Settling the American Airlines Flagship Dining Tipping Debate Once and For All

Shortly after writing a review of the new American Airlines Flagship First Dining in Los Angeles, Lucky at One Mile at a Time wrote a post with advice on tipping in the lounge.

You’re eating restaurant-quality food and receiving very personalized service. There’s a bartender and there are servers and most of the time in Flagship First Dining you’ll be the only one there being taken care of.

Flagship First Dining New York JFK

He points out that the Air Canada Signature Suite in Toronto has a policy against tipping, however he writes that “[t]ipping in Flagship First Dining is appreciated, but not expected.” He suggests,

The truth is that I think the servers appreciate any tips, because based on my observations a vast majority of people don’t tip. So I think even a $5 tip would be greatly appreciated. Personally I’ve tipped $20 every time I’ve used Flagship First Dining. In reality that’s probably less than 15-20% of the “fair value” of the meal, given that I have drinks, multiple courses, etc.

Corn Chowder with Corn Fritters, Flagship First Dining Miami

I took some exception to this. I don’t like tipping, it creates awkwardness and confusion, but I agree that’s frequently not the fault of the servers themselves.

At the end of your meal they present a thank you card that looks like a check along with airplane chocolates. Here’s the ‘check’ from Flagship Dining in Miami:

There’s nothing to sign. But when you’re presented with what looks like a bill psychologically you’re in the mindset to pay. I understand how someone might think that in Flagship Dining tipping is even expected.

I put the question to American’s Senior Vice President for Los Angeles Suzanne Boda who told me that tipping is not permitted in Flagship First Dining. That’s not just LA, it’s supposed to be standard across the First Dining locations. They consider First Dining, in LAX Managing Director Jim Moses’ words, “an extension of the cabin.”

In practice I’m sure that staff will accept tips if given, though it sounded as though it would be a major infraction for staff to be the ones suggesting it. Flight attendants aren’t allowed to accept tips, though they frequently will accept boxes of chocolate or Starbucks gift cards.

In terms of what’s actually expected though? No tipping in Flagship Dining.

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. can u use those great service cards ? i always give those to flight attendants and they seem to love them.

  2. Thank you for researching and sharing this.

    Tipping is indeed a despicable, discriminatory, and yes, annoying practice. The more we can do to push back against it while ensuring people get a living wage, the better.

  3. Do you tip the bartender at Centurion lounges? I wonder why folks tip the bartender and not the other service people.

  4. Beachfan: Because tipping is basically dumb and irrational. No one tips the people who clean the bathrooms in the Centurion Lounges (or elsewhere) either, and I am fairly certain their job is far less pleasant and far worse paying than that of the bartender.

    SPC: I tip generously at traditional restaurants; many times, these folks are barely getting minimum wage. I am pretty sure the folks in the flagship lounges, however, are getting far more than minimum wage AND did not take the job with an expectation of receiving tips.

  5. Interesting subject, I honestly hadn’t thought of tipping in those circumstances but am relieved to see I wasn’t missing anything I should’ve been doing!

  6. There’s an exception to every rule.
    Obviously, Adam has never used any of the bathrooms at Saratoga …known locally as the “flat track”..

  7. Although the idea of tipping at all, for anything, might be silly and irrational, for whatever reason it’s something that exists in American society and it can be crucial to the income of service staff. I tip $2 per drink in the AC, although I’m sure any amount is appreciated. I wonder if the people who say tipping is not necessary in Flagship also don’t tip in AC? If so I wonder what the difference in thinking is.
    When I am at a restaurant during mock service / test meals / friends and family, I still tip even though there is no bill, I was served a multiple course meal with drinks the same way it would occur any other time, so why wouldn’t I tip?
    If I ever get lucky enough to be in Flagship I will surely keep tipping there too.

  8. Lucky is a bit of a prig. Tipping in a friggin lounge is ridiculous, especially as many pay to enter. Glad American confirmed no tipping policy.

