American Airlines Inflight Service Cuts Are Everything That’s Wrong With American Society

When I covered cuts in inflight service at the behest of its flight attendants union which said it was concerned with Covid risk, I pointed out all of the elements of hypocrisy and how this makes the American Airlines product worse. Indeed it needs a better product because it needs to generate a revenue premium to competitors given its relatively high costs and high debt burden.

In some sense American had no choice as a result of broader cultural issues we’re grappling with as we transition from the pandemic to endemic phase of dealing with Covid-19. For American, though:

  • It’s odd timing to be cutting service now, as the Omicron wave of the virus has already peaked in much of the country.

  • Removing a second drink service from coach on cross country flights may not even reduce the amount of contact between passengers and flight attendants, with passengers having to individually push their call buttons or travel to the galley.

  • There remain plenty of inflight service ‘touch points’ like credit card applications, meals in first class where passengers take off their masks and can even sing while they eat if they wish. And crewmember mask compliance is often as much of a problem as passenger compliance.

  • Note that neither the airline nor flight attendants union is encouraging flight attendants to wear better, more effective masks or distributing better masks.

  • Crew aren’t being told not to go out to restaurants during layovers. The union isn’t asking the airline to end shared bus transportation to crew hotels. They aren’t trying to keep flight attendants away from crowded spaces they are asking for less work while they’re in relatively more protective environments. In other words what an odd focal point for concerns about safety, while maintaining the passenger cabin is one of the safest indoor congregant settings thanks to HEPA air filtration and downward air flow.

American Airlines, though, was being called out on safety and called upon to demonstrate concern for their employees. The airline was being called on to do something performative. And here they’re no different than other large institutions and businesses. They have to look like they’re taking things seriously, because there’s image risk if they don’t. And so we get hypocritical policy because the effectiveness and coherence of the policy is not the point.

Put another way – as someone who celebrates vaccines very seriously, and advocated for flight attendants to be able to wear masks before the airline even allowed it – we’re engaging in a certain kind of Covid theater, and American Airlines is just a player. How much choice did they really have here?

Two years into the pandemic the federal government has started sending out tests, when it’s nearly impossible for people to avoid one of the most transmissible diseases humans have experienced in Omicron. The sheer number of infections has strained hospitals in parts of the country, but on an individual level the risk of Covid-19 has never been lower.

  • More immunity from prior infection and vaccination
  • Less virulent strain, having difficulty entering the lungs
  • Better treatment protocols than early in the pandemic, though effective monoclonal antibodies remain scarce and Paxlovid production is still ramping up

Just looking at how lucky we are on booster effectiveness alone, even as the virus has mutated:

On the one hand there’s potentially high return to caution in areas where hospitals may be overwhelmed and as a bridge to a time where we may not need to worry so much because everyone’s been infected, nearly anyone who wishes can be boosted, and because highly effective treatments are in mass production (and in the meantime, fluvoxamine which is a widely available and approved SSRI seems to help quite a bit in preventing hospitalization).

On the other hand, there was ostensibly a vaccine mandate for airline employees. Exactly what risk are we protecting them from by doing the first drink service… but not the second?

Ultimately these are the kinds of strange outcomes we’re going to have to deal with as a society. For a long time I’ve targeted the 2022 midterm elections as a focal point for when government policies would need to become less restrictive (Democrats are battling to retain control of both houses of Congress). But the issue is broader.

When, culturally, will it no longer be possible to bully an airline like American (or Alaska) into reducing in-cabin work under the rubric of safety? When will Uber feel it’s ‘safe’ for them to lift the requirement that riders and drivers wear masks? It’s clear that red states largely have no restrictions while restrictions continue apace in places like California – so we see restrictions lift locally by businesses where doing so comports with local custom, and not in places where it doesn’t. For more nationwide brands we may need to look to California as a bellwether.

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. You are right that eliminating a beverage service isn’t necessarily going to reduce “touch points” and make for a safer cabin for flight attendants. However, it may make it safer for everyone in that more drinks equal more time with masks off. People just keep a hand on their cup as an excuse to remain maskless. As for the theatre, every company would jump on an opportunity to appear altruistic to their workforce.

