American Airlines Senior VP: Inflight Service Will Come Back “In An Incremental Way, Slowly”

When American Airlines eliminated inflight service – meals and drinks – that was a decision made by Senior Vice President of Inflight Service Jill Surdek. The airline’s CEO didn’t even know. Over the summer she looked ahead at what first class service would look like at the airline and offered they’d be “bring[ing] back something that still has a premium feel but is different and more modern.”

So far that means first class passengers can have whatever they request to drink, and they eat what used to be coach ‘buy on board’ items. Passengers in coach don’t get a full drink service. On the one hand airlines say that there’s no safety risk in flying because of HEPA air filters and cabin air that flows downward. On the other hand they say these cost-cutting measures are about Covid safety.

One flight attendant asked Ms. Surdek about the return of inflight service for premium customers after the American Airlines earnings call on Thursday. She said on board service would come back ‘slowly’.

Our flight attendant team would love to be back in the position where we feel comfortable and our customers feel comfortable receiving service again. And it’s something we’ve been looking at carefully. We’ve seen other airlines begin to slowly add back some of the beverage service elements, and we’ve been working with our Vanderbilt University Medical Center partners, working with the union, looking at what opportunities exist.

When we are ready to bring it back we will be communicating fully. And I really see that we will be doing this in an incremental way, slowly bringing back elements, working with our flight attendants. Because we all want to serve our customers, we’re all appreciative of the customers flying, and how can we do this in a way that’s safe for everyone.

Fares are low. Cash burn is high. And flight attendants are – rightly or wrongly – concerned about interacting with passengers. They do it on each flight up front, and spread doesn’t seem to be happening on planes and touching the same items as passengers isn’t a big risk or as the CDC puts it “Spread from touching surfaces is not thought to be a common way that COVID-19 spreads.”

American’s joint venture partner British Airways is bringing back hot meals in business class, but they’re effectively coach meals. Once they’re serving hot meals, what’s the safety difference in offering quality food versus rubbish?

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. American will milk this Covid excuse for all they can get. They are in effect weaponizing the virus for financial gain. They will beat their customers in the head with the virus scam until they squeeze every penny out of them. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t anesthetize you on the plane and steal one of your kidneys to sell on the black market.
    The sad part is all the other airlines are just as bad.

  2. Just like the never ending security theater the TSA subjects us to, it’s all about making Ma & Pa Kettle, who haven’t been on a plane since the Wright Bros. were flying AND have vowed not to leave their couch ‘until it’s over’, FEEL better & appear to be socially responsible in the press, again to impress Ma & Pa Kettle. Unfortunately, they are pandering to people who will never step foot on a plane regardless of how much bleach it is soaked in ahead of time as well as the FAs & their unions that upset they can’t find a way to WFH. I was on the phone w/a RA changing a ticket & was asked if I wanted to rebook into first-told her, right now, it’s not worth the $$. I don’t know what it’s going to take for Discount Dougie et al to understand there is more to being a ‘premium’ airline than just charging high fares.

  3. Agree completely – I can see limiting service but once you start serving food or drinks it really doesn’t matter what it is – the interaction is basically the same.

    I’ve seen lots of additional fees due to COVID. Some I can understand (even if I don’t like) such as my dentist adding $10 to a visit for PPE expenses and a restaurant adding a 5% surcharge (although I think just raising the prices would be a better idea). The one I ran into a couple weeks ago is the craziest excuse I’ve seen – a local Mexican restaurant has a note on their menu that “due to safety concerns” complimentary chips and salsa are no longer being provided but you can ask her server and, for $2.49, have them delivered! Basically same food and service (along with any risk of infection or interaction) but now charging – REALLY hard to find a legit COVID justification there as opposed to simply charging for something they used to provide free. Again, I have no problem with businesses changing and if they wanted to charge for chips and salsa fine, just don’t say it is due to “safety concerns”.

  4. Were on the front line with passengers NOT WEARING MASKS and breathing their germs all over us and handing us snot rags, were front line and unlike health care workers covered in GARB head to toe we work in a petri dish with no
    Protection and nothing sanitized, fares are cheap buy your own food!

  5. Airline food and drink exist for competitive reasons — because passengers expect and demand it. Almost nobody is demanding it now. Indeed, some might dislike it because it would mean more people on the flight might be unmasked for longer. If an airline isn’t going to attract more passengers or make them happy by spending more money on them, guess what an airline will choose to do.

    BTW, it is a bit weird to fly in first class on AA where drink and (some) food is provided. People react by taking off their masks, often for considerable periods of time (like until landing). I don’t think this makes any difference to other pax safety, but I’m sure others disagree.

  6. [redacted] Gary.

    Spirit will gladly sell you food & drink.

    AA has been using COVID as an excuse since the beginning.

    Instead of wasting our time with another trash article, how about twitter shaming AA on being lazy cheap liars?

    Passengers & cabin crew need to realize the moment you seal yourself into an aluminum tube with 150 other idiots, you give up your right to complain about germs.

    You don’t like germs? Find a different job or hide in your basement.

  7. 32 flights since March on AA, about 1/2 in first. The service is not uniform, you have no clue what to expect with the drink service. Some flights it’s like pre virus, drinks all around, seconds, happy to serve. Sometimes you have to ring the bell or even flag down the flight attendant. I even had one lie to me and say they had no ice, until he magically found some. Get back to the drinks and be consistent, emphasis on consistent.

    In main cabin I totally prefer the lack of service. The entire atmosphere is so much less disruptive. What kills me is that the virus has laid bare the strategic blunder of AA’s decision to not have seatback entertainment. In this environment, that system becomes your de facto interactive platform and would be a great way to order drinks and food. I just can’t imagine that AA’s bean counters didn’t see that as an unbelievable revenue stream vs one slow cart moving up and down the aisle.


  8. Back in the early days of the pandemic, before masks were required, flight attendants were just as much at risk of infection as health care workers. See, for example:

    Now, infection rates among flight attendants are lower than they are among the general public. We should see this as, “flying is safe BECAUSE of the precautions taken, including mandating masks and a reduction in in-flight service.”

    Sure, contagion via surfaces is rare. But in-flight service just increases your overall exposure by increasing face-to-face in-person interaction. As the CDC recently clarified, even brief exposures, if repeated enough times to result in a larger aggregate exposure, can lead to high infection risk. Combined with the fact that many passengers are non-compliant with mask requirements or try to bend the rules as much as possible by wearing masks under their nose, wearing neck gaiters, or taking as long as humanly possible to consume their drinks and snacks, I’d say it is very much justified that in-flight service has to be cut right now.

    I personally still hate it, as someone who still occasionally has to fly and really enjoys a nice drink on board. But I’ll deal with it.

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