Why I’m Glad the “Glory Days” of Air Travel are Gone

Customer Service, Delays/Cancellations

I saw an op-ed in the New York Times over the holidays from a former TWA flight attendant that got me so riled up, I had to write a response. I sent it in to the NYT, but it was way too long to be considered as a letter to the editor, and my email to the op-ed team went ignored. So, I thought I would post it here, especially since some similar discussion has been brewing in the comments section lately. This is what I sent.

Ann Hood’s op-ed entitled “Up, Up, and Go Away,” published last week was difficult enough for me to read that I thought it worthy of a response. The days of glamorous air travel in coach are, as Ms Hood noted, certainly long gone. And with their disappearance we’ve also seen a decline in customer service, but there’s a good reason for that. Deregulation enabled fares to plummet, and people have been hooked on a cheap fare ever since. Until that changes, we won’t see a dramatic increase in customer service.

I should certainly hope that service was better back in the old days. Planes were half full and there were more flight attendants onboard. That means that each flight attendant could devote more time to each individual onboard; enough to serve elaborate dinners. Schedules weren’t nearly as demanding on flight attendants either, so they could enjoy their longer layovers more than they can today. They really did get to travel instead of simply passing out from exhaustion in some random hotel for a few hours until their next flight.

Once the industry was deregulated in the late 1970s, it all began to change. Why? Airlines could finally compete on price. That was prohibited in the past, so airlines did their best to compete on product. But once that restriction was lifted, fares went down quickly.

A TWA timetable from 1962 shows that a 707 could get me nonstop from LA to New York in roughly the same amount of time it would take today, but all those fancy amenities were quite costly. A roundtrip fare would have cost me $290.20. That’s about $2,000 in today’s dollars. Were I willing to take the “slow boat” and fly a prop across the country, I could get it for the bargain-basement price of $224.90 roundtrip, a “mere” $1,500 today.

If the airlines still charged those rates today, I wouldn’t be traveling very often and neither would most Americans. The industry would be a lot smaller, but I’m sure service would be outstanding . . . for those who could afford it. Instead of keeping fares so high, the airlines realized that if they brought fares down, they could get more people onboard. Today, flying is no longer a luxury enjoyed by elites. It’s something that’s within nearly everyone’s grasp.

As fare competition increased, the airlines began to look toward costs so they could continue to push fares lower. Now flights were more full, and the number of flight attendants onboard shrunk to reduce costs. Airlines also worked hard to get more productivity from their flight attendants to keep costs down. The days of the glamorous airline job ended when the craving for low fares grew.

Today, most people flying domestically in coach choose their flights based on price and schedule. Until people begin choosing airlines based on product and service, even if costs more, we aren’t going to see airlines willing to go above and beyond on that side of the business. So for now, we’ll continue to hear horror stories from time to time when things go wrong.

While the news constantly reports when things go wrong, we never hear when things go right. If an airline has fewer than 7 out of 10 flights arriving on time, it’s considered terrible performance. This fall, as a result of good weather and reduced flying, airlines had some of the lowest cancellation and highest on-time numbers they’ve had in years. Yes, when bad weather rolls in, things get bad quickly. But would a smile or some peanuts really make you feel better at that point? I doubt it. Getting where you need to go as quickly as possible is the only thing that matters then.

I’m not saying the airlines are perfect. There are always things they can do to improve. But I can fly somewhere exotic once a year and domestically a few more times during the year without breaking the bank. I’d much rather be able to fly somewhere with a surly crew than not be able to fly at all.

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45 comments on “Why I’m Glad the “Glory Days” of Air Travel are Gone

  1. How much does an advance C or J class transcon fare in 2009 cost ? Would $2,000 cover it ? And would the comfort in business today be at least as equivalent to the comfort of coach in 1962 ?

  2. I don’t think you can’t make this so simplistic.

    I don’t have a choice to pay more for better service because all the big, dominant players have made that choice for me.

    They decided that they can make more money (theoretically) by being as big as possible and after they made that bet post deregulation and it didn’t pay off, they have all these empty seats.

    So their Rev Mgt systems tell them, sell cheaper to fill seats and get market share, and so the spiral of low fares started. As the revenue was pressured they tried to cut costs, but they could only cut the easy stuff, e.g. the nice food, acceptable legroom, free drinks, etc.

    Then people are hooked on lower fares and the spiral continues.

    AA nearly broke the cycle with more room in coach, but I think they bottled it, as that would have been true differentiation that people may have paid for.

