How Do We Fix US Airline Inflight Service?

It started with predeparture beverages, and followed with flight attendants expressing their frustrations with customers.

Delta, American, and United think it’s unfair they should have to compete against the better Gulf airlines because of subsidies (though they’re plenty subsidized themselves). Nevermind that US airlines account for 49% of world airline profits.

But it isn’t subsidies that make the Gulf carrier flying experience better. On the whole US airlines invest more in the hard product. While service from non-US airlines is infinitely better. Good service isn’t expensive, and most US airlines will even complain they spend more on labor than their competitors.

For those who think it’s simply asking flight attendants to do too much to offer predeparture beverages to a domestic first class cabin, I thought it might be worth passing along the Emirates inflight service guide for required elite treatment.

I’ve written about these service standards in the past, but reader Jerry F. sent me documentation.

Click to enlarge:

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

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. I give those US airline flight attendants my deepest respect, because they aren’t following requirements outlined by the company the way Emirates crews do, and don’t suffer consequences for failing to follow through.

In the heavily unionized airline sector, there’s little relationship between customer service and pay or advancement. Service standards are very difficult to enforce. However this isn’t always and everywhere a problem of unions, Southwest and Alaska manage a higher proportion of friendly flight attendants than the legacy carriers while being unionized. Delta’s non-union flight attendants aren’t friendlier than Southwest’s unionized ones.

There are lots of things that an airline can do to demoralize their employees, and not doing those things is a good start. Operationally challenged airlines are depressing for employees, they are constantly dealing with unhappy passengers. Cost-cutting airlines are depressing for employees, because it chips away at the product they need to be proud of and because they’re the ones who bear the brunt of customer displeasure when there’s a mismatch between expectations and product (“but we used to get a meal free”).

Not demoralizing your employees though doesn’t create a service culture where crew members:

  • feel empowered
  • go out of their way for customers and are rewarded for doing so
  • see it as their job to make the travel experience better for guests onboard, and therefore offer hospitality

The destruction of the culture is not the fault of workers or unions. But the airlines need flexibility in work and compensation rules to turn around a culture that management has ruined. And they need a commitment from the very top as well.

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, 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. It was certainly distressing reading many of the FA comments in the other thread. I have always thought they had a very difficult job, but I had no idea how many of them loathed me as a passenger. (Although I’d guess those comments represent a minority of FAs. Since their message points were so similar, it felt somewhat orchestrated to me by a specific sub-group of FAs.)

    It’s one thing to feel trod on by your employer, but another to also feel trod on by your customers. I do hope there’s a change that can help them feel more valued–for their sake and for everyone else’s sake. But I suppose I’m not holding my breath.

  2. I flew economy on a domestic United flight this year that was 5 hours long. FA came by once with drink and snacks. Never came by again even with water. Was very annoyed when passengers around me asked for more drinks about 3 hours into the flight. Saw no FA come into area after the first and only round of snacks/drinks unless someone asked for them. Had not flown United in a while, but was rather shocked at the lack of service and surly attitude and I had low expectations to begin with. They did get me from one place to another safely though.

  3. It’s not just unions themselves per se, but the “union culture” that many non-union companies still have. Using seniority as the #1 (and mostly only) factor in terms of pay, shift scheduling, and advancement will yield the same losing culture as an actual union will but you can pay/treat employees as poorly as you want. My employee (non airline) is the exact same way in that we’re non-union but uses seniority as pretty much the only factor for anything, and we struggle with the same poor attitudes and lack of engagement since there’s really no motivation past showing up for work.

    Once a culture has turned sour, the only way to cleanse it is removing the malcontents and complainers who seek to infect everyone else. Unfortunately this is often the older and longer tenured employees who have rot under years inside a poor system.

  4. As much as nobody wants to admit it, being able to fire employees without too much (if any) cause probably sets the expectations of some foreign carriers’ crews just a little differently than what we’re used to on the typical CHS-PHL-SFO trip.

  5. You cant fix it – it’s f*cked and it’s been f*cked for a long time.
    No free snacks and poor drinks has been the norm on US airlines for decades and sadly the UK has gone that way too…. why? Simple – it’s a race to the bottom line of profit.

