U.S. Airlines Have Forgotten They’re In The Hospitality Business, Not Just The Transportation Business

Airlines offer ‘customer service’. You get in a line when you have a problem and they’ll rebook you. That sort of resolution isn’t hospitality and Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group explains the difference.

People who think that hospitality is just for restaurants are completely missing the boat. I think hospitality is probably the single most powerful business strategy that doesn’t get taught in business school.

Service and hospitality are completely different topics. Hospitality is a dialogue. If you feel like I’m on your side, hospitality is present. If you think I did something for you, hospitality is present. If you think I’m customizing an experience for you, hospitality is present.

We believe that the way you make people feel is what they remember more than anything.

The former owner of Eleven Madison Park restaurant makes a similar, important point.

My father taught car salesmen to be on the side of the customer, working hard for them to get the best price – it was always the nameless, faceless guy in the tower that was being difficult and wouldn’t give them the car at the price they wanted.

The salesman could then ask the customer to help him, with a bit more money, to pressure that guy to get the deal done for them. The idea was to be on the side of the customer, do something for the customer, even as you sell to the customer. You do this by being their advocate and making them feel taken care of.

I teach good cop/bad cop at work, and I am always bad cop – because everyone else has to preserve and build a relationship – be it vendor or client. I am the guy being difficult in the tower and demanding something. And the staff member can work collaboratively with them to meet my demands.

I learned being an American Airlines ConciergeKey member for a short 8 months (sigh) that an airline can offer hospitality. It is something I had only really ever seen in the American Airlines Admirals Club in Austin and flying a handful of first class products on foreign airlines.

  • The agents in the Austin Admirals Club are proactive. They know about flight delays before they’re posted, talk to operations to learn what to expect (beyond what’s posted about a flight in the computer), and they’ll even add backup flights into reservations before you ask for help. They remember all regular guests by face and name, know who is in their club and on which flight, and get to work – they are proactive.

  • I’ve had ANA first class flight attendants take an interest in my trip, find out what down time looks like, and make suggestions for their favorite restaurants and activities at my destination.

  • And nowhere do you feel more ‘taken care of’ than in the Lufthansa First Class Terminal in Frankfurt where from the time you enter the building to the time you’re driven to your aircraft it is someone else’s job to look out for where you need to be, when, and what formalities need to be handled.

I’ve been told by several airline executives that their business is different, they’re focused on safety not hospitality and hotels have it so much easier. But the big hotel chains franchise and don’t even own the experience. Meanwhile airlines like Singapore are able to execute on hospitality without compromising safety.

As a ConciergeKey member it was like the Admirals Club staff in Austin extended out to the entire airline, with welcome texts the morning of a flight (from Washington National), to proactively checking on connections and seats and texting me so that I don’t have to think about those things, to being met (irregularly) at the gate to welcome me to a flight, chit chat prior to boarding, and just say thank you.

That doesn’t quite scale, although parts of it can. For instance a personalized update on your flight, from a ‘person’, updating with where it’s coming from and offering customer service responses by text would be doable.

They could eliminate single agent boarding while still leveraging the automated tools rolled outto reduce gate workload. An agent could thank elites individually, address people by name as they board, cabin crew could address more customers too. Before the pandemic Delta introduced hot towels, welcome drinks, and ‘thank yous’ from flight attendants in international economy.

American is moving to more self service. Chief Commercial Officer Vasu Raja tells employees that the airline will be a 100% digital experience by the end of the year (this will not actually happen). They should do that – but use the freed up staff time not for labor cost cuts but for hospitality.

Delta has red coats. These employees provide extra assistance, problem solving, and complaint resolution. They were introduced in the 1960s, and then eliminated as part of budget cuts in 2005 but brought back gradually starting in mid-2009. To be sure, they aren’t all good – some resemble more the red coat British soldiers in the 18th century – but that’s the idea.

To be sure, not every airline should do this. Spirit and Frontier make money on a low cost model. American will never have their cost structure, so must be a high touch, high revenue airline.

I don’t actually expect this. CEO Robert Isom has told employees not to spend a dollar they do not have to. And he’s said they’ll make money by paying attention to the real estate on the plane the way that Spirit and Frontier do. He’s wrong of course, but I don’t expect them to do the 12 realistic things that would help them improve.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Well for years, airlines such as American have gone out of their way to cause disservice to customers. After 30+ years as an AAdvantage member, I have a long list of times where AA went out of their way to simply make travel more difficult, and many times at a far greater cost to themselves. They have always seemed to incentivize phone and gate agents to go out of their way to create problems that have no reason to exist whatsoever, if it can cause pain to a customer. So many times it has boggled my mind when simple solutions and customer-friendly actions are actively dismissed if it doesn’t cause greater pain to the customer. Of course, the word “customer” is also foreign to them, you are only a “passenger”. As long as AA’s focus is to embolden the control freaks among their ranks so that they can primarily gain a greater sense of power, the customer service while they never seem to seek will suffer more greatly, along with the financial conditions of the airline.

