American Airlines Doesn’t Have Enough Crew To Provide Premium Service

The U.S. federal government sets a minimum number of flight attendants on an aircraft for safety (generally, one per 50 passengers). But while many flight attendants announce that they are there “primarily for your safety” (don’t expect more than that!) they’re also the people in most direct contact with customers delivering an airline’s service.

So-called ‘full service’ airlines have historically staffed flights with more than the legal minimum. That started changing even before the pandemic, but accelerated when they weren’t providing much service at all.

Three years ago American Airlines reduced flight attendant staffing on many widebody aircraft. They treated premium economy as coach for calculating their staffing needs, and determined that the same flight attendants should be spread out to cover everything – even with promised higher standards in the premium economy cabin. Around the same time United Airlines reduced flight attendant staffing in business class as well.

Then this past fall American Airlines further reduced flight attendant staffing,

  • To one above FAA legal minimums on international widebody and transcon flights
  • To the legal minimum on Boeing 787-8 aircraft

Here’s the current staffing levels:

That may have made sense during the stage of the pandemic when,

  • There were very few passengers
  • And very little service to offer
  • Plus next to zero premium demand from business travel

However service elements are beginning to return to American’s premium cabins.

In a note to American Airlines flight attendants last month, their union shared that this is now a problem. How are they supposed to deliver service with staffing levels designed around not providing service, but merely meeting legal minimum safety standards?

[O]n the 777-300 aircraft, the Purser now leaves First Class passengers to work in a different cabin. On the premium A321T transcontinental aircraft, first class passengers are served by the galley Flight Attendant, diminishing the service our First Class customers have come to expect. Our premium customers deserve better.

The union, frustrated, in a new note to share examples of how reduced staffing creates problems delivering service to customers, and also suggests they spam the airline’s Vice President of Inflight.

Management continues to blatantly refuse our request to restore staffing levels to pre-pandemic levels. With full services now returned and, in some cases, additional service levels added, APFA is demanding that staffing levels be restored. Our Flight Attendants take pride in delivering a premium product to our customers. Management appears only to be concerned with lowering labor costs with no regard to the impact of staffing reductions on our Flight Attendants and their ability to provide a high level of service, especially in our premium cabins on the 777-300 and A321T.

It is evident that Management never thoroughly evaluated the impact of one person performing a premium service that includes much preparation, multiple meal courses, plating, and delivering a premium service in our highest premium cabins. Based on the reports we have already received, the workload has become unreasonable and unrealistic for one person to effectively complete service to the level that our customers expect.

To be sure, the union wants more work for its members and ultimately, as a result, more members. But they aren’t wrong that flight attendants are needed to deliver service. (This is a challenge, by the way, even on reconfigured Airbus A321 aircraft with 20 first class seats rather than 16.)

American Airlines should make a deal that involves more flight attendants in premium cabins, and actual accountability for cabin crew to provide the service levels required. That the union isn’t likely to agree to.

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. Delta restored glassware internationally within the last two weeks. Pre-departure beverages in Delta One last week. Meals still on one tray. No dessert cart. No printed menus. According to Delta purser, A330 is now staffed with 7 flight attendants compared with 10 before pandemic.

  2. Believe it or not, some of them possibly gave up the regular working life for starting side hustles. Working remotely from home or on the go as a digital nomad is today’s new new of self-employment job security. Am I right I say? 🙂

  3. They don’t provide premium service when they do have the staff. Flagship First is a sad joke these days.

  4. Gary, you don’t understand, we are providing Premium (Economy) service in Biz and First.

  5. Well, it’s good business to keep expenses low. As long as they can get away with it, that’s what airlines will do. If travellers vote with their wallets, pretty soon American will not have anyone buying tix up front. I don’t fly American based on their reputation for shoddy service. From what I gather over the past few years, management would prefer to just have one class of pax and give them the minimum service.

  6. AA’s FA’s gave up being able to claim their job is service and safety when they agreed to start carnival barking for credit cards like timeshare sales folks in Vegas. It’s embarrassing and diminishes the perception of authority and professionalism they used to have.

