American Hires at a Tougher Rate Than Harvard, But Flight Attendants Must Look Up From Their Phones

Last week at an employee town hall forum with American Airlines CEO Doug Parker a flight attendant brought attention to the kind of behavior he sees from colleagues on board aircraft.

The biggest problem I have with y’all on the plane is you don’t get your face out of your phone. It’s a problem. We’re there 100% of our attention should go to our attention should go to the customer and each other. And when our face is in the phone or we have headphones on.. on the plane… the idea of heaving headphones on on the aircraft, please don’t do that.

Parker replied “you didn’t have a phone when you started, neither did I, so anyway let’s all be a little empathetic.” I did a double take listening to that, even if it was said partially in jest. He wants to defend flight attendants burying their faces in their phones instead of providing onboard service.

Nonetheless Parker went on to say “the sentiment’s exactly right” but American has “the best instructors in the world, getting the best training and are learning how to be great at customer service.”

American has 500,000 applications on file to be flight attendants. They pick out 2000 people. “It’s a lower acceptance rate than Harvard by a long way.. we get the best of the best.” Of course most of those 500,000 aren’t applying to Harvard so it’s not a really fair comparison.

The airline may get to be picky on the front end. I’d take issue with American’s flight attendant training being the best, just compare it to how Singapore Airlines trains its flight attendants.

Still the problem probably isn’t the talent pool. It may not even be the training. It’s what happens after graduation when the only thing that matters is seniority, when flight attendants get in trouble for prioritizing having first class catering on a long haul flight over D0, and when pay and benefits are confused with standards in building a culture.

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. The denominator shouldn’t be 500k but rather how many of those are qualified to be AA flight attendants.

    I’d say the vast majority of Harvard applicants are qualified for Harvard curriculum

  2. I am sure they’ve hired consultants to produce data that verify their best of the best claims. This is how big companies work. This is why things don’t get better. In good times guys liek Doug Parker can just point to the scoreboard.

    Except, the stock isnt performing. Service is terrible. Labor relation continue to be on a knife edge, as you can tell from Dougie’s reflex answer. Parker isn’t performing during the best of times for the industry and shoud be blown out.

    Unfortunately, you can bet that the courageous soul who raised that completely valid point has already been given up by the union and probably won’t be with the company in a month from now.

  3. I work at a place where HR often brings up the number of applicants we get in response to people quitting. As others have mentioned, it isn’t numbers but quality of the applicants. Our large numbers was due to job security, unfortunately many were not qualified, and had no real interest in working.

  4. 500K applications on file? The questions is how long do they keep them on file? If it is 10 years then that is an average of 50K per year, if 20 years……….

    You can always manipulate the numbers in a way to prove your point.

  5. It’s not correct to say that American “pick[s] out 2000 people” from the initial applicant pool of 500,000 because you’re ignoring the (likely sizable) number of people who receive offers from American but choose not to accept them. Without this information about acceptance and yield rates, we don’t have any basis to say their acceptance rate is “tougher” than Harvard.

  6. “face in the phone” problem exists across all carriers. Pax are an inconvenience taking time away from the latest episode of TMZ or game of solitaire.

  7. Please make sure to check your punctuation before you publish a story. Normally, the reader can figure out what the author was intending to say despite the poor punctuation, but in this case, I had to re-read the first few sentences because it wasn’t obvious if Doug Parker was the CEO or the flight attendant.

  8. You will hear many FA’s tell you we are here for your safety. The customer service training they receive is just fluff in their eyes. The “face in the phone” just goes with the attitude that the union FA’s have.

  9. This problem does not happen with legacy Asian, Middle Eastern or European carriers. If you’re caught using your phone in flight in from of passengers you’re written up, period. US airlines have failed to bring discipline in customer service standards with their FAs. Grooming is another example of how sloppy it gets in terms of not enforcing standards properly, along with training, mentoring and creating a work environment where employees are proud of their service, happy doing their jobs. It’s a two way street, indeed.
    I gave up on expecting good service on US airlines a long time ago. I expect indifference, selfish and rude behaviour from FAs, gate agents, check in agents. It doesn’t matter how many new planes you buy, improving your menu… when service is mediocre, at best.

  10. At Envoy, we are not supposed to have our cel phones out onboard the aircraft……We now have tablets, so someone might think we are on our cel phones, but we are not……

  11. For a long time I assumed Parker was a hard-nosed, but capable business man. I didn’t like how I was being treated, but I am not the typical customer – lots of miles, mainly cheap tickets, a few flights a year. I probably am not that valuable anymore. But there have just been too many situations, from awarding pay raises out of cycle, service lapses, technology glitches, inflexible and often petty policy changes and now this – making excuses for crappy service. I am convinced that he really is not terribly competent. The comparison to Harvard is joke. I can’t remember the last time interacted with a AA FA and said to myself, that is someone I would like to hire.. And even if it were true, the system and union quickly blunt good intent or innate ability. To call FA service on AA, perfunctory, is being generous.

  12. Unionization and seniority do not produce poor customer service, although they are an easy scapegoat for that problem. Southwest, for example, has the highest productivity and excellent customer service. Southwest, I believe, also has the most unionized workforce in the industry. The key to customer service is training and employee engagement. Those factors depend on corporate culture, which is usually a major factor in if a company is unionized in the first place. These days people to easily fall for the easy explanation or one that appeals to long held but unsubstantiated stereotypes and misconceptions instead of actually understanding.

  13. I very proudly fly for Envoy Air, (AA’s TOP & MOST SUCCESSFUL wholly owned subsidiary regional carrier, with 4 years of service in August). It frustrates me immensely that after recently interviewing for the 5th time for the FA position with AA, and after acing those interviews, (ending them with the invocation of C. R. Smith’s famous quote, “Treat every customer as if they were the most important person in the World”.), I am politely shown the door !!!!! At the risk of appearing braggadocious here … and, Yes I WILL appear braggadocious before this comment is done here … my 4 years of service with Envoy Air have produced an impressive stack of positive passenger letters, nearly 60, and nearly 600 Executive Platinum Above and Beyond coupons. These positive passenger letters are not the standard, brief, mediocre, vanilla kudos and modest accolades …. not the “Adda Boy”, “Great Job”, “Way to go” type of thing. These letters are voluminous, lengthy, multi-paragraphed, sometimes emotional accounts of the impressive service I gave to Attorneys, Physicians, High Level Corporate Staff Members, Clergy, Fellow Envoy & AA Flight Attendants, AA Flight Service Manager, First Class & Main Cabin customers, etc. What’s more are the many verbal compliments I receive from passengers as they deplane the aircraft. Sometimes the deplaning traffic is impeded by the passengers stopping to personally compliment me. Many times my passengers see me later in the terminal and walk over to reiterate their compliment. The adlibbed special PAs I give on the aircraft are many times met with thunderous applause and cheers ! I find it astonishing that I am continually passed over at AA. At these interview sessions I take note of the age of the other candidates, which usually doesn’t exceed 20-something. Oh, did I not mention I’m 51? I also have no college, and, the only languages I speak fluently are English and Redneck … ‘Load-Up y’all, Load-Up !!!!’

  14. I believe Americans hiring process of flight attendants has to be bogus.
    By looking at some of their younger tattooed attendants who have wrinkled up shirts and cramming food in their mouths before passengers board is about as professional as the customers at Walmart.

  15. Hey snoodair – may you work a 14+ hour day without any scheduled lunch break, or any time at all to eat. Basic human rights. Forgive us for “cramming our faces” before we board a flight. Our bad.

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