    Today, it is a case of pick the lowest common denominator among airlines and when they are all carriers are pretty average at best, you would be silly to pay more than you had to for any given flight.

    This leads everyone to think that people just want the cheapest flight regardless, but this is not a true reflection of actual intentions, just outcomes based on what is available.

    I’d love to think that the capacity cuts of 2008 and 2009 could be the catalyst for someone taking a few rows out of coach as well as grounding planes and then really thinking about what they are all about. But I’m not holding out hope.

  3. David – There aren’t many business class routes in the US these days, but if you look at First and Business, you can get fares below $2000. That being said, the comfort isn’t the same. First and coach classes existed before deregulation but the pricing spread was much smaller. There may have been more legroom, but the seats weren’t any better. The service, however, was more attentive back in the day as were the meals.

    RJT – Well, it’s hard to get into much more detail in a relatively short article like this, but I will still argue that the public is far better off today than they were during regulation in terms of their ability to fly.

    You can try to argue that AA made a mistake by removing More Room, but they couldn’t cover their costs. It took United years before they figured out they could actually make money off Economy Plus.

    The reality is that putting a nicer product out there doesn’t usually work. In the back of the bus, people want cheap fares even if they say otherwise. That being said, I’d like to think that an airline like United could have proved that wrong by really trying to become an airline with a superior product but they haven’t taken that opportunity.

  4. Crandall gave a controversial (weren’t most of them?) interview when he actually said passengers want cramped conditions and low service. His argument was grounded in their buying habits. Essentially, people will put up with a lot if it doesn’t cost too much.

    “We will determine maximum value based on customer spend.”

    No point in AA catering steak if UA offers lobster while Southwest offers peanuts at $50 less each way. No airline steak is worth $100 r/t !

    I’m not sure we read the same article, though. I don’t see where Ms. Hood actually said the glamor days weren’t all they seemed to be.

    She identified three separate eras:
    Pre-Deregulation (Lambchops and Logos)
    Post-Deregulation (L-1011s and Labor Issues)
    Post-9/11 (Enough said)

    Ms. Hood further commented on how flying was a special event which started to fade with widebodies, cheap fares and cost-cutting to the point of what we have today.

    She and her friend argued over who offered the superior product yet both knew they left behind a planeload of well-fed and satisfied customers. That to me sounds like someone, as do I, who wishes those days would come again.

    Did I miss something?

  5. Not quite sure you understood my point….

    If one had to pay $2,000 in 2009 money for a transcon trip in Y in 1962, and for the same cash one can get a C or F seat in 2009, would you really choose the 1962 coach seat with 1962 coach service over the 2009 first / business class seat with 2009 first / business service ? If we choose the 2009 F seat over the 1962 Y seat, then people still have the same quality of service in 2009 potentially available to purchase as in 1962 which would then comprehensively destroy the argument of the op-ed in the NYT !

  6. Optimist – I don’t believe I said that Ms Hood said the glamour days weren’t all they seemed to be. She, like you, wants to see a return to the glamour days, and I’m arguing that I don’t want to see that return because it would price me out of the market.

    David – Ah, I see. Then I would say that no, the level of service in First today is not up to the standard of the level of service in 1962. I see your point.

  7. I can see both sides of this issue, but I would argue that the point isn’t whether you’re eating steak or peanuts on a transcon flight.

    Personally, I’m too young to remember the true “glory days” of air travel. My earliest memories of flight are from the mid-80s, when you could still get a hot meal between LAX and Chicago, but otherwise, service levels were similar to what they are today. I’m of the generation and the school of thought that demands only that an airline get me from point A to point B in a timely and cost effective manner. If I could get across the Atlantic for half of the going rate, but had to bring my own food, water, and entertainment, I’d gladly do so.

    Leave the steak and prawns to those who still wish to spend $2,000 on a domestic flight (or up to $25,000 on a long-haul international one) or who are lucky enough to qualify for status upgrades. What does matter, however, more than linens or seat pitch or coffee or pretzels, is attitude.

    To put it simply: it costs the airline $0 for a flight attendent to put a smile on his or her face, and while I understand that it is a stressful, thankless job these days, it makes a tremendous difference when a flight attendant’s face says that s/he is happy to serve you, even in a limited capacity.

