American Airlines: Our New Flight Attendants Lack the Training to Provide Good Service

At the most recent employee question and answer session with American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, a flight attendant asked about the airline’s inflight product — she hears from premium customers that the product United and Delta offer are better, and she worries because new American Airlines flight attendants aren’t getting training in service, and ‘half’ of flight attendants don’t follow the service standards that do exist.

Ok, she did more than ask about the product. She looked right at her CEO and said American’s service standards “suck compared to United and Delta.”

Parker explained that they want to offer the same thing as everyone else. He said “we work really hard to match our service to our competitors, and they do the same to us.”

  • This isn’t a new theme. A year ago Parker told investors and journalists that there’s little point in trying to beat the competition with a better product because everyone will just match. So any differentiation comes down to service.

  • United expresses a similar idea — former American Airlines President now President at United Scott Kirby says their approach to product is “keeping up with the Joneses.”

Parker though thinks they’re keeping up route-for-route. If a competitor does something different on the same route, they’ll do the exact same thing.

Our team does a really nice job of making sure we understand what other airlines are doing and our product is as good or better in terms of what we put on the aircraft meals, etc.

…That would be really surprising if indeed we could find markets where passengers say ‘oh no I fly United or Delta over American because the inflight product is that much different.

PM Lite Bites

Of course this is the exact problem with American even if it were true. Jeff Bezos observes that the most important value at Amazon is being obsessed with what the customer wants and needs rather than focusing on what competitors do.

But Parker thinks American provides better service than other airlines, and believes their product is better than competitors too.

The service you guys are providing is fantastic, and the aircraft we have are newer, and the overhead bins are bigger and the product we are putting out — I fly those other guys too — the product we put out particularly because our flight attendants are better is superior to United and Delta. I am certain of that.

…Fly around on a Delta airplane, all those airplanes are 15-20 years old. They did a nice job making them look nice inside.

For all of Parker’s criticisms of oneworld partner Qatar Airways under CEO Akbar al-Baker, it seems he’s making the same argument about Delta that Qatar does: that Delta flies ‘crap airplanes’.

To the customer though it’s the interiors and the service that matter, not the age of aircraft. Delta offers not just blankets in domestic first class but also a pillow and a bottle of water at each seat, and that’s in addition to predeparture beverages from friendly flight attendants who genuinely seem happy to be at work. American doesn’t do that.

There are great American Airlines crews but they actually do stand out when you get one because it isn’t the standard experience. And American isn’t providing the service training to its new flight attendant hires, though they plan to offer just a little bit starting next year as American’s VP Inflight Jill Surdek explained,

We’ve heard that feedback for several years that new hire training we’re not providing as much service training as we should. That’s very fair feedback.

We’re in the process right now of taking the curriculum — we’re not expanding the number of days… but we’re taking two days and we’re going to be adding more food service training… more service and more training and bidding experience in the program that starts in 2019.

American is going to offer two days of service training and training on how to bid for the trips they want. It’s no surprise they needed to run airport staff through ‘elevate’ training since they’re not getting the training they need while training.

A year ago I watched Singapore Airlines flight attendants train. They practiced plating meals in a mockup of an A380 business class cabin.

  • They start laying down servingware “inside out” — serving a window seat passenger that means placing items first by the window, placing one item precisely on the tray at a time and ensuring that Singapore logos face the passenger.

  • Then they switched to a middle seat passenger in the same aisle which meant laying things down in the precise opposite direction.

  • They practiced asking a passenger if they’d like bread and they practiced pouring champagne.

Singapore Airlines Training

No one expects American Airlines to offer Singapore Airlines service. But the airline doesn’t lay out much of an expectation for their flight attendants at all. On Delta flight attendants often present my jacket to me when returning it at the end of a flight, rather than dropping it in my lap. I’m lucky when American Airlines flight attendants proactively return it prior to landing at all.

Ironically new American Airlines flight attendants that aren’t getting enough training on how to provide proper service are the ones who generally provide the better service among American’s flight attendants. The enthusiasm hasn’t been worn out of them yet.

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. I have noticed that many flight attendants upon deplanning have their noses stuck in their smartphones and do not acknowledge deplanning passengers. I am EXP on AA and I notice this more when I have a seat near the back of the plane and I am one of the last to deplane. Not that I need to be acknowledged, but I did notice it.

  2. On a recent SQ flight, the FA forget to plate the maple syrup with my french toast. NBD, I rang the call button and asked for it.

    The purser stopped by afterwards and personally apologized. SQ training and customer service focus is just a completely different level.

