Why Can’t US Airlines Provide Great Service Like the Asian Carriers Do?

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.

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. My most shocking experience on a plane occurred when I was on UA in F from LHR to IAD.

    I wanted water.

    I hit the flight attendant button.

    The grouchy flight attendant thereafter continued to chat with an NRSA about union issues.

    Wrong, wrong, wrong on so many levels.

  2. My most surprising experience on a plan occurred in F on a Gustavus-Juneau flight. Given facilities at Gustavus, it takes 40 minuted to board a 737. I was the first on board, and inquired whether I could be permitted to place a couple of pounds of halibut caugt earlier that day in the chiller.

    The FA learned that the Glacier Bay National Park Lodge was unwilling to cook it there because it was not from a commercial source. She volunteered to cook it in the convection oven, placed it in 4 x 8 inch trays, added wine and lemons from the drink cart, and by the time we got to Juneau (all of 41 miles away), the halibut was scrumtious.

    She likely broke many rules. But clearly an FA who is motivated from the inside.

  3. HND-JFK on AA F, Jan. 28 — found my way to my seat on my own, while two FAs were chatting with their backs turned to me. One of them acknowledged me 5-10 mins in, turning to me to say “welcome,” and then continued chatting to his friend. Was not offered dessert during meal service. Assistance for turning my seat to sleep position was offered clearly as a sign of the FA’s magnanimity. Nobody checked on me about anything throughout the flight…

    And yet, the FAs were not mean or upset or snobby — they just clearly had no concept of what an F passenger expects in terms of service or what goes on on good Asian or European airlines, or the fact that they are competing for customers on the basis of this service. At the end of the day, it was my first and last time flying F long-haul on a US carrier, no matter how great seats they install.

  4. Not only the inflight service is better on asia flight, the flight, the plane itself is better, cleaner, newer spacious. My united flight from fra to ord was an old planewith small seats and has torn seat cover. AA flight from london to ord was same. But the Thai flight between fra and bkk was awesome. The was much newer, cleaner, bigger and has better seats. Food was also better.

  5. You are so right. And most likely it will not change. Out of the few F intercontinental flights with US airlines i had a great crew only once. I avoid them whenever I can, even taking extra connections.

  6. I have given this a lot of thought. There is the union element, not present (to my knowledge) in Asian airlines. There are the age restrictions, which are kind of mean but do result in turn-over, which I think reduces attitude based on a sense of entitlement.

    Then there is the cultural element. Most Americans are frankly terrible at customer service because they have this innate belief that its demeaning to do so. It seems like many of them are right on the verge of saying “think you are better than me? Do it yourself!” So no surprise, self-service seems to have its roots in the U.S.

    In my opinion, the latest meme (along these lines) from flight attendants and pilots is that flight attendants are not there to serve us at all! They are there for our “safety”, which I gather is defined loosely as protecting us from terrorists, drunks, and plane crashes. Now if they happen to have a minute or two to spare outside of these activities vital national security, they will help us. Think I am exaggerating? On more than a few flights, I have heard the pilot essentially say just that before the flight.

    So you see? We just don’t get it. They are counter-terrorist operatives, security staff, or life-savers. But for God’s sake…anything but flight attendants!

    Fortunately, most Asian airlines have not yet bought into that nonsense.

  7. @Kay – in general North Asian carriers are more unionized than South Asian ones, pilots more so than flight attendants, but the powers of those unions are different (different laws, easier for carriers to run replacement crews)

  8. The majority of American workers feel their paycheck is not enough for them to work up to par. We are an entitled country and it sucks.

  9. Since Thai Airways is still majorly owned by the government. There is still politics involved in the crew selection process, i.e., the not-quite-qualified daughter of a politician might get the job over a Chinese-major graduate. Obviously, the daughter of the politician doesn’t know much about service, and that what reflects in the passenger’s onboard experience. I’ve only flown Y on Thai and their crew are always fantastic!

  10. How does FA compensation in Asia compare to the compensation for similar non-technical or service jobs in those same countries?

