American Airlines has invested a lot in its premium products, introducing new and nicer lounges and planning for more and better business class seats. They’ve done more to bring back food, and better food, than United and Delta. And overall their operation has performed better recently than it did prior to the pandemic.
At the same time, old habits die hard. There’s been a lack of clarity for years over whether customer experience matters, or just operational metrics, and whether American is trying to be a premium carrier or a Spirit and Frontier competitor.
So I’m not surprised to see an internal memo going out to flight attendants telling them not to worry about missing catering, customers just want to depart exactly on time and that crew does passengers a disservice when they ensure long flights have food on board.
Dec. 7, 2022
Flight attendants with a CLT sequence
We’ve learned that several flights are taking delays due to catering callbacks for non-critical service items. It’s essential that our flights depart on time, and waiting for additional items or a few missing items, such as entrées, bread, or dessert, should not drive a delay or gate hold.
In short, flights should not be held for missing catering items. If you find that you’re missing an item before the service, please apologize to the customer and offer an alternative, if possible.
Reliability is one of our top goals, and we want to do everything we can to meet or exceed our customers’ expectations. That includes keeping our flights running smoothly, expediting turn times, and ensuring on-time departures. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to your FSM if you have any questions.
This actually runs contrary to something now-CEO Robert Isom told employees. Responding to a flight attendant who got called into a meeting for a reprimand after taking a 14 minute delay when a flight to São Paulo lacked plates, he offered:
So is it appropriate to leave without placeware for international business or first class service? And the answer to that is no, it isn’t ok to do that.
And the pressure you’re getting from somebody that says ‘we don’t take delays for catering issues’ well they’re not talking to the folks that really are looking at the operation from a system perspective.
Small flight delays can have unintended consequences, like running into weather or air traffic congestion, congestion on the ramp, or crew rest issues down the line. Those can compound and lead to missed connections. Leaving on time matters! But in order to leave on time the airline has to get the basics right, not just skip those pieces. And a 5 minute delay isn’t the same as a 50 minute delay (American has often overly focused on the former), especially when a flight might otherwise be projected to arrive early.
Nowhere in the memo to flight attendants does it emphasize that the airline is working hard to prevent miscatering or undercatering from happening in the first place. Nowhere does it talk about the commitment to ensure employees have all of the tools necessary to provide the service that’s expected.
The message that middle management has gotten over the years – and even if this isn’t what is intended today, takes a long time and clear, concerted effort to turn around – is that all that matters is ‘D0’ exact on time departures, with travel experience and customer service something to skip over if necessary to get there. On-time departures are something you get when all of the pieces run properly, not a reason to skip over things like clearing upgrades or making sure promised meals are on board the aircraft.