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. They had a perfect opportunity to provide them with real masks and didn’t. Instead we get this lame excuse for safety. AA is so disappointing.

  2. Good point about FAs going out to restaurants. That should be forbidden, at least within 24 or so hours of a flight. They could be provided free takeout versions of the domestic first class meals to tide them over.

  3. Why does the FA union have any input whatsoever into the quality of the product provided?

    Does the mechanics’ union get to tell Ford how many airbags to put in their cars?

  4. A lot of bullshit for lazy attendants. Not much worse than Alaska AIrlines telling us throughout 2020 that there is no safer place to be than aircraft, only to discover that they block seat 1B because it is too close to flight attendants.

    So safe for the lambda flyer, not safe for the flight attendant.

  5. Maybe American Airlines could award flight attendants a participation trophy for just showing up.Oh, that’s right, they are already paying them for that. Discount airlines just love it. Pay less…..get almost the same level os service.

  6. American Airlines = Spirit (but way more $$$)

    And you take your life in your hands if you DARE press a flight attendant call button.

    It seems that union employers have a CULTURE problem.

  7. The title is a bit dramatic – actually excessively so – but AA mgmt and labor defined their relationship long before covid and they are reaping the “benefits” of that relationship now.
    Doug Parker coddled AA labor in order to get them to support USAirway’s takeover of American and he has held AA’s labor unions close to the vest ever since. AA labor and Parker probably have more to do with the massive amounts of aid the federal government doled out because AA was the most vulnerable to failure during the covid era.
    Isom has to figure out how to untangle this mess or be relegated to a growing number of dissatisfied customers that will flee to other airlines that either don’t promise as much and actually deliver or promise AND deliver more.

    Given that AA is posting the largest losses among US airlines, Isom doesn’t have huge amounts of time to figure it all out.

  8. And people named Tim. Trouble. Public enemy #1. Ban them; and all the other passengers with names while we are at it.

  9. “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?”

    Vaccines don’t stop infection, nor exposure to the uninfected. If you reduce physical exposure/proximity by one-half…aren’t you reducing FAs’ risk of infection? Not completely, obviously, but less? And not saying the risk is high, just questioning your assertion.

  10. Who on a normal day drinks 2 sodas in a 3-6 hour time frame? Is 1 less soda really ruining your flight experience? Plenty of water available as mentioned. The less we give the less we have to argue about the mask compliance. Don’t worry big guys… your second can of soda will return.

    Still shaking my head that a second can of soda is worthy of a complaint.

  11. These FA are glorified waiters/waitresses in the sky. Nothing more. Most of them are not that bright. And American Airline executives have long proven their goal of cutting passenger comfort and amenities as much as possible. The words “quality product” aren’t even in their vocabulary.
    Combine not-that-bright with lazy and often overweight FA’s with greedy executives, and you have a piece of crap airline. American Airlines. They almost make Southwest look good. …Almost, lol.

  12. Bitter Party of One Gay, Bitter Party of One Gay, please approach the podium for your standby boarding card.

    A college student could write a better article and have it more balanced than you showing hatred for American.

  13. Well I wouldn’t say it’s “everything” but this is an example of the fear, panic and overreaction that this mess has led to. After awhile things do tend to loosen up though, if only because people can’t take it forever. How long has it been since anyone here was seriously told to maintain a full social distance from others? The signs are there but I sure haven’t seen any enforcement for a while. One thing the virus did do was highlight areas that were getting fragile though, but whether that leads to any changes there I don’t know. Just in time supply chains with no alternatives or stocks on hand is one example. And it certainly did accelerate the trend towards remote conferences (which is why I doubt if business travel will ever come back to what it was). And it’s interesting, the progressive commentator Thom Hartmann made the point that one reason why hospitals are overwhelmed is because so many were taken over by for-profit corporations who then closed a lot of smaller and rural ones. Maybe this will be a good time to rethink our health care system in general, but for COVID I’m not holding my breath.

  14. What we call AA now is actually USAir operating under the AA name because they thought (probably correctly) that the AA brand was stronger. But if my memories of USAir are correct, it usually had pretty new planes when AA was still flying MD-80s rebranded as “Super 80s.” At least they were quiet because the engines were on the tail.

