At American Airlines Predeparture Beverages Matter, But Not Very Much

Predeparture beverages in first class are an ‘optional’ though desirable service element. Flight attendants aren’t going to take the time to offer beverages if it delays a flight. For a late boarding that’s done quickly the priority is an on-time departure.

But it’s certainly possible most of the time. Delta manages it consistently (and they have better on-time performance than American does). Yet American flight attendants have been inconsistent at best at offering this.

You can call this a ‘first world problem’ and it is. When you run from one flight to the next you easily go 90+ minutes without access to a glass of water. Predeparture beverages are a nice feature of domestic first class. They’re appreciated when offered.

In December, American reminded their flight attendants to try to offer predeparture beverages.

American’s flight attendants reacted. The most common themes in flight attendant comments were:

  • They aren’t being paid until the door closes, so why should they do ‘extra’ work before then?

  • American won’t offer profit sharing to flight attendants. If flight attendants don’t control profit, then it shouldn’t matter what service they provide.

  • They’re often miscatered and that eats up time they could have served beverages.

Miscatering is a real issue. And American has made clear its priority is on-time departure, not fixing catering.

Via @xJonNYC on Twitter, a message sent by American Airlines to flight attendants:

We understand the catering challenges you face impact the service to our customers. At the same time we must focus on on-time departures.

Here’s the message, along with a flight attendant’s reaction:

Of course on-time departures matters. But nearly every other airline manages predeparture beverages in first class and on-time departures, at least having on-time performance as good as American’s.

Four years ago I noted American’s inconsistency in providing predeparture beverages. This isn’t a new issue with the merger. But the emphasis on “D=0” is.

American sees the key metric for operational reliability as “D=0” – pushback exactly on time (or before). It’s an “important metric, indicative of where we’re headed” according to the company. And the way they’re getting there is anathema to customers (see American’s Goldilocks Problem).

Of course operational reliability is important and leaving on time contributes to arriving on time (which is what matters most). But American gets there by starting the boarding process earlier than the printed time on boarding passes. Passengers can’t just adjust for that and American doesn’t print earlier boarding times e.g. 40 or 45 minutes before departure instead of 30 minutes. Sometimes the aircraft isn’t on the ground or ready to board.

So you get variable, unpredictable boarding times. Customers either have to waste a lot of time at the airport and gate earlier (or stopping work in the lounge early to go to the gate) or wind up gate checking their carry on bag and wasting time on arrival at baggage claim. Given the focus on ‘D=0’ I expect unpredictable boarding and gate chaos to continue.

And here the message isn’t “D=0 is important, so we have to get our catering right and on-time” — instead it seems to be “D=0 matters and getting catering right and on-time doesn’t matter as much.”

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I think part of the issue is that a very small percentage of flyers really know what counts as a on time departure. (on-time departure means the airplane pushed back from the gate on schedule)

    How many times can you remember holding on to your cup or glass as you lift off ? Happened all the time but for the last 5 or 6 years.

    And it matters to me the way I and my family is treated that I have paid for.

  2. I have to tell you Gary in over 100 flights per year on Delta I just can not even remember when I PFB had not been offered. Even when folks are last on board they are offed and told to enjoy as they will grab the cup just before take off! Truly impressive.

  3. Of 28 AA segments this year, I’ve been offered PDBs on ten of them:
    — Five were A321 flights with a water/OJ/bubbly option
    — Five were on Compass or Republic operated Eagle flights

    So “not very much” might even be an understatement.

  4. Wow, this is just rich. I get both sides. While I probably wouldn’t switch airlines over it, things like this DO leak into the company culture, which affects employees’ attitudes and can be demoralizing over time.

    And while I can’t stand Delta’s FF program, the FAs do seem genuinely happy to work for Delta. Most of the AA FAs I’ve encountered have been “career” flight attendants. Or very grumpy holdovers from US Airways.

    Will be interesting to see how this plays out on a larger scale, especially considering passengers will want better service come revenue-based time. And yes, that includes a PDB.

  5. This won’t change. Your entire article simply hammers home that point. It isn’t a priority and it won’t be anytime soon.

