A Tale Of Two American Airlines Flight Attendants

Filed Under: American, Travel

The only thing consistent about service on US airlines is that it’s inconsistent. American is my primary US carrier, and I’ve spent plenty of time noting how inconsistent service can be — I’ve had international flights with incredible service, and I’ve had international flights with terrible service. Typically it seems to me like an entire crew is either good or bad, which doesn’t make sense, since flight attendants are mostly bidding on “trips” independently. Perhaps it’s often a case of a good attitude being contagious, and vice versa.

On Monday night I flew from Sao Paulo to Los Angeles in business class on American. The flight was operated by a 787-9 with American’s B/E Aerospace Super Diamond seats. I’ll have more on the seats as such in a separate post, but in this post wanted to talk about the service on the flight.

The 787 has two aisles, and the way the staffing works is that the purser works the left aisle, another flight attendant works the right aisle, and then there’s a third flight attendant working the galley. I was seated on the left side, so was being taken care of by the purser.

He had no charm, but he did his job efficiently. There were no introductions, and when he took my meal order he just said “do you know what you want?” If this were a non-US airline I’d say the service was bad, but for a US airline I can’t say the guy was bad. He seemed well intentioned enough, he provided the service as described, and he was extremely efficient. Also keep in mind I was just coming off a TAAG Angola flight, so I’d consider anything short of a verbal assault to be a positive interaction.

The purpose of this post isn’t to rag on the purser, but rather to compliment the other business class flight attendant, Rob… and he wasn’t even the one serving me! Man, I longed to sit on the right side of the plane, where they were getting Singapore Airlines levels of service.

Rob’s voice carried, so I could hear many of his interactions with passengers.

“Hi, welcome aboard! I’m Rob and I’ll be taking care of you today. Are you familiar with all the functions of the seat?”

After takeoff when he took meal orders, he said “welcome aboard, once again. Like I said earlier, I’m Rob. Have you had a chance to look over the menu? What can I get you for dinner? And do you want me to wake you for breakfast in case you’re sleeping?” That question wasn’t asked on the left aisle, for the record.

Throughout the service Rob took his time with each passenger and engaged in chit-chat, but the service was just as efficient as in the other aisle.

Before landing Rob came through the cabin and shook each passenger’s hand. “It was a pleasure taking care of you today, come see us again real soon.”

The craziest part was that he then came over to the left aisle (which he didn’t at any point serve), shook everyone’s hands, and said “thanks for your business, we really appreciate it.”

He’s easily one of the best American flight attendants I’ve ever had, and he wasn’t even serving me.

The moral of the story here is as follows:

  • In the US the purser on a flight is just someone who is paid a couple of extra dollars an hour to do paperwork and make announcements. They’re not actually leaders, which is sad. Airlines with inflight service managers generally have better service since there’s someone in charge who is accountable for the experience, though there’s no way a US airline union would ever allow such a role to exist.
  • You can’t train someone to be as engaging as Rob. When I watched how Rob provided service, I couldn’t help but think “wouldn’t it be nice if this other flight attendant were just as good?” But the reality is that you can’t train an attitude like this. If other flight attendants had done this, it would have come across as insincere. You can hire people with personality, but once they’re hired, you can’t train someone to be genuine and engaging.
  • While you can’t train people to be genuine and engaging, couldn’t flight attendants on US airlines generally be trained to do the same as Rob? “Are you familiar with your seat?” “Thanks for flying with us!” The shorter answer is no, since American management refuses to increase the workload of flight attendants under any and all circumstances.
  • As an aside, years ago American introduced mints in premium cabins, which the flight attendants distributed at the end of the flight. The intent of them was to facilitate an interaction where the flight attendant could say “thanks for flying with us today,” which seemed like a brilliant idea. When it was first introduced, it was great. Over the years many flight attendants just started to hold out the tray and didn’t make eye contact or say anything, which eliminates the whole point (well, other than eliminating bad breath). 😉

So thanks to Rob for being awesome, and giving all his passengers a great experience. As is always the case at the “big three” US airlines, it’s clear that the flight attendants who provide that kind of service do so because it’s the type of person they are, and not because of anything the company is doing.

  1. Internal audits. Fire pursers and everybody not being welcoming and professional. Out of 100 maids and waiters of a certain level you will rarely find so many rude idiots bragging b cause they think to her power because they wear a uniform. If you don’t like your job, leave.

  2. For an introvert you want your FAs chatty. Some people are not like that.

    Their job is to bring you your salad not chat wth you.