    But for those old enough to remember, there is the famous story about AA removing the olive from its salads, determining that no one cared too much about the olive but removing them could save the airline $100,000 per year. I wonder if AA jumped on the FA’s request to can the second beverage service because it means fewer cans of soda to carry and less weight to fly (like getting rid of the in-flight magazines).

    This is all like the story of the donkey that you feed one less kernel of feed each day so he never notices, and eventually you don’t have to feed him at all. That’s what most of the US airlines think of their customers. And on most routes there is not true competition, so they figure that reductions in service, jamming in more seats, making the bathrooms smaller, and all the other indignities they inflict on their customers don’t matter. And sadly, they don’t matter except if you figure the poor treatment of customers is at least partly responsible for the bad behavior of passengers we read about every day.

    Finally, a word about the AA FA’s. I’ve always found them to be just as nice and just as pleasant as the FA’s on any of the other legacy carriers. It’s a challenging job and they overwhelmingly do it with grace.

  15. People really need to dismiss the notion for the airline or union to “encourage” the flight attendants to wear better masks… this is an individual choice. Just the same as many public places that require face masks, it’s NOT encouraged to do so..

    As a f/a for another major airline, I have been wearing double-mask for many months now. No one needs to ‘encourage” me to do so… it’s a matter of personal protection and how much do you want of it.

  16. @drrichard – ” the progressive commentator Thom Hartmann made the point that one reason why hospitals are overwhelmed is because so many were taken over by for-profit corporations who then closed a lot of smaller and rural ones. ”

    For what it’s worth, the US health care system generally provides a large # of ICU beds per capita by world standards, countries with government health care tend to have fewer ICU beds (here’s one source that shows 5x the number of ICU beds per capita in the US vs UK )

    And I’d suggest that what’s been stretched to capacity isn’t *physical beds* or *structures* it’s staffing. During earlier waves of the pandemic there just weren’t enough critical care medical staff for the number of patients, and during the current wave the challenge is the number of medical staff out with Covid at the time patients are coming in for care.

  17. The DOT just released its latest Air Travel Consumer Report which includes stats for the month of Nov 2021.
    While American carried 18% of US airline passengers, they received 40% of the complaints filed by customers – 4X the amount of complaints from Delta which also had the lowest complaint ratio of the mainline carriers – a couple regional carriers were lower than them.
    American and United mainline were both at nearly the same level ranking 11 and 12 out of 17 operating carriers (including regional carriers). American and United only ranked higher than all three ultra low cost carriers and JetBlue.
    Despite American frequently being thrown under the bus for customer service, actual DOT data shows that American and United rank right next to each other on most DOT stats.

  18. You dislike American.

    Good thing because it keeps your blog newsworthy. You fail to mention that United cut economy food service to Europe. And before COVID never offered it on EWR to HNL. Flight attendants are dying from the virus. And if you really think airplane air is safe….do your homework.

  19. I agree that giving in to the flight attendants on this was wrong. It reminds me of the way Democratic-run major cities give in to their teachers’ unions who are happy not to have to work too hard. As far as your belief in vaccine efficacy goes, you seem to be living in a cave. I would ignore any propaganda put out by US health care officials and puruse the European and Israeli data. The skyrocketing ICU Covid patient count in Israel — probably the most boosted country in the world — puts to rest any serious remaining claim that the vaccine makes Covid “milder.” among the vaccinated and boosted. You may not know that, of course, because your “trusted sources” are on radio silence right now about reality.

  20. All this BS from an airline that can’t even manage its newly launched routes efficiently. Can look at the recently launched JFK – Delhi, India service on flightaware and will see what I mean (takes 2 hours longer each way compared to United/Air India because they didn’t apply for permission to overfly Russian airspace in time).

    Guess is trying to make up for that extra expense by reducing soda cabs and the disgusting from concentrate orange juice on all flights!

