As Airlines Lay Off Thousands Of Workers, They Get Rid Of The Best And Keep The Worst

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..

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 they take away our jobs through downsizing, then they close the lounges we love, then they force us to stay at home, then they insist on us wearing masks. So much for living in a free country.

    Our founding fathers would hang their heads in shame at what we are considering acceptable. It’s time we take our country back by whatever means necessary. Freedom is not free, and we must not allow even a global pandemic to take away the freedoms which we hold dear.

  2. This is a great opportunity for companies to RIF non productive or bad apples without paying a price union or not.
    Well managed companies who care about customer service will do this. Poorly run companies will just make sure management bonuses are protected and use the hatchet method as they really don’t care about their product just their own compensation and the stock price.
    Ex GE management just RIFFED everyone over 55 at a company I was at. It wasn’t publicized as that and there was no price paid. Nutron Jack was probably proud of his minion as it cut healthcare costs a ton. This is American exceptionalism- companies can do whatever they want to whomever they choose. Why do what is right when no one cares about right from wrong anymore?

  3. I honestly don’t know why people fly American. So many people are loyal, but its like a dysfunctional marriage. One partner is abusive yet the other won’t leave……..

  4. Unions exist for a reason, and it’s because of the greed of management. They aren’t perfect at all, but please don’t make it seem that because there are rules of seniority baked into the negotiation, it means they don’t care about service levels. Maybe, just maybe, management is the problem with training and treatment of employees and customers, and what you are seeing is a symptom of it? Remember how Oscar made United employees better for a while? That was management making employees feel more a part of the company, and it showed (still did up until covid… Wasn’t great, but it was better than Jeff’s management). There needs to be SOME system of how to let people go, and seniority works best, being that otherwise companies (BA?) may try to fire the higher earners, and keep the lower paid employees.

  5. @Tom – I’m sure the founding fathers really would be proud of your desire to be a lounge lizard in the midst of a global pandemic.

  6. Not that unions have become the miracle answer, but how do you protect employees from the pathetically incorrect actions of management? Of course, what is sacrificed is the ability to keep good employees regardless of their seniority.

    AA is a classic example of bad management instigating crappy employee attitudes personified by the FA’s mantra, “that’s not my job.” The only way to fix AA now is to dissolve its Board for lack of stewardship, and remove its management so they can return to their inferior USAIR environment. Customers are just fools to continue supporting AA given its leadership crisis.

    As maintenance is outsourced with no guarantee of OEM, how soon will it be before FAs are outsourced? Airlines are no longer run by the aviation pioneers, nor even operation or marketing specialists; it shows everyday.

  7. @Gary, when you write that “it’s the most senior employees who stick around – even though they’re often the least motivated and most resentful,” I want to point out that in my long experience, some of the best, most enthusiastic FAs have also been their most senior ones, the ones who have been flying for 30-40 years and still fly because they love flying, they love making passengers feel special. Of course there are also some long-timers who seemingly hate passengers, but it’s not fair to tar all experienced FAs with the same brush.

  8. Probably the pandemic makes it impossible to do, but for a long time I’ve thought it surely would be possible for FAs, their union, and AA management to cooperatively design a program that rewarded outstanding FAs. A good union and good FAs would see that consistently providing a good experience to passengers would allow AA to command a revenue premium, with some of that being passed on to FAs as bonus money.