  3. I experienced a very similar stark contrast in service on a recent LH flight in business from FRA-EWR. It was the upper deck of the 747 so with the single aisle and the small cabin it was very easy to see how the various FAs approached their jobs. The one who was working the other side of the aisle was like you describe “Rob” — warm, friendly, welcoming, yet always professional. He even seemed intuitively to sense who was English-speaking (or maybe paid attention to overheard conversations). The one was working my side of the aisle never greeted anyone and didn’t distribute menus to my row or the one behind me. When he asked what I wanted for my meal I said (politely) that I hadn’t received a menu so I didn’t know what the options were. He said “oh” and then vanished for ten minutes, finally returning with a menu. He also never refilled water glasses or removed tray tables without repeated prompting. The woman sitting next to me (who was very polite and gracious) couldn’t get her phone plugged in properly and he was no help at all, actively indifferent. I ended up giving her my converter for the duration of the flight and enjoying a few hours of being disconnected. Watching the service on the other side of the aisle this whole time was like watching a cool party through a plate glass window…so close, yet inaccessible. I have no idea how LH flight crews are managed/supervised during a flight, but this could have been a “do this, don’t do that” training video. I do not have a “customer service” personality myself, so I amuse myself during these situations by imagining how much fun I’d have being on my feet and solicitous to total strangers for eight hours. But then I remind myself, that’s why I didn’t choose a customer service career in the first place LOL.

  4. I have a tendency towards more snarkiness, so I probably would have taken an “outstanding service” voucher and visibly handed it to Rob thanking him, all within view of the purser. Let Rob know how much you value that committed high level of service and engagement. And let the rest of the FA team hear and see you do it.

  5. I once had a chat with an FA in BA F, and dude didn’t know how to end, while i just wanted to return to my seat..

    He probably meant good, but..

  6. @Nknkff They can’t be touched, since they’re all unionized. People that are poor at their jobs know it, and they know when they have union protection. They also know they’d never get another job, since they’re not great at their current one, so they’d never want to leave their union bubble (they’d also lose seniority, which helps them advance in pay without any merit).

  7. “Hire for attitude and train for skill”. The nice Paul absolutely nailed it. In the service business, this is 100% the way to go.

  8. Very true, Lucky.

    I’ve been EXP a long time. *Some* of AA’s flight attendants are amazing. But as you say, that says everything about them as people and little about the unions or management.

  9. I had a “Rob” on a DL GRU-MCO flight on January 14. The interactions were just as you described, and it was an absolute joy to be one of his passengers. He was funny, he cared, and he lifted the spirits of the whole cabin. It was my second time in Delta One (I’m usually on JetBlue, an international carrier or, if push comes to shove, American) and while I found the seats and food to be mediocre both times (why does Delta have a premium reputation?) I have a warm feeling about the flight — and Delta — because of “Rob”. The coolest thing is we all have the opportunity to be that person, whether we’re working, interacting with family & friends, or even being passengers on an airplane.

  10. So, tangentially related…but a friend of mine is a purser for the airline that recently killed a dog. He actively loves his job and having flown with him and observed his interactions with other pax, I know he doesn’t just pay attention to me because we’re friends; he’s very much similar to Rob and ensures all pax receive the requisite attention. He and I had a conversation about Polaris when it was first being introduced. He was attending a 3- or 4-day training on the new soft/hard product and before the first day, he was already dreading having to interact with what he calls “Pams”…the matronly, under-enthusiastic, sometimes-overtly-offensive, need-to-retire-already “sky hags” that we’ve all come to know and hate. His tales of woe from those couple of days of training are very telling. Essentially, there is no customer service training provided at any point beyond how to quite literally operate the carts and plate the food. Heck, I asked about why the FAs have so many variations of the uniform on one flight and he had no idea, though he was just as bothered by it. I was able to produce an internal document on uniform standards and types, and when they’re to be worn during the flight – which I pulled from the internet – that even HE hadn’t seen. And he’s a purser. With 20+ years.

    Bottom line is that this is 100% a training problem. While I’m clearly talking about UA, I can’t imagine AA is much different. The US3 seem to purposely avoid any sort of customer interaction courses during training and presume (or lazily allow) individuals to just go through the motions and provide whatever level of effort or attention they see fit. Part of the “we’re here primarily for your safety” nonsense. Some people are just caring, outgoing, and engaging. Some are the literal opposite. As The nice Paul mentioned, they need to hire for attitude, train for skill. You can’t teach people to be nice. Which leads me to wonder what the heck they actually ask/do in these FA hiring conferences.

