Passengers Just Want to Be Treated Like Human Beings — Not Self-Loading Cargo

The most important element of air travel is your personal space. That means the seat and what surrounds it.

  • Business class should be a fully flat bed and you shouldn’t have to climb over another passenger, no passenger should climb over you.

  • First class means more space and fewer people in the cabin, your personal space extends beyond your seat to a serene cabin rather than a sea of people

  • In economy Singapore Airlines offers thoughtful touches with their seat, a foot bar, a cup holder, a bit of extra legroom. But the single most important thing that will determine your experience with a flight is whether or not there’s an empty seat next to you.

After the seat what’s next most important? I’d posit that it isn’t meal or the alcohol. It’s not the lounge on the ground before departure and it isn’t the contents of an amenity kit. It isn’t the inflight entertainment, you really can bring your own (seat power is a must but I include that in the seat, above).

Instead it’s the service. I don’t mean that flight attendants need to be obsequious. I don’t even mean that they are there to serve you. After all if you fly much domestically in the States you know that flight attendants are there primarily for your safety.

What I mean is whether or not flight attendants seek to engage each passenger or whether they’re actively avoiding engaging with each passenger individually.

Are they friendly and personable — do they stop, listen to what a passenger is asking, whether they’re having a good or bad day, and think about whether it’s possible to get them what they’re after? Or is it an assembly line, are passenger interactions something to get through before returning to People magazine in the galley?

Put another way, whether in the air or on the ground customers want to be treated as human beings rather than self-loading cargo.

  • When we’re at the customer service counter we need to get where we’re going and for the most part we’re completely reliant on that airline employee to do so. We’re already having a bad day, and we’re taking the trip for a reason.

  • When we’re on the plane there’s very little we can do for ourselves except for what’s in that bag underneath the seat — or maybe walk down the aisle to the lavatory, if the line isn’t too long and the seat belt sign is off (or even when it’s on). We’re not in control of when we’ll get where we’re going, how our seat opponent is behaving, so listening to how we’d like that drink gives a sense of peace, civility and control in a world without any. Skipping by us because we don’t get our drink order out quickly enough does the exact opposite.

Goodness knows there are enough passengers out there whose humanity is questionable at best. But in each instance where that’s the case, they’ve done something to reveal their flaws.

And it’s fair to say that passengers need to treat airline employees with respect, too. I’ve seen too many people unload all their troubles on someone that’s done nothing to deserve it.

However both passengers and employees are entitled to the benefit of the doubt. And when we each give that, the travel experience is so much better, in a way that no amount of turkey sandwiches or Woodford Reserve can compensate for.

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. Gary,

    Please don’t continue to repeat the nonsensical, self-important mantra that domestic flight attendants want us to believe: that they are primarily there for our safety. No, they are primarily there to serve us — no matter how minimally they do serve us these days.

    Keep in mind that on most flights, there is little need for help with safety. Most flights are routine. Most passengers wear their seat belts when told by the captain. Most passengers stow their belongings correctly.

    Yet almost all flights have beverage and/or food service — delivered by those same flight attendants. And those flights generate trash — collected by those same flight attendants.

    Flight attendants work primarily to serve passengers. Don’t let them try to convince us otherwise.

  2. The photograph raises a question: are there such things as a machine made sandwiches? Are they common enough to require the distinction?

  3. I wish you would send this “op-ed” style report to the Board of Directors of our 3 legacy carriers so perhaps they can learn and be tuned-up to what their C-Suite neglects, actively plays down, and dismisses, as if their mission is indeed just moving freight.

    Impossible not to draw the conclusion that as the airlines merged into a convenient top tier monopoly of but 3, they no longer had to rely on service to define their competitive position in the market.

    Rather than allowing union seniority to define what FAs flies the premier flights, the monopoly 3 could learn from a parallel with the private railroads when they ran their premier all Pullman passenger trains. In particular, we know how the Santa Fe hand-picked the crews for its renown “Super Chief.” It would not hurt the airlines to learn from those who perfected true service.

  4. I thought the purpose of flight attendants on U.S. domestic flights was recently changed. “We are here primarily for your safety and to hawk the Barclays Red Aviator Card with a limited time bonus available only on this flight.”

  5. Last month, I flew a domestic Air China roundtrip in economy and the service was better than the majority of US domestic flights I take.

  6. If those economy class footrests are anything like the ones on Turkish – they are the opposite of an amenity.

    When they are up as shown in the photo the take up leg space. When they are down, they get in the way so I can’t stretch my legs out.

  7. Any service or human interaction business that is completely controlled by bean counters historically fails. The bean counters get Golden Parachutes.

  8. New York – Mexico City – Santiago and back last week on AeroMexico. Hard product was great. Flight attendants did indeed rush through service and then retreat behind the curtain for the rest of their flight. It wasn’t “People” magazine that they were reading but something. Would a second drink service – even water – have been a huge effort on a five hour flight?

  9. And if I don’t travel business class? I would like to see your answer to the same question for a business customer travelling economic class

  10. The only flight I really remember in terms of flight attendant service is traveling Lufthansa business class – a treat for me at the time. The flight attendant immediately responded warmly when I tried out my newly learned Italian and my poor German on him and throughout the flight he continued to be very attentive and particularly sweet. He brought me (w/o asking) special wine and then at the end of the flight, a whole bunch of chocolates to depart with. I might add that I’m a woman in my 60s, so it was, I think, simply that he appreciated being engaged in a way that was not just someone asking for stuff. It works both ways.