  9. Isn’t that one point of the the union? To ensure seniority is more important than performance?

  10. As a recently retired flight attendant with 36 yrs. of service I’d like to address some of the previous comments. Passengers may not realize that management places extreme emphasis on making announcements about signing up for the airlines credit card–“1,000 miles if you apply NOW”! and passing out those applications, rather than spending time interacting with and actually helping people. Management will attend FA briefings (pre-flight) to measure the length of the uniform skirt or dress, or demand you remove your earrings if they are larger than a quarter. As long as I am neat in appearance, I don’t think passengers care about my earring size or shade of pantyhose (yes, we may only wear approved brand and shade). Further, we’re constantly harassed and punished for using sick leave, no matter the duration or if accompanied by a doctor’s written verification of being seen by that doctor and confirmed as being too ill to fly. We get a lot of nasty germs flying around with hundreds of people, much less Covid-19. While these factors should not affect customer service, they are an example of the company’s priorities. Constant understaffing DOES affect service-we’re expected to do more with less. Relaying customer complaints or concerns to the company is met with a “we’ll get back to you on that” to a flight attendant suggestion regarding service or customer dissatisfaction. In short, it is frustrating to be given the cold shoulder when we advocate for passenger’s rights. I miss flying, and I miss “my” passengers, but I don’t miss the harassment from management!

  11. Really? Really people!
    This is not true.
    Concentrate on the real problem.
    The CEO and management.

  12. I am an airline employee. I disagree with your views toward union employees. There are many reasons why we are unionized. Most of which are because of management mistreatment of its employee workforce. When the company is in negotiations they drag their feet extending contracts for years past the expiration of the contracts. They take away pay progression for the newer employees. They take away profit sharing. They are currently positioning for us to take paycuts or reduction in hours. These cuts will take 10 years or better to get back.
    All of this happens then the management gets their bonuses, stocks, and buyouts at multimillions.This company can not provide the product without it’s workforce, It most certainly can operate with removal of many of its directors and above from a top heavy leadership team.

  13. Never let a crisis go to waste. Wall Street continues to stay green, bullish with each new announcement of layoffs, store closures, and bankruptcies. Something to that?

  14. Oh Gary.. sitting around in his old man undies trying to figure out what to write when there’s no where for him travel. This article is boring and feels like a gossipy girl trying to make something entertaining out of nothing. Lame.

  15. I Totally agree because I am one of them. UA is losing all the old Continental Flight Attendants out of fear of losing our retirement we are leaving with heavy hearts. UA is losing some of the finest work group, the FA that are leaving are some of the hardest working. I will miss working with them.

  16. Having worked at a non union carrier based in Atl for decades, I can assure you that if you mess with a flight attendants seniority you will have s*** to pay. That includes mergers, acquisitions, etc. It will NEVER change. Periodt.

  17. No way I never flight on AA they don’t care about safety, there is pandemic and they book flights as crazy have every one sear together not social distance. And not services during the flight.I rather fly on Jetblue o Delta those airlines are still keeping social distance and beverages services


  19. @Tom–the Founding Fathers would kick the SHIT out of you for being an ignorant, selfish MORON!

  20. Tom would have died in the Founding Fathers days. There was no system to save the stupid from themselves back then, they would just let them die of their stupidity.

  21. @Tom,
    Talk to us when you stop paying taxes. Until then, st*u.

    Founding Fathers didn’t extract income tax from the citizens of this “free” country, so why should you pay that, yeah?

  22. 20 years ago, the title “flight attendant” was adopted and certification from the FAA received. It is time to rename this group as “inflight first responders”. Standards for physical and cognitive fitness should be re-introduced with a mandatory retirement age. This would be a great start to insure a healthy. Happy customer service experience….

  23. Really Gary? What a ridiculous article that made me laugh.

    We’re you dumped by a flight attendant in the past?

