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.