  11. I agree, especially on the culture front, but I think there’s a reason airlines don’t incentivize good service*, and that reason is that we don’t incentivize airlines to offer it.

    Not “we” in the sense of the frequent flyer community; we often pledge allegiance to our favorite airlines and that plays a huge role in who we book with.

    But “we” in the sense of airfare buyers as a whole, especially the ones filling coach seats. We price shop for airline tickets with little regard for who is operating a flight. So why would airlines focus on service when the majority of customers will simply book the lowest fare they find?

    I think you’re absolutely spot on though, with regard to culture and institution, being responsible for the chasm in service in premium cabins.

    *I don’t really know what other airlines do, but US Airways does incentivize service to an extent. Elites are given “above & beyond” vouchers to give to FA’s or GA’s who provide outstanding service, and those vouchers are put into a regularly held drawing; the winners get a bonus, I believe it’s $1,000. I don’t know how much impact this particular tactic has had, but I, and other elites I speak with, have noticed a dramatic improvement in service at the front of the plane in recent years.

  12. American gives out AAplause certificates, those enter in a drawing for miles, the prizes are taxable. It’s a nice gesture but a chance that a passenger might give you what amounts to a raffle ticket for a modest prize doesn’t really count as compensating good service 🙂

  13. Oh I agree completely, it’s not by any means “compensation” for good service, just a modest perk.

    But I do think it helps passengers. On transcons and TATL’s with US, I’ve given them out as the FA passes out PDB’s to help ensure a pleasant flight 🙂

    No idea if that makes a difference, but my poor service experiences of late have been few and far between.

  14. I’ve been living overseas in Asia on and off for 14 years. I’ve mostly traveled business class upgrades with times in long haul economy flights on Korean Airlines, and business class awards on Cathay and American. And I am spoiled I find out all of this time, because now that I’ve flown First Class on United and Delta, their on board service is not on par at all with the beautiful treatment I’ve gotten, even while in Economy, on the airlines in Asia, or going back to Asia. Sigh! While flying in Business or First in the States, I don’t get the same ‘elite’ experience. It’s hard enough being a 6 footer in the sky, too!

  15. Don’t blame the FAs and unions so much. Probably someone from Asia could do your job for 1/2 your salary and still be more grateful than you.

  16. Which airlines are the included in so call Asian airlines? What classes of sevices? Long haul short haul? Domestic or internation? there are so many asian airlines, but only the few good one get mentioned everytime. Ever been on Chinese airlines before in economy class? Your experience will for sure be differnet than being in first with CX. Oh also if you look foreign to them, ie white, you get treated a lot better on many Asian airlines also.

    Of course not saying American Airlines are any good, but I can’t understand all the hate for American flight attendants and services. Maybe is because most of my flights are in Asian or across the pacific, but the grass is not always greener.

  17. We need a flight attendant visa like the H1B tech visa, I’m sure there are plenty of workers worldwide who would jump at the opportunity. Service would improve and profits would soar.

  18. I made a coment on the other blig of the same concept about FA and I said it is more of a culture than anything else and asian FA need the job as for US Iairlines need the retirement pkg more than the job so as long as they can stay on thats all that matters but I was informed that FA was there for emergency and not really for service, so what else can I say.

  19. I think the cultural difference may be even more important. I often find flight attendants on European carriers in first or business to be courteous but just plain too cold. And I was raised in Europe so it should not bother me… but sometimes I would just rather play the roulette with American carriers and hopefully luck out and get a fun crew.
    And yes, Thai Airways service is terribly inconsistent… not sure why they call it “legendary” it’s all just marketing.

  20. I’m also interested in the earlier question posed about how flight attendant compensation in the US compares to other countries. Not just an absolute number, but how far the salary gets them in their respective countries.

