The most important element of air travel is your personal space. That means the seat and what surrounds it. That’s always been true, but never more so than during a pandemic when passengers worry the person next to them may get them sick.
- Business class should be a fully flat bed and you shouldn’t have to climb over another passenger, no passenger should climb over you.
- First class means more space and fewer people in the cabin, your personal space extends beyond your seat to a serene cabin rather than a sea of people. It’s ironic that airlines have accelerated the elimination of international first class (amidst a near-total drying up of business travel) which offers the most space per passenger.
- In economy Singapore Airlines offers thoughtful touches with their seat, a foot bar, a cup holder, a bit of extra legroom. But the single most important thing that will determine your experience with a flight is whether or not there’s an empty seat next to you.
After the seat what’s next most important? I’d posit that it isn’t meal or the alcohol. It’s not the lounge on the ground before departure and it isn’t the contents of an amenity kit. It isn’t the inflight entertainment, you really can bring your own (seat power is a must but I include that in the seat). American Airlines CEO Doug Parker says Covid is an opportunity to start his airline from scratch.
So what’s most important starting from scratch? It’s the service. I don’t mean that flight attendants need to be obsequious. I don’t even mean that they are there to serve you. After all if you fly much domestically in the States you know that flight attendants are there primarily for your safety. The head of the largest U.S. flight attendants union says,
“Don’t use the call button to ask for a drink,” Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants told TPG. “As a general rule, don’t think of the call button as your vodka-tonic button.” Nelson explained that it’s “not intended to be for ordering drinks.”
What I mean is whether or not flight attendants seek to engage each passenger or whether they’re actively avoiding engaging with each passenger individually.
Are they friendly and personable — do they stop, listen to what a passenger is asking, whether they’re having a good or bad day, and think about whether it’s possible to get them what they’re after? Or is it an assembly line, are passenger interactions something to get through before returning to People magazine in the galley?
Put another way, whether in the air or on the ground customers want to be treated as human beings rather than self-loading cargo.
- When we’re at the customer service counter we need to get where we’re going and for the most part we’re completely reliant on that airline employee to do so. We’re already having a bad day, and we’re taking the trip for a reason.
- When we’re on the plane there’s very little we can do for ourselves except for what’s in that bag underneath the seat — or maybe walk down the aisle to the lavatory, if the line isn’t too long and the seat belt sign is off (or even when it’s on). We’re not in control of when we’ll get where we’re going, how our seat opponent is behaving, so listening to how we’d like that drink gives a sense of peace, civility and control in a world without any. Skipping by us because we don’t get our drink order out quickly enough does the exact opposite.
Goodness knows there are enough passengers out there whose humanity is questionable at best. But in each instance where that’s the case, they’ve done something to reveal their flaws.
And it’s fair to say that passengers need to treat airline employees with respect, too. I’ve seen too many people unload all their troubles on someone that’s done nothing to deserve it.
However both passengers and employees are entitled to the benefit of the doubt. And when we each give that, the travel experience is so much better, in a way that no amount of turkey sandwiches or Woodford Reserve can compensate for.