Does United Airlines Have The Answer To Improving Flight Attendant Service?

At most U.S. airlines if a flight attendant provides great service it’s because of their own inner drive. It’s not because of any training program or incentives that the company has set up.

One of the most frustrating thing I hear from cabin crew all the time is about the small percentage of their colleagues who are slackers, who perform poorly and do as little work as possible (increasing the workload for everyone else). This is frustrating because there’s usually very little consequence. And seeing poor performers do just as well as those who provide exemplary service is demoralizing.

This isn’t strictly a union versus non-union issue. While in general Delta’s non-union flight attendants have seemed happier with their jobs and friendlier to customers than American’s, Southwest Airlines unionized flight attendants are generally more than pleasant too. Southwest does, however, manage to push out disgruntled employees, about 1/7th of 1% per year.

U.S. airlines mostly discipline for attendance, not poor service, and there’s little they can do to change this culture – or so it seems. United Airlines is actually trying something new: sharing passenger feedback from each flight directly with cabin crew.

United surveys passengers on their flight experience – satisfaction with service, whether they were thanked, whether cabin crew were visible throughout the flight, and whether they were friendly. You might think that only people who complain fill out surveys but “In 2020, United flight attendants received over 20,000 compliments.”

  • United is starting a test April 1 to share survey feedback with Chicago and Honolulu-based cabin crew flying certain routes

  • The airline will roll out surveys in-app and via seat back entertainment screens.

The question – and it’s a really interesting one – is will direct customer feedback (anonymized, after a flight) be taken constructively, causing employees to try to do better? Will positive feedback reinforce an employee’s desire to perform well? It’s still not a monetary reward. Their position in the company isn’t necessarily enhanced. But we all like positive feedback, and to do those things which garners it. And if it’s clear how to avoid negative feedback, that could shape behavior as well.

This could easily go wrong and I wonder whether United will actually censor some of the comments. Feedback provided anonymously via a keyboard can be mean-spirited and foul-mouthed. Believe me, I get some every day!

Still, in a world where U.S. airlines have few tools for encouraging good service and competing forces that demoralize crew into working as little as some of their colleagues get away with, this is an interesting experiment.

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. This is entirely dependent on the personality of the FA receiving the feedback. Some will take it constructively, while others will scoff and continue to perform poorly. Seems pointless to me.

  2. Studies have shown again and again the racial bias that comes with such customer feedback. It is the same with tipping, where studies similarly show white servers get bigger tips than African American. Flight attendants can also get dinged for doing their job correctly, e.g. enforcing rules. That is true in my profession (college professor) as well, where junior faculty often fear student evaluations because they measure how much students like them rather than how much students are learning from them. The job is supposed to be about enabling students to learn, not about getting students to like them. Colleagues do a better job than students evaluating how well professors teach and I suspect it is the same with flight attendants.

  3. @Bob: You strive to be better, not comparing to the worst and think “I am pretty good already”, correct? How about “Fly Vietnam Airlines, Cathay, Asiana, Singapore, Thai once and US FAs should realize that they need to improve many areas”.

  4. Delta has been doing surveys for a few years – why is this new? I’m sure the feedback is shared with FAs and the rest of the crew. Their employees always seem to be on-point in genuinely creating a good overall travel experience and this is one reason they can charge a premium over UA and AA.

  5. One of the things that is great about being a Delta Platinum or Diamond is that you get crew recognition certificates you can give to those who do a great job. I love giving them out to FAs who are providing great and friendly service. Every time I have given one, the FA has been very appreciative. I believe they can redeem the certain for awards or incentives.

  6. I have been involved in customer satisfaction feedback for a number of years but not in aviation and this can be very useful.

    To make it work the responses should not be given cold to the staff but analysed first so the feedback is based on the trend and the outliers are removed e.g. Mr ComplainAboutEverything or Little Miss EverythingIsAwesome.

    This works best when there is some kind of reward attached to results or at least recognition given.

  7. Of the big 3 mainline US carriers I’ve consistently had the best experience before and after I had status, flying B or J on Delta. And the worst experiences on AA. It’s a primary reason fly more on DL when I can. At airports where service generally lags like NYC airports, I’m still surprised when I have a bad service experience with DL. Whereas with UA and AA its more like 50/50 even flying J. DL also provided top tier elites with ‘Above and Beyond’ vouchers to directly give to reps (any dl employee not just FAs) who provide outstanding service, 4 per year. This was suspended during the pandemic but I hope it resumes. When it comes to employee performance in this context the carrot is more powerful than the stick if you want to change culture.

  8. As a Purser Delta flight attendant, Erik is on point. DL has been doing this for years. As for feedback both good and bad, I have personally received it so many times I can’t remember. Once I received feedback directly from a DL manager upon arriving at a gate in Atlanta when a Diamond two million miler had complained (in-flight) about an issue with his meal. DL flight attendants receive a report each month based on their feedback they work as individuals. Pursers receive more feedback about EVERY issue that happened on their flights and are rated based on that feedback. Are DL (non-union) flight attendants better than AA/UA (unionized) flight attendants? I don’t think so. We are just different based on who we are as individuals, and not as a collective group.

  9. Crewmembers could start by smartening up. I’ve never seen such a more slovenly bunch as United crew. Dirty shoes, creased clothing and, dirty uniforms, so dirty, they’re shinny! No pride whatsoever!

  10. Singapore has instant anonymous feedback after passing immigration, upon exiting restrooms and in many other places.
    Airlines absolutely should have feedback for the gate crew, flight attendants and pilots on the app. Sending out a same-day feedback email to every passenger is a second-best option.

