An Airline Can’t Be Great Without Paying Attention To Small Details

Former Starwood CEO Adam Aron came up as a loyalty marketing executive. He worked at Pan Am. He launched Hyatt Gold Passport. And he was a Senior Vice President at United. He argues that airline customer service is bad because of their focus on safety. I don’t think he’s right, though it’s clear that a focus on safety doesn’t filter down throughout the company in the form of sweating the small details.

Singapore Airlines sweats all the small details, not just the mechanical ones. They built a model Airbus A380 using manila envelopes and the seats inside the plane even reclined. Tag line: “It’s the small details that make giants in the sky.” Bingo.

Which brings me to meal service on American Airlines. American’s egg croissant is actually alright, surprisingly one of the better shrink-wrapped cold bread and fillings offerings they’ve served me, but it was served with… deviled eggs. I’ll have eggs with a side of eggs, please?

On a subsequent flight I was offered a (shrink wrapped) turkey pastrami sandwich on a pretzel roll. That sounds ok for American Airlines. But it had both dijonaisse and cream cheese on it.

Putting dijonaisse and cream cheese on meat is literally a choice someone had to make. It didn’t just happen by accident. But it’s something off a random ingredient mix and match game, not something anyone would do while thinking about the customer experience.

The first person I mentioned this to suggested the sandwich is the result of American’s unwillingness to invest in meals for its domestic and short haul first class product. But adding cream cheese is more expensive than just leaving it off. They could have saved even money by not ruining the sandwich!

When you’re adding ingredients to any dish, or undertaking any project really, the question you need to ask is: am I making things better? And if the answer isn’t clearly yes you shouldn’t be doing it. Sweating the details means caring enough not to serve cream cheese on turkey pastrami, and not to serve eggs with a side of eggs.

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. First of all, beyond the cream cheese and dijonaise…I don’t find that so horrible…dijon for more flavor….but there is already SWISS cheese on it. And the cream cheese looks more like a boursin which may or may not have some flavor of it’s own.

    The HB eggs with egg entree is weird….but when I’m usually rushing and no time to eat, I’d welcome at least 2 edible choice to pick from…one may be tastier than the other…at least there is FOOD.

  2. Wow, I would not eat any of that since it does not appeal to me. First Class is that in name only anymore flying domestically. The Bistro bags they issued to all about 15 -20 years ago were far better that that slop.

    Reminds me how far air travel has regressed. I recall back flying in the late 60’s and 70’s when everyone had choices of hot meals not just in first class but also in coach domestically.

  3. I know foodservice is a tough industry and mega-scale foodservice even tougher, but with the food revolution in the US over the last 25 years, how can it be this bad? It’s got to be beancounters making these sort of decisions, not chefs, who when given a budget target to hit, can generally work miracles. I have a feeling they hire the chef to hit a target, then fire them and say to rank amateurs, “Now cut 30% more out of the budget so I look good.”

  4. You’ve hit my pet peeve – condiments! I can’t for the life of me understand why airlines, airport restaurants and many other vendors choose to add condiments to pre-made sandwiches, salads, etc. Many of us have allergies or otherwise prefer not to use (choose one: mayo, mustard, special sauce, creamy dressing, etc.).

    How hard is it to offer condiments on the side?

  5. Despite the oddness it’s still leaps and bounds better than what you get on a domestic first class flight with Delta. Delta is serving crap food in a box and even crappier wine. Flew them in F last week. First world problems, pardon the pun!

  6. Y’all realize that this is just a problem in the US. This is also why food on Transatlantic/Transpacific/Hell flights to Brazil needs to be judged separately on to and from the US. Coming out of the US, sure, the airline can specify certain things, but you’re still gonna get garbage catered to you by one of three US companies, and their menus will be curated by a chef, dietitian, bean counter, unpleasant line manager, and underpaid line cook, in that order. You do realize that nobody else in the world sells margarine in the supermarkets, let alone cooks food in it?

    So, yeah, you’ll be getting garbage food, until someone breaks the tyranny of food service contracts in the US.

  7. I had one breakfast on QR . Said it was fresh omlete . God that made me sick for 24 hours . Take delta…they serve sickest food ever in domestic F class. AA is way better than UA and DL on their on board meal .

  8. @Gary – Add a like button to comments!!!!

