This Is Why Service On American Airlines Won’t Get Better


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The Chicago Business Journal has reported that American Airlines is adding ‘service analysts’ to some of its flights as the airline desperately tries to find ways to get flight attendants to offer customers a reasonable level of service. Unsurprisingly, some within the flight attendant pool are less than happy about this.

One of the primary reasons why service aboard airlines like American and United is so much worse than service on a lot of other leading airlines is because there isn’t any real management onboard once the aircraft doors are closed.

Airlines like Qatar Airways have cabin managers onboard most of their flights and even British Airways has pursers and Cabin Service Directors who have actual authority and seniority over the rest of the cabin crew…but this isn’t how it works here in the US.

Here in the US there may be cabin crew with different job titles operating within the one aircraft (e.g you’ll find pursers onboard some American Airlines flights) but none of them actually hold any sway over the level of service being offered onboard.

If one or more flight attendants on any given American Airlines flight are poor at their job passengers have to rely on the better flight attendants on that flight to make up for their colleague(s) or, more often than not, simply put up with an unacceptable level of service.

Now it would appear that American Airlines would like to do something about this.

According to the CBJ:

Sources within the ranks of American’s 27,000-plus flight attendants have reported working alongside a member of AA’s management team called a “service analyst” on flights in recent days. The job title is a new one to many veteran flight attendants at American.

The world’s largest carrier appears to be concerned that frequent customers may be experiencing very different levels of service from flight to flight depending on the experience of the crew on board — something that could affect customers’ decisions about whether to keep flying American.

Up until recently I was a frequent flyer with American Airlines and I can tell you that the airline is right to be concerned…and it should be VERY concerned.

It’s not just that the level of service differs from flight to flight it’s the fact that, in my experience, there are far more flights being operated on which the service is poor, bad or terrible than there are flights on which service can be considered good or great.

Now here’s the thing….

The good and great flight attendants that American Airlines employs are not the vocal ones….the vocal ones are the lazy and rude brigade and this is almost certainly the group that are now complaining about the presence of ‘service analysts’ onboard.

According to the CBJ “the appearance of the new service analyst on flights has rankled veteran American flight attendants who feel their presence is yet another way management is checking up on them

So what?

Why shouldn’t an employer check up on its workforce? What good employer offers no oversight of its employees while they perform their duties? In what other serious work environment (which an aircraft certainly is) is there no manager or supervisor present?

We’re constantly being told how vital the work of flight attendants is in keeping us all safe so, assuming that is true, why is it such a terrible idea to have some oversight onboard?

It’s not even like these service analysts have any power – all they can do is report back what they see to management as the unions won’t allow anything else – but apparently this is all too much for some flight attendants.

According to the CBJ, American Airlines is concerned that some of their newer flight attendants aren’t following all of the service procedures listed in the airline’s “Onboard Service Manual” and this is why there’s such a disparity in service between flights…but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There may well be an issue with new recruits not doing their jobs to the specifications provided but there’s just as big an issue with some long-standing employees being truly awful at their job too.

Apparently “flight attendant sources” have told the CBJ that because of how flight attendant seniority rules work (the longer you’ve been in the job the more choice you have what routes you fly) there are a number of flights (presumably on the less glamorous routes) which are now entirely crewed by new flight attendants and that this is why some flights offer such poor service.

Ok….

Let’s assume for a moment that this is the only reason why some American Airlines flights offer a stunningly appalling level of service (it isn’t)….what’s the obvious solution?

The obvious solution would be to ensure that all flights have an appropriate mix of new and experienced flight attendants to make sure that the service offered is as uniform as possible across the board…..but there is no way the flight attendants will ever allow this to happen.

In order for aircraft to be crewed this way the flight attendant seniority rules would have to be changed and there will be snow in hell and pigs requesting landing permission at LAX before flight attendants accept any such changes.

