Airlines Ignore The Small Details At Their Peril, From Business Class Stemware To Clean Planes

After I began flying frequently for work a little over a quarter century ago, I started getting regular upgrades. But that was always a one-cabin upgrade, from economy to business class or to domestic first class. It was 2000 before I ever got a taste of three-cabin first class. And one memory of that first flight that stands out to me was the stemware that United Airlines used.

Food and beverage is an area that often sees cutbacks, with executives musing ‘no one chooses their flight based on a meal’ but that’s the wrong way to look at it. Business class seats are expensive. Staffing is expensive. Incremental investment in food service is a relatively small investment, but creates an outsized impact on customer impression. People remember a bad meal, and small touches can have a big effect on the overall impression.

In premium cabins it’s a mistake to think of the upcharge simply covering the seat (except at Spirit Airlines where the marketing of ‘The Big Front Seat’ is explicit). Premium cabins are profitable because they’re doing more than charge a multiple of coach representing the greater space in the cabin taken up by that seat. Something hotels learned with lifestyle brands, leaning into ‘wellness’ and other late-cycle indulgences, is that people will pay a premium over an overall experience that helps them craft a narrative around who they are. They want to sell benefits, not just features.

Details and design matter. Little could be more utilitarian than the 2018-earn American Airlines Admirals Club design with its institutional lighting.

In contrast, in the new American Airlines Admirals Club on the E concourse at Washington National airport which opened in October, they haven’t just gone for a redesign of the physical space (which is gorgeous) they’ve upgraded the servingware in use at the lounge’s buffet.

American Airlines offers less food than Delta does at its Sky Clubs and even less than United does at United Clubs. But the servingware makes the most out of American’s food investment.

Here the black serving dishes, the wood, makes the meager American Airlines lounge food look so much better. It’s still overcooked pasta and meatballs. Even the cubes of mystery cheese seem more appetizing!

Such a huge contrast, how can Delta continue to position itself as a premium carrier with disposable wooden cutlery, paper placements, and plastic cups to cut costs?

Credit: Delta

Cleaning planes can seem like an unnecessary expense, when airlines went through tough times in the aughts they largely eliminated deep cleans (doing it less than once a year). Even now cleaning between flights – something that really took off in 2020 – can seem like a nuisance to an airline operation.

  • Cleaners need to get on planes between flights, but there’s not much time at an airline trying to schedule its aircraft efficiently.
  • They may board while passengers are still deplaning, have just a few minutes to remove trash, and there’s little oversight or inspection of their work.

But the overall condition of an aircraft leaves and impression, and trash from the previous passenger does too.

And for avoidance of doubt, this is hardly a Delta-specific issue.

All four of these examples were shared to social media by passengers within hours of each other. It’s quite common, and hardly an outlier. As I wrote in 2019, the D in D0 stands for Dirty.

Style matters. Detail matters. Often it’s not even a matter of cost, it’s a matter of having a culture where 80% isn’t good enough, a culture of not being lazy and paying attention to what seems like the small things. You have to buy dishware anyway, don’t just find dishes and check the box. Find the right dishes.

When American Airlines developed its new domestic ‘Oasis’ interior they didn’t bother to build a cabin mockup before rolling the product out across its fleet. As a result they missed things. They missed challenges flight attendants would have working in the smaller galley, and they missed how bad first class would be, from tight bulkhead seats to lack of underseat storage due to how the seats were attached to the floor. They wound up retrofitting the retrofitted planes and spending more money as a result.

It’s the small details that make giants in the sky.

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. @BigTee – that Silicon Valley engineer can buy and sell you many times over and likely sitting on million in stock options. Know your place and shut up.

  2. I agree with the content of this article 100%. I “see” many “small details” which make a flight better, whether it might be extra “sparkling” aircraft, decent utensils, or that gate agent (Alaska Airlines) who managed to address and welcome every passenger as they checked their boarding pass (getting on the plane), with theie name!!!

  3. @Gary: Like @Richard, I agree 100%, but I have a rather more cynical response: They just don’t care because we never punish them in the pocketbook for such things. For those of us who fly Cathay and Singapore, such things would be unthinkable, let alone a reality. Just when did the US’s best become second best?

  4. Planes have become buses with wings

    That is based on consumer demand. Consumers want cheap flights. That cascades down to lesser amenities and gradual elimination of business and first class services because all first and business need to be now is better than economy

  5. ACinCLT. Exactly. The SV flier is all money and fast food delivery of finger food, with neither idea which fork to use or nor concept on how to hold stemware by the stem instead of the bowl.
    Just keep them in the ubiquitous airborne cubicles with doors so my eyes aren’t offended.

  6. Eh, yes and no. Quite a bit thrown into this one post.

    First off – cleanliness and upkeep are table stakes. That’s not a differentiating factor; that’s a base expectation. I don’t really think it makes sense to club that with cutlery, etc. A badly maintained aircraft has a reverse halo effect – one couldn’t help but wonder if that culture of poor upkeep extends to the mechanical systems critical to flight.

