How Real Airline Hospitality Can Make Flying a Regional Jet Feel Special

Yesterday I flew United Express from Austin to Denver. It was a Canadair CRJ-700 operated by GoJet.

Katarina was working the first class cabin. She’s been flying for only a month, and has probably worked about 50 flights. She’s still finding her confidence making inflight announcements. But she hustled, and she showed real care for her passengers.

  • A little girl and her father came up to the front of the cabin. Someone was using the back lavatory and she really needed to go. So Katarina comforted her, and helped the furious father understand that she wasn’t trying to enforce rules against his daughter by not letting her use the first class lavatory… there is no first class lavatory. She walked them to the back of the plane and comforted them.

  • The man sitting behind me wanted another drink while we were in our descent. You could see her do some mental calculations, what does she still have to do for final checks and how much time do we have left? It took her but a second and responded, “of course” and moments later brought him a new cocktail while she was picking up everyone else’s glasses.

  • She brought around the snack basket early in the flight, but I asked if she might give me a stroopwafel instead? I saw they were stocked, they’re a coach snack and it was an afternoon flight. So she gave me one. And then as the flight came to a close she brought me another (I hadn’t asked).

She was clearly going the extra mile, and I realized I’d trade a mainline aircraft for a regional jet every day if I got to fly with Katerina.

And that made me think of Jenna.

United CEO Oscar Munoz, a month in to the job and before taking medical leave, was traveling the United system on something of a mystery tour. And he was telling the story of a flight attendant he had come across.

Jenna was the flight attendant on that miserable trip. “Throughout that whole disaster, her smile, her willingness to take care of everybody on that small flight, asking ‘more ice, more drinks, anything else I can do?’”

As he waited at the baggage carousel, he sidled up anonymously to a young couple and prodded them for complaints, “Can you believe how long this luggage thing is taking?” They agreed but quickly mentioned Jenna. “Wasn’t that woman nice on that flight?” Munoz called that a watershed moment for him as he takes the controls at the world’s second-largest airline. “Everybody on that flight remembered that,” Munoz said.

“The process and systems and investments and all that stuff? Those are all wonderful … but what I’ve got to start with is people. “If I get maybe 5,000 Jennas working through this, I think I can make it work.”

The details of the full story are almost certainly apocryphal. He relays that he ‘always seems to get’ seat 22A (as though it is outside his control). His example of a flight from hell is a 30 minute tarmac delay (something outside the control of the airline most likely) and a wait for a gate on arrival. Then an exaggerated delay for luggage. Yet with a happy ending.

But it’s a story with a point as he tried to motivate the people at United, telling them they make all the difference, and changing the culture in the process.

Nevermind that Jenna was apparently a flight attendant on a regional jet, and thus not an employee of United but of one of their contract United Express carriers. Nonetheless, Katerina made me think of Jenna — both United Express flight attendants — and how they remind me of Nancy, a brand new mainline flight attendant in 1982.

United brought back ‘the Friendly Skies’ without friendly people, describing their features and benefits as ‘flyer friendly’.

The actual friendly part doesn’t really cost more, but it’s much harder to create a culture — and the incentives — which foster it. Flight attendants can be there primarily for your safety or can provide an experience of true hospitality. In the U.S. outstanding crews are generally great by virtue of their own choice and drive rather than company culture. Fixing that is the part that not only doesn’t cost money, it can be less expensive, but it’s hard to get there once you’ve lost it.

It’s hardly a phenomenon unique to United. American has Taylor Tippett but it also has the flight attendants who frequent my comments section.

There may be something to Nancy, Jenna and Katerina being new and that being more likely (at least the case with both Jenna and Katerina) at a regional carrier. Perhaps there’s a clue to be found there.

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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Comments

  1. I agree that there’s something to a new employee being more eager and less jaded, however, that’s certainly not all there is to it – I fly mostly DL and UA, and see a big customer service difference between mainline Delta and United FAs at all levels of experience, with DL being superior in all respects. The idea that a CEO can *just now* be finding out that front-line employees make a difference to customers in a service industry is mind-boggling.

    Of course, many regional FAs represent multiple Airlines – e.g., Skywest has AA, UA and DL flights, and an FA can staff United Express one day and with a scarf change, Delta Connection the next.

    FWIW, I almost always take time to send a quick email to the airline when I see exemplary performance by their employees (I do it with other companies, too – I also really enjoy getting good feedback on my own subordinates). Purely anecdotally, I see a culture difference between airlines: with AA and UA, I’ve typically gotten form letters of acknowledgment. With Delta and JetBlue, I’ve gotten personalized email responses every time thanking me and assuring me that the employee and their supervisor would be notified. Additionally, I’ve received many phone calls from Delta customer service managers thanking me for my emails.

  2. This flight attendants behavior is inexcusable. Give her another month or two and she will come around. In the meantime, I am sure her fellow flight attendants can coach her up.

    /s Flight Attendant Union

  3. @JEM in fairness I do not think that it’s right to say that United’s “CEO can *just now* be finding out that front-line employees make a difference to customers in a service industry” since it’s what he was talking about a month into the job.

  4. Oscar Munoz task is taunting and probably impossible. United needs to spend boatloads of money improving everything. New airplanes, renovating current airplane interiors, new website/GDS, more employees everywhere, and changing the United employees’ mindset. And the biggest task is recreating United’s brand image. Could it happen, well that is possible, but very improbable. United and AA, and DL have for years, focused on making money. All of the US carriers are raking in the profits but are so cheap at covering basic passenger needs. Now is the time to spend money on image, etc. But the Big3 won’t because that isn’t what American companies set goals for, it is all about profits.

  5. I think the only way USA airlines would consistently get better flight attendant service is to somehow tie their compensation to it. Like at the end of the flight every pax gets a button on their screen to rate the in-cabin service, and the flight attendants who score high get bonuses.

  6. Want to experience friendly flight attendants? Fly WN! The folks at Southwest haven’t forgotten where they came from. I’ve been a frequent WN flyer for over a decade, and their friendly attitude and helpful service it’s the norm.

  7. Wait. What happened to “it’s all about the seat?” In this poet you’re shouting “it’s all about the soft product!” (a seat on an RJ is miserable).

    Nice to see you’ve wised up. Now keep this in mind when you review an airline!

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