  21. You people are awful, Im so glad I dont personally know you, You passengers are disgusting with your snot rags, tabacco chew cups, Drive if you need 6 cokes on an hour flight, eat your taco bell and go to hell

  22. How does completing one beverage cart service be less dangerous than offering a second service? Do the minis become contaminated with more viruses as they sit in the cart? Does the ice attract more virus particles the longer it sits in the cart? I thought airlines said the air in the airplane was so purified? Is not the airplanes all been sprayed down with virus killing particles? If the crew is so concerned why are they always congregating together to talk schedules? None of these points from the airline make sense. I think it’s an easy way to save some money so just say so and stop taking us for being idiots.

  23. You somehow fail to mention that prior to the delta wave killing thousands of your countrymen you were advocating no masks on planes on a daily basis. Guess that got put down the memory hole.

  24. I’m disturbed by the folks that want to limit FA choices when they are not employed (ie off duty).

    If your two hour flight disturbs a 20 hour over night, are you willing to spend 5x more to restrict their choice??

    (20 hrs/2 flights (inbound and outbound) = 10 hrs. 10 hrs/2 hrs original flight = 5x original burden by your suggestion to restrict the FA’s off duty activities.

  25. This is what happens when a low cost carrier (America West) inherits a legacy airline. Doug Parker and crew have no idea how to run an Airline, and care nothing about customer service. They have turned American into a global low cost carrier. It’s not about safety its about $$. Flight attendants now have more time to play candy crush.

  26. I blame legacy US Airways culture. Many of their crews had a “do the bare minimum” attitude.

  27. I’m sorry, but isn’t this what the call button is for? It seems as if it’s sociologicaly acceptable to acknowledge the button, but not use it. If they won’t come to me by choice, I’ll make sure to make more use of it.

  28. So much hate here for AA it’s hilarious. Oh, and the projecting about “Democrat run” cities is absolutely sidesplitting. I guarantee 0.0% of you chuckleheads fly them frequently enough to maintain such strong opinions, and no, you are not getting the prime rib cart on your $39 ticket in 32E from Tampa to Charlotte.

    That said, I’m happy to report there have been no service reductions in F cabin. Today was supposed to be the first day of reduced service, but ended up one of my best inflight experiences I’ve had on American. Pre-departure beverage was on offer, meals coursed out, and service top-notch. Paired with the Flagship Lounge and Flagship First Dining facilities, it can’t even be debated that flying F cabin out of JFK on American is hands down the best end-to-end experience offered by a US airline.

    If all you freedom fighters in 32E would get vax’d, cover your mouths, and stop punching flight attendants, maybe you’d get better service.

  29. @747always – let’s be clear, when vaccines became widely available and were still targeted at the dominant strain of the virus I argued against a GOVERNMENT MANDATE on masks, which is very different than arguing for “no masks.” I still believe people should be allowed to wear masks, and indeed that many people should do so.

  30. I’ve never read so many rude comments At the same time in one section. Just bunch of entitle people. Poor article that blames FAs for misbehaved passengers that can’t follow rules. That’s the real reason behind the cuts.

  31. Based on this fear porn, I would suggest shutting the Airlines down completely and continuing to destroy our economy! Then you won’t have to worry about wearing two or three masks, or how many boosters people have. You can only hide for so long but if you’re so scared of something that the majority of people will survive, then lock yourself up and don’t come out until it’s totally eradicated!

  32. I fly mostly international. if I do have to fly domestic it’s usually on Southwest which overall I’m quite happy with…

    During the pandemic I flown on four international airlines -Turkish airways, Emirates, Air India and Qatar. Except for Turkish airways the food and service has been first-rate in economy class.
    On a 15 hour flight on Turkish airways we were told that the meal plan had been minimised because of Covid. All they handed out were half frozen turkey sandwiches and that’s it… I wasn’t aware that Covid prevented the ovens from functioning normally. Under the guise of safety, a lot of the changes that haven’t implemented on flights are either purely arbitrary or cost-cutting measures. If an airline believes they can get away with it they will…

  33. Wow! Some of y’all are brutal and just plain nasty! Until you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,shut it up!

  34. COVID is the universal excuse for people to do things that they probably wanted to do for a long time but could never get away with – until now. These cuts in service under the guise of COVID are nothing more than an opportunistic way to save money.