    ALL the airlines that formerly flew from England to Scotland used to serve FULL meals, hot and alcoholic beverages on flights that were only up in the air around the hour mark.
    To my knowledge that has never happened in the US in my lifetime (I’m 55) .

    When an American friend witnessed the poor level of waiting staff in London restaurants he said to me, “well you get the level of service you put up”.
    I’d like to say “right back at ya buddy” when it comes to the appalling level of casual service and bad attitude combined with the no free snacks that passes for customer service in ALL of the US airlines.
    If passengers boycotted them they’d soon wake up!

    Problem is, they seduced everyone with FF schemes which are also now unravelling !!
    As I said, we’re f*cked ! and the airlines don’t give a sh*t, let’s be frank.

  6. Well, as with so many aspects of the airline industry, the first step is to ensure that the people buying tickets will prefer, to the point of paying more for, airlines with superior inflight service. “More room in coach” did not particularly gain AA any rewards in the early 2000’s. And superior inflight service is something which, I fear, customers will not reward by redirecting their travel to superior airlines.

    I, for one, will opt for AA over UA in F due to superior inflight service. But I am likely in a minority of people who bother to educate myself to the fact that UA serves a crappy cheese platter but AA serves a meal. Not much of a meal, but a meal.

    Data collection and dissemination is easier and easier all of the time. Surely there are ways to develop objective, albeit manipulable, metrics to identify and publicize the quality of inflight service. But as it is now, it is too difficult for most consumers to identify what sort of inflight service they are likely to receive on any given airline.

  7. The irony in the EK notes is that there is absolutely no mention of offering pre-departure drinks. I’m sure it’s part of the service and might be in a different part of the same manual, but it is particularly odd and not a great contrast to the point made in the paragraph immediately preceding the picture.

    You would think it might also expand, for example, that an iO member could have any drink they like before take off whilst maybe Platinum and Gold are limited to Champagne and a few others. I have never flown EK before; maybe everyone is allowed anything or slightly restricted based on class of service. Maybe iO members are offered a drink as soon as they are escorted to their seat, whilst everyone else must wait until the tray offering is brought around.

  8. @jfhscott. If people didn’t care for comfort then Emirates and JetBlue wouldn’t get so much business, and tiny Virgin, the darling of the Silicon Valley wealth, would long be out of business. They all get more money per mile flown than AA/DL/UA (adjusted by cabin mix, of course).

    AA had to reverse the idiotic decision to remove more room throughout coach (a decision who contributed to its bankruptcy by thrashing its yields) by introducing main cabin extra first and premium economy now. Because people care about comfort.

    @ Gary, great post. Management doesn’t get it, and it shows.

  9. Great service in all classes doesn’t just come from the ME3. Look at Qantas, Cathay and Singapore just to name a few. Those airlines all manage a far superior service in a very competitive and non-subsidized environment. US service is terminal and can’t be fixed in the current environment. They need to go back to their fundamental basics and start to build up their desired culture from there. Empowering staff and stop having them do credit card advertising inflight might be a great place to start!