  9. Joey, you undoubtedly believe you’re doing the right thing. But have you considered the mid- to longer-term ramifications of your tipping support?

    Look at the Marriott example. They actually basically begged customers to subsidize their housekeepers’ wages. If they get enough people to follow their request, do you think Marriott has ANY incentive to then raise housekeepers’ wages? No, by foisting the responsibility to support their staff upon customers, they’re basically wiping their hands and saying, hey housekeepers, sorry, but we did our best to have customers give you money!

    In other words, basically by tipping, you’re letting employers off the hook. YOU are paying the wages and at the end of the day (or, more realistically, at the end of the year or years), the employee will be making little if any more money than they would have had employers been pressured to basically pay decent, living wages to all employees.

    And all this aside, do some web searching on “tipping discriminatory” to learn more about the system you’re supporting and perpetuating.

  10. @adam makes sound arguments in my book. I spent time in service industry and support his opinion. American society needs to dump tipping. The restaurants need to pay staff fairly. That’s it, end of story.

  11. It is always beyond me why people would need be tipped to perform their job. It’s your job! That’s why you are doing it! If the salary’s bad then change the law in Congress!

    For sure tip when someone’s truly gone above and beyond, but for the regular job duties, sometimes badly performed no less, where does the entitlement and expectation come from? Why would I want to tip a taxi driver, for example, when all he/she’s done is driving? And if you tip the driver, why not your accountant, lawyer, travel agent, etc?

    I still tip because I understand that’s how it works for now, but folks this really one of the weirdest thing and I wonder just how some of you are able to normalize it and talk about it as if it were something to be proud of.

  12. Remember this is the same person who after getting majorly ripped off by a cab driver in Israel, still tipped the driver that ripped him off.

    Why would anyone take tipping advice from him?

    Glad you go to the bottom of this. Tipping must go.

  13. I just wish that Americans would not bring their tipping culture with them when they travel outside the United States, to countries where it isn’t customary to do so. The local staff then start expecting tips from everyone!

  14. Like any intelligent, critically thinking person, I’m disgusted by the way tipping is practiced in the United States.

    Of course I believe everyone deserves fair pay for their work, which is why I personally tip in line with social norms.

    But it’s downright abhorrent how the norm is driven by guilt, shame, and negative reinforcement — “sure it’s technically optional but if you don’t tip you’re an asshole” — it makes me furious that my generosity — which is what it is, I’m giving away money to a stranger at my discretion — is interpreted not as generosity but as an expectation.

    Bravo to AA for this stance.

  15. Great idea to actually ask them (rather than assume how much the meal would have cost had it not been free and tip 20% of that).

  16. If that’s a policy, AA please put a sign somewhere explicitly stating it. It will save the guest guessing, wondering and maybe even feeling a little bad for not tipping, and make it a more enjoyable experience.

  17. @Sherman — absolutely agree.

    Most U.S. companies are despicable as they use tipping as a way to deny paying a living wage. They even lobbied Congress to be able to do so.

    Studies show tipping to be discriminatory and correlated to bribery. For example, limo drivers often tip hotel doormen, and doormen often adapt by not giving a trip to (calling) a limo driver who doesn’t tip. And white young women are tipped most, even when adjusted for perceived service quality.

    The more we can do to push back against it while ensuring people get a living wage, the better it is for society. Kudo to AA for having this policy; now advertise it.

  18. @Jason

    Yeah, that’s what I find most perplexing about the whole tipping thing. Waitstaff/bartenders in.a traditional restaurant/bar aside, the arguments in favor of tipping are exactly as you portray… and it makes no sense to me. In only a very narrow set of circumstances is it my business to concern myself with whether staff are paid appropriately. I have absolutely zero interest in concerning myself with other people’s pay any more than I absolutely have to.

