American Airlines Just Surveyed All Its Employees – And Things Are Pretty Bad

American Airlines surveyed their workforce in a major endeavor called “American Voice.” And it took responses from 59,197 employees or 53% of mainline American to learn what I’ve been saying for some time: more pay alone doesn’t translate to happy employees.

Employees have to feel they’re paid fairly, but they also have to like and respect their colleagues and feel they’re on a mission not just punching a clock for a paycheck before they’re going to be happy at work and that happiness then translates into productivity and customer service.

  • Only 41% of American Airlines employees believe that the airline’s management makes “the right decisions that take care of customers” and only 32% believe American’s leaders listen to and “seek to understand the frontline team member experience.”

  • Only 33% believe leadership makes “the right decisions that support” employees. Fewer than half believe they have “the flexibility to meet the needs of our customers who fly American” when things go wrong.

  • Only 38.9% say that “people at American trust and respect each other.”

  • Only 34.3% think that the workplace has improved in the past 12 months. Notably that’s the timeframe during which employees have been getting big raises.

55% of employees feel they understand “the goals and objectives of American” which is impressive because – besides never losing money again – I didn’t walk away from media and investor day understanding those goals and objectives.

In fairness the news wasn’t all bad. Employees feel they have meaningful relationships at work (77.6%) and see themselves working at American three years from now (83.1% will stick around with more seniority).

I spoke with Patrick O’Keeffe, American Airlines Senior Vice President – People, who was candid about the results, he suggested the most important thing for American is now having a “robust set of data” that they can work from. He says they need to work on the bond between “team and company” and “changing the culture” is their goal.

Towards that end they’re going to enter a “listening phase.” They haven’t seen data at the station level, work group, or demographics yet. So they don’t have an action plan yet, though they expect “some quick wins, some things that will take longer” and that it’ll be late spring before plans concretize.

His overall take was that the survey and its results represent “an opportunity for us” and that receiving over 260,000 comments is incredible engagement from American employees. They’ll be doing both “pulse surveys” where local teams focus on questions without waiting for another company wide survey, as well as future company surveys (“maybe next year”) in order to assess progress.

Still the results of this survey do seem a big problem (‘opportunity’) for American. They’re also entirely predictable.

  • The airline laid out its belief at media and investor day that employees are going to be the differentiator between airlines since if an airline invests in its product, other airlines will just copy.

  • But raises alone don’t make employees happy, more productive, or offer better service. Especially when they see even a small portion of fellow employees do just as well providing poor service without working as hard. If the people you work with shirk, putting out maximum effort feels futile.

American is cramming more seats into planes, degrading the customer experience. They’re offering Basic Economy as a product so intentionally bad their hope is that customers will spend more money to avoid it. And it’s the frontline employees who bear the brunt of unhappy customers the majority of whom are receiving less value than ever before from the airline, offering a product that employees can’t really be proud of.

That’s why American has higher costs but not a revenue premium or happier customers.

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. This could be a number of things.

    – they really want to know
    – they really want to see how successful the pay rises were
    – they hope it isn’t as bad as they suspect
    – they hope things are getting better.

    Sadly AA has lost me as a customer. Some airlines, especially legacy carriers seem to have a small but very determined group of employees who work harder at getting out of work than the actual job would take. Another core group at AA are the employees the survey specifically mentions, a small portion of fellow employees do just as well providing poor service without working nearly as hard. These are toxic happenstances in any business.

  2. I am skeptical that the unionized structure of AA could ever yield a truly “happy” workforce.

    I am even more skeptical that the product improvements YOU would want would make employees happy. Indeed, because they would likely be unprofitable, and therefore leave less money for employee raises, I think it probable they would make employees less happy.

  3. AA employees must be slow learners. The way to play these internal surveys is to answer that all is sweetness and light. Otherwise everyone except the CEO has to endure some form of collective punishment.

  4. Perfect timing for this story.

    Just flew ORD-LAX past weekend on AA with Sr. FA In F and rookie assisting.

    -Amazing what now passes for lunch entree -just like dinner return (if lucky due to listeria issue)—skimpy salad with dry, roadkill chicken. Even Ketchup, let alone A1, would have helped. What FA would not be embarrassed serving such minimal meal but total crap?
    -Knowing how Amtrak pays its On-Board crews to be on the clock 3-5 hours before leaving the yards loading provisions, setting up diner and lounge, and making beds, it is amazing that FAs do not start being paid until cabin door is closed and secured. Yet, for almost an hour before flight time, they are expected to greet boarding pax, help with luggage and seat location, offer drinks in F. How do the airlines get away with violating labor law by having staff “work off the clock.”

    As cocky as AA’s sr. management team has become since the USAIR mouse swallowed the AA elephant, I am anxious to see how they fly thru the next economic downturn/higher fuel. What’s Delta’s secret?