  10. @Gary – “The destruction of the culture is not the fault of workers or unions.” Thank you for recognizing that. Your next statement got me to thinking though… “The airlines need flexibility in work and compensation rules to turn around a culture that management has ruined.” That might help, but the issue is so much deeper than that.
    When I started flying for AA 16 years ago, we always did pre-departure beverages. It was never a question of whether or not we were going to do them. We just did it. Nobody said – I’m not getting paid right now so I’m not going to do it. But then came the concessions in 2003 when AA flight attendants gave 20% of their pay/benefits/vacations back to the company to keep AA out of bankruptcy. We were committed to the “Pull together – Win Together” Plan. That if we sacrificed to save the company, we would be rewarded when the company returned to profitability. Then for the next 10 years we watched management take massive bonuses for themselves every year even as we were continuing to fail. Rewarding themselves while everyone else suffered through the paycuts. People lost their homes. Some people even committed suicide. It was a gut wrenching time for everyone. Except management. Then we ended up in bankruptcy anyway and further cuts were imposed. That was demoralizing enough.
    But then along comes USAir. And after the constant betrayals of our own management team it seemed that there might finally be a leadership team that could turn things around. So the unions all threw their support behind the merger – Without which, the merger likely would not have happened. Many of us had high hopes that we would turn a corner and be profitable again. That we would finally be able to “Win Together” …..
    Well, we have been profitable. This past year has been one of the most profitable years in the company’s history. And yet Doug Parker does not feel that profit sharing is an appropriate incentive for “employees who do not have any impact on the bottom line.” Ironic isn’t it? Considering all the emotions that flyers feel about something as simple as a coke prior to take off. So much so, that some people will take their business elsewhere because they don’t get that single service item. It would seem, then, that we DO have the ability to impact the bottom line. But the current management team doesn’t see it that way. And in a year when there has been record profits, not only has there been no profit sharing for the employees that have carried this company for over a decade, but there wasn’t even a simple Christmas bonus. Nothing. Nada. Zip.
    It’s incredibly disheartening when the people who are in charge, as a direct result of your support, fail to show any appreciation for the people who got them where they are. Once again, management cashes in while everybody else gets nothing. As a result, it seems that many just don’t care anymore.
    So now you have a massive group of front line employees who fall into one of several categories: 1) Those that are so angry that they want to quit, but feel trapped. After the bankruptcy we lost our pensions and retiree medical. Many people are still hanging around simply because they can’t afford to pay for health care if they leave. Plus, a 20 year flight attendant can’t just quit and go to work for another airline at the same pay. They would be starting all over again at a 1 year flight attendant salary that would qualify them for food stamps. 2) Those who are working on an exit strategy. On any given flight, you will probably encounter at least one flight attendant who is currently in school or training to do something else. So sometimes they’re there… but their heart is somewhere else. 3) Those that still love the job, but worry about what we are turning into. And whether or not our jobs/company as we know it will continue down the road.
    So the culture divide at AA is deep. It’s not a simple fix of pay them during boarding… People are wounded and angry that they have been betrayed again. And this time it is much worse because WE PUT THEM THERE. So it feels like a slap in the face when there is no appreciation for our support or efforts.
    I know people will say, if you’re so angry then quit! Or that’s just the way corporate america is! But here’s the thing: AA employees are some of the most passionate people I know. They love what American used to be. Many of us still cling to the hope that one day we will return to the level of greatness we once were. So we stay. Because we want to believe that things will change. That one day, maybe, we WILL win.

  11. Here are 2 extreme service examples on 2 different US airlines – both occurred to me in the last 7 days!
    AA#2324 RIC-DFW Friday 12.18.15 – Bought F ticket for $1,821 one way (company paid). Flight is blocked at 3 hrs 20 min and usually serve dinner. This day however, once aloft, FA served beverages then disappeared. Later she returned and handed the pax in 3A a handwritten note on a piece of notebook paper. She told them to pass the note around. THe note said that someone had forgotten to cater food so there was nothing to serve but if there was anything leftover on the buy on board cart once it had finished in economy – she’d serve us. It also said that they would provide “meal vouchers” upon arrival into DFW. The FA never returned until she had to collect drink glasses. Of course no vouchers upon arrival. No note or apology from AA. I’m ExPLat since 2005 and have written to AA as there should have been some sort of accommodation. No response yet.

    UA#4500 EWR-RIC 12.13.15 – rolling delay in crappy EWR Terminal A due to a mechanical problem on inbound A/C (note this is ExpressJet). Flight was scheduled to depart at 1900. Finally boarded at 2145 but never pushed. First the First Officer called his duty day was up. He was replaced. Then the original FO claimed the replacement was a contract violation. He filed a grievance. Meanwhile, it was reported that one of the MX problems that had delayed the inbound AC was a systems problem that required manual weight and balance recording. While the company worked through the union issue and the Captain worked through the maintenance issues, the pax sat and sat and sat. Finally at 11:30pm we were required to disembark but to wait on the jetbridge (a new one for me). At 11:45, after complaints, we were herded back into the terminal but told we couldn’t get our gate checked luggage because “there were no rampers available”. Note that the weather was beautiful and according to the flight boards, there was only one other severely delayed flight that night. Most pax had been waiting in that tiny terminal area since before 1800, there were kids, babies, old people, etc. They had been unable to give us the FAA required snack/beverage as it had all been used up on the delay from the originating city. All restaurants and shops had long since closed. There is not even a water fountain in that terminal section and no one could leave as TSA closed at 10 (fortunately, there were bathrooms). I called the UA gold desk to try to rebook but was told that there was nothing they could do because “the flight had been dispatched and was on its way to RIC so my ticket was used”. Further, they said that no compensation would be forthcoming because the delay was “due to runway construction and out of UA’s control”. End of story is that the flight finally cancelled at 12:45am. We were told to return for a 7:00am flight that was added to the schedule and if we wanted a room we had to go to a 2* Ramada Express. Some of us (including me) got our gate checked luggage eventually. Others did not. Eventually they did “un-dispatch” the flight. At no time did the FA or gate agents offer us a beverage, a snack, or even information. In many millions of miles and 100’s of IRR Ops, it was the worst handled delay I’ve ever enjoyed. that’s the “flyer friendly” airline.