  3. I don’t understand the constant parade of articles critical of AA. While many of your points appear valid, the focus of your blog has become somewhat narrow, especially for those who do not fly AA on a regular basis.

  4. I can’t afford Delta’s points but can afford American’s so unfortunately I’m stuck with them. Hopefully they’ll keep improving, approaching average.

  5. I was a flight attendant with American Airlines from 2000 to 2001 (I was furloughed after 9/11). Our initial training back then was certainly largely focused on safety, however, we received extensive training on service as well. We had several days dedicated to how to serve drinks and food.
    — For premium cabins, our manuals had extensive instructions on exactly how to plate food and prepare a tray — the training taught us exactly where forks, knives, and spoons were to placed, the position of plates on the tray, and even how to hold the tray as we lay it down on the tray table (e.g., you should hand-deliver the tray to the passenger, with your hand holding the linen-lined tray UNDER the linen, not on top of the linen.
    –During our flagship first and business class training, we were taught how to properly hand-deliver entrees. Back then, flagship first class domestic dining trays always had a service plate (sometimes called a “charger plate”) — an under plate that remained in place between first and second and main courses — which was round and had the AA eagle at the bottom of it. The plate should always be positioned so that the eagle was in the 6 o’clock position, with each subsequent course plate being placed on top of the service plate with its AA eagle being lined up with the AA eagle on the service plate beneath it.
    –When hand-delivering an entree plate (back when we actually plated food), our thumb was to NEVER tough the top of the plate. Your hand and thumb should be entirely under the plate and you were to gently remove your hand from the plate as you placed it on the tray.
    –We were trained how to properly hold and present a full-size bottle of wine or champagne to the passenger. The bottle should always be presented with one hand holding the neck of the bottle and your other hand at the base, with a white pressed linen between your hand and the bottle. When pouring the wine, you should hold the bottle with one hand, using the thumb indendation at the base of the bottle. We were taught to always turn the bottle at the end and use the white linen to wipe the lip of the bottle to prevent any drips.
    –Even on the 737-800, which was relatively new back in 2000-2001, we had a three-tier silver service cart that was used on transcon flights (BOS-LAX, BOS-SFO, BOS-SEA). We would be catered with fresh flowers to place on the tray and even a full SILVER TEA/COFFEE service! Although most F/As never used the silver service — most preferred to just hand-deliver the tea/coffee.
    –We were trained in how to carry magazines and offer them to all passengers throughout the airplane.
    –We didn’t have iPads or tablets with all our elite-tier passengers’ information on them back then. We did it manually with the passenger manifest, identifying our Exec Plat passengers and listing them on our little notepads and papers. If we had a Concierge Key (although to be honest, I can’t recall if that’s what they were called back then), the “red coat” passenger service agent would come down to the aircraft and brief the #1 FA on the passenger – telling us a little bit about them, what we should look out for in terms of their preferences for service/food/drink, and details on their connecting flight.
    THIS IS THE LEVEL OF TRAINING AA USED TO HAVE! Sadly, most of this ended after 9/11 on AA domestic service. I took a LOT of pride in my flying days with AA and *most* (not all) passengers appreciated this service and they treated us F/As with respect. It was certainly one of the happiest times of my life.

  6. It starts from the top. Employees/Retirees have no respect for Parker. They continue to change polices and procedures with no feedback. Does anyone know why the AA flight attendants were picketing this past Sunday?

  7. It’s ridiculous that the current AA executive management/US Air Management Cancer is seemingly in denial of their poor inflight service… even when it’s pointed out to them straight to their face.

    It seems that AA isn’t even trying to reach a standard of “good enough” anymore. On my last AA flights a year ago, I noticed that the veteran Flight Attendants were often hostile towards F/J passengers. Which led me to think “Why am I paying for this?”

    And before anyone comes to the FA’s defense, let’s just say that this poor and often hostile attitude was more common than not. It got to the point where it was shocking to encounter a friendly AA flight attendant.

    I guess AA’s Board isn’t concerned about their airline’s future, identity, reputation or stock price.

  8. @Jetaway – One possible reason is because AA is the largest airline worldwide. But it’s likely because Gary is a paying customer who lives near an AA hub.

    Another blogger (Rene) focuses nearly all articles on Delta, because that’s what he prefers.

    But as AA continues its operational meltdown, you’ll probably see more AA articles coming. It’s hard to avoid this mess.

  9. I’m always amused by the “our planes are newer” argument. DL may fly old planes, but they keep them in good repair, so –shocker– passengers don’t really care.