    Another (probably oversimplified) view I’ve heard about this issue is that Americans generally shop mainly on price of a ticket. Thus even if an airline provides poor service (to a point), all that matters is they’re able to offer low ticket prices, because that’s the primary motivator in purchase decisions. You can really blame people for operating that way if they aren’t frequent fliers, because the general experience as a non-elite, non-frequent flier is approximately the same among the “legacy” airlines.

  21. Thanks for this enlightening post! Rode United recently for the first time and there is such a huge difference in service and attitude from Singapore/Cathy. Flight attendants were actually yelling at people to sit down on United. Even flying on Air China and China Southern Air within China had a much better experience than that.

  22. Somewhat speculating here but there’s probably a lot less opportunity in other fields to make a flight attendant’s salary in Asia than in North America so they get a better pool of candidates.

  23. Further to my prior point, labor mobility could also be a motivating factor. If AA lets you go for whatever reason then there’s plenty of other domestic airlines that might hire you. But if Cathay, Singapore, or Emirates lets you go then there are far fewer viable options.

  24. Southwest is a heavily unionized, if not most unionized american carrier and it has excellent service standards

  25. The Reagan Administration’s decision to bust PATCO and usher in the age of deregulation in the early 80’s gave the green light to the airlines (and all corporations, for that matter) to shift compensation away from their American workers with little fear of government interference. Since then nearly every US based airline, with the possible exception of Southwest, has increasingly paid their workers a smaller share of revenue and their top management a greater share. (Over the last 30 years few airline shareholders have benefited, and middle management has fared worst of all, not having any protection from labor or the government.)

    Hopefully the zenith of this trend was reached when Glen Tildon and his gang of butchers savaged the pay and benefits of United workers, including pensions earned over many years, and then turned around and gave themselves 8 figure bonuses for doing so.

    Having flown frequently for decades, out of Chicago for most of that time, I’ve found an overall direct correlation between the state of an airline’s labor relations and the quality of their customer service. 20 years ago United front line service was usually excellent; now its often mediocre or worst. At American I was amazed at how long the quality of service remained high even as management was taking and threatening to take more. Its only been the last 4 years that I’ve experienced a “don’t care” attitude amongst some American FAs and other front line personnel. And even now, the culture of quality service that was built over decades at American prevails, as most (although a declining #) personnel continue to provide quality service.

    Compared to other airlines, Southwest has not taken more from its employees to give to its upper management. The revenue share between top management, mid management and labor has remained fairly consistent–and even shareholders have consistently received a slice! 🙂
    Is it any wonder that employee morale & customer service at Southwest has remained consistent, at a very high level, for decades?

  26. Easy answer is asian workers can be fired much easier than American workers.

    fear of lose of income is a great motivator to do a good job.

  27. @ Mikey

    I like this bit from Office Space:

    “Peter Gibbons: You see, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.
    Bob Porter: Don’t- don’t care?
    Peter Gibbons: It’s a problem of motivation, all right? Now if I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime, so where’s the motivation? And here’s another thing, I have eight different bosses right now.
    Bob Porter: Eight?
    Peter Gibbons: Eight, Bob. So that means when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that, and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”

  28. I come way down on the side of culture. I used to fly at least once a month to Colombia on AA. I noticed how polished the flight crew was and how well they handled the cabin consistently. I later found out that on their route they required a Colombian crew by agreement.

    Colombia is a country where service is considered a profession and being polite to a server is the norm. The server expects respect and equally gives it.

    This is the same airline, same planes, and a different experience. I don’t believe the role of service is valued in the US by either the public or the server, and I think it shows particularly in planes.

    Now to contradict myself. I have found the service on Southwest far better than other US carriers but I suspect it comes back to a question of respect. The management respects the crew and therefore the crew behaves respectfully.

  29. Luckily, poor service of US-based airlines is much less of a concern these days (at least when traveling long haul). We can always pay for partner flights and still credit back to AA/UA/DL.

    After experience LH and NH, there’s no way even on a snowing day in hell that I’d be redeeming for UA/AA long-haul (unless ALL other options are gone)

  30. I thought your post on this would get a lot of comments, Gary, since the issue comes up again and again over at Flyertalk and I’m sure other forums.