  7. If 5 flights attendants cants handle 102 passengers on the a321T on 5 hour flight?! Seriously
    Thats a joke that the union thinks
    they need 6! It really comea down to most flight attendants wanting to rush the service to go to their break. Apfa is a joke! And you write the dumbest articles

  8. I’m deep in the minority here, but even when I fly up front, I don’t find myself needing much attention or service from the cabin crew. Little touches like a tablecloth on the tray table, real salt/pepper shakers, and separate courses are all nice, but not essential for this passenger. Really, I’d be happy if they brought the meal on one tray, left an extra can of Coke for later, and didn’t come back until the tray was ready to be cleared. And after that, I won’t need them again until they hand out the arrival cards and yank the headphones off my head.

    But I’m the same in restaurants and hair salons. Let’s just transact business simply and quietly, without excessive attention or hand-holding.

  9. Re: Mike

    It’s not the flight attendant’s decision to promote the credit cards. That is mandated by the company. Additionally, there are sometimes “ghost riders” on board monitoring services, actions and announcements. It is frustrating for cabin crews to try making everything work with reduced staffing and amenities.

  10. @Violette – don’t be naive. Their union agreed to this as part of their contract and turned them from professionals to hucksters. Probably comp them, too, to placate them with money in exchange for loss of respect. If they wanted this gone it would be gone, but hey, who really cares if people consider them safety and service personnel if they’re getting free miles, right?

  11. Credit card hustling on AA is NOT required-you choose to become part of it. And yes, you are compensated for every approved card. Compensation starts at $50 per application and goes up depending on the number of approvals you get each month. There are some FAs making THOUSANDS on those applications!!

  12. @NR: Those aren’t FA’s. Those are credit card salespeople in FA uniforms. FA’s are the ones focused on safety and service… and the ones who should be compensated as such. The hucksters should go to a commission-only schedule and we’ll see how long that lasts.

  13. So you guys acknowledge that the Flight Attendants need staffing help and are overworked right? Will this mean the end of the ridiculous complaints about american flight attendants not kissing ass like foreign carrier flight attendants do? Of course not! if they dont ask me if i’m okay every 5 minutes, it isn’t premium to me! #sarcasm

  14. @ NR — OK, and there are some bloggers making millions per year on those same credit card offers. I don’t see the problem. Although, why anyone would provide a hand-written credit card application to a stranger is beyond me.

  15. James W – I totally appreciate your perspective. But we are a strange bunch on these blogs. Imagine someone paying for a premium experience because they saved up for it. Maybe this is the one time they will fly premium to an International destination. For that person, every little service ooh and aah is a memory. You can argue they should not fly AA and we can blame them for not researching enough…but none of that justfies subpar service from the airline.

  16. Since the original post by Gary much has happened, and the tag line really should be “AA doesn’t have the personnel to operate flights reliably.'”

    Chatter’s perspective is refreshingly down-to-earth: Yes, the first time up front can have a huge impact on memories and future flying choices. Some FAs are simply lazy and shouldn’t be working on planes. Most FAs love what they are doing and hate the fact that things have spiraled so much out of control. Talked to an FA two nights ago on the way back from south America, in biz. He apologized for all the shortcomings, and he was pleasant and gave excellent service. I treated him with respect to begin with, and he opened up and we talked about our 35 years with the airline–he as an employee, I as a pax. Conversations like that are eye-opening.

    And just for the record: glassware and printed menus are back, but no pre-flight drinks. The food is still shrink wrapped in the individual serving dishes on the tray, and the cellophane-wrapped excuse for a bun is as cold as it gets. Improvements, improvements….

  17. I’d rather have self service on AA intl biz. It’s not like they actually did their job pre pandemic. Only reason to fly AA is for a lie flat bed. Don’t expect anything more.

  18. Maybe they can start hiring job seekers who post resumes all over the place online and offer higher starting wages, in an effort to provide premium service and retain quality employee talent longer. Agree?

  19. Delta doesn’t have “enough crew” because they have reduced the number of flight attendants to the absolute minimum. I flew a 757 in first-class and there was one flight attendant for the whole first and comfort plus cabin. Before the pandemic, there would have been two flight attendants (at least for meal/drinks) in first alone. I flew the A330 from Paris in Delta One and the purser told me the staffing was cut from 10 FAs to 7 FAs.

  20. Could it be they don’t have enough
    FA’s? Isn’t that why their schedule melted down recently?

  21. For conciseness its 1 per 50 seats not 50 passengers.
    There is also a limit based on the number of full exits on the type also though most times the seat count drives staffing minimums.

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