    But when it comes to stemware and such – I think one needs to consider different customer personas. If I’m on business travel or in award-points-redemption mode (especially in the case of redemptions where it actually is lower-cost to fly on a higher-quality partner airline), then sure, I might pick based on these incremental differences because the denominator (cost) is basically being taken out of the equation, and it’s just a question of who provides the most benefit.

    On the other hand, if I’m paying out of pocket, then it becomes a question of marginal returns. If the difference in cost between flying an airline with fancy sliverware and napkins and one with the same seats but fewer high-end touches is equivalent to the cost of a hotel night or a couple dinners at my destination, then is that money well spent? Not usually in my book.

    So, to me, the answer is, naturally, “It depends”!

  7. It’s a big race to the bottom. Every so often a new brand enter the fray with a better product (think Virgin and Jetblue) but within 20 years they are swallowed by a larger carrier or self-denigrate. Waiting for the next new entrant…

  8. Small things that don’t cost much but associate you with a nice experience rather than an unpleasant one are bound to help the bottom line to some degree over time. Just because the ultra-LCCs make money does not mean they might not make more with better branding.

  9. This article goes hand-in-hand with the article noting bare feet on the table in the airport lounge.

    Speaking of Silicon Valley millennials without any sense of couth, decency, or transmissible diseases . . . a few years ago, I was at a high-end resort. I was sitting in the bar/lounge area. At a table next to me was a young couple who were still wearing badges from a tech conference at the property. Their conversation was on tech and then they discussed ordering food. At another table, another couple with two kids had just finished a meal and left – their table had not yet been cleared. Within about two minutes of the family leaving, the tech couple went over to the uncleared table and began chowing down.

    ACinCLT, having money does not equate to having class or decency. What an arrogant and snobbish comment.

  10. I will disagree. Details and small things on a flight are important … only because they make me happy. And I don’t think an airline cares about my happiness much at all. Finding trash on the plane or spilled food on the armrest is gross at the time and results in a social media opportunity for some, but not much else. I don’t think 99% of pax think about it for one minute after the touch-down. I don’t think it makes one iota of difference when planning a trip or picking an airline. Unless you’re on an unlimited expense account, you buy for itinerary, price and upgradeability. My other criteria for a good flight is quality of the crew; if they’re friendly and professional, that’s a welcome bonus, and one that makes me look at Virgin-Atlantic first … but nothing I can replicate with any success.

  11. @jsn55 – Completely correct.

    Bothers me that on my flight Sunday night LGA-PBI, during a 75 minute on the ground delay waiting for cockpit crew (and then another 20 minute mechanical) – while we were all iin our seats waiting for the cockpit crew, the FA did not pass out PDB’s or headphones for us in F to watch the Super Bowl — until she was reminded about the headphones (“Oh, didn’t I do that?”). No refills on drinks during the 3 hour flight. She was chatting with another FA in the galley the entire time. But again, that’s me. Didn’t matter to the other pax in F as far as I know. Perhaps she was saving me from myself.

    Will this make a difference in my choice of airline? Not for more than 48 hours. @jsn55 is completely correct — I book on itinerary (and flight and seat availability) and price. Upgradeability a distant third (being truly retired, I have only residual lifetime status — I buy the seat I want and don’t ever count on an upgrade). Air travel is a commodity — nothing more.

    As long as airline boards of directors listen to analysts — to the exclusion of listening to passengers — the flying experience will get progressively worse. And, what the analysts haven’t figured out is that, as long as the advice is essentially the same regardless of airline (which it is), there is no reason to differentiate between carriers. Air travel will continue to be only a commodity — nothing more.

  12. You went on and on and for years telling everyone that business class “is all about the seat” (which I thought it was idiotic, like saying that flying “is all about safety” — both are table stakes) and are only now having the epiphany that luxury is all about the small things? Like cup holders in cars?

    I guess better late than nothing. Not much of an expert though.

  13. Sigh. One has to ask how much this guy received from American for this article.

    Interestingly, not once does he mention industry awards, performance metrics, and DOT stats on Customer Complaints.

    Instead, he focuses on flatware.

  14. @MC. It’s ironic you’d focus on the Incredibly minimal positive aspect of this article to American, and then mention items that actually can and are purchased or manipulated by Delta like Industry awards (JD Power cough cough) and DOT stats (want to lower your lost bags number? all you have to do is reach out and tell the customer their bag is lost before they realize it. Want to be more on time per the DOT? Pad your block time so your customers always arrive 30 minutes early).

  15. I knew the day of luxury travel had come to an end when the word Luxury liner was stripped off the airplane. It’s Deregulation folks, you get what you pay for. First thing to go was first class. Next is business and all will be left is coach and premium coach… And you’ll will be the one paying for the premium exit row seats that don’t recline.

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