Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker declared that ‘on “crap American carriers” you’ll “always be served by grandmothers.”
There’s a point here, and al-Baker made it in the worst possible way.
- While flight attendants aren’t exclusively women the image here is of young women valued predominantly for their looks. Akbar al-Baker says the average age of a flight attendant on his airline is 26.
- There’s no inherent connection between age and providing good service. And beauty, while maybe part of Qatar’s brand image, certainly isn’t related to providing service either.
Akbar al-Baker is his own worst enemy. He gives his adversaries ammunition every time he opens his mouth.
But U.S. airlines do lag in service. The major US carriers, especially American, offer a better hard product in business class than Emirates or Etihad. But service so often undermines the huge investments they made.
It’s not because the average age of U.S. flight attendants is higher than the average age of Qatar flight attendants. Although in the uniquely U.S. case there’s a loose relationship between age and providing good service.
There are many great U.S. airline flight attendants, and indeed great flight attendants of all ages. At the major U.S. airlines they’re great because of an internal drive to provide good service, not because it’s a requirement of the job.
American’s Doug Parker is handing out big raises to employees without asking anything in return. He’s incentivizing current service levels not demanding better service for customers.
Happy motivated employees feel they are paid fairly, like and respect colleagues, and see themselves as a part of something bigger than themselves, on a mission. Pay is only a small piece of that.
But in the U.S. there’s really no connection at all between rewards — or even keeping your job — and providing good service versus reading People magazine in the galley.
- Hang around a long time and you make more money
- And that’s largely true whether you offer good service or poor service.
Southwest flight attendants are unionized but they have fun and offer great service. Delta flight attendants aren’t unionized, but their work rules and scheduling have many of the same features of their unionized counterparts at other airlines. Delta service is arguably marginally better on average than American’s or United’s. It’s not unions per se that drive this.
At the same time the kinds of rules often found in union-negotiated contracts (and in non-union airlines who offer similar terms) make it hard for employees to succeed or feel passionate about their jobs.
The jobs they perform are based on seniority, not performance. The potential to personally succeed by performing better than average is limited. There are very few consequences when coworkers don’t perform well. Working alongside coworkers who are rewarded just as well as you are while they do the minimum possible is demoralizing for the best employees.
And a seniority system locks employees into their jobs and make them feel trapped, they may be unhappy but they can’t jump to another employer because they’d start at the bottom and lose their accumulated seniority and pay.
The longer an employee stays on in this system the more jaundiced they become. The system beats them down. Some people can excel in spite of that system, but on the whole younger flight attendants simply haven’t been a part of it as long — their service hasn’t yet degraded. And that’s equally true for men as women.
Akbar al-Baker was obnoxious. He should apologize. It’s not age or beauty which drives service.
And US airlines should apologize too — to the employees they’ve demoralized because it’s difficult to provide great service day in and day out when colleagues around you don’t, when the longer you stay with your head down the more you make.
I have incredible respect for people who can stay motivated and excel day after day under these circumstances. They’re the ones who ought to be applauded.