    OBTW—despite all the bellyaching over competition from the ME3, AA was flying an Airbus 321 on my flight to LA.

  5. AA is on a downward spiral, they’ll have a tough hill to climb to right the ship…It’s not impossible but it’ll be very, very hard

  6. I dislike AA as much as the next guy but what kind of snowflake HR garbage is this? my biggest takeaway from this is that you’re going to see a housecleaning of the HR department. Note to employees, if it sucks that much to take a job at Trader Joe’s. By hating your job so much and still going back you’re just enabling upper management to keep up the good work.

  7. I give credit that they published negative responses. I took one of these surveys at a former company and they didn’t even bother publishing the results because it was obviously unfavorable.

  8. I would never ever have believed what this management team is capable of until I became a victim of workplace violence. I filed an incident report with the Police, at that time I thought HR was trying to help my situation, she protected the person, persons who were putting prescription medication in my lunches. This is a long story, so I won’t go into detail, but this upper management team supports harassment of females in the work force and the TWU protected the individuals involved. They would rather humiliate and embarrass the victim than do the right thing. Unfortunately my situation is going to involve an attorney. I am a 22 year employee, female mechanic, my work ethic and knowledge will not be and cannot be disputed. If you have been wronged by this company come forward, hiding and being silent only helps the union and company

  9. The airline is just not what it was. Pre-merger, AA was positioning itself as a slightly premium airline. Since the merger, the US management has changed course and pushed this airline much more toward the low cost carrier model. No wonder the customers and employees are so unhappy.

  10. Delta’s results were fairly similar at the local management level. These surveys are also written so results will be positive. Delta’s executive leadership overall does a good job, but at the local level it’s scary. So many unethical things happening, but managers do it to meet the numbers.

  11. Not only are active employees not happy but will be retirees soon and the company will also take away their promised travel benefits(D2 to D2R).

  12. I read these comments and I wonder how knowledgeable some of your readers really are (disclaimer, I don’t work for American but do work for a legacy carrier).

    For example:
    “I am skeptical that the unionized structure of AA could ever yield a truly “happy” workforce.”
    -If Unions were the problem then how do you explain Southwest – who has one of the most unionized workforces in the industry or Delta’s unionized pilots and dispatchers?

    “OBTW—despite all the bellyaching over competition from the ME3, AA was flying an Airbus 321 on my flight to LA.”
    – What does flying an Airbus have to do with Emirates, Qatar, or Etihad? If you’re quote said “despite all the bellyaching over the ExIm Bank…” you might have a point, but the equipment one flies (even if pricing on such equipment can be questioned like ExIm financing can) is not the unfair advantage that airlines who play by established world rules under authorized treaties “bellyache” about…

  13. I think the only way to improve all the domestic airlines is to allow foreign carriers into the USA. I don’t know how the foreign carriers do it with better service, meals on short flights and lower prices but they do it. If US carriers were forced to compete they would have to improve or go out of business.

  14. At Pixman..most .foreign carriers are subsidized by their goverments….also different labor laws….

  15. Pixman they do it because they aare money losing operation propped up by their governments coffers. Profit margin is the least of thwir concerns.

  16. For the idiot that thinks they understand competition you need to do your research. Allowing foreign carriers in the US would hurt our own carriers.. Foreign carriers are subsided by their countries. You can’t compete with that.

  17. It comes down to this: which legacy airline do you hate the most? When you live where a small regional airport is the nearest option, you have to make the call, and even with the results of this survey, I still veto UAL and suffer American.

  18. I have been flying American regularly since 1987 (6 million + miles). There have been ups and downs but American still beats United in terms of service (though not necessarily in terms of trying: lately on United I get the impression that they have been instructed to be nice to passengers). Delta doesn’t fly to where I live so I can’t compare. A few things:
    – its become harder (but not impossible, with some planning) to get upgraded.
    – nice to have entertainment on more planes (wish it changed more frequently for frequent flyers)
    – the LAX-JFK service is great! The 321 is a good plane – makes the 737 seem cramped and uncomfortable.
    – International service is great too; the new flat beds are a big plus (beating out BA’s 20-year old fold down beds). (The Airbus 380 that BA flies to LA is the most comfortable plane in the air – too bad the program is in trouble.)
    – The re-build of the Admirals Clubs was a major headache but the new clubs are really, really nice and the range of food and drinks offered there (for free) makes it worthwhile.
    – Wide variety of flight attendants, but that’s to be expected, given that they are people. Some really seem to take trouble to be helpful. Still, you can see that they are trying to comply with Head Office instructions (greet passengers by name; thank them for flying American….).
    – Its a tough business; I think the new American performs as well as can be expected in the circumstances.
    – A lot of these comments seem like the type of feedback you see from employees in other industries. Still, I am very pleased to see them, given my affinity for the company.

