Over at Lucky‘s blog yesterday he wrote about the American Airlines 777-300ER flight he and I were both on from New York to London last month. He noted that some of the flight attendants on this flight were less than endearing, and one in particular was downright rude.
At the same time, he also mentioned that his return flight (he hasn’t posted that part of the trip yet) featured a fantastic crew. And though we were on different flights coming back across the Pond, my return crew was excellent as well. In fact, here’s what I said about the service on the return:
The return flight was a different experience entirely.
.. the cabin was mostly empty and the crew was in fantastic spirits. The flight attendant serving my aisle, Vanessa, could easily have been working Singapore Airlines first class and would have been a standout there.
…She was attentive, kept my drinks refilled, kept encouraging me to eat things and try things. She was there just the right amount and at the right times. And her colleagues were equally welcoming and engaging. Whereas the crew on the outbound was a little bit grumpy even before the delay, on the return it was a party.
And as if to underscore that very idea, the lighting theme they selected on the touch screen controller was the pre-programmed “AA Party”
That’s the thing about crews with US-based airlines — there are some really wonderful flight attendants, there are some really surly ones, and it seems like luck of the draw which you will get — and also that there’s little that US airlines have been able to do about it.
Commenter Santastico on Lucky’s post asked,
Why does AA invest in new planes, new technology, new seats but still insists to not learn from Cathay, Singapore or Emirates on how to treat customers well. If you read other bloggers that also tried the AA new 777 to London and Sao Paulo most of them share the same impression: flight attendants were rude, service in first and business class was done in a hurry so they could get over it and food and wine selection was not up to what one would expect for a business or first class ticket that can cost over $10K. I guess they could have a partnership with Cathay (since they are both One World) and have some of their flight attendants to spend some time in Hong Kong to learn how to treat customers well.
I thought I’d take a stab at beginning to construct an answer to this question, because surely it isn’t as easy as partnering with an airline that has good service in order to teach that to the crews of US carriers. (And let’s avoid over-generalizing, there are very much fantastic crews working for US carriers, just as there are lackluster crews working for Asian ones — and certainly for some Middle Eastern ones — but in the limit airlines like Singapore are known for their service.)
There are, I think, two factors at work: culture and institutions.
First, culture. Leaving aside ‘good’ and ‘bad’ service (although some cultures are more given towards what we usually think of as one versus the other), service in different cultures is very different. American flight attendants may be engaging, they may tease, they may call you by your first name. On the whole German flight attendants might be more formal. Japanese flight attendants certainly are, you’ll often see their name tags are formal and they are referred to by last names. Aussie flight attendants, well, they’re Aussies.
Sometimes Asian airlines will appear not to offer very good service, at least that’s what Americans will often think, and it’s frequently a language barrier. I find that in general Korean airlines — Asiana in particular –will have flight attendants serving US routes that don’t necessarily have very good English skils. German flight attendants may appear brusque to a US passenger both because of differing cultural norms and because a given flight attendant’s English language skills may not be as strong as their German (or even their French).
It’s going to be hard not to get reasonably good service, at least if you understand where they’re coming from, out of a Japanese airline. Although I’m often surprised by how variable the service can be on Thai Airways.
And clearly it’s not all culture. Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific has entirely different service standards from mainland China’s Air China or China Southern, despite all being ‘Chinese’. Taiwan’s airlines are different still.
So you get into differences in institutions.
I don’t want to oversimplify and overplay the role that unions have in (lack of) service delivery from U.S. airlines, but they’re certainly part and parcel of a larger institutional phenomenon which is that U.S. airlines really do not monitor service performance at the individual employee level (other than dealing with the occasional specific complaint) and do not incentivize good service — both positive (better pay or perks that would lead to job satisfaction) and negative (removing poor performers from customer-facing roles).
U.S. airlines can make hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in new seats, billions of dollars of investment in new planes to create a better flying experience. But like hotel programs which ultimately rely on front desk agents to delivery their product to the customer, the investment can easily be undone by poor front line service. And yet it seems the airlines do little to change the way service is delivered.
And much of this does involve unions, though I don’t blame the flight attendants or the unions that bargain in their own perceived self-interest. Instead, I blame management — and not just for agreeing to demands, but for hosting upon unions many of the roles that they have today. (One could bargain for wages and specific working condition items without ultimately coming up with a scheme that outsources scheduling and discipline to union proceses.)
When I first became fascinated with airlines and aviation a little over 15 years ago, I read everything I could get my hands on from Robert Serling, R.E.G. Davies, and Robert Daley (but mostly Robert Serling). And then there was the book that really got me started on the journey of aviation, before I found my love of miles and points, Thomas Petzinger, Jr.’s Hard Landing: The Epic Contest for Power and Profits That Plunged the Airlines into Chaos. It remains probably the best introduction to the airline industry I’ve come across, though it’s sadly in need of an update to add in events from 1997 to the present.
What I desperately wish I could remember is which of these books it was where I read extensively on United Airlines President Pat Patterson. Patterson had been the Wells Fargo loan officer who authorized funding for Pacific Air Transport, later acquired by Boeing Air Transport, which was ultimate merged in with other carriers to become United Air Lines. Patterson moved over to Boeing and then to United, becoming General Manager and ultimately President of the airline.
While he’s perhaps best known for approving the hiring of in-flight nurses which morphed into onboard flight attendants, he’s also more than any other, the man who brought union control into the operation of the airline business. The version of the story I recall is that he believed that the unions were closer to their workers, and better understood their needs, than management was. It wasn’t just a matter of collective bargaining, but deeply held belief, that the workers would be better off (and that this would benefit the airline) if unions and union procedures handled scheduling.
I’m not a scholar in this area by any means, but the shift from company control over its employees to union control — and from management evaluation of employees to roles and responsibilities determined by seniority — has consequences which reverberate across the industry today.
Great flight attendants provide great service because they’re proud to do so, because they’re driven to do so, internally. In some ways the exceptional US flight attendant deserves much more praise because they are doing it on their own, when there is little if any benefit to them to do so. They aren’t going to lose their job as a result of occasionally grumpy and often lackluster service. They aren’t going to get paid more for going above and beyond for a customer. They do it because they’re internally driven and believe it’s the right thing to do. I truly thank them and honor them.
But as long as scheduling is done by seniority, and pay is doled out by route, and as long as commendations and criticisms are only ancillary to performance evaluations, pay, and perks, airlines aren’t going to be able to align the incentives of their frontline workforce to deliver outstanding service.
It isn’t all institutions, and it isn’t all culture, but the two of them combine so that superior companies drawing on service cultures and fostering those cultures can provide a superior experience. Mediocre companies drawing on a service culture will offer good and bad, just as companies here in the US without strong service institutions will occasionally offer flashes of brilliance (but often ‘good enough’). And in most cases I don’t expect either the cultures or the institutions to change very much.