  10. As has been probably said multiple times before if an employee is never held accountable for underperforming their job duties then nothing will ever change. Source: My 60 years of flying AA.

  11. I, too, see a lot of articles critical of AA. And there is plenty to be critical about. But I recently completed 4 segments on Delta, two of which to Europe, and wanted to share my experience as counter to the constant “AA is terrible and Delta does so much better” stories.

    A little background: I used to be a DL Diamond but moved to an AA hub and am now a lowly million miler Gold. I am a lifetime Platinum on Flying Blue, and Plat Pro on AA.

    A client paid for my trip CLT – DET – AMS – JFK – CLT in premium economy. I chose DL because their times made the most sense, their operational reliability is good for connections and AA does not offer a prem econ on most segments to AMS.

    Outbound I flew on a 19 year old B717 to DET and a 14 year old A330/2 to AMS. Return on a 17 yeard old B767/4 and a 17 year old B717. I sat in bulkhead on both international sectors. All of the planes did not look particularly new on the inside, a bit tired in fact. The 767 especially was tired, and had the tiny, wall mounted screens in bulkhead. The plug point on my B767 seat did not work, even after two resets. Luckily my seat mate did not need his.

    On the short flight to DET and the short return to CLT from JFK, service was exactly the same as on AA or UA. Drinks and a snack (cookie and/or pretzels). There was nothing that distinguished DL from AA or UA on this flight. Given the blue (p)leather seats that are apparently airline standard as well, I could have been on any domestic airline flying from A to B in the US of A.

    The international service was just there. I am not a big fan of DL’s new purple uniforms, and noticed that not all of the crew wore them, which made for a somewhat disjointed appearance. The service in DL’s Economy Comfort is supposed to be a little better than econ. We were handed menu’s and earplugs and headsets. The meals were just OK, served for speed rather than care. The food was not different from a regular econ meal in terms of portions, quality or presentation.

    But what to me was the worst part of the experience was that the intercontinental economy comfort seats are really nothing better than regular economy, apart from legroom. Recline is laughable, there are no food-rests or other seat improvements from the rest of the back of the bus. I do appreciate the legroom but can survive fine in regular econ (as I frequently do – I am 6ft tall). Comfort Plus was, in my mind, not worth the extra $$$’s.

    Delta flew me on time, nothing broke (apart from the B767 plug point), nothing was really bad. But nothing was really great either. It was like any other experience on any other US airline. I get that DL’s operations are pretty reliable, and that is a plus. But I fly AA quite a bit and find them operationally par for the course with DL, at least when I fly them.

    And I think that is what is wrong with the big three. They are utterly inter-exchangeable. I don’t care who I fly as they all offer the same level of mediocrity and sameness. I do not get excited about flying any of them, regardless of class. I book on price and convenience, and they get me there.

    I believe there is room for differentiation, and I also believe that does not have to come at the cost of margin. In fact, it might offer some revenue opportunities. But I also know that differentiation is hard and it is much easier to copy/paste the strategies of the others. Which leaves us probbly where we are for the foreseeable future.

  12. @Gary —> I got all excited for a moment because you said, ” It’s no surprise they needed to run airport staff through ‘elevate’ training since they’re not getting the training they need while training.” I was hoping that AA was about to try and match the service on VX…sigh. RIP.

    That aside, one of the biggest problems — and it’s not just at AA — is the whole “keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome. AA and UA aren’t looking at DL, nor are they looking at AS/VX, or even WN…they’re looking at Spirit and Frontier and think they need to emulate them! (Basic Economy, indeed!) Some sort of logic is lacking. Even *if* Parker (and Kirby) intentionally want to roll in the gutter, wouldn’t you think they’d want to be just a little better than their “role models”?

    Meanwhile, Southwest is doing fine. B6 (jetBlue) seems to continue its stronghold on the East Coast. Despite aggressive pressure from DL, most of the recent flights I’ve taken on AS are completely full, and I have *never* been able to “cash in” on their 20 minute bag promise — it’s always between 11-15!

  13. @CLTflier —>. ” I used to be a DL Diamond but moved to an AA hub…” And *there* is the rub…

    True, “it was all so different before everything changed,” but SFO is a United and an Alaska hub; OAK is a hub for Southwest. I know that AA is moving out of T2 at SFO and into T1, which it will (apparently) share with Delta, Frontier, Spirit, Southwest, and others…this will either leave AS the sole carrier in T2 (as UA is the only carrier in T3), or perhaps an airline like jetBlue will move out of the IT and into T2 — I don’t know. But, by the end of the year, I will have taken three flights on UA…why? Because 1) an outbound flight SFO-BOS was better vis-a-via timing than the AS flight (though the flight itself was awful — nothing on the 777 worked as promised); and 2) AS no longer flies nonstop from SFO-DEN, so UA was the only choice¹.

