American Can’t Decide If Its Number One Priority is Not Upsetting Employees

American’s number one priority is exactly on time departures. Gate agents face countdown clocks and getting called in to management if they’re boarding passengers within 10 minutes of departure or doors close a minute late, so priorities like proper processing of upgrade lists can get sacrificed.

The airline though believes that happy employees will mean customers get taken care of and that will lead to a revenue premium. At American’s investory day they laid out a belief that investments in product are ultimately useless because other airlines will match, so the airline’s culture has to become its advantage.

The problem is that there’s:

  1. No vision, no mission bigger than themselves, that employees are working towards. The airline’s vision seems to be “we’ll never lose money again.”

  2. No consequence for poor performance. If employees can’t respect their colleagues, if those who shirk are equally rewarded, it’s demoralizing — and most everyone’s work and service suffers.

American’s strategy is to give employees raises. They announced $1000 bonuses for everyone. But then there’s reduced profit sharing payments. So while the bonuses were met by elation, now many employees are unhappy and feel duped.

The airline is rolling out dedicated overhead bins and free drinks for customers in extra legroom seats but is also letting flight attendants know they don’t have to enforce the exclusivity of the bins or prevent customers from moving into those seats. They wouldn’t want to rub flight attendants the wrong way by signaling that their job will become harder. (And they won’t add flight attendants to the plane to compensate.)

News that customers could move into empty seats and get free drinks was controversial, and flight attendants don’t like that either, because if given the chance they do care about the company and it seems wrong to them for customers to get that for free ‘cheating the company’ of revenue.

So American’s Vice President of Flight Services Jill Surdek sent a followup note to flight attendants.
(HT: One Mile at a Time)

Earlier this week, we announced an enhanced Main Cabin Extra (MCE) offering which is scheduled to begin this Spring. The enhanced MCE includes complimentary beer, wine and spirits and provides easier access to overhead bin space for customers seated in MCE seats. While most of the feedback was positive, many of you also shared with me concerns about customers who did not pay for the seat moving into MCE.

I honestly appreciate your feedback; this is part of the reason why we choose to share with you, first, before rolling it out to the rest of the company and our customers. Our number one priority from the start was to ensure the enhanced MCE did not add responsibilities for flight attendants to police the cabin. But we agree with many of you, if a customer did not pay for the seat, they should not be able to move into it. If a customer asks to move into a MCE seat after boarding, you should use your best judgment in politely declining their request to prevent a negative or escalated situation.

Several of you also asked if we would consider selling upgrades to these seats onboard, similar to the service of other carriers. This is something we are considering, but again, we’re trying to balance this with not adding more responsibilities for flight attendants.

I appreciate your feedback and will share more about this program in the coming months.

So flight attendants are welcome to tell customers not to move, if they think it’s a good idea and are asked. (Note to customers: just move, do not ask to move.) But flight attendants do not have to do so. There’s no clear guidance, flight attendants are on their own, because the airline doesn’t have expectations of them. Nice.

Yet just like the airline’s inconsistent messages over whether they’re a premium carrier (Flagship lounges) or Allegiant (no seat back video, tiny lavatories, 30 inch pitch with reduced recline seats, and Basic Economy) they offer inconsistent messages on pay (bonuses but reduced profit sharing) and expectations (no enforcement of overhead bins, but more work when it matches an airline – rather than customer – priority).

The refusal to ask flight attendants to work more doesn’t extend to increasing flight attendant staffing levels if needed. When American added premium economy to their Boeing 777-200s they didn’t increase flight attendant staffing to match. They just kept the ratio of “premium economy plus economy” passengers to flight attendants the same as when all the seats were economy. Passengers hate the diminished service, and flight attendants hate the increased work.

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. That’s what struck me earlier reading your piece about the Delta interlining. DP seemed to feel that the biggest problem with not having Delta available during irrops was ” that makes it harder for our team on the ground.” Only later did he even mention the passengers. And then I read the OMAAT piece, with the same message…

  2. How many times are you going to write a rehash of the same story, Gary? Seriously, there’s nothing new to tell in this post at all.

  3. @Rich brand new memo from VP of Flight Services to flight attendants, which also rebuts commenters who told me I was wrong in yesterday’s post.

  4. Name one company with a heavily unionized workforce where you feel like it’s a service oriented culture.

  5. @Gary – great, then post that – or better yet, update an earlier story with the new 5 seconds worth of content.

    We don’t need to read 98% of a blog post that you’ve regurgitated verbatim a dozen times already. I guess that doesn’t generate clicks though, hmm?

  6. @rich- yes? It is a business…. And not all readers are reading every single one of Gary’s posts obsessively like you. If you don’t like it don’t read it. What’s wrong with you?

  7. You may have your inside snitch’s But like you yourself said (limited max survey) your basing your comments on a few people. You truly have no idea on how the majority of employees feel, or there happiness or unhappiness about the direction American is going in. Regarding the AA survey I’d say anytime a company reaches out and attempts to do a self evaluation as to how their doing and how there employees feel is a step in the right direction.

  8. I am a AA flight attendant that was a USAirways flight attendant, this merger sucks, the management has no clue that customer service is the top priority and for all those anti union posters out there, I am union and my customers are my first priority. They pay my salary. I want the best for them but I can only do what the company provides for us. Bad videos . seats, meals, are out of my control. When the company says depart on time with meals missing and broken equiptment we are punished or we are refused our requests. Please don’t blame the unions for the company not giving us the staff for the service they are trying to provide. Please don’t blame us the flight attendants for faultly equiptment, we speak up but they do not loisten. We feel for you. We are on the same aircraft with you. Please contact the company directly and voice your complaints. Now that we have a tool for I solve for awarding points to cust omers with issues, the company is now telling us not to give them out quickly. We the unionized flight attendants want our customers cared for.

  9. @cat how does one “loisten”? Anyway, I stay away from AA because of the bad reputation of their FAs. Have you seen that YouTube video of an AA FA threatening to have a passenger – who calmly requested a seat change to an empty seat – arrested upon landing unless he “calmed down”? The passenger was perfectly calm; the FA was power-tripping because all the passenger said was the seat had been empty for the entire flight! After she said “no,” he then asked “why,” and then the FA threatened him with arrest. Sad! How about that other video where an AA FA rudely tells a teenager doing a trip report to turn off his camera. AA Stay Away.

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