  11. Attitude. No amount of training can change or compensate for it. Too many senior flight attendants have left their profession, as they fill their days with other activities until they have to show up for their “dreaded” job that provides benefits and insurance.

  12. I am always scared when I board US airlines even though I am in business or first all the time. Luckily, I use them only a couple of times a year but still I worry if I get offloaded for ridiculous reason or I get this awful look when I ask for something. It is just such an unpleasant experience that I want to avoid. Many cabin crews are unhappy or moody, I don’t know why, but I really don’t want to be close to them. So much negative energy

  13. My expectations from US airlines are low. I’m usually pleased to just get to my destination more or less on time.

  14. how about next time everything you wrote to us say to a purser or f.a. who doesn’t do his/hers job as it must be, you won’t change anything scribblening about it after be a man and demand service you paid for, confront the guy being jerk and write us about it, i’m sick and tired about your whining on the net and kept silent while being disrespected!!!??? get yourself together man, say somerhing where it matters!

  15. @Lucky – I had a really good flight attendant on an American Eagle flight recently. He clearly took pride in his job and was just a really positive guy – and he was our only flight attendant since it was an ERJ145 flight.

    I actually wrote to AA to compliment him so he gets some sort of recognition. Suggest you do the same; I just hope AA actually follows through and gives these pros the recognition they deserve.

    You never know how much that will make someone’s day, and they say you haven’t truly lived until you’ve done something for someone that can never repay you.

  16. @debit Part of working in customer service is knowing how to read people. You should be cordial and make eye contact and then get a sense of whether your customer is the chatty type or the get-back-to-their-cellphone/book/lap top type.

  17. I had a very similar FA in “first” MIA-BWI around the holidays, might have even been the same guy. Very friendly but not intrusive. Greeted everyone by name, proactive and on top of all requests, even brought me water without asking while I was having a coughing fit, he even steered me away from ordering tea, because it’s apparently awful and brought me hot water with lemon instead.

  18. wait Ben AA is still your primary US carrier? did their twitter team not give you special treatment anymore and you were just as mad as casey neistat? you crawled back to aa because…?

  19. Ben this post is a rant about American hospitality, not how AA train their crew members, isn’t it?

    You’re asking American FAs to provide service as good as Singapore girls, that’s like complaining your 3 year old niece doesn’t dunk like Michael Jordan :'(

  20. “In the US the purser on a flight is just someone who is paid a couple of extra dollars an hour to do paperwork and make announcements. They’re not actually leaders,”

    I did not know this and am really surprised. Why wouldn’t you have an on-board leader to help maintain service standards and to sort out disagreements between crewmembers or even between crew and passengers? On Air Canada, I always find that the in flight Service Director (or “SD”) provides better service than the regular flight attendants.

  21. @debit
    Even so, a nice, well attended FA will figure out what type of person you are, and adjust the level of engagement when needed. Fly Singapore.

  22. Hi,

    This type of dual level of service, I’ve had it numerous times. It is always an interesting observation for me especially the the purser is the one that is less customer friendly compared to a normal FA. I don’t know why this happens, but this is not only a US-airline only thing, even on airlines like Qatar you do at times see the differences like day and night.


  23. I’m an introvert, big time. That doesn’t mean I don’t welcome and enjoy it when someone in a service position has at a least a modicum of concern for my satisfaction. Even just a smile – or a different way of asking a question – means a lot, especially when my money is finding its way into their paycheck.

    Contrast being asked, “Which of our cheeses would you like to sample, today, Mr. Archer?” with “Ya want cheese?” Both true stories, from long haul first. I think it’s easy to see which of those interactions -anyone- would prefer, whether we’re introvert, extrovert, or anywhere in between.

    But I’m guessing @debit is just trolling you, Lucky.

  24. @Archer “Contrast being asked, “Which of our cheeses would you like to sample, today, Mr. Archer?” with “Ya want cheese?” Both true stories, from long haul first. I think it’s easy to see which of those interactions -anyone- would prefer, whether we’re introvert, extrovert, or anywhere in between.”

    This is so spot on.

  25. My most recent AA experience, RDU-LHR , didn’t eat dinner and didn’t want to be woken for b’fast but did wake up as they were finishing the service and asked for a coffee …” you said you didn’t want breakfast but I’ll see what I can do”. This for black coffee , no sugar…even I can remember that recipe and make it in 20 seconds. It struck me at the time that this really was a protected work environment and that while she didn’t deserve to be there, it would be impossible to get rid of her.
    But when it works well, as in the Rob example, then it’s uplifting for everyone.
    Hire for attitude? Sure, so long as the hirers know what they’re doing….because there’s nothing worse than fake bonhomie and forced jollity, as we’ve seen when some of the Virgin hires go sour/feral. But at least they can be fired.

