My first class flight on Swiss: great food, good seat, awful service

Since the following post is about service in international first class, let me start with the disclaimer that below I share some “first world problems.” With that disclaimer out of the way…

I flew Swiss first class last night from Zurich to Bangkok. Swiss is one of my favorite airlines in the world. I find that their in-flight catering is probably the best of any airline, along with Asiana, and generally I find their service to be excellent as well. They also have a very nice first class lounge in Zurich, so the whole experience is solid.

My flight from Zurich to Bangkok was operated by their Airbus 340-300, which features their “old” first class product. While it’s not the most modern product, I still find the seat to be very comfortable for sleeping and the cabin to be elegant, so I only have good things to say about them in that regard.

As usual, the food was phenomenal. Swiss’ catering just can’t be beat. The food is almost always beautifully presented and equally delicious, and this flight was no exception.

Since the flight is over 10 hours I also managed to get about five hours of “real” sleep, which is perfect for me since the flight arrives in Bangkok in the afternoon.

But the one aspect of the flight that was really disappointing was the service. I’ve flown Swiss first class a handful of times, and for the first several trips the service was flawless. On my last flight in December in Swiss first class from Chicago to Zurich the service was acceptable, though by no means great.

The service on this flight, though, was really bordering unacceptable. There were two flight attendants working first class. One was reasonably nice, while the other likely graduated first in her class from the Carol Beer Charm School.

As luck would have it, she was serving my aisle. I understand she would probably rather be sleeping than working a 10 hour flight departing at 10:45PM, but does she really have to make it known?

She didn’t smile once. She didn’t address me by name once. She didn’t communicate with me even once with more words than absolutely necessary – “what do you wanna eat?”

When my glass was empty I had to ask her for a refill, despite her walking by my tray and noticing the empty glass several times.

The menu lists “ice coffee” as one of the drinks, so I pointed to ice coffee on the menu and asked her if I could have one. She said “we don’t have that” and walked away without asking me if I might like something else (or explaining why it’s not available despite being listed on the menu). Those are only a few examples, as I could go on and on.

Anyway, while my flight was still incredibly enjoyable, I guess it’s worth pointing out that even my favorite airlines aren’t perfect and have off days. I suspect this flight attendant had an off decade as opposed to an off day, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

The funny thing is that as soon as we landed and were waiting for the door to open she was the friendliest person ever — all smiles, wanting to know about my holiday, etc.

To me this raises an interesting question, though. Swiss (like most European and Asian airlines) has an inflight supervisor. US airlines have pursers, who really only get paid a couple of bucks extra an hour to do the paperwork and make the announcements. They’re in no way “in charge,” and therefore don’t really “supervise” the other flight attendants, as they can’t really boss them around or discipline them.

That being said, Swiss does have an in-flight supervisor that is in charge of supervising service, ensuring everyone is happy, etc. They come around to first class passengers at both the beginning and end of the flight to ask how everything was. In general I’m all for being honest, so I would say “the food was good, though the service really wasn’t,” though at the same time I’m not really sure if the inflight supervisor can be “trusted” in that sense. In other words, if I tell her that I thought the service was subpar, is she going to go tell the other flight attendant “the guy in 2G was talking $%*& about you,” or will she actually forward the comments to management.

Would you have said something?

Filed Under: Swiss, Travel
  1. That sounds aweful, Ben. You hear about stories like this in the business class cabins of US airlines, but I’m surprized to hear it about a European carrier, especially in international First. I would just send an email or letter to customer service. I think it will have a better chance of getting to someone who can actually follow-up on the situation. I would be interested in hearing what the carrier’s response is.

  2. I definitely would let her have it. Did you get her name ? i would write to Swiss. By the way, Swiss has a thing called “Maitre de Cabin”, who usually introduces himself by name over the PA system and that is the purser of the chief steward on board, usually hangs around the galley located between the two biz class cabins on their A-330’s & 340’s.

    i actually once struck up conversation with the Maitre de Cabin, on a biz class flt fm GVA to JFK, seated in the first row in biz class. I asked him if he could spare a first class amenity kit and he gave my a big smile and came back with on and a PJ. I find the Swiss Maitre de Cabin’s usually a very friendly bunch. your flight attendant must have had a really bad day.

  3. I have flown Swiss F once and still consider it my best F experience (only 4 long haul F segments). I probably would’ve mentioned something like “the food was excellent as always, but the service wasn’t quite as amazing as some of the crews I’ve had the pleasure of riding with in the past in F”. His/Her response would probably determine whether to divulge some of the shortcomings.