    A lot of this culture seemed to start when Gerard Arpey took the helm. He even cited in a 60 minutes interview how stupid he felt customers were to trust their mileage program and laughed about the fact that customers were dumb enough to continue to believe AA’s sales pitches. Arpey made abusing the customer an art form. When Doug Parker became the pharaoh, the push to become worse than Spirit was so engrained that nothing else mattered.

    Airlines will always suffer because at this point, they are incapable of thinking of customers as anything but a blight and a cancer that they rather not deal with. They’ll keep taking AAdvantage of as many new passengers as they can, knowing their culture will do everything to can to push those customers away over the long term.

  2. Airlines work for shareholders. What happens to revenue customers is of secondary importance.

  3. Before anyone dumps on Gary by repeating the FA union message that “they’re there primarily for your safety”, remember, airlines ADVERTISE the hospitality aspect of their product. They SELL you inflated prices based on the promise of more hospitality. When airlines stop selling product based on promises of hospitality then they can lecture their customers to not complain about service. When their promotions for business and first class are limited strictly to more legroom and a wider seat and they don’t talk about drinks, food, and service, then they can call you a self-entitled whiner for complaining.

  4. Most businesses don’t really believe that customers will be loyal if treated well. I spent many years training and coaching luxury brand dealership personnel. I’d ask them if the treat “VIP” customers differently than new or existing “non-VIP” customers. In most cases, they’d say they take better care of the VIP customers because they spend more money. But the question should be “if we take care of everyone like a VIP, would new and existing customers start spending like the VIP’s?” Every company should be studying their very best customers and finding out what has made them behave the way they do. True loyalty is ALWAYS a two-way street.

  5. Some years ago a United captain told me the informal mantra of the airline was, “We’re not unhappy until you’re unhappy.” I understand they’ve gotten a bit better since then (very rarely fly them). But it does appear to be the thinking of a lot of U.S. companies. And then they wonder why customers buy well made products and services from foreign vendors.

  6. US airlines have one, single, major problem: Flight Attendants.

    Two lies circling around as truth stand in the way of ever overcoming this burden:

    Lie #1: They are here for our safety.

    This is obviously wrong; they’re here primarily in a service role. It’s a job that requires very few skills, and there’s always someone else to fill in if you don’t like it. Like your local bartender can point you to the emergency exit in case of fire, your sky waitress can, too. But they’re still just that: waitresses. And that’s fine!

    Lie #2: ‘We don’t get paid before the door closes”

    This is the worst one, because passengers seem to have bought this. In reality, working flight XXX-YYY blocked at 10 hours is paid at 10×200 dollars or whatever. It’s not ‘you get 200 dollars an hour’, it’s just that this flight gives you 2000 dollars in pay.

    They negotiated this pay structure themselves. They are indeed being paid for their work.

    Until these two lies are flushed out of the system, US airlines will remain as horrible as the majority of the flight attendants (really, a shower and a little exercise would go a long way).

  7. When a business says “the network is the product” what do you expect?

    @Tom, while I agree that the role of any publicly traded company is to increase value to shareholders, that is most easily accomplished by creating satisfied, loyal customers who reduce your overall sales cycle costs and enable you to charge a (slight) premium over your competition.

    AA and pretty much every North American airline has commoditized air travel. They are not focused on loyalty or satisfaction, they are focused on share of wallet.

  8. Great article and great comments, although I’m not clear about @Tom’s point: Virtually all MBA Programs preach the first part “Airlines (companies) work for shareholders”, but then go on to point out that it’s precisely for this reason that it’s critical for them to service their revenue customers. Ironically, I had the chance to see Robert Kiyosaki live here in Austin (before the Rich Dad Poor Dad effort took off he was more of a general biz consultant), and he used Singapore Airlines as his best example of customer service !

  9. @TexasTJ, careful about using Rich Dad, Poor Dad as any example of anything. Not only is the rich dad a made-up fictional character; Kiyosaki is basically just an early ponzi schemer.

    He literally advises people to get into multi-level marketing scams. No, seriously. He does.