  2. I have been a frequent flyer long enough to remember when coach had meals on short flights. Then it was downsized to bistro cart grab a sack meal on the way down the jet bridge. That disappeared and became a beverage and some pre-packaged snack and even that became rare on shorter flights. So yes, giving up anything, even a second beverage is a big deal because once that is gone it will be the first beverage service that will go next. AA has been downgrading the flight experience gradually for years counting on customers will just passively accept it and keep flying.
    For the flight attendants who are expressing outrage on this thread I assume you are among the minority of AA flight attendants who still work hard to provide a pleasant flight experience. You are the ones who need to be screaming at AA management and your union about the lazy flight attendants who do the bare minimum, collect a check, but give your profession a bad name. I always fly First Class but I watch service even in Coach. Why is it one crew says, “it is a short flight so we are not doing cabin service, or just a water service” and the next flight of the same length the crew does full beverage service with no problem? It is simply one crew is determined to provide service and the other wants to sit and talk or play on their phone for the duration of the flight. Even in First Class service is far from consistent. Some flights you get a pre flight drink and great service while on other flights a passenger is lucky to get any service at all.
    Flight attendants, your union and AA management is protecting the lazy at your expense if you are one of the hardworking professionals.

  3. We don’t need food service on flights. It’s an unnecessary expense. People should buy snacks and drinks in the stores before boarding. They do anyway. The food is horrible. The coffee horrible. They should have water and orange juice for emergencies. Stop complaining.

  4. The entitled army showed up but a little late. Probably napping behind the curtain.

    These are the people who go ” won’t do my job coz COVID, y’all!”

    And as soon as convenient, the same cabal goes ” I want my FRRREEEDUMMMBBB. Let’s go Brandon”

    Lazy freeloaders.

    Keep in mind — most FAs are nice and professional but there is a loud minority of whom I am talking.

    Much like the American people.

    Hence Gary’s column.

    Peace y’all.

  5. Thank God for President Trump and his expediting of the Vaccines. The lazy hostesses need to get a job in Denny’s. What a bunch of lazy ass clowns, glorified waitresses.

  6. This is why domestic air travel in the U.S. needs to be opened up to all foreign airlines. Their service is superior. The U.S. carrier’s will have to change or die. Just like the automotive industry. Competition equals change.

  7. Covid is being used as a convenient excuse for people to be lazy and businesses to cut costs. Lazy flight attendant don’t want to serve drinks, hotels no longer privide housekeeping, lazy delivery guys won’t carry the $2000 sofa I just bought into the house. Lazy pizza guys leaving food at the front desk instead of bringingto my hotel room. And then they act like we should tip extra because they are “braving the pandemic.” An excuse to be lazy…

  8. Gary. You have the backbone, i assume it to be made out of jelly however. How do you walk? Or more importantly, how do you continue to even do the most miniscule tasks with such severe brain damage?

  9. Do you really think flight attendants are lazy? Serving a drink is easy. Waiting for your fat ass wife to get off the plane sucks. Seems to me that you are angry at your situation. It’s called work. No one likes it Stop hating!

  10. I cannot understand how it is safer for people to have to get up, crawl over their seatmates, and then go to the galley to interact with the flight attendant for a second drink.
    This way of thinking It’s why United States carriers, like American, are losing business to foreign carriers on overseas flights.
    I recall when a hot meal was served in coach on mid-range flights, by smiling flight attendants, to grateful, smiling passengers.

  11. Hot meals were stopped mostly after 911. There is No need for a hot meal filled with preservatives that are not good for you at all just to say, I got a hot meal. Coach is coach. Point A to point B. Bring a nutritious meal with you, drink water, and follow rules that the FAA warrants. Ohh, you don’t have to put your tray table up, right? You’re special? Do you even know the reason we have you close your tray tables !?? No, of course you don’t. Shut up about food on an airline and boo boo about not getting to buy your Jack and coke.

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