We’re left with a position where “flight attendant sources” are telling us what they think the issue is….but it’s an issue whose solution will never be accepted by flight attendants as a whole…it’s ridiculous!

Bottom Line

Service onboard will never get better at airlines like American and United because there’s absolutely no incentive for flight attendants to do anything about it.

There’s no management onboard, the bad flight attendants complain when management attempts to do a review of what’s going wrong onboard, the great flight attendants aren’t given any extra recognition because this isn’t a meritocracy (and the unions won’t allow a meritocracy to be put in place) and there’s little or nothing management can do to get rid of the deadwood that pervades so many of its flights.

Service levels at American Airlines are not going to change because they can’t change in the current environment and that environment can’t be changed either….I almost feel sorry for American airlines.

Almost.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Your article is spot on. Sadly, I agree with your conclusion that nothing will change.

    If you look at similarly situated industries, businesses or entities that fail to provide a consistent product or service – they all have a few things in common – typically a union workforce with the inability to correct employee behavior, promotions based on seniority, not meritocracy and a threat of a shutdown down or walkout in case their demands are not met . (vs. if you don’t like it, get another job.) Airlines, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Education industry are a few that come to mind.

  2. You make some interesting points. The thing is, if you’re correct, then how does Southwest manage? You obviously see unions as the enemy, which I think skews your thinking here. What I think you’re overlooking is how critical the business culture is to morale and effectiveness of any group of employees. Laying this all at the feet of the flight attendant’s union is ignoring just how toxic the culture at AA really is. Let’s be honest here, American has made it plain that they couldn’t care less about employees, customers, or pretty much anyone besides the shareholders. This mentality of not giving a crap about anyone gradually works down from the top to the people the customers interact with while flying. When top management exhibits massive greed, embraces shortsightedness, and wavers between indifference and antipathy for the people choosing to fly American, there are problems a lot bigger than the FA’s union. What’s needed is a new board that will elect a CEO that is at least somewhat inclined to provide a product that customers will like and employees can be proud to provide.

  3. Actually I’m pretty pro unions – I like the idea that workers have some protection from unscrupulous employers…but sometimes it goes too far.

    I agree that the situation at AA has been toxic for a while but let’s not forget that it was the unions that helped topple Tom Horton, helped grease the wheels for the AA/US merger to happen and crowned King Doug in his place. Parker threw money at employees without asking for anything in return (a truly idiotic move) and nothing improved….despite the fact that a lot of FAs have said that money was a big factor.

    The unions jumped into bed with Parker so quickly it was embarrassing….and now they’re still unhappy. Apparently the grass will always be greener on the other side.

    The biggest issues leading the lack of a service culture at AA are:

    1) The fact that, as entitled as the FA’s think passengers are (which a lot of them do), the bad FAs are doubly as entitled as any passenger I’ve come across (and that takes some doing). They don’t think they should have any oversight, they don’t think they’re there to provide a service and they generally don’t care.

    2) The good and great FA’s have no voice whatsoever. Try seriously criticising the bad FA’s online and you’ll get a rabid response from a population that believes that no FA has ever done anything wrong, that all criticisms are invalid and that all the blame for bad service, bad attitude and bad relations lies anywhere but with the FAs. Anyone who disagrees is an over-entitled [insert expletive of your choice] and has no idea what they’re talking about.

    Sometimes you have to raise your hands and concede that there’ just no dealing with some people and that’s very much the care with the bad FAs at American.

  4. Seniority is not the problem it’s attitude.
    I’ve had AA flight attendants scoff when politely requesting water in first class, I’ve had them try to lie and steal my desert in international business and tell me there was no inflight snacks on international business because they’re reading a book!
    I’ve also had some good ones but the bad ones should be weeded out asap!

    • I agree, seniority isn’t the problem…it’s the way seniority is decided that’s the problem.

      If you don’t have to be good at your job to become “senior” the only incentive you have to be good is your own pride….and the bad flight attendants are sadly lacking in that department.

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