  10. Isn’t that something. Have 7 angry people shout at you in a row as you try to solve their problems, as they blame you for their misgivings and they’re trying to tell you how your policies and computer systems work, but they’ve never used them professionally a day in their lives. And that entitled and privileged aspect of it all?? It’s very real thing.

  11. Two points:

    1) As long as airlines make more money from selling miles than transportiing customers, nothing will change. The passenger is not their most important customer.
    2) As long as C suite management listens to external analysts who sell the same mantra to all of their airline management clients (commoditize the product – someone else is making more RPASM), it’s merely a race to the bottom. Nothing will change.

  12. @Flyer1, I understand you’re all over the blogs for the union.

    Keep it up and Sara Nelson may find her racist and transphobic past uncovered real fast. Google *never* forgets.

  13. Interesting points, retired lawyer guy ! I’m inclined to agree with your #2, but it would seem that point #1 is complex: Looking at the vertical for Airline Miles, the banks aren’t purchasing these for their own consumption, fully 100 % are credited back to customer accounts in exchange for their business. Moreover, it’s likely that the customer using any given airline card is also purchasing flights on that same airline to build their mileage totals. The airlines know all this, and I would be surprised if they don’t recognize the true customer in both cases (consumer of credit card miles as well as purchaser of flights on their airline). American proved as much with their “Loyalty Program”. Going full circle, I’m with Gary: U.S. Airlines seem to have forgotten that they’re in the Hospitality Business, and are suffering accordingly.

  14. Thanks for a thoughtful analysis. As to American, as long as they keep the AmericaWest people in charge they’ll never believe in offering a high quality product, the ULCC mentality is just in their DNA.

  15. I respectfully disagree. Airlines exist to provide transportation, not food, lodging, or entertainment.

  16. @LorettaJackson

    Bless your heart. Lol!
    You have no idea what you’re talking about.

  17. Look at ‘tom’ refuting the point. Oh wait, no.

    The point stands (now even more): with flight attendants pretending to be anything other than waitresses in the air, there will be no hospitality.

    Leave. Quit your jobs. There’s 300 people for every position in the sky. You will not be missed.

  18. Hey here is a current event, last week in Houston in United Club delay all over but my flight was on schedule but delayed, until 10:00 as a member for over 15 years, in the past they would have the clubs stay open a little later, Nope all of them closed at 9:00 and annoucements started at 8:30 they stayed until 9:15 but everyone OUT!! My flight is now delayed until 11:30 then 12:15 am still waiting crew shows up I heard captain say I am short on time. Delayed continued until agent comes out of the plane and 11:45 said flight cancelled and nothing for the next day to book, only one agent stayed to handle questions the other two walked away assume to leave. Said luggage would not be unloaded until the next day.
    Zero support or care.

  19. Coming soon, FAs of America West standing at the doorway with an iPad.
    You have to select 23%, 28%, 36% or 46% as tip before they will let you on.

    A large placard will tell u how they don’t get paid enough and tips is their primary mode of income.

    Wait, did I just give America West executives a new idea?

  20. Thanks for your perspective. I’m saddened to hear that they simply don’t care from the top up. I do believe that at least Delta and United are beginning to do the legwork.

  21. @Loretta Jackson….

    “It’s not ‘you get 200 dollars an hour’, it’s just that this flight gives you 2000 dollars in pay.”

    WOW…. I clearly work for the wrong airline if there are some flight attendants out there making $200 an hour!!!! Can you PLEASE tell me where to apply????

  22. The difference?

    A car salesperson who’s rude or an ANA first class flight attendant who’s less than hospitable gets fired / reassigned.

    A US airline employee who does the same simply gets to keep the job and salary. And that’s all due to management, not unions (it takes two to sign a contract, and management is responsible for the contracts it signs).

  23. When people start acting in a civilized manner, perhaps the airlines can go back to being in the “hospitality ” business.
    Now when individuals get on planes wearing their pajama bottoms and flip flops, ignoring flight attendants, being rude to other passengers and just wanting to use the airlines like are Greyhound busses……what kind of “hospitality ” can you expect?
    Look and behave in a polite manner, whether you are in first class or economy. Then the airlines can go back to providing hospitality.

  24. >the fake Loretta –

    The reason you’re not being paid 200 dollars an hour is you lack basic reading skills.

    I specifically said you’re *not* paid by the hour. The flight block determines a value of that day of work. You interpreted this as hourly pay while taking a break from twerking or whatever you people occupy yourselves with.

    @Gary: can we please stop having people copy verified-by-email users’ names?

