers of in-flight confrontations with unruly passengers have been well-documented, and lawmakers have reacted with tougher legislation against "air rage." But experts who analyze workplace stress and violence, as well as those who monitor the airline industry, say so-called "ground rage" has been overlooked.
And the people on the front lines agree.
"We're counselor. We're baby sitter. We're nurturers. We're mediators," says Sharon Caldwell, who's worked for Northwest Airlines for 17 years. "The job of customer service rep has expanded to a whole new level."
The International Transport Workers Federation, an umbrella organization for transportation workers worldwide, says ground rage will be a focus Friday when flight attendants and ground crews hold their second annual "day of action" against abuse of airline employees.
But if gate agents deserve Purple Hearts, then many air travelers and consumer advocates would argue that passengers deserve their own medals for putting up with unhelpful and rude airline personnel.
"The feedback that we get is that the airlines simply do not care," said Kathleen Lynch of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, a passenger rights group founded by Ralph Nader.
Lynch said gate agents too often aren't given timely information to pass on to customers — a complaint of the agents, too — but that they are not blameless.
"The airline employees either don't have the power or the will to deal with these confrontations," she said.
In one well-known case, a Continental Airlines agent at Newark International Airport suffered a broken neck in a confrontation with a male passenger, who later was
acquitted of assault.
Robyn Eulo, a United customer service representative in Chicago, said she's also had several encounters with angry travelers.
"I've had somebody throw their briefcase at me, swear at me — just demeaning stuff," she said, adding that she knows a colleague whose nose was broken when a passenger struck him.
Eulo said airlines appear to be more aware of the issue and that United will offer counseling and time off to affected employees.
Frank Raubiskis, a customer service representative with United for five years and with Midway Airlines for 10 years before that, said he was attacked by an enraged passenger last fall who picked him up by the waist and threw him against a wall. He suffered some scrapes and bruises.
Caldwell, who's now a vice president with the IAM, says agents feel they're on their own when tempers flare. She believes the public has become much more aggressive, noting a case in Detroit in which countertop holiday decorations became projectiles.
"The passengers were picking them up and throwing them at agents," she said, describing a near-miss with a flying poinsettia.
Dean Headley, an associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co-author of an annual report rating airline quality, says the problems are numerous, from unrealistic flight schedules to overbooked planes and uninformed desk agents.
Headley says customer service representatives are often left to fend for themselves or, even worse, given bad information to relay to customers. What is most infuriating to passengers, he says, is when a 20-minute delay becomes another 20-minute delay becomes another 20-minute delay, or when a mechanical problem becomes, without explanation, a weather-related delay.
"The customer would be happy with the truth; just tell them the truth and get on with it," he said.