  19. Omg…. Where do I start. I work for AA and its a terrible, toxic place. We have one of the worst contracts in the industry and mgmt will not even abide by that abismal contract, constantly violating it. They claim we have industry standard pay, but its all smoke and mirrors. Despite what mgmt says, they only care about profit and nothing about employees and it will never change. Our motto is, “it’s always been done this way”. So change is stagnant and they are still running the company on 1960s technology. Ive put myself in the situation by not leaving immediately for another airline and believing the companies BS, but I’ve had enough and think I may actually go to Delta this year.

  20. Agreed….the Merger has continued to damage AA.
    The passengers experience has been downgraded and responses/complaints go unanswered.
    My AA First Class to HON on a tiny Airbus was a disaster over the Pacific.
    So bad that I returned on an UA flight!
    I made complaints in writing…..and the response was No Response….SNAFU.
    Regards

  21. G. Labat, when you start you comment with name calling it’s a good sign you’ve lost the argument.

    Having foreign carriers compete would push domestic carriers to provide the best service they can. So what it they get subsidies? Our government has bailed out the industry a number of times yet the service has been consistently lousy. Having a friendly FA or having a decent meal in F (vs. a crappy, lousy meal that costs maybe .45 less) doesn’t cost all that much considering all the ridiculous fees US carriers charge that foreign competitors don’t. Maybe the international cabins in F cost more to put in place, but domestic service that makes up 80% of domestic passenger traffic wouldn’t cost that much to improve. The US carriers just don’t want to have to compete.

  22. Deregulation of the air lines has proven disastrous for the consumers and workers but has been a financial windfall for CEO’s. Not one major legacy carrier has survived, prices have not gone down and service has become dismal.

    The American public was sold an empty bag and now reading through these comments everyone wants to blame the “Average Working Joe/Jane” punching the time clock and not the legislators and CEO’s.

  23. @Mark York – airlines are among the most heavily regulated businesses in the country. During the regulated era the government didn’t give us competition, the Civil Aeronautics Board saw its role as protecting *airlines* from ‘ruinous competition’. Deregulation essentially did two things. The government stopped telling airlines where they were allowed to fly, and they stopped telling airlines how much they could charge. Otherwise they remain very regulated, they have their own regulatory agency (compared to most businesses that just fall under the FTC). And prices have gone down even inclusive of fees.

  24. I can understand the situation. it’s what usually occurs when you have a merger and the management of the worst of the companies involved (US in this case) takes over the management of the entire operation.

  25. AA was a great airline until the merger with USAir. Attitudes of “former” USAir FA & gate agents are generally worse the AA’s. Tired of the credit card commercials on every flight! AA is in the business of transportation not credit card finances. Adding more tiers to the AAdvantage program doesn’t make any sense either. AA needs to go back to being a service oriented provider of airline travel.

  26. I don’t work for AA but I do work for another airline and after reading many of these comments it sounds as though AA is just hitting a tough spot as most airlines do after any merge, it takes time to adjust and unite two big families into one- not everyone thinks the same and many may be sour due to the merge. What I can say is I’m someone that does work in customer service in the airline industry and appreciate all the customers that walk in the door (even the super mean ones that take it to a personal level- why would they do that- they’re upset and want to hit me where it hurts) this job is difficult I can say that but VERY VERY rewarding. We have good days and bad days. Everyday there is something “new” we need to be trained on or a new rule that changes to another rule that we learned only 6 months ago. The airline industry is always changing… and I mean ALWAYS what worked one month doesn’t mean it will work the next. ALL I can say is common courtesy, I do my very best to walk into work (even on days where personal life isn’t the greatest) and smile and change bad into good and 99% it works and one thing I’ve learned never take anything mentally home from work and vice versa. Just like we as agents can sense our passengers who are honest they too can sense when we don’t want to help them or aren’t being honest with them either and just want to shush them away. There’s not many things we can control in this world but we can control how we react when things don’t our way.

  27. American, as an airline, isn’t alone in these statistics. I believe that if every airline were surveyed in the same fashion, you wouldn’t see a significant difference. Management’s focus is on squeezing a dollar (understandably, a prime function of their job), but the problem is one of “when is enough, enough?”…
    Employees are chattel, an expense. They aren’t seen as a fully appreciated member of the team. Managers look down on their airline workers, even though many of them have better academic credentials per capita than most management teams. Airlines operate daily through ticketing agents, gate agents, ramp and maintenance personnel, and aircrews… where the “rubber meets the road”. Administrative office functions tend to enjoy a better working environment, but aren’t on the front line.
    Passenger travel by air IS mass transit. Since the late 1980s, the public has pushed the industry towards what they wanted. In order to accommodate, the product has been altered to allow for profit. The public doesn’t like what it asked for, and is very reluctant to pay what it costs to get what they fantasize it should be like…
    Although many managements like to banter about the term “leadership”, they understand little about it and Harvard doesn’t teach it. Managers are taught management… Maybe schools should require courses in true leadership (and the value of the human quotient), not unlike the trend in the medical industry in fostering better “bedside manner”.

