A couple of weeks ago Qatar Airways’ CEO talked about the “crap service” at US airlines from “grandmas,” which really doesn’t help his case much in the battle between the US carriers and Gulf carriers. He ended up issuing a non-apology apology, which I guess is better than usual for him.
I’d like to think I’m a tough critic of service, though I have no issues whatsoever with the concept of “grandmas” working on US airlines. I have issues with bad service, but to me that’s not correlated to age. There are some “grandmas” at US airlines that are fantastic (like the ones on my recent United flight that I just wrote about), and others that are terrible. But that’s true of flight attendants of all ages.
Some argue that flight attendants are there to be eye candy, and that they should be hot, etc. Personally I think that’s a bit ridiculous, and an outdated concept. A few decades ago flight attendants in the US were hired based on their looks, but in 2017 that’s an unrealistic expectation, in my opinion. Where do you draw the line in feeling that way — should we expect only hot people to work in every customer service position, from Uber drivers to restaurant servers to Wal-Mart associates? It’s a very slippery slope, and one I don’t support.
Anyway, I truly believe that grandmas aren’t at fault for bad service on US airlines, so in this post I wanted to share what I think the causes of bad and inconsistent service at US airlines are, in no particular order:
Lack of an onboard manager
US airlines have lead flight attendants, though in reality these are flight attendants who are paid a couple of extra dollars per hour to make announcements and do the paperwork. These aren’t management employees, they don’t have the ability to discipline other crew, etc.
Personally I think this is an issue, and you’ll find that most of the airlines globally that are regarded for good service have a lead flight attendant who is actually empowered to discipline crew, deal with customer complaints in a constructive way, evaluate the performance of the rest of the crew, etc.
Essentially at US airlines flight attendants are completely unsupervised once the door closes. No one is really in charge, and I think having a true “lead” flight attendant who is chosen based on merit could help create an atmosphere where service would be better.
Safety and service being viewed as mutually exclusive
I value the safety training that flight attendants at US airlines have. When you look at the amazing job that flight attendants did when US1549 was ditched in the Hudson, you can’t help but have respect for them. However, there’s another side to this. Since 9/11, it sure feels like some flight attendants view safety and service as being mutually exclusive.
We don’t need to be reminded that “flight attendants are here primarily for your safety.” That should be a given. I understand that the most important function that flight attendants perform is safety, even though they dedicate 90% of their time to service. It would be like a cruise ship crew telling you that their primary job is safety, and using that as an excuse for providing less service.
So for some (though certainly not all) flight attendants it sure seems like safety is being used as an excuse for providing sub-par service, since they don’t view service as their primary role.
Toxic relationships between management & unions
Personally I don’t think that unions or management are exclusively to blame for service issues. For example, Southwest has flight attendant unions but is known for their great service, while Delta doesn’t have flight attendant unions, but I don’t necessarily think they have better service than Southwest does.
From my perspective, there have been hostile relationships between management and unions for decades, and much of that is understandable, given what the industry has been through. The goals of management and the employees haven’t been aligned, and that’s a major issue, and is partly to blame for the lack of purpose that so many employees have. Now that airlines are dong well I think we’re starting to see more cooperation, though we’ll see how long that lasts.
No performance based evaluations
Personally I’m strongly opposed to crews being able to bid for positions solely based on their seniority. While I’m all for rewarding long term employees who are dedicated to the company, it seems silly to make that the only basis off of which they decide whether someone can work first or business class, get a desirable route, etc.
Of course one of the issues is that there’s no real manager onboard to evaluate crews, so it’s tough to select them based on merit. This is something else that could be solved by having a true onboard manager.
However, take a look at JetBlue Mint, where flight attendants are hand-picked to work the cabin. I’m not sure what exactly the process is, but I’d be willing to bet it’s not strictly seniority based, given how excellent the service is.
Flight attendants working premium cabins or desired routes should get those routes at least partly because of how good they are, and not solely based on how long they’ve been at the company.
The herd mentality & unlimited authority
These points are all somewhat related, though I think this is worth pointing out specifically. What happened on 9/11 was terrible, and I think it’s important for flight attendants to have the authority to prevent issues before they arise. However, we’ve seen case after case of flight attendants abusing this power over the years, including kicking people off planes because they didn’t like how they were spoken to, etc.
If a flight attendant says they don’t feel “comfortable” they can kick someone off, and in many cases we’ve seen videos of such instances which were indefensible. The further issue is that because of this authority, even if the rest of the crew disagrees with the situation, they’ll go along with it.
In my opinion there has to be a higher standard for people being kicked off planes. I think we’re slowly seeing that trend reverse in a post-Dao era, with just about everything being captured on video.
I’ve had fantastic senior flight attendants, and also terrible ones. The great ones are usually the ones who remember the good old days of service, and try to replicate that. The bad ones are usually the ones who remember the good old days of service, and are so disgusted by how things are nowadays that they don’t bother trying.
I’ve had fantastic young flight attendants, and also terrible ones. The great ones are usually the ones who are so excited about being able to travel, and appreciate the opportunity. The bad ones are usually the lazy entitled millennials who think their job is too hard (to be clear, I’m a millennial as well, so I’m not calling all millennials entitled and lazy, but rather am saying that bad service usually comes from young flight attendants with that mentality).
There are a lot of problems with service at US airlines, but I don’t think age as such is one of the problems. Now, from a safety perspective I do think at a certain age flight attendants should only be able to take their recurrent tests a limited number of times, rather than being able to take them until they pass.
However, I think age has very little to do with the skill of a flight attendant. Instead I think some of the above reasons are to blame for the service culture at US airlines.
Why do you think service at US airlines is inconsistent and often not good?