    Sometimes you gotta fly what you gotta fly….

    ¹ OK, truth is we could have flown WN nonstop, too, but I did the trip on points — and WN wasn’t a transfer partner…

  14. Doug Parker is extremely delusional and is detrimental to American’s potential success in the market. Anyone who agrees with his statements must be out of their minds.

  15. I appreciate the AA articles. Especially these where you quote the babbling of executives.

    Jeffry – wonderful to read. Too bad they haven’t kept up those service standards. For a while, they didn’t even have a tray linen to hold on to, let alone nice china with Ealges on it.

  16. “It would be really surprising if indeed we could find markets where passengers say ‘oh no I fly United or Delta over American because the inflight product is that much different.”

    I’m PHL based with a project in DFW that requires frequent travel between the two cities. And despite the hub-to-hub convenience afforded by multiple direct flights daily, I still fly Delta (via DTW, MSP or ATL) because the inflight product is THAT much different. Until AA realizes that their passengers are human beings and not just dollars and cents on an Excel spreadsheet, I’ll continue to go out of my way to actively avoid flying them.

  17. Memo to Dud Parker
    RE: In flight crew training
    As @Ethan G notes, there is a difference between DL and AA in flight. I will NOT fly UA.

  18. I don’t think AA’s service standards “sucking” is the problem. I think it’s the fact that far too large of a number of staff can’t be bothered to meet their standards.

  19. How timely is this article. My partner and I returned last night from Delhi – the first leg of the trip being on BA to LHR the second leg on AA, LHR-JFK. Both flights were in 1st (yes AA does still have one 3 class configuration btwn LHR-JFK). While in India we flew both Air India and Indigo, a low fare, budget airline both of which provided better service that what we received on AA first class. After taking food and drink orders, the purser immediately placed the table cloths on the trays (expecting the customers to pull out their own trays) and placed the place settings on some but not all of the trays. He then brought out the pre-meal drinks (normally they serve the drink and then commences the meal service). When serving the meals, he served wrong items, the bread service was offered and my partner, who had nothing more than the table cloth on his tray was offered the bread without a bread plate flatware, butter, etc. The F/A was going to just put the bread on the tray. After the very rushed meal service, AA now has all this “wonderful” new bedding, which normally the F/As will make up the beds for those that request it. We all had the bedding, which now takes up quite a bit of space in the pods, and those who wanted to sleep (4 or 5 of the 8 pax) actually had to make their own beds. For the second food service, neither I nor my partner were offered anything (neither of us was hungry, but the point is, it should have been offered). The wine list was quite impressive – I ordered a glass of Montrachet (a white) and was brought a glass of red – not sure what it was, but not what I ordered. For pre-departure, I ordered a glass of the Bollinger champagne – which was listed on the wine list. The purser said oh, you want champagne – I said, yes a glass of the Bollinger. However, I was served some swill – not even sure what it was, but it was absolutely undrinkable. The service we received would not have, in my opinion, been acceptable in coach. We paid for 1st class tickets and received less than a coach experience (outside of the size of the seats) and received superior service on a foreign carrier, not particularly known for their customer service. Sadly BA had a flight an hour later which if we had booked that, would not have transferred from LHR Terminal 5 to Terminal 3 (they used to have a car service to take 1st class pax from one to the other, but no more – jump on the bus) and we could have relaxed in the Concorde lounge and had a pleasant flight back. Lesson learned – avoid AA at all costs – there are some great Oneworld partners and the cost of the ticket is the same. When I pay the kind of $$s that we did, I except a return on the investment – we certainly didn’t receive that on AA flt 107 last night…

  20. AA sucks is correct! Compared with Qantas, AA pax are treated with contempt on all flights over three hours. On a recent flight from Memphis to SanFrancisco, via DallasFW the later sector saw “ service” consisting of a cup of water and some crackers, plus a delay on the tarmac at DFW of over one and half hours due to smoke over SF, almost causing the loss of our connection with a QF flight back to Aust. Oh, before I forget, still waiting for a refund for the business class seat in 2014 which resulted in my wife downgraded to coach from Miami to LA. Every seat on all flights are over sold causing endless anxiety and huge waiting lists.

  21. Everything about American Airlines has been an absolute downgrade since merger with US Airways…especially the planes. US Airways is known for never investing in their airline, only stuffing their own pockets and should have liquidated years ago.