  19. Starbucks is the worst for using tips to pay their employees a low wage. Starbucks is a glorified fast food place. Do you tip at McDonalds? At Chikfila I can order from their app and they will bring the order to my car. That is service. Starbucks doesn’t do that. When I can sit down at table at Starbucks and an employee takes my order, brings my drink to me, and then checks up to make sure it is to my liking then I will tip at Starbucks. I do not leave tips in places where I wait in a line to place and receive my order.

  20. I would love to hear what Lucky thinks about tipping in the lounge going forward after hearing this.

  21. So why does it cost $3.50 for a PLASTIC bottle of water in the Admiral’s Club. And then get a look of “where is my cut.”
    The water costs much less than .50 cents each ! All flyers want to do is take a bottle of water with them to their Business or FC seat. Is that hard for management to figure out?

  22. Wait, since American considers the First lounge is an extension of the First cabin and there is no tipping allowed there does that mean they consider the Business lounge is an extension of the Business cabin and there is no tipping allowed there, like at the bar?

  23. @Confused “does that mean they consider the Business lounge is an extension of the Business cabin and there is no tipping allowed there, like at the bar?”

    American’s “business lounges” are Flagship lounges with self pour bars. So no tipping!

    Admirals Clubs have tended bars. People often though not always tip. I do not tip when handing over a voucher for a bottle of water.

  24. 1) At the AA lounge in Miami this week, a woman with a cart next to the bar was making complimentary guacamole during late afternoon. Right next to the bowl of guacamole she had a pile of $1 and $5 bills – as a reminder that we could pay her for the complimentary snack. I noticed she gave extra large portions to those who did so. I pay the $450/yr for the Citi Admiral’s card (which I seldom use do to the locations I have been visiting lately) and I find it somewhat annoying to be shamed into paying more. I need to keep the smaller cash bills for porters and shuttle drivers.
    2) The problem with tipping at Marriott was leaving cash on a daily basis that we could not charge to our room.
    3) The recipient of cash tips is supposed to declare them as income (or be a tax evader). When we go to garage sales and pay cash we are usually enabling the buyer/seller to evade sales tax.
    Is the tip-making segment of the population keeping track? And what is the VALUE of a dollar that does not have sales tax AND/OR income tax deducted from it? If Lucky left $20 cash for a restaurant charge that could have been worth multiple dining points – how much more did he give up in value???
    I’m just saying…..

  25. @Lulu: interesting points. I did tip the bartenders at the Admirals Lounge at DFW a few weeks ago but did not tip the lovely lady making guacamole. Strange that didn’t even occur to me. At Marriotts I tip the housekeepers, the executive lounge staff, and even tipped one front desk clerk who was extremely helpful in allowing me to change rooms. So go ahead and shoot me down, people.

  26. I would not tip in a first class lounge. Hello, this lounge is a privilege of flying first class. Now, for the regular lounges. I go by what I was told by a friend who is bartender at a United Club. Most people do tip the bartender, especially if the passenger is a repeater who drinks a specific mixed drink. He knows his customers and soon as they walk in, he starts making their drinks. I would tip in that instance as well. My friend is giving customized service. The tips aren’t a lot, $1-2 per drink,. But for him it represents a considerable part of his income. He doesn’t have his hand out either!

  27. Everyone has to have the approach they’re comfortable with. For years I never left a tip for the person who cleans my room at a hotel. It just never occurred to me. Now I do every day. In a airport lounge I leave a dollar along with the empty glass at the table where I was sitting. It’s the people you don’t directly interact with that get forgotten.

    I would never tell you what you should do but it should be a conscious decision not to leave a tip because you don’t think they deserve it rather than it never occurring to you.

  28. In the Amex Centurion airport lounges, the toilets have been sanitized for your protection. If you desire, you can tip the bartender for the two-ply toilet paper. For Amex cardholders, membership has its privileges.

  29. Just tipped the Flagship First Dining server $5 at JFK after receiving blank, like a bill receipt similar to yr post pic. She held out her hand to take it w/out hesitation. AA Executives haven’t rolled out no tipping policy to JFK AA Flagship employees obviously.

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