    If you really believe that COVID (particularly the forebodingly named OMICRON) is so lethal, then stop flying altogether. If, on the other hand, you accept that it’s part of the environment now and is basically a cold that you get via airborne transmission, then it’s time to get off your a$$ and back to work. And stop hiding behind the virus to install draconian rules while cutting service.

  35. The credit card pimping needs to stop. No matter if it’s Covid, turbulence or lack of catering, the Flight Attendants ALWAYS have time to make obnoxious PA’s and prance down the aisles looking for bite. I liken them to hookers looking for a quick trick to satisfy their pimp (AA/Barclays)

  36. This is written by someone sitting behind a computer probably sitting in the safety of his own home. Airlines are getting hit hard because of raising cases of Covid, canceling flights, over working the crews that aren’t sick. Really do you really think you are ENTITLED to that 2nd cocktail.

  37. Love the commenters calling the labor lazy and demanding the labor be to their own personal liking. Do you like your cancelled flights because so many labor said enough of your shitty takes and quit? Your freedom doesn’t mean you get to dictate other people’s freedom. Choose another airline or mode of transportation and get over yourself. Nothing is 100% effective against Covid. Fewer contact points means fewer exposure risks AND lower viral load- a factor that can be important when it comes to breakthrough infections. More healthcare workers are leaving because of the way they are treated by dying dopes who have no idea what people’s jobs are like but don’t mind telling people how they are lazy (and murderous traitors working for Fauci- a false belief too many people carry).

  38. AA flight attendants just want to sit in the galley and BS with each other and scroll social media. That’s what this is about wrapped in a blanket called Covid. They are utterly useless and most times act annoyed that they have to actually interact with the passengers. Truly low skilled workers who get a few weeks of training to open a door in an emergency. Something that requires very little skill. I fly FC every time I travel and DL gets all my business now.

  39. Agree with Rebs7766, Rebecca, and RF. Just one of many of your endless complaints against AA. What did the company ever do to you? Sounds like sour grapes because they didn’t (thankfully) hire you. Why don’t you spend your time complaining about the horrible, insensitive and unkind passengers they’re having to deal with. I have flown at least six times per year, every year, with AA and have NEVER had a problem with any gate agent or FA. But, then, I am NICE TO THEM and don’t treat them as servants. Why don’t YOU and all other complainers try that?!

  40. My mom and I made reservations 2.5 mos in advance to go to Fla from Ca. We chose flights and seats that met the needs of us at 72 and 93 and those transporting us to, from and around the connecting flights. In the name of staff shortage, Am Air changed our return flights and transfer time at DFW. They kept changing seats and made it more difficult for us. We almost missed the last leg due to too little transfer time. On the first leg of the return they sat a deadheading flt att behind my mom who croup coughed the entire flt. So much for safety. We flew Wed after extreme precautions with family, eating outside, masking and testing all participants in our group. On Sat, after sitting in front of the flt att, who said she was flying to a wedding and the cough was allergies, mom had covid symptoms Saturday and a positive test on Sunday. So much for Am Air being concerned about safety. I wonder how safe were the crew serving the stew or the other pilot and crew member sitting accross the aisle from the cougher?

  41. Flight attendants come in contact with hundreds of people daily, they should have better mask! I unfortunately, no crew members wants to take Covid home with them, when they are caring for the elderly parents. Stop being bias and show some concern, and second if your not happy don’t buy the product, try carpooling with a bunch of people in a car. Passengers wait everything for free (upgrades, free drinks, free Wi-Fi) how do you expect an airline to survive. Let see how your work would be if they had to give everything free and foot the bill for it) Flight attendants are not being paid to show up, you are mixing a bunch of temporary issues into one. When’s the last time your heard a passenger say please or thank you? Support the crew, they are stuck in the middle or corporate and rude passengers.

  42. I flew from Belize 1-4 on AA and was on my back by 1-7 with Covid. Because of that wonderful experience. I am shutting down International contracting. And retireing early. My first class ticket damn near killed me. A very exorbitant price, for what I consider a death threat.

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