How to Start Turning Around Bad Service at US Airlines

Southwest Airlines flight attendants are unionized. They offer some of the best service in the US airline industry. American Airlines has some fantastic flight attendants, but the service customers receive is like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates. American Airlines flight attendants are unionized as well, in fact flight attendants at both airlines have been represented by the Transportation Workers Union (TWU).

I’ve been struggling to understand why US airlines don’t live up to the service provided by carriers abroad, and though I do think the work rules that make it entirely up to a given flight crew member to provide superior service rather than being rewarded (or risking their job) based on their performance with customers, it’s clearly not a simple story of union versus non-union. Southwest versus American underscores that, and Delta flight attendants aren’t unionized yet I’d place the average service experience between these other two airlines.

I asked TWU Air Division Director Mike Mayes why we get such different service outcomes at the two airlines. He suggests,

Bob Crandall was a business man, and he built American Airlines to serve business people. You board with your status, and the company is completely profit-based. When he left, American’s workforce felt even less tied to the company – it really just became a job.

At Southwest, Herb Kelleher built an entirely different model – totally employee-based. Southwest’s workers, despite their issues with management, feel extremely loyal to the company. Customer service drives their entire company. And to an extent, we see that in the way the companies interact with our members, but at the end of the day, both American and Southwest’s profits are saying, and they owe that profitability in part to the work of TWU’s workforce.

I don’t agree with Mayes that an airline focused on business travelers is going to alienate employees and lead to bad service. But my takeaway from this answer is corporate culture matters. And I think Mayes is right about that.

While the union is focused on getting the best deal possible for its members, good service isn’t simply about high pay. Employees do have to feel as though they’re being paid fairly (which is very context-dependent — it’s about the amount of pay, which will require more money in the U.S. than in some parts of the world, and it’s about how pay is determined and how and why it’s changed over time). If employees don’t feel pay is fair they will grow to resent their jobs.

But pay alone isn’t going to motivate service, even where pay varies based on satisfaction scores. I recently write that motivated employees need to like and respect their colleagues, and need to feel like part of a team with a shared sense of purpose.

As Mayes suggests, that shared sense of purpose exists at Southwest. Perhaps it was easier to build there,

  • Starting fresh in the early 70s
  • And starting as an underdog, under siege from the major carriers who didn’t want the government to even allow them to stay in business

But it was also the result of a culture that Herb Kelleher gets a lot of credit for, perhaps even too much credit, there was a whole team that built the airline and its culture and Kelleher wasn’t even the airline’s initial President when they were truly underdogs.

Doug Parker may dress up for Halloween, but Kelleher appeared in a tongue in cheek take on Chicago’s Super Bowl Shuffle all about having fun. Southwest employees clearly are having fun on the job.

But how do you ‘make’ employees have fun? That’s never authentic. Corporate efforts at forced fun always come off as contrived and the response is eye-rolling, not culture change. Doug Parker wants to pay employees more, thinking that will make them love their jobs, provide good service, and… profit. It’s not that simple.

Parker has also talked about giving employees a product they can be proud of, but then he’s introducing the least comfortable airline seats in the history of US legacy airlines.

United’s Oscar Munoz wants “5000 Jennas” has been listening to employees, giving them raises, and yet United’s the one whose passenger was dragged down an aisle and bloodied, and after promising employees would stop calling the police in response to customer service challenges did just that.

There’s no question turning around a legacy US airline is hard, context matters and there’s a ton of it. Maybe there’s no leader today in the industry who can do it. But there’s a window of opportunity at this point for a major network competitor to offer reliability and service if only because there’s not yet one occupying the space and being the low cost provider is an increasingly crowded place for a competitor to be.

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. Let’s not sell us airlines short. I have had many stellar staff on us based airlines, and alot of robotic staff on foreign airlines. Is there a difference? Yes, but it’s not as stark as some try to make it.

  2. I vote for more competition on the USA. Maybe a little fear could provide motivation.

  3. The changes has come from the top and should trickle down sometime middle management doesn’t relay the message correctly to the lower staff so staff still act as the old way and new staff get trained by old staff and get the habit of the old staff. So the roller-coaster continues. Foreign FA attitude is we are here to serve and protect you but for US airlines is we are here to protect you and you can get your own water unless you are in first class and maybe I will think about it notion.

  4. Take it from an old timer, the U.S. carriers have always been the “garbage airlines” of the world. The only U.S. airline that came close to offering service found on a foreign flag carrier was Pan Am in its best days before it absorbed National (then it really started to go downhill) But here’s what likely made that difference: Pan Am cabin crews were 40-45% foreign nationals!

  5. Herb Kelleher gets too much credit? Gee, ya think? There are multiple web pages detailing his _extensive_ copying of PSA to build Southwest.

    Is lack of competition the problem? Well, no one seems to complain about the service on Alaska or Virgin. If they acted like AA or UA, they’d go under. Competition works. Open up the airports to competitors, and the problem would be solved.

    Here’s the rub: the die has been cast at the legacies. The legacies cannot change, not without firing all the employees and starting over. Just ask Doug Parker about legacy US Air employees. Ughh. So competition would not fix the airlines. It would _replace_ legacy airlines with newer, better airlines, and that is something our government overlords to do not want to see happen. So we are stuck with the mess we have, thanks to short-sighted bureaucrats.