  26. They do hire for attitude. Trouble is that it’s not always possible to keep that attitude (especially if the inter-employee culture isn’t positive). Airlines in the US once had rules that would automatically cull the FA roles: age restrictions, weight restrictions, marriage restrictions, etc. These are gone because they’re illegal. Now there is an unsupervised workforce where it’s difficult to get rid of the malcontents. The malcontents breed other malcontents with their poor performance (especially because the good FAs see that nothing is done about them and no one is rewarded for being good). Is it the unions fault? Sure, but it’s primarily managements. Also, don’t think we the public don’t have a role. We tolerate the rules and laws that make this nearly inevitable.

  27. I would argue that introverts are actually better at customer service as they tend to be more empathic. Customer service is very formulaic and follows more or less a clear script. I honestly think poor customer service comes from disgruntled extroverts who are regretting certain life decisions. An introvert is less likely to make inflammatory off the cuff comments than an extrovert.

  28. “Would service be better on board Usa airlines if the staff were tipped?”

    Oh God! Please no!! Enough with tipping in America. Just do your effing job.

  29. I fly long-haul intercontinental up the front about every two weeks, I am convinced the Purser can set the tone for the “all great crew” or “all terrible crew”. If the purser is average (or worse), I know the flight is going to be very sub-par from the get go.
    Love hearing about Rob and his great service… I hope this gets back to him!

  30. I’m still waiting for the day to experience premium service in the premium cabin of AA or any US carrier. Nothing even close. And I detest being served a pre-take off drink in plastic. No class on any US carrier.

  31. One’s attitude and training are both so important.

    I was on a Republic Airways E175 in first class where there was a trainee doing the service and her trainer helping her through. The trainee did a great job and had a great attitude. It was so nice, so I have her an AA outstanding service certificate. I did it in front of her trainer, and her trainer gave a big smile and was clearly proud that her trainee did a good job and was recognized by a customer. That’s the best attitude.

  32. I honestly don’t care to engage in chit chat with them but I really get annoyed if they screw up my meal order or bring me the wrong drink (happens more than it should). And worse is slow or late meal service on TATL flights going east given that it’s usually 7pm or later when we get airborne and I am really hungry and want to get some rest after the meal. On the Airbus 332’s I usually take, these FAs have just ten passengers to attend to so how hard can it be to get the meals and drinks correct and out quickly? Seems like they just don’t care.

  33. Sometimes, I think hospitality is just about generosity of spirit. Let me explain. Years ago, I think on United, I was travelling from SF to NYC in economy. The flight attendant was just downright generous – about everything. Generous with her time, engagement, spirit and personality. An example: she came through the cabin with after-dinner alcohol miniatures. After we made our selection – she provided us with two or was it three bottles each – saying that she was sure after enjoying the first, we would want another. All delivered with a smile, and impish wink. In my memory, she was displaying lots of southern hospitality, and always had a word and a smile for us. Probably 25 years later, I still remember her, and therefore still have fond memories of United.

    I expect in these low-cost, post-deregulation times – there is probably a rule about not giving out more than one alcohol miniature at a time.

  34. Please remember that Rob is also a union employee. Every business has good employees and some that are less than stellar. Don’t blame the unions please.

  35. Wish you wouldve spent more time in Sao Paulo for an OMAAT meetup! Next time lemme know, Ben.

    Cant wait for this trip report. Did you review Admirals Club, LATAM’s One World, and the Executive lounge at GRU too?

  36. As a visitor to the US, I’m struck by the difference in the airplane/airport experience (grouchy, impatient) and the other typical tourist interactions at shops, attractions, hotels and restaurants (friendly). Air travel is seen as transportation rather than a hospitality industry, so first class / business gets you a better seat but not necessarily better service.

  37. While I have had some lovely conversations with FA’s, I don’t really care if they aren’t particularly engaging. As long as they get the job done, I don’t need a new best friend. FA’s have a hard job and airlines don’t pay as well as they used to. I am not going to demand they do more than they are required to do.

  38. I showed this article to an American flight attendant friend of mine and she said “Rob” was probably on probation. I think she was half kidding, but still..

  39. i dont know where do u hear pursers in the US only get paid a couple dollars more, what airline are you talking about ? i know for sure both UA and AA paid more than a couple dollars.

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