Early in the pandemic I warned you to be indispensable in your job, that we were in recession and work from home couldn’t be an excuse to let up at work. A lot of jobs would be lost and you needed to position yourself so that yours wouldn’t be one of them.
In normal times performance matters at work. That’s not true at airlines, and certainly not true during these times. Non-union workers are being let go en masse, and at a scale where it’s difficult to separate the poor performers from the stars. And union employees mostly see jobs preserved or lost based on seniority alone – performance and value creation for the company have literally nothing to do with the decision.
Pre-pandemic American Airlines flight attendants would sometimes refuse to serve drinks in main cabin extra, and demand an additional flight attendant to do so in premium economy.
American’s flight attendants would allow people to switch seats in coach into extra legroom Main Cabin Extra seats – or not – at whim. The airline went back and forth over whether switching was allowed, before saying that it wasn’t but that flight attendants didn’t have to enforce it.
Now with scaled-back inflight service, American Airlines has continued to offer drink service where even Delta stopped – but some flight attendants just didn’t do it. Reports of this were rampant.
And flight attendants didn’t follow the airline’s change in rules (probably didn’t know about it) to allow passengers to change seats in the cabin for social distancing.
One such incident garnered coverage this past week in the New York Times, where a flight attendant wouldn’t let passengers move to extra legroom seats in order to social distance because those are more expensive – contrary to american’s current rules that permits this (main cabin extra doesn’t currently get free alcohol as it used to).
On a June 30 flight on American Airlines from Dallas to Newark, Joy Gonzalez, an aviation engineer based in Seattle, found herself seated at a window with two older passengers beside her in the middle and aisle seats. In order to gain more social distance, she and the aisle passenger both moved to seats behind them where two rows were empty. But before takeoff, a flight attendant ordered them back to their assigned seats, telling them they had not paid for those exit row seats, which are more expensive.
A second flight attendant listened to Ms. Gonzalez’s request, consulted with the other attendants and gave her two options: Take your assigned seat or return to the gate and pay for the exit row. As the flight was on the verge of departing, she sat down.
Too often flight attendants don’t even bother to read their service updates, they learn about what they’re supposed to be doing via rumor. And even during normal times they receive scant training and very little service training, let alone being held accountable for delivering that service. American ran employees through “elevate the everyday experience” or “elevate” training but that was largely about being present and acknowledging customer concerns and not providing good service.
With 20% – 30% more people than they need in a normal company this would be an opportunity for a reset, but it’s the most senior employees who stick around – even though they’re often the least motivated and most resentful of the company, and certainly the ones who have learned over the years that they can do or not do what they want and the consequences and rewards are the same for them either way.
U.S. airlines like American and United will never deliver great service as long as job prospects bear no relation whatsoever to doing so. Southwest Airlines, of course, manages to provide cheerful service while being unionized – a function of its culture, that it does shed more employees for performance even within a union framework, and that there’s simply less service to deliver under the airline’s model.
Carriers have offered buy outs to leave early in hopes of minimizing furloughs – they should consider offering more money to senior employees, which saves money in the long run because furloughs keep the most expensive crew. Less expensive and newer employees alone aren’t an answer for better service, contracts need to be changed to tie job prospects and compensation to individual performance, something traditionally an anathema to collective bargaining..