  6. Based on observing DL FAs, PDBs do not appear to increase the amount of time for boarding. On AA after first class boards, the rest of the passengers get on the plane and stand in the aisle in first class preventing the FAs from serving PDBs. On DL the FAs hold passengers at the boarding door while they serve PDBs rather than letting those passengers stand in the aisle. Passengers wait in the jet bridge rather than stand in the aisle. After PDBs, those passengers quickly fill up the aisle again. Seems simple.

  7. (1) Your story mentions Delta’s habit but not United’s, which I have found so far this year to be pretty good. Flew 26 UA F segments (one Skywest RJ, the others United mainline) the first two months of the year, and was offered PDBs on 24 (including the Skywest flight). Of the two I wasn’t offered them, on one the flight attendant repeatedly volunteered an apology, before I saw anybody even ask, saying the galleys were late. On the other, no explanation. I thought that was a pretty good percentage. (By the way, of those 26 segments, 22 arrived on-time or early, three late but within the 14-minute D.O.T. grace, and one arrived an hour late after a temporary weather groundstop was imposed by the F.A.A. at our destination.)

    (2) Gary, I have seen others say there is a difference in the (lower) frequency of PDB offers among legacy AA attendants than among legacy US ones. Your blog post doesn’t go into too much detail there but would be interested in comments from those who have flown with legacy US crews (as I have not).

  8. @Keith Murray – Legacy US Airways flight attendants do seem to provide predeparture beverages more frequently although my sample size here is limited. I did mention that legacy American flight attendants had an issue with this long before the merger. This isn’t a new phenomenon.

  9. As someone who only occasionally is sitting in the front of the plane, I have to say that PDBs are about the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. Especially on narrow body jets – they get in the way and DELAY boarding. Let everyone get seated before you start serving drinks. Not so much an issue on planes that board differently, but it burns me up when I’m sitting in jetway or aisle so the FAs can serve drinks instead of letting us get on and situated. That to me is poor customer service.

    Interesting read though- AAs response was rich.

  10. I flew three flights on Saturday and Sunday. Although I was in main cabin, PDB were being served up front as I boarded two of the three flights. The one that did not serve them was a legacy AA crew. The two that did serve them were legacy US and to be more specific, they were based in PHX.

  11. Coming to AA through the US merger, I’ve seen a few things over the years. US always had the focus on D0 which can cause gate agent issues but I nearly always had a PDB. The more AA flights I flew during the merger process, the more I noticed that PDBs were a rarity. Now that the merger is over it seems that catering or culture has seeped over and is now affecting pmUS planes/crews as the PDB % has gone down. Again, this isn’t earth shattering but as you state it draws you to what the airline is putting emphasis on.

    To that point, I was at CLT on Friday and witnessed passengers be denied boarding as they ran over from their late arriving flight. I was one of a few people trying to get on an earlier flight and as the gate agents struggled to clear the standby list, they yelled at customers and became verbally abusive to the customers. They were out loud saying they had to get the plane out on time and the door MUST be shut. I’m pretty sure then sent the plane out with empty seats while people were still on the standby list, and other pax mis-connected due to D0. I get that people want to me on time, and depart on time, but AA really needs to understand the full ramifications of what they focus on with the staff and how they’re incented.

  12. I’d like to see AA leave a bottle of water at each seat in F the way Delta does. That way, at least you’d have some water in case they can’t/don’t serve PDBs.

  13. Being a Delta Diamond for a number of years, I can’t even imagine another airline not offering me a drink in the front cabin before departure. You mean there are some that are that primitive?

    I do recall the happy day when I got not *one* but *two* drinks before pushback. That’s rare now.

  14. I agree it is about 50-50 on getting a PDB on American. United was 100 percent so far. We all agree if running late or a cater issue. a PDB is not possible. American just does not have an excuse.

    On American they are just lazy.

    Nothing is going to happen to them.

  15. Agreed, push back, weather or late catering are valid reasons for no PDB!!!
    Suggest that you fly coach and let others decide what is important to them.
    Arrogant jerk

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