    @Boraxo – You would get a like from me with your comment. The Bistro bags that AA provided that not long ago did just that with all the condiments in packets. And those were intended for folks in coach. That was also when AA had the most legroom in coach.

  9. Hate when they include whatever spread on the pre-made sandwiches. Provide it on the side, so the people that want it can add it themselves, please!

  10. “You do realize that nobody else in the world sells margarine in the supermarkets, let alone cooks food in it?”

    This is definitively not true. It is widely sold in Australia, Canada, and GB and it has nicknames of “oleo” and “marge” in various countries. You don’t get a nickname unless it’s widespread and longstanding. I’m quite sure it’s sold in Israel as you can’t serve or use butter with meat under Orthodox dietary laws.

  11. F meal lax-OGG last night, looked just like the picture. Stale bread, one slice turkey, one slice cheese. Nothing else on the sand which, worse than Buy on Board

  12. From the oval shape I wonder if it might be goat cheese or fresh mozzarella which would be a slightly less weird choice. Did you taste it? I would have been far more offended by the dijonaisse (and by the presumably soggy pretzel roll after it absorbed the moisture from the dijonaisse) than by whatever that white cheese is.

    Yes, the combination of things served in an AA domestic meal is chosen by shaking a boggle tray. It’s mix-and-match.

  13. I absolutely disagree with the rest of you about condiments. I don’t want to have to fix my own food. If I order a sandwich of some kind in a restaurant, they’re going to bring it to me ready to eat.

  14. All you folks defending this is why airlines get away with shoddy stuff in the US. You can serve crap and someone here will blame the caterer and not the company that actually is paying for the caterer to make things according to their specified standard.

  15. My first comment ever. I was thrilled to finally have a meal in first class, until I realized all I could eat was the cookie. I AM a picky eater, to be fair, but my sandwich too had two different condiments on it, both sides. Usually I can at least rip the center piece of meat out and eat it if nothing else, but no dice. What happened to the days when the mustard packet was separate? Why not offer me the snack box instead that used to be sold to economy (oh, right, nvm) but seriously, some crackers, hummus, cheese and grapes beats HAVING to be ok with the one and only meal option which is slathered with condiments.

  16. “If I order a sandwich of some kind in a restaurant, they’re going to bring it to me ready to eat.” Except you’re not at a restaurant. I have a friend who often would complain about the steak he would get on his flights, not being cooked right. It’s not a fucking steakhouse with wings. You want a perfect steak, go to a steakhouse, not United Airlines.

  17. I am always amused by comments from american travellers. Their acceptance (and need i say intermittent praise) of absymally low standards compared to international airline service ensures things will only het worse

  18. Gary, how about talking about Deltas dirty old aircraft, cheap delta wine and first class food from a box!
    I heard American caught you doing something shoddy?
    That is your constant negative comments about American is really about!
    So sad!

  19. Kinda makes you want to get a walk with Doug Parker and sit with him at the airport and on a series of flights and ask him, “Are you really proud of this product you are offering?” From the uncomfortable seats, to the lack of IFE, to the unusable lavs, to the quite terrible “meals” – the whole experience. The largest airline in the world shouldn’t be this embarrassing on so many levels.

  20. @Mike Bistro Bags and “More Room in Coach” were pre-9/11. Twenty years ago. I’d say that’s more than “not that long ago”. ‍♀️

  21. You sure Parker even flies AA? If I had his take from the company I’d be on Netjets

    Going for mediocre and close to succ

  22. Regarding serving condiments already in the sandwich vs serving them on the side: I’m pretty sure bulk mayo/cream cheese/mustard/etc is much cheaper than individually portioned and packaged condiments on the side. “Cheaper” is an airline catering gold standard, is it not?

  23. In a country with a 65% morbid obesity rate, you should be given fiber bread and a breath mint.

    I fly Emirates, whose catering contract provides twenty dietary options in economy class.

  24. American has been in the dumps for so long and it keeps getting deeper with each “improvement”
    As far as the dude who commented it was the caterers fault, as Florence Nightingale said “the secret to my success is I never gave or took an excuse”. AA hires AND directs the caterer!
    Lately AA has an excuse for everything. Newsflash! If Delta can figure it out, the jokers at AA should too.

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