  28. Delta is the best airline in the world we have the best management and we
    Are extremely proud of our beloved Delta. I have been a flight attendant
    Since 1972 I love Delta with all my heart and will always keep our beloved Delta close to my heart and always exceed Customer expectations and make the Delta difference. I wear my wings with pride and tell the world I
    am Delta.
    Ps. I have to also say Ed Bastian our ceo who I adore has the best people running our great airline
    Richie Bayne f/a Ambassador for Delta Air Lines

  29. Well when you consider Doug Parker, the CEO of American and formerly the CEO of US Air, chided Delta Air Lines for paying profit sharing to It’s employees, can you blame them? What does that say to your workers?
    Delta values it’s employees and they show us that in many ways, including our profit sharing. Two years ago it was 20%. I also find little things amusing, like we always get our profit sharing on Valentines Day. Ed Bastian is a stellar CEO and has come into my shop and chatted with us. He is a CEO and as such has to consider the investor but, it is VERY obvious he cares about the workforce. When that happens, it shows. We strive every day to make sure it is done right because we are rewarded for performance and treated well. Are we perfect? Not yet, but we are working on it. Our performance numbers are making the other carriers green with envy. This is what pride looks like, Mr. Parker.

  30. As a Delta employee, we have been through what the American employees are describing in the past. It usually never ends well for the traveling public, employees, management or investors. The fix is never just a little tweak, pay raise or simple solution. It usually starts with treating employees as more then just an interchangeable part, but an important piece of a large operation. Money helps, but empowerment and respect of your employees will be reflected in employees returning that respect to their customers. After all, most employees know the customers ultimately pay their salaries not management. They also know that an adversarial, toxic workplace starts with help and guidance from above. Bridging that gulf between management and the different labor groups is a must before they well be able to fix their customer service reputation. And believing the 80+% of employees will still be around in 3 years as a plus ignores the common human trait to seek the safety of a bad job in a toxic environment over the stress and risk of looking for a new job/career.

  31. Thanks for your remarks.
    I knew Parker when he was a “good guy” with America West….too bad he
    ended up like Wolfe and the rest!

  32. Having worked at United pre- and post-merger before leaving after eight years of seniority (a pittance at a legacy carrier) for Delta for the last five years, I can say Delta’s corporate culture is vastly kinder and gentler than UA’s, and from I’ve observed, AA’s. As a gate agent, I am vastly more empowered than I was at UA to make things better for inconvenienced passengers. Better yet, I’m lucky to work at a good station where almost all my co-workers do their best by our customers. At UA, I could only make things slightly less worse for our customers, and as a supervisor, I was mystified and frustrated by UA’s soviet-style bureaucracy and silo-dominated corporate culture. I had hoped more of Continental’s corporate DNA would survive the merger. As a frontline supervisor in the weeks and months after the passenger service system cutover, it was so bad I had to quit to save my marriage and my sanity.

    I am proud to work for Delta Air Lines: it’s a far better company to work for. A bad day at DL is better than any good day I had at UA. More importantly I see congruence between the corporate talk and corporate walk, at least when it comes to employee relations and customer service. I love that we agents are not unionized; that I can speak frankly to my manager about anything, anytime, and more importantly, actually be taken seriously(!).

    DL though has two problems: one is customer service consistency, the other corporate attitude. How does an 80,000+ employee company spread around the world provide consistent good service across a number of departments, especially when almost all frontline airport customer service training is done online? Gone are classroom-based instruction and basic corporate culture familiarization. So there is little hands-on standardization to verbiage, attitude, and cultivating problem-solving skills. This deficiency is evident throughout the system. Ed Bastian, if you’re reading this, ACS needs more consistent attention than perky missives to the troops if you want us agents to be able deliver consistently Delta Spirit day-in, day-out across the system. The other problem I see is Delta becoming (more) arrogant at the corporate level. It’s great to celebrate the company’s achievements, but don’t go so far as to cop a superior attitude about it. Again, Ed if you’re reading this, I would suggest you look more closely at our founder, C.E. Woolman and reflect on his modesty for himself and his airline. It is easier I think to work for an underdog than it is for a bully. Delta has come a long way, but it is better to be humble about it and own our faults and deficiencies, and thus keep up the GOOD fight to be a better airline for our customers and us employees.

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