    The relatively informal American culture contributes to the uneven FA service in various ways, both good and bad. The demoralization of some FAs certainly undercuts the service they offer. I can’t help wondering whether some American (as a nationality, not specifically AA) customers might be more annoying and demanding to deal with than those from other countries. And poor service starts at the top, with management that’s largely indifferent to quality service, or at least does not prioritize it.

    In the end, though, I can’t help thinking that the biggest single culprit is a union culture that prizes seniority over all else, albeit for at least somewhat understandable reasons: not wanting management to persecute FAs for unjustified reasons having nothing to do with how good or bad they are at their jobs. Regardless, the upshot is that the best FAs do not get the best perks unless they stay on the job for many years, and many lousy FAs do get the choicest assignments, which provides an incentive for them to stick around. Unless and until airline management tackles this, service on USA carriers will continue to be very inconsistent and to compare unfavorably with some foreign competitors.

  31. Gary

    I agree that it’s a mix of culture and institution, but I disagree on some of the cultural matters. First, the USA generally is renowned for its excellent customer service in restaurants and shops. Tourists marvel at it (as well as joking about “have a nice day”). Yes the culture is informal, but people are generally bright enough to account for those differences. Personally, I prefer a more formal culture, but I can recognise that the less formal can be equally good. So, the USA has an excellent service culture but some of the world’s worst airline service. What’s going on?

    Certainly, poor management is at the forefront of this, by not laying down service standards, by not training in what is expected, by not continually monitoring and grading the staff and by not rewarding good service. But also there’s a cultural thing. Americans expect tips, and huge tips for even doing their jobs. Whether it’s a waitress in a restaurant, or even a bartender who gets in the way of getting a drink in an airline lounge in the USA, the customer is expected to fork over dollars to receive even what he paid for. And then there are FAs who don’t get tips. I’m not arguing for giving tips to FAs, but merely observing that the set-up we have with airlines runs counter to the American idea of service – bend over backwards and ask to be beaten again, all with a huge smile on your face, so long as there’s a dollar at the end of it.

  32. I flew a lot of miles before 9/11 and “some” after 9/11 and I believe the change in on board attitudes has changed dramatically to the down side. There is an under lying “this is dangerous, I’m scared, so sit down and shut up and don’t cause me have any stress as I already have enough without any customers being on board”………..the on board staff has seen an ability to seize control of the cabin and I believe they have done it with a vengeance…..
    My response to that treatment is I have dramatically reduced my flying and when I do I find a way to get up front all the time……it helps but it does not change the underlying culture now dominant………..

  33. I agree with many of the comments above. Seems like many reasons for these service problems. But solutions? Airlines: Give customers easy ways to provide feedback in real time in multiple categories. Postcard? iPhone Ap? Reward customers with ff miles?
    Date, Flight #, Cabin, Name if known.
    Food Service: 0 1 2 3 4 5
    Beverage Service…, Ancillary Services…, General demeanor (walking softly, being proactive, no loud galley bitch sessions)…
    Seems like patterns could be fairly easy to determine. Surely there will be scoring differences between cabins and city pairs, but if one crew shows poorer numbers on all of their flights for the day it should be pretty clear quickly enough.

  34. I am very lucky in the flights I usually fly (LAX-MIA on 777, LAX-JFK) have top class flight attendants, who have impressed me by their professionalism and service, even during the pilot actions (which hurt them as much as the passengers). I know some of them well enough to hear what some of their gripes are (after clearly inviting them to share their complaints; no word of it before).

    I think they will be more cheerful with Horton getting denied his $20M.

  35. I agree with NB.

    Many of the comments here suggest that the unions are the problem, but there’s no evidence that that is the case. BA, Qantas, and the vast majority of European airlines are heavily unionized (with seniority being a key factor), and rarely do they offer the huge variance in service levels that is provided on the US carriers.