  4. Sounds like the flight attendant I had in LH F is now working for Swiss!

    (Seriously, she was friendly at the end of the flight, too.)

    After that experience I would have said something. Actually, I wouldn’t have said it at the end of the flight. I’ve now decided if faced with a similar situation I’d ask for the inflight supervisor and then ask that person if I could be served by a different flight attendant.

    Yes, I know how that makes me sound but for folks judging, please read the link above first and you’ll understand why.

    In the future I would try to rescue the flight. It was actually a very uncomfortable experience, where my wife and I were dreading each subsequent interaction, just didn’t know quite what to do.

    And if the inflight supervisor hadn’t found us someone else to help, I would have asked to be downgraded to business. It was THAT bad…

  5. Hmmm….I am flying to Bangkok in a few weeks. Would you recommend Thai suites from CDG (currently booked) or LX First?

  6. I love the idea of asking to be downgraded to business:

    “Excuse me, but are there two seats available in business? We would really appreciate some good service on this flight and if being downgraded to business is the cure, than we will take that medicine, thank you very much.”

    the look on her face would have said all

  7. I would never ask if a different server could take care of me…after all, they are damaged goods and have ready access to your food and water supply…

  8. @ Gary — Reminded me of your flight attendant as well. Have to agree with Ace, though, I couldn’t imagine asking for a different flight attendant, since they *do* still have access to your food.

    @ Jack — That’s a toughie — Seat is much better on Thai, food is better on Swiss, and service seems to be generally good though somewhat hit-or-miss on both. So total crapshoot, in my opinion.

    @ Jesse — Sorry I missed you. Where were you headed?

  9. Personally, I’m not good at complaining at the time of service. By nature I’m not a confrontational person and if all of sudden the service improved, I would likely feel guilty and not enjoy it as much as if it had happened spontaneously. (Perhaps I should seek professional help.) However, I am very good at complaining after the fact.

    But it’s too bad in the sense that for many people Intl F is an extremely rare occurrence and to have the experience tarnished by bad service is awful.

  10. Seems like going Thai is a no brainer. You can easily beat the best airline meal in any major city around the world. The food is their for 90 minutes. The seat is there for the entire flight.

  11. I would have have given the supervisor honest feedback. If it was the first time the FA rec’d a complaint, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Everyone has a bad day, but if your complaint was atop a pile of others, it may confirm to Swiss its time to take action so the next passenger has a better experience.

  12. As much as you fly, I’m surprised you didn’t reach out to someone. I sincerely believe a short message to Swiss Air Management with your date of flight and flight number along with a link to this story should get you some satisfaction. (once they realize the popularity of this website!). We all get the crappy days ever once in awhile, but we need to leave the matching ATTITUDE behind!

    Thanks for your interesting story!

  13. Instead of commenting to the people who could improve service, you chose to write about it on your blog months later.

    A touch passive aggressive no?

  14. I would absolutely share your experience with SWISS.

    There is no excuse for an FA to ever have a “bad day.” Their job description is to make every flight special.

  15. @Lucky: I would probably say something. Keep it calm and clear as others have already suggested. No need to keep it to yourself though. Just be as objective and honest as possible and let the airline figure out how they want to handle it.

    @Stu: Everyone has a bad day once in a while. Not every flight can be “special” to every taste.

    @Gary: So what was the final result after word had reached the airline?

  16. i wouldn’t complain… wouldn’t want to get anyone fired in this day and age of minimum wage sky waitresses

  17. @Lucky @Gary – come on guys, you are my favorite bloggers, i look up to you! Man up and rectify this in flight with the purser. I understand we are all a bit captive on board, but don’t put up with insolence from the crew.

  18. I know it may seem like you may not be able to trust the in-flight supervisor, but short of knowing how to contact actual ground based management directly, your options are somewhat limited. Another option you may think about is to alert the in-flight supervisor and a ground based supervisor upon arrival. In many airlines the employees of different divisions don’t frequently interact on a highly personal level. This would give the in-flight supervisor the opportunity to report the incident or dis-service to management, but will also help you to know that your concerns will be sent by a person of another division, so that your concerns are more likely to be seen by management.

  19. Like a poster above, I only have 4 long haul segments in F. I had 2 x LX, 1 x LH, 1 x UA (new).
    Kind of glad I did it that way. Swiss was by far the over all winner, but I only appreciated it after comparing their soft /hard product with LH/UA

  20. Lucky I never understood what you saw in Swiss the last year I flew with them was 2010. 8 flights, 6F 2J all service was with attitude.