  25. I don’t know if I agree with your definition of airline hospitality. These organizations are so huge and complex, and employee skills are so erratic, that I think I prefer when the airlines focus on fixed processes it can control that make the flying experience better (obviously, cost will always be a major factor). As a United 1K, I regularly encounter employees who “the system” has told to be nice to me. Their efforts at hospitality are rarely useful to me. In addition to occasional things like a useless tarmac ride, I get thanked a lot for my business. If I’m in coach and get thanked for my business, nobody actually extends any useful and special hospitality like (say) offering me a glass of premium wine from Polaris. The hospitality always seems programmed, not genuine. I don’t think it can really be anything else in such a large organization.

  26. That’s great that they take care of the elites, what about the rest of us? I’ve had the rudest people while flying America and Lufthansa. America destroyed my wife’s wheelchair and Lufthansa doesn’t staff the gate until 20 minutes prior to take off.

  27. Airlines and hotels used to be in the hospitality business

    People used to dress and act appropriately when traveling

    People dress and act like they are on a bus with wings and airlines provide Greyhound level service

  28. American Airlines is a credit card promoter that has planes. Once Alaska Airlines joined One World, I moved most of my OW flights to them.

    Alaska gate agents manage to greet every passenger by name, regardless of status. American does not.

    I am Gold 75K with Alaska and used to be Platinum Pro with American. Though the tiers are identical from a OW perspective, Alaska treats its Gold 75s much better than American treats its PlatPros.

  29. If the US government would encourage capitalism instead of bailing corporations out at every downturn we wouldn’t have this mess.

    There’s a pattern of three terrible options in most private sectors that the government deems to big to fail.

    It’s like the 21st century has become the age of terror economics.

  30. A lot of the posters here are so disrespectful. Calling us “sky waitresses”? We don’t respect you, because you don’t respect us. We’re not your FN servants.

    If you don’t like it… you can fly elsewhere. But you won’t. The flights will always be full and you’ll be here posting your perpetual rambling negativity.

  31. I get a laugh from the comments “the airlines only work for the shareholders”. In this world the airlines only work for the unions and other organized constituent groups. At every contract renegotiation the unions and company managers very precisely carve up the cash pie. Any growth from savings or revenue is eaten up with a meager amount passed to shareholders. The only advantage to the credit cards stream is that management has more control over allocation of it.

    The unions and management are all short term focused. That’s reality. I don’t know how to incentivize good long term behavior that Gary desires in that environment.

  32. @SUNNY Most of the customer unruliness of which you speak goes directly back to airline policies and agent/FA behavior. I have watched it unfold too many dozens of times. When airlines treat customers with zero respect and like a piece of cargo, everything degrades, including the attitudes of those customers most likely to cause issues. I too have been the victim of agent and FA abuse, simply for no reason other than showing up for a flight, and they want to take all their issues out on whatever customer is next in line.

  33. You know, what’s really sad is that I’ve enjoyed excellent hospitality in the past. For a while, I flew DFW-ICN often enough that the foreign language FAs knew me. It cost the airline nothing to have someone greet me warmly at the door, then come by and ask, “your usual to drink?” And thanks to this, I would go out of my way to fly them, even when I knew I’d be on a different route with different FAs. But, then, everything just went to pot. It wasn’t just the terrible operational reliability. Meal loading was cut, so they’d run out of options. Seat-back consoles would break, power plugs would fail. And, amidst all of this, I started seeing people suffer the “Are we going to have a problem” treatment, even when asking politely for something that they should’ve gotten under service standards.

  34. Too much toxicity on this blog… Nitpicking and it shows the uncivility that americans are known for. Shameful!

  35. I agree with most of what’s been said here, but let’s face it, the airlines have devolved into just being Bus Drivers. The reality is the marketing by the airlines doesn’t match the product being delivered. It’s like seeing this beautiful thing in Amazon that has lots of features and then finding something completely less functional and crappy looking when it arrives at your door (ableit you have to endure TSA to experience this product). The current prices being charged for airfare by the “BIG 3” doesn’t support the hype of the service that is delivered. AA works for the credit card companies and cares about little else, United seems to be making an effort but they forgot how to serve the domestic market since they were focused on being an international airline. Delta is closer to the ideal of caring somewhat about the product but they are a victim of their own success.

  36. @DC not in DC

    American Airlines treated me better as a lowest level MVP elite from Alaska than they ever did as an AA Ex-Plat. But Alaska only wants to publicly call out any member who is not gullible enough for them and hit them with a yellow card. I want to travel to my destination, not endure an airline’s political religious ideology for dummies.

  37. What I have on should have zero to do with how I’m treated.

    I often do trips that run up to 40 hours of flights and layovers until final destination.

    I dress for comfort, not to meet someone’s fake expectations of what I should be wearing.