    Also had a mis-connect on DL this week in ATL and while it was entirely avoidable (we sat on ramp for 45 min waiting for our gate), I was able to rebook on the DL app and reached BMH just 3 hours later.

  12. It’s pretty clear that this is a union issue
    74 year old Grandmas shouldn’t be servicing a 12 hour red eye flights

  13. Why do you bring up unions and then conclude that unions aren’t part of the problem (Delta vs. Southwest). Unicorns aren’t part of the problem either, but they aren’t mentioned.

  14. Thank you, Ryan, for helping people understand AA management’s role in the disintegration of service standards.

    My general rule is that if service standards are low – in a restaurant, in a cable company, in pretty much any business – it probably derives from poor management. There are always some staff who don’t care, and always some passengers who will never be pleased. But when a culture disintegrates to the point of genuine mistrust, disgust and hostility, it’s usually the result of a long-term behaviors from those that are paid to run the company. That’d be management.

  15. Welcome to the post merger world that UA/CO fliers have been dealing with for some time now. Not too surprised to be hearing many of the same complains about AA/US now that I was hearing post UA, it’s difficult to mesh people who’ve been under 2 different set of standards/cultures for years into the same.

  16. Unions are definitely part of the problem. The way incentives are set up, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to provide superior service. Rewarding seniority instead of meritocracy is a key part of the problem. An inability to get rid of entitled employees is another (see some of the commentators in the other thread).

    Management is also a part of the problem. They don’t show a commitment to service, nor do they enact incentives to do so. Profit sharing would be a start, as would be finding ways to reward flight attendants that get higher customer grades. Lastly, they also enable unions persist as they are, further stifling any upcoming talent.

  17. Dear US Airlines:
    If you don’t want unions, treat the employees better. When you make half the global industry profits, don’t poor mouth. If you want your product or service improved, remember quality is actually free in the long-run. Most of all, stop whining and start running your business better.

  18. Hi Gary,
    I am quite intrigued by the Emirates service standards document.
    Right down the bottom on the second page is a heading that refers to Qantas customers.

    As a regular QF & EK flyer it would interesting to see the guidlines for how QF status pax are to be treated by EK.

    Do you have a copy of that page that you could post as well?

  19. @DS “74 year old Grandmas shouldn’t be servicing a 12 hour red eye flights” hahaha

    It is true, most flight attendants on AA and US are too old to be working on there, it’s easy to see why they are cranky and in a bad mood. I’ll assume unions have made it impossible to fire them so airlines are stuck with them and they stick to a job they hate because it’s a safe paycheck.

    Maybe being an FA should be viewed as a lifetime career choice, as is the case with many other jobs.
    Imo, United has by far the worst service of the 4 big US airlines.

  20. I remember a skit form the Sanford and Son show in the 70s where Redd Foxx was finally going to Hawaii and was going to meet that HOT flight attendant Januita. Turned out she was not hot, she was big, old and “ugly” per Redd. he did not want the “coffee tea and me” was not an option for him.

    I too remember my first flight to Hawaii and Redd was right it was like an AARP convention of FA on the plane. This is where seniority got you to Hawaii and not to Buffalo NY.

  21. It’s worth repeating a well-worn quote from Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic: “Clients don’t come first, employees do. Look after your employees, and they will look after your clients. It’s that simple.”

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