    In the US, the planes are dirty, the equipment old, and the airports are shabby. Asian flight attendants don’t have to work in that environment. Nor do the Europeans. Nor the Australians. Their airports are generally better, their planes are cleaner, their passengers are less entitled. Perhaps it is a reflection of the culture in which they work?

    As an Australian, I have often been confused by the odd tipping culture, but I have been consistently been told that American tip because it gets them better service. Many Australians and Europeans would agree. We tip waiters, doormen, bellboys, hairdressers. But we don’t tip flight attendants. Why not? Would we get better service of we did?

    A reasoned analysis would also have to recognize that
    management has consistently secured labor concessions over the past two decades, which probably mirrors the timeframe for the decline in service. Might that be the problem? At least there’s some sort of correlation.

    Poor service and business cultures are usually a reflection of the culture at the top, of management styles and priorities. Why would the airlines be any different?

  36. I want to fly Asiana over and over. I will fly Lufthansa, Swiss, and Thai. I will grudgingly fly United and Singapore. I avoid American, Delta, Air Canada. I won’t fly Quantas (for maintenance issues not service).

    My favorite line.. United gate agent in Chicago… If you don’t get in line with your documents opened properly… I am going to leave my post and none of you will get home tonight. My second favorite line… American Flight attendant with hands on hips at back galley….. Those idiots, don’t they know how to fly? (that was my final American flight)

  37. “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.”

    Gary, I’m surprised you dismissed the cultural differences between Taiwan, Hong Kong & China so quickly. Since you’ve been to all three places before, I’m sure you realized that the service standards ARE vastly different (ever tried lining up for something in mainland China?) There’s a reason why Hong Kong people can not stand mainland tourists’ behaviors when they visit.

    While, I don’t think it is the sole cause, but different societies do have cultural differences that are ultimately reflected in their airlines.

  38. Everyone who flies internationally knows that service is usually better on foreign airlines than USA airlines.

    Gary is correct in noting that there is not enough to incentivize USA flight crews to provide better service. It is in management’s interest to do so, as many of us book away from the USA carriers because we prefer better in-flight service (with safety and frequent flyer benefits now about equal, there’s currently no reason to fly the USA airlines).

    It’s time management focused on this. Several years ago, Gordon Bethune started raffling off SUVs every quarter to employees with perfect attendance. Magically, many more Continental employees started having perfect attendance.

    Something similar should be done for inflight service satisfaction. Cards coulkd be handed out or, on flights with touch screens, there could be an online survey. On flights where the service is rated highly, the flight atttendants could win worthwhile prizes.

    I’d bet the service would magically improve, and the program would more than pay for itself as it would attract additional customers.

  39. RE: German FAs

    I’ve flown Lufthansa a few times and was supremely impressed. They were formal, calling myself and the wife Mr and Dr. such-and-such respectively, but very polite.

    And as far as language skills go, well, they spoke a lot better English than this southern boy ever has or ever will….

  40. @jab the difference in service standards between mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan is *exactly my point*. It isn’t something inherent to the thousands of year old Chinese culture that we can attribute service differences to. Now surely Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan have evolved with differences over latter half of the past century especially. But that suggests it’s differences in institutions that drives different outcomes,, right?

  41. Excellent post and great discussion. Most comments are spot on.

    This article is precisely why I always use my AA miles on partner airlines, never AA. I will gladly pay fuel surcharges if need be to get a truly F or J experience.

  42. AA does have certificates to give attendants. They are appreciative of them when I give them out, but I know they are essentially worthless (it’s a raffle for something not exciting)

  43. The funny thing about the reference to mainland Chinese airlines vs Cathay Pacific is that, while there is a stark contrast between the two, the flight attendants for both still generally provide better service than their US counterparts. A few months ago, I flew F on a domestic China Eastern flight. (And China Eastern does not have a great reputation, even in China.) Upon boarding, the flight attendant asked to see my boarding bass, and then actually personally escorted me to my seat and fluffed the pillow that was sitting there. I was completely blown away.

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