  11. AA gives elite members little certificates they can hand to FAs for extraordinarily in-flight service. I use them when I receive such service, and the FA always seems excited and thankful upon receiving them. There’s some selection bias there, of course—those who take pride in delivering great service are going to take pride on being given feedback for such service—but I certainly like being able to give a gesture of thanks.

    I’m one of those people who takes the post-flight surveys and offers compliments when do, so it’s not shocking to me that UA hears compliments as well as complaints.

    We’ll see if it makes a difference, but I applaud UA for trying! And I think it could work to raise overall morale—when you see that there are passengers who appreciate you, you’re more likely to (a) realize that the skies are full of people who don’t just take you for granted, and (b) perhaps extend that effort more of the time.

  12. I am a long time Executive Platinum AA customer. Over 30 years as a frequent flyer I have watched as service by FAs has been in a steady down trend. I think much of it is corporate culture. When AA merged with US it was easy to identify the US flight crews. If a company places importance on treating customers well it will take steps to train personnel to do so and put in ways to hold slackers accountable and provide incentives to those who do a good job. AA does provide elites with award certificates to hand out when service is great. I typically give all of mine out each year. I also reply to surveys sent to me for a specific flight but those are only sent by AA on rare occasions. I have used the customer comment email on many occasions to both compliment and complain about flight or gate personnel. I live in a smaller market so I fly American Eagle to get to the hub and quite a few of my destinations also have American Eagle crews. I purchase first class seats always and even in first class the service on American Eagle is often terrible. I have not flown due to covid for over a year but from what I hear it has only gotten worse with FAs using covid as an additional reason to do nothing. The opposite should occur since their jobs depend on getting people to fly again. On AA flights I always assumed I had a 50/50 chance of getting poor service. On American Eagle it was more like 75/25. Again I believe it goes back to corporate culture. When you have the CEO talking about pursuing efficiency instead of talking about providing great service to the customer it is easy to understand why AA is at the bottom of the barrel in service. Delta does not serve my airport so it is not an option but if UA service improves I may give it a try when I resume air travel.

  13. @Mike – you’re spot on in many ways. I will add that over 30 years, service culture has generally declined across America. Service workers have never been paid well, but they’ve been given more and more of the shaft as time has gone on. Income inequality manifests in service workers having contempt for customers. Thus, we see an increase of power trips and insubordination (the customer is not always right but the customer is always the customer).

  14. Giving certain passengers certificates they can share with airline employees doing an exemplary or above and beyond job is nothing new.
    United gave their elite fliers “Going the Extra Mile” certificates to share as far back as the 90s.

  15. In the early 2010s United gave all elites employee recognition certs. I remeber that as a premier silver I recieved a couple that were attached to the Premier kit. It’s too bad that you cant recognize employees other than writing in. Its also too bad that elite kits are largely a thing of the past despite many elites saying otherwise. I miss the cards the most.

  16. When DL started a similar program some comments were personal attacks rather than constructive service review. The program was reformatted to scrub comments that had no bearing on service and that were derogatory, sexist, racist or homophobic.

    Any program like this will not be perfect and should be used with caution.

  17. @P Ness I don’t have sufficient information to get into a discussion about what FAs are paid and whether it is adequate for the service they provide. But FAs took the job knowing the pay scale. There is a work ethic that is lacking very often. If you have a job do it well. I get on one American Eagle or American Airlines flight and they announce it is a short flight so we will only do a water service. Water service consists of a FA walking down the aisle quickly with a bottle of room temp water and a stack of cups. The next time I am on the same flight the FAs provide a full drink service. What is the difference other than some FAs use any excuse to sit in their seats and look at their phones. I always try to fly non-US based carriers when I fly international . The service is always better. When I was in Australia the Qantas crew provided a full meal service in Business Class and a snack in coach for a one hour flight from Sydney to Brisbane. On a one hour flight on American Eagle it is a craps shoot if you will get any service at all other than a glass of tepid water, not much better on American Airlines.
    Companies have the ability to monitor service. I am a rewards member of a restaurant chain that has everything from casual to up scale steak house restaurants. Within minutes after dining I receive an email with basically 2 questions about my experience. This is a company that has thousands of restaurants and many thousands of customers every day. If I respond negatively I get a phone call within 48 hours to get more information. Needless to say I have only had one bad service experience in many years of dining because the server knows I will be asked every time about the service. If airlines were serious about service they could easily replicate this system and FAs and gate personnel would know to provide good service or be found out. It would be very easy to send an email survey to every passenger that is enrolled in their frequent flyer program at the end of every flight.

  18. As an FA for 38 yrs started my career at TWA we flew all over the world and were treated with respect. People showed courtesy and dressed up , now it is Greyhound in the sky. Fights breaking out everywhere , people want everything for nothing , gimme gimme but don’t you dare charge me for it. The culture has changed sadly , bring back regulations and raise ticket prices.

  19. I was a purser for NWA flying JFK to NRT . For awhile the company asked us to hand out ( and collect) surveys to the passengers inflight. During the quiet time of the flight I always asked the Japanese flight attendant to translate the surveys I could not read. At the hotel, when I could not sleep, I sorted all the comments into piles of things I had no control of…and things I could change.
    Before the flight home at our crew briefing I shared a couple of the comments and the crew was happy to make the changes. When we arrived back at JFK the deplaning took a lot longer than usual because EVERY Japanese passenger stopped and bowed and thanked EACH flight attendant on their way out the door. The next trip was with almost all the same crew and when we arrived in NRT the deplaning was the same. The Tokyo gate agents had NEVER seen anything like this happen. At the end of the month, I thanked each flight attendant for making it such a pleasant month and it was obvious to me , for them it was the first time of experiencing job satisfaction. NWA never shared with us any of the information from those surveys..but I did and it made an immediate impact on my crew , our service and our customers enjoyment on a very long flight.

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