  22. Unfortunately, everyone on here have lost prospective of what a flight attendants main job is.
    So let me remind you folks!
    Flight attendants are to evacuate the aircraft incase of an emergency. That means saving you!! Flight attendants provide passengers with a safety demo. The demo ( which no one pays attention to because we are to busy in OUR own worlds, including me) so pay attention next time and take your earbuds out and look up !
    Flight attendants also provide first aid and emergency medical attention. Like CPR and hooking you up to an AED and shocking you back to life. ( again saving you and I )
    I fly AA and have for over 40 years. I will continue to fly them because the flight attendants will do everything they are trained to do incase i am the “emergency”. I have seen many passengers lives saved because flight attendants were trained to do so.
    For those of you wanting great service when it comes to food, drinks, pillows, blankets. Etc. Check into a hotel and eat at a resturant. I am glad the flight attendants are there to keep me safe and in case of a medical emergency
    I get they are not bar tenders nor waiters.
    Mr. Parker. Stop lining your pockets with green. Give some to your flight attendants, delta , southwest gives them 15-20 % of the profits. I read u only give 1% .
    What happened to the 10 hour behind the hotel rest bill. You see i do have conversations with your flight attendants. One more thing. For those of u that said something about the cells or tablets. I asked. I didnt assume as many of you have or did. They are a tool for all flight attendants.
    People .. Ask! dont assume.
    A happy AA passenger.

  23. It is pathetic that any CEO would be out announcing that all they were doing was matching the competition, even if that were true. Oh how bored I am.
    Would you buy an automobile that bragged: we’re as good as the other run-of-the-mill stuff on the road?
    Even if I knew that to be true, I would be repelled.
    I think that contrary to the worn down, hackneyed US3, a lot of the difference in flying Business Class now comes down to small things, even a unique pen. I KNOW that having a flight attendant who can manage any interest at all, makes a huge difference.
    I recently flew back from London to Denver on BA, not known for comfort, and the truly excellent FAs made all the difference. Because of them, I have not given up on BA.
    Now, all bets are off domestically or internationally crammed into coach HELL. There the difference is the nightmarish lack of comfort.

  24. Being one of the customers that the Airlines are gunning for, someone who pays for first/business, but I am not married to a single carrier. Paying for a product is much more different than being upgraded into that product. As a business traveler and being upgraded into first, the expectations were not that high, just happy to have a comfortable seat. Now near my retirement, I book directly into first/international business and obviously my expectations are much higher paying 10 times more than the guy in the seat next to me. I do like that most of the airlines have lowered the price of their first/business products to lure more revenue over upgrades and I am OK with that, but with that additional seat revenue, expectations should go up as well.

    My biggest complaint with American is consistent product. Jet Blue and Southwest are attractive to business customers and I absolutely love the Jet Blue Mint product. Both airlines have a fairly consistent product and FA’s who seem to genuinely enjoy their jobs. The FA’s on Delta seem to be better on the older equipment without the electronic distractions whereas, the experience on the US Airways 321’s seems to be lacking of both more so lately. I enjoy the journey as much as the destination, and if you pay for it, you should get it.

  25. I was harassed by a African-American flamboyant flight attendant today on my flight from San Juan Puerto Rico to Miami Florida. I had my backpack in the overhead bin which was sitting on top of a roller bag and one other flight attendant had already closed the overhead bin. This flight attendant proceeded to open the overhead bin pull my backpack out and asked if it was mine. My reply was yes. And he drops the bag right in my lap it says put it under the seat. I refused to put the backpack under my seat. And I was threatened verbally that if I did not put it under my seat and listen to him that I would be kicked off the flight. So I asked for a supervisor spoke to him and he said you have to listen to the flight attendant. I was like why does my backpack have to go under my seat when I have already checked my two bags During check in. After returning to my seat then I was approached by the captain of the plane asking me if I had a problem and that he needed to make sure his flight attendants were happy. My reply was what about making your customers happy.. So people around me had seen what had happened and said this flight attendant was totally out of line and disrespectful. And during the flight there was two other situations from the same flight attendant and the flight attendant working first class with two other passengers during this flight. I’m just wondering if I should proceed with the emails from passenger sitting around me and contact American Airlines about the situation that had taken place during my flight and the other situations that we seen also with other passengers on the same flight.
    I would like to make sure that somebody else would be threatened to be kicked off a flight after checking your bags and check in and then forcing you to move your backpack when you have status with American Airlines I was just a palled of what happen today.I’m reaching out to see what people start sore on how to proceed with this situation

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