    Yes, some dress totally inappropriately but wearing comfortable clothes because I’m going to be on a 26 hour flight shouldn’t factor in for a nanosecond. Especially when I’m flying FC or BC.

  38. I don’t fly very often, but when I do expect some level of customer service. On 3 of my 4 last flights over the years I have faced nothing but delays of 5 hours or more when there were no known problems with the weather. Mechanical problems and flight crew not showing up should be on the airline itself. I feel l like I am always the victim. Twice on American Airlines my flight was delayed more than 5 hours and I was never compensated. For the price of their flights I think I should have been given some type of apology. I booked early morning flights and because of the delays, reached my destinations so late in the day that it messed up my plans.
    Only 1 of four flights managed to get me there on time. In my opinion the only thing airlines seem to care about is the profits that they make. Customers are only a secondary thought to them.

  39. Kudos to Gary Leff on the EXCELLENT title to this article. I consider it to be 100% accurate and I sincerely hope airline employees take some time to reflect on it.
    I’m a middle aged American and have flown on most of the major airlines. My favorite airline in the world for hospitality is Singapore Airlines. Their flight attendants seem to take a genuine interest in creating a pleasant passenger experience. During my last flight with them I was pleasantly surprised to be serviced ice cream while sitting in coach. I’m willing to pay higher airfare to book on an airline focused on hospitality.

  40. People like Robert Isom are The reason that airlines in the United States are the way they are. That man doesn’t have any sense of what true service is. He is all about profit and profit margins. When you go overseas and you fly many of the international airlines and stay in many of the international hotels, including the chain hotels, you see a remarkable difference in the level of service that is provided. That sense of pride and ownership starts from the top. Many of those hotels have general managers who are from Switzerland, Austria, Belgium and other countries, who know what true hospitality is all about. The employees that work for most of the international airlines go through a rigorous process to be selected for their jobs and they also take pride in ownership and hospitality. I think most of them legitimately enjoy their jobs unlike many of the US flight attendants who hate the work that they do.

  41. I’ll take safety over hospitality any day! Quit acting like spoiled brat wanna be’s. Take your seat, sit down and shut up.

  42. “Desert Ghost” says “ I respectfully disagree. Airlines exist to provide transportation, not food, lodging, or entertainment.“.

    I respectfully disagree. Airlines provide all of the above. In the past and even for some people now, the flight experience is a big part of the overall trip. If all that the airlines were doing was providing basic transportation there would be no need to serve food, no need to show movies, no need to have Internet and no need to have any of the extras that are currently provided. You’re comment simply does not make sense or apply in todays world. If it did there would be one class of service and one price for all.

  43. Hospitality? Airlines don’t even offer dependable transportation! The industry’s business model amounts to “pay us $ and maybe we’ll take you somewhere someday.” Apparently, Airline CEOs believe, like the Marriott CEO infamously boasted, that their “customers are our shareowners” and guests/passengers will learn to live with no service but all the risk. What else would we expect with the obscene equity-based compensation enjoyed by CEOs?

  44. In business class on the way back from Sydney on United
    I was shocked to hear a long time FA snapping at passenger’s scolding them for not putting bags in overhead bins.But later after hiding in the galley most of the flight she confided in me She said I try to never look at passengers in the eyes as they are always wanting something from me! I suppose she is the true spirit of hospitality lol

  45. People that ship has sailed long time ago I would say around 1970s when they regulated the airlines y’all wanted to file for nothing and get nothing so now you fly for nothing and get nothing you get what you pay for nothing is free you’re not entitled

  46. One of the biggest things with US airlines that irritates me is when either the captain or the flight attendants say “Your crew is here PRIMARILY for your safety” with a huge emphasis on the word PRIMARILY. It’s puta you off immediately and makes it very clear that service isn’t the focus. Grooming standards are appalling; uniform standards a joke (especially the low quality one s from American/Lands End. I agree with you that investment on product is useless if service is way below average, especially in international routes, where you can flight Asian, European and Middle Eastern airlines that will give you the points and over deliver on service, on the ground and in the air. You see American carriers now charging more for premium cabins than a Singapore Airlines… I have up on expectations. If I board an American carrier, I always expect the worst in service. Safety is the only thing you can count on.

  47. Oh give it a break “ DEM”. FA have very little to do with the safety of the aircraft. That is I. The hands of the mechanics, techs and pilots. Once they ensure the doors are closed properly most of the “safety “ work is done. This is an excuse not to provide service and to lower costs by providing fewer amenities. And to the other poster prices are not low right now and many of us still are paying a premium for crappy service.

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