  11. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news but the American flying public has greatly contributed to the deteriorating airline flying experience as well. I’ve flown more than 3 million miles during both regulation and deregulation and what I see on the airplanes today is quite pathetic. People come on the plane, take off their shoes and put their dirty feet on the bulkhead. In one case, the passenger behind me pushed the center seat back next to me down and put his bare feet on right next to my face. People change diapers on the tray tables. People come on the plane dressed for a day of rummaging through a junk yard. People will shop for hours to save $5 on a ticket and then expect to be treated like royalty. Compare it to buying a car or any other physical device. You can’t expect to get a Rolls Royce for the price of a Yugo. You want to pay Greyhound prices, expect Greyhound service. Unfortunately this self-entitled attitude has contributed to the airlines fighting back in the form of deteriorating service. It is a wearing burden on airplane personnel that have to interact with these types of customers day in and day out. I have a severe spine issue and now, I generally book (and pay for) first class. I do not work for nor have I ever worked for an airline or in the travel industry. I will say that the first class service has suffered as well. So – get some reasonable expectations and have the airlines respond in an appropriate way. The airlines are a business. The airlines like any other business intend to make money. Don’t be naive and think that this profit only lines the pockets of the management or share holders. Passengers have learned that if they complain enough or worse yet hire cheap suited lawyers, they will walk away enriched. Those things cost money as well. We can all do better to bring some civility to air travel. Instead, finger-pointing appears to be the status quo.

  12. If any other industry treated their customers as horribly as do the airlines, they’d be out of business. However, we are all limited in our choices domestically. Whenever we fly internationally, we get physically depressed if we have to fly an American carrier. Airlines seem to know that they will be bailed out by the taxpayer should they ever experience financial difficulty. Southwest seems to have figured this out and run a very customer friendly airline. We, the flying public, are abused emotionally, physically, and financially by this industry in the US. I cannot understand how they get away with such behavior but they seem to know more than I do.

  13. Fly all the time..most flight attendants are considerate, but the airlines have cut back so much that they cant service us. On a small jet this past weekend and it took the refreshment tray 50 minutes ( after they started, or almost an hour and half from take-off) to make it down the aisle. Used to be two attendants and maybe even time for a refill. Hard to be treated like humans since the knee room is jammed because they put too many rows in. Now, Delta is offering a ticket price where you don’t get an assigned seat until check-in. You can guess that it is very close to the toilet in most cases.
    Alternatives- like Southwest – always come about, and the greedy airlines will lose for treating us like cattle

  14. I do fully agree with tommyleo and most of the comments. What is this new BS about flight attendants are primarily there for our safety. There are primarily there to serve, end of story. We passengers are now starting to see absurd things like something usual and normal. Except for some of the best Airlines like (IE) Southwest, if you buy a ticket you have fees of $ 200 just to change a date, and no money back whatsoever. I mean, you can go back to a dealer with your car, give it back and get your money back, as with almost everything you buy. Ah! except tickets from airlines. The US Airlines has become a complete absolutely disgrace in the whole sense of the word, and of course I use asian airlines whenever I can. By the way, if some day asian and certain european airlines are authorised to fly domestic, all these big 3 will go bankrupt in a couple of weeks.

  15. I don’t live in America but i have flown Delta, American and United. However, from check in to boarding to flight attendants, they were all bad. Anyone who have travelled on Asian airlines such as Singapore Airlines would know that even in economy class you will be treated well, some Latin American airlines too. Yes flight attendants may be there for our safety from take off to landing, when in mid air, their main duties are to serve and to clean. However I found their attitude rude, condescending and they talk loudly to you as if you are an idiot. I try my very best not to go via USA and have to go through the superpowered security and immigration and then onto any America airlines.

  16. Flight attendants are there for safety so that shouldn’t be expected to engage individually. They do need to be polite and so do passengers, as you said.

  17. As long as the Big 3 have no serious competition for domestic flying, there is zero incentive for any of them to improve. They are, in essence, in a race-to-the-bottom of determine just how much crap will travelers endure before a legislative/regulative/political solution is imposed.

    There is a huge barrier-to-entry for a new airline: Cost of planes, operational aspects, employment concerns, and finding available gates/slots at the most desired airports. So, UA-DL-AA have very little to lose sleep over.

    There is an easier (but not easy) solution, and that is to allow foreign airlines to fly our friendly skies domestically. As long as the playing field is level (safety, labor/wage laws, etc.), then the clear winner here will be the traveling public. Everyone knows that competition makes everyone else better–or they simply fade from view. Americans are absolutely entitled and deserving of better, much better, choices when flying.

  18. Ajay is ABSOLUTELY right. If foreign airlines are allowed to fly our skies -most specially if asian airlines like Singapore are allowed- the three big ones will last just very few months (if not just weeks), except if they improve their service from almost zero to something civilised.

  19. If SQ and other airlines flew US domestically, I’m not sure they would be a whole lot better than US airlines assuming the crews were based in the US and subject to US laws on age discrimination, etc. and influenced by our cultural resistance to SQ’s meticulous grooming standards? For example, Korean Air agents who work in the KE lounges in the US live here. The service they provide is definitely not as good as the service at KE lounges in the ROK. It would be nice to try it.

  20. Well, indeed John has a point here. More over: I heard that in the 3 big ones the cabin crews are becoming so old, that they will widen the corridors to allow to work the ones using wheelchairs, and so not to have discrimination problems.

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