Missing: The Service Culture In The Airline Industry

Whether you’re a frequent flier like myself or you only get on planes every once in a while, you might have noticed some changes in the air.  They don’t serve meals in coach anymore (that might be a good thing).  The seat in front of you is closer than it used to be.  The plane is more full.  Passengers are more stressed out.  We see these videos on almost a daily basis of some outrage in a metal tube.

Forgive me if you’re flying Southwest or JetBlue.  Almost none of the above apply.  There are no meals in coach on those airlines.  But, the seat in front of you is pretty much where it’s been for quite a while.  And, the passengers don’t seem quite as stressed out.  But, why are things so much worse on the Big 3 carriers?  

It’s My Fault

And, it’s your fault too.  Though, not really.  Let me explain.  For more than 10 years, I’ve flown at least 100,000 miles a year.  In each of those years, I’ve been a top-tier elite loyalty member with either American Airlines or United Airlines.  For many of those years, I was top-tier in both programs.  

Over the years, the service has degraded on both of those carriers.  As a business traveler, I used to find myself in first class with a free upgrade on pretty much every flight.  Fast-forward to today and those upgrades are much more rare.  But, I still find myself up front more often than not because the price of a first class seat has come down precipitously.  People weren’t willing to pay the sky-high prices the airlines were charging.

So, the airlines dropped the price of the first class seats from New York to Dallas, Atlanta to Seattle and a thousand other routes.  They reduced the quality of the food, but that was inevitable.  They didn’t hire different employees, though,  The employees just slowly stopped providing great service.

But, I kept flying. Instead of flying Southwest or JetBlue, I’ve doubled down.  I give United most of my travel dollars on a yearly basis.  I made a deal with the devil.  I did it with open eyes.  I wanted to get home to my family sooner.  United offers me the most nonstop options to and from my home airport of Washington-Dulles.  

By continuing to give United my money I’m at least implicitly saying I’ll choose getting home sooner over being treated well.  It’s the same for the passenger who chooses the cheapest flight.  Heck, airline CEOs even tell us that they’re forced to make the experience onboard worse because customers just want the cheapest airline prices.

Maybe I Should Be More Vocal?

What if we all started complaining when we got bad service on an airplane?  I don’t mean complaining on the flight.  That would likely be a disaster.  As it is, I’m generally a bit scared of being vocal on a plane.  It’s way too easy to get dubbed a “risk” to flight crews and get shown the door.

Good Service Is Possible, So Why Doesn’t It Happen More?

The model of flight crews on airplanes makes it difficult to improve the performance of individual employees.  There’s really no “boss” in a crew of flight attendants on a particular flight.  Rarely is anyone grading these employees on their performance during a flight.  Even more rarely are these employees assembled together in large groups to work on their customer service skills.

You may have heard about recent issues Starbucks had with racial sensitivity in one of their stores.  Their reaction?  They shut all of their stores down one day to conduct training with their employees on the issue.  Some might argue they did it because of the public nature of the initial new story. Those people might be right.  But, at least there was a reaction from the company.  It seemed, at least on its face, that Starbucks realized they needed to put a bit of elbow grease into how they treated their customers.

We’re over a year removed from the incident where a man was dragged off a United plane by authorities.  And yet, I don’t think we see markedly fewer incidents of airline employees treating customers poorly.  The Dao dragging incident should have been a catalyst for the industry.  Instead, it appears to just be an ugly stain amidst a dreary time in the air.

The Final Two Pennies

My kids love to fly on Southwest.  When we do so, they’re usually in much smaller seats than they fly to other destinations.  But, they enjoy the crew.  They enjoy the funny jokes they tell sometimes during the announcements.  The kids get a kick out of the heart shaped stirrers in their drinks.  And, they love the way the crew talks to them, addresses them like people.  You and I both know that their enjoyment on Southwest isn’t random.

In my day job, I frequently tell my team members that if it took us 6 months to break something, it’ll take 6 months to fix it.  That’s my short-hand way to say that if we lose our customers’ confidence in us, it takes us a while to repave that road with good deeds.

Service has been broken in the air for a while.  I can’t tell if we’ve started trying to fix it.  But, I can still see a lot of potholes in that road.

The post Missing: The Service Culture In The Airline Industry was published first on Pizza in Motion


  1. It’s too bad when adequate service and civility has evolved into tweet-worthy material!

    Good advice, “if it took us 6 months to break something, it’ll take 6 months to fix it”. I’ll go even further and say that one can break a relationship in 6 MINUTES and it will take 6 months or more to salvage it.

    1. Grumpy, it can take 6 minutes. But, if the relationship is built correctly it should take a lot longer. Even though I don’t fly AA as much nowadays, I still have a relationship with the brand. They built a lot of capital with me over the years.

  2. Ed, you are right on. I have been sassed by two flight attendants in a memorable way. One was on Emirates First and the other while flying in Etihad’s Apartment. (I swear I was unfailingly polite.) In my experience, the only two airlines that have been consistently exquisite are Singapore and Qatar. It’s so disappointing to settle down in a lovely suite and have someone spoil the moment because they weren’t properly trained and supervised.

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