  24. I am a 34 year flight attendant and still enjoy my job. This career allows us the opportunity to make more money with longevity. Please keep in mind that the lower wage scale flight attendants have no intention of leaving by choice either. Nor do I want them too. However, please clarify good service? Is it the young sexy female or male standing at the door greeting you in between their texting? Or perhaps it’s your “idea” of what a great flight attendant is? Sounds archaic to me. Perhaps you need training in profiling and maybe then you can justify how you are abusing your status as a reporter? Furthermore, I recently had a medical emergency on my flight. After CPR , Oxygen, the man passed away due to an overdose. The junior flight attendant stood in the galley crying and did not help. In the meantime, the other two 30+ year flight attendants assisted. We have good flight attendants and bad. We have lazy ones at all seniority levels. Management is very out of touch with customers. Management looks at “ideas” of service standards that are unrealistic. Many of the reports of what we need fall on deaf ears. The problem is that management needs to wake up. Management needs to work these flights where they have to explain to a customer why they can’t sit somewhere. Management needs to explain why we don’t have enough of our cheap snacks for everyone. Management needs to see the passenger that is crying because a delay has caused them to miss saying goodbye to a loved one forever. Our job has to deal with people like yourself that think I need to find a new career. I enjoy my customers tremendously. I’m sorry you don’t understand that. I can only hope your future travels include a center seat, next to the bathroom where your seat won’t recline and the wifi is down and we ran out of snacks and beverages of your choice by the time we get to your row. Maybe then you will understand better “my” trials and the enormous amount of apologies that I have passed out the past 34 years.

  25. Tom, find another career… suck!! you are part of this world’s ugliness right now.

  26. This article is filled with countless inaccuracies, I don’t even know which ones to address first . You clearly have never worked for an airline . Despite being a frequent flyer this article is very flawed . You have no idea what you’re talking about .

  27. Your biggest complaints seem to be about older people and drinks. I’m gonna guess that you’ve been cut off more than once (by someone old enough to have good boundaries) and you’re full of resentment about it. Sir, “free drinks” in premium seats is not “unlimited drinks.”

  28. Gary, you sound like a pretty big PITA. Management puts out messages that say absolutely nothing. They will not commit to any procedure or conflict resolution so they can throw the crews under the bus at anytime. Maybe you struck out a few times with Flight Attendants and have a grudge. I would hate to have you on a flight as you sound like a Prima Donna and need to fly private.

  29. Seriously? I’ve never read your blog until just now. You sound like a womanizing, ageist, frequent flyer that thinks that they know what is happening in the world of flight attendants. You are so misinformed that I can’t even believe you’re an actual journalist. Oh, and please get a proof reader. You make a ghastly amount of grammatical errors for a journalist. It literally sounds like you interviewed to be a flight attendant multiple times and failed to get this “dream job”
    You also sound petty and juvenile.
    Perhaps you should rethink your career choices.

  30. Where do I start, you kicked up a hornet’s nest and you knew it was one deserves more respect than an experienced flight attendant. They do love their jobs, they experience hourly situations you’d never dream of; do CPR, console family members with loved one dead traveling in cargo, attending to unaccompanied children caught in divorces traveling unhappily thru holidays across the world, deal with toddlers running loose during turbulence, flying after only 3 days to grieve for their own loved ones death( and being told to smile more from strangers), have 15 hr days with 8 hrs rest including waiting 2 hrs for hotel van and dirty rooms, having sick family members and being thousands of miles away, having smelly people around your work space for hours and handing you garbage( including urine bags, diapers, needles, vomit), oh and “I need another drink”, I’m special, special food,special drinks,special needs, Give me a break, offer them enough money live not in poverty in any city, with healthcare, for Gods sake, 20 yrs 30 yrs, 40 yrs..they sure deserve it.God bless them.

  31. I have been a flight attendant for 36 years. I have a Master’s Degree. I love my job and I love providing outstanding service to customers — it is what I’m good at. I am capable of having intelligent conversations with people, I take interest in people and strive to make each customer I serve feel special. When they are disappointed with my Company, I do my best to “turn them around” by showing them loving kindness. What I do not appreciate is someone making the assumption that I’m an inferior employee because I’m not pretty, vacuous or efficient. I am much better at my job than I was 36 years ago. I’ve got nothing to prove. I am there to look after people. True, I don’t stand for customers who feel entitled to abuse or debase me or other colleagues. But trust me, on a 15-hour flight you would be in much better hands with me than a 20-year-old fresh out of training school with nice teeth and officious attitude.

  32. So the talk about the union they have isn’t doing anything. They have a “in-house” union. Very different then having a normal one…ask them and they will tell you it’s better then nothing BUT they would rather have a real union that gets things done!

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