    Agree ask to be served by someone else or offer to swap with someone in Business and remind them this by law must be recorded in the passenger manifest.

  21. @ Matrix — Just curious, what does language have to do with whether or not one should complain?

  22. Looks like a lemon in your Diet Coke. Is that really what this post is all about ? 😉

    I’d make a casual comment along the lines of “food as always excellent but service not up to Swiss’ standards”. Constructive criticism, not complaints.

    I think a lot of the reason service has deteriorated at US carriers over the years is partly because the traveling public allows it. Bit-by-bit service has gone down and bit-by-bit we’ve accepted it. So service has slowly declined to where it is today.

  23. First class means just that..First Class…instead you got FIST Class….no good.
    If i wanted ice coffee, then i should get ice coffee…..sounds like a lazy American West flight attendant who didnt want to make coffee for me in first, even though I’m in first class. Not sure if I want to fly them now heheh…

  24. Ben, how do you snag all these LX & LH first class seats in advance? I never see very many of them even many months out! I know you wrote that a lot of these are a last minute thing – but would you care to always mention how far out did you book these seats? That will give us a very good idea of when / how to plan our award travels, thanks for the good work, and the hassle of travelling in an airline that did not serve you ice coffee in First Class 🙂 🙂 … enjoy BKK and have a happy ending (pun intended) to your trip!

  25. I think the bad news is that there is nothing proactive you can do once you’re in the air. But whether cash or points, you’ve worked hard to get those special flights and, really, they are supposed to be special. i wrote a long post on MP about a substandard FC on United from Brussels to Newark – all I was asking for was courtesy – not having someone kiss my feet.

    That said, I would write a long, well-thought out letter to Swiss informing them of the details of this disappointing experience. It can’t make them happy. You obviously know how to write! I had a horrendous experience many years ago on TWA and even tho we were with our three kids, the moment we got off the plane, I went to the ticket desk and asked for the supervisor. I calmly explained the entire experience. He took down the details and told me that it would go in her file. He said that one bad notation won’t affect her job but the second and certainly the third would be the end of her career – and thanked me for the feedback.

    We loved or Swiss FC experience two years ago. Sorry about your experience but I would most certainly not let it pass without detailing it to Swiss.

  26. I have to say, I’m not one to take poor service lying down (as I think you know), I would say that it’s your duty to email the airline, Ben. And @colpuck, settle down.

  27. If I’d paid cash for the seat, yes, I’d raise hell. Altough award seats are supposed to be the same, we all kow that they are not. Miss Snippy was probably expressing her displeasure with have to serve an awardee – at FC standards. Or maybe it was her… Not going there.

  28. @ Cook — I know you won’t be happy to hear this, though the LH/LX manifest doesn’t display fare class. Sorry!

  29. If I experience something like that I ask the Purser/Maitre de Cabin about two hours into the flight (to make sure it just wasn’t a bad start)to have a talk. I calmly (!!) tell him/her that I am disappointed about the way they treat me as a guest and explain in detail what I mean. If another flight attendant is involved (as in this case) what usually happens is that in turn I am approached by him/her and the issue is sorted out (usually together with the MdC/Purser). Mostly the rest of the flight is pleasant.
    I ALWAYS sort out these things on board, with very good results (after all I would like to enjoy the rest of the flight). Only if I experience some resistance in changing the attitude I would file a complaint with the company (and let them know on board I will). With about 150 flights a year this has happened only a handful of times in about 10 years.
    This, by the way, also works with ground staff.

  30. @lucky:

    German in this context is not the only language, but since LX staff in F are nearly 100% fluent in German then complaining to them in their native language would have been more easy and less prone to be misunderstood (which is best avoided in such cases).

    You are a very informed man with regards to F long haul flights, so you are not likely to fall into the trap of the guy that had months and months of high expectations before the flight and complains if the flight is not 100% like the best LX F trip report on the internet.

    Therfore my point is that you should have gone to her and kindly ask her is everything is ok. Its not excusable for her to serve you in a bad way, but perhaps there is the need for her to realize that her behavior is not correct. Now bear in mind, that the Swiss are very polite whilst being very discreete, so you won’t get that chitty chatty huge smiley face you get from an old fart on a US carrier.

    LX personnel always cares, especially in F, but they do so in their own way, so perhaps it is always best to engage into a kind conversation and then he/she will realize you got it wrong.

  31. When management treats their staff poorly, service suffers. poor pay and benefits are reflected in service. Try tipping them.

  32. Try to watch an episode of Downton Abbey and compare your attitude with their’s. Just because you “paid” some money, do you really expect people to act like a slave?

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