  6. You assume that the legacy US carriers WANT to change. Why bother? They are making record profits doing what they do today. if I’m running these carriers, I pay lip service to improving the customer experience. I just want to stay out of the headlines for assaulting my customers. Anything else is “fare” game. Devaslue cusotmerr lyalty? Done. Pack more seats on board, roll out more “economy minus” products on every route and continue to print cash. Check. 29 inch seat pitch? Sure, why not.

  7. While the legacy carriers just jaw-bone, Southwest actually is focused on customer experience. Despite Alaska/Virgin, we have lost any sense of real competition in the US, ever since Delta purchased Northeast in 1972. The only answer is to allow cabotage, the right of foreign airlines to fly between US markets. I am still amazed how Lufthansa in a <60 minute flight between Frankfurt-Geneva could offer in Business Class cocktail service, full lunch, coffee, and liquor service. You cannot even get that between ORD-LGA today in 3 hours!

    To the other point, the impact on the concept of service by foreign crews is significant. Whenever i go to Europe, I only fly Lufthansa in Business Class-service has never failed on this carrier, nor has the high product quality of its food & beverage services; cleanliness; functionality of passenger equipment.

    Interestingly, I could only connect to United out of Frankfurt this past February in Polaris Class sans new seats. Their was a simple reason why the crew was superb–they were all German nationals–friendly, indulging, communicative; minus the chip on their shoulders and union mentality that we often receive on US carriers. It was practically like flying on Lufthansa, including quality of food & beverage services.

    Impacting the passenger's physical comfort and treating them like the dregs of society is an American innovation to max their profits at all costs. This explains how the old adage applied to USAir has now been transferred to American: "U R Still Allegheny In Reality."

  8. To paraphrase the old saying, beatings will continue until perception improves.

  9. That Siouthwest video made me so so glad I left Texas for California. Now I won’t have to poke my eyes out! The other question is what is the average age on the legacy carriers for flight crew versus the foreign carriers? A big part of US carriers weakness is that an are old and slow which leads to cranky and intolerant

  10. This article contains a factual error. American’s FA’s are not represented by the TWU. They are represented by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA).

  11. Get rid of the unions. Set expectations high. Reward good employees. Terminate bad employees. Simple.

  12. I believe the problem is you need a 200 IQ to understand all of the rules of the domestic airlines. I would bet that not even the pilots know all of the customer restrictions.
    So, airline employee’s just learn the rules they need to function, and discourage customers from doing anything out of the norm. Highly discourage.
    Example: cost to change a ticket on KAL from Seoul to ORD: zero. Cost to change ticket on USAir/AA from ORD to anywhere: $200. Yep. I could have flown to ORD and taken the train to my final destination for less than the cost of the ticket change. Much less. And arrived sooner.

    Think about Southwest’s rules. Kind of simple compared to other airlines and the countless times customers are told there limitations and subsequently very disappointed. Just because the customer wants to get somewhere a day earlier or later or whatever.

    The pay raises bestowed upon the employees do not make the myriad rules any more comprehendible or explicable.

  13. Gary once again you show how little you actually know. AA F/As were represented by the TWU until 1977 when the in-house independent Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) was established. The TWU AFL-CIO represents legacy AA fleet service, legacy AA mechanic & related, legacy AA stores, legacy AA MTC classifications, and legacy US dispatchers in addition to Envoy (formerly American Eagle) fleet and M&R.

    APFA is an in-house democratically run and member driven union, unlike AFA-CWA which has dues payers at many carriers and the membership cannot directly elect their international level leadership. AFA has pushed merging with APFA but the membership has ZERO interest aside from a few LUS malcontents and bitter ex-TW groups.

    You really have zero clue about the airlines, the Railway Labor Act, and how the APFA CBA is structured, negotiated and administered. Stick to hawking credit cards, debating which flavor of ice cream sundae is best on a given route and reviewing Hyatt properties in Dubai no one wants to stay at.

  14. If anyone hasn’t read the book Nutz about Herb Keller, they should, it gives an inside look at how he ran the company, employees are encouraged to make things right for the customer, the other US airlines the employees are penalized if they do that. Southwest allows their employees to have their own personally at work, the other airlines do not. Also, the airlines need to be harder on the unions, to allow ghost riders, this is the only way service in the air will improve, maybe if these ghost riders are on flights in which FA’s over abuse their powers that will stop.

  15. Once again @Josh G fails to read, or reads something into a comment that he wants to be there but isn’t. Your diatribe contradicts nothing I’ve written in the post.

  16. @Jim M – now I see where @Josh G may have gotten confused, since my reference to TWU is having represented both airlines. It was more ‘here’s a union perspective’ and not really meant to be “here’s the folks on the inside for both” although I can see how it could have been read that way.

  17. Gary you edited your post. You originally stated that the TWU AFL-CIO represents both carriers but you conveniently edit the OP and delete replies to that effect.

  18. Josh you don’t read and I haven’t deleted anything but I’m sick and tired of your non-sequitur attacks. (Usually you don’t even bother to reply when this is pointed out, 90% of the time your criticisms are flat wrong.)

  19. So did you modify the OP?

    It is not an attack. You come on here talking like an expert about the airlines and you are often way off base. I’m just suggesting you stick to what you do best which is reviewing flights, hotels in Dubai and hawking credit cards.

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