    Call me crazy, but I always leave a flight feeling much better when I’ve been served with a smile, and I will remember a positive attitude when it comes time to book my next trip. I can’t be the only person out there who feels this way, and in this sense, I have to concur with Ms. Hood’s nostalgic sentiment.

  8. “Optimist – I don’t believe I said that Ms Hood said the glamour days weren’t all they seemed to be. She, like you, wants to see a return to the glamour days, and I’m arguing that I don’t want to see that return because it would price me out of the market.”

    There’s something to be said about CF’s logic. I can see it and it does make sense. But at the same time I also believe if service was what it used to be, not necessarily in terms of pampering with steaks and lobsters and flowing wine, but in terms of overall quality and professionalism, we wouldn’t be grumbling so much about the “good old days”, which, admittedly, we’re viewing through rose colored glasses (I still pine for the Ice Cream cone and hot dog I missed out on jetting from Zurich to NYC in 1972 as a 7 year old because I fell asleep after ordering it)

    I don’t think we need to see a return to outrageous prices in order to get improved arrival/departure times, better luggage handling, overall service by employees, an end to multiple hours sitting on a tarmac, etc… You curb those things, you’ll get a flying public that won’t be so inclined to pine for something they never would have had access for in the first place because they couldn’t afford it.

    Have you seen some of the “junk” that’s given away in business and first class…particularly on International flights? I don’t need pens, toothpaste, eyeshades…though the spare floor socks from Air New Zealand were useful. I’d trade most of that stuff away in an instant and settle for peanuts and a can of Coke if it meant that the quality of service and overall indifferent demeanor of the airlines would change.

  9. CF – Ok…I see your point now. We have all been conditioned to shop on price, leaving the “value” quotient, as Zach indicates, to merely arriving on time with the “extras” being at least a smile from someone at the airline we’ve paid out hard earned money to entrust with our safety. Certainly paying more today won’t guarantee better service or even meals – rather it will simply go to the carrier’s bottom line as they continue to see if they can charge for the privilege of a window shade.

    Zach – For someone who remembers the “glory days” part of that was actually dressing up for the flight, even going to the tropics or the sunshine states. Even today I’m not always one who wears jeans on a plane and would never ever wear shorts, flip flops or tank tops as we have become accustomed to seeing from some. It’s normal and every day now but for us older souls like myself, probably Ms. Hood and more than a few others, it visually speaks to at least part of the old days we wish would come back.

  10. I have to admit that we are all quite lucky to live at a period in history where the world truly is much smaller than it was in the past. My spouse just booked a weekend flight to visit her sister. It’s over 2000 miles away and in a different country, but for just $400/flight she can afford to visit her on short notice and for brief periods without much financial strain.

    If it were 1962 (for lack of better example) she would probably only get to visit her sister once a year, if that. Checking the inflation calculator makes that $400 back then would’ve been over $2600 today. That’s not pocket change. Air travel is amazingly cheap today and people all too often forget that when they’re complaining about surly service or lack of a 3 course meal.

    I don’t remember flying before deregulation, but do remember flying back in the early 1980’s. My parents made it clear that being on an airplane was like being at church. You dress respectible, you stay quiet and you don’t make a scene. Today there is not that same respect for flying that I was taught as a child. I see that as a drawback of the Greyhound like fares. The airlines aren’t charging for a premium experience so their customers don’t treat it as such. This is what makes me want a return to the “glory days” of air travel. More often than not I don’t care about a in-flight meal or magazines or other service perks, but these days I’m on many flights/year where I’d rather take 3x the time driving just to avoid the rest of the “flying public.”

  11. Zach – Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to see better service with a smile, but I’m not convinced that it’s as simple as finding the right people anymore. It would also take putting more people on the plane so they actually have time to serve the customers and maybe having more strict rest so that they really can deliver their best. Those things do cost money. Clearly you can find people that aren’t bitter and jaded, but then they’re green and not necessarily as good at delivering the service. Southwest has done a good job in general, but I’ve definitely had my share of angry flight attendants onboard them as well.

    About better on time and baggage delivery, I just don’t know. Look at the stats for October, a very good month for the industry but also the last one that’s been reported. Less than 4% of flights were coded as an “air carrier delay” with another 4% due to late arriving aircraft. The question is . . . how much better can they really get? Planes will always break down and crew delays will happen. Unless extra planes are sitting around and more crew members are hired, that won’t change. But will the extra cost be worth the relatively tiny improvement?

    Also, with baggage, there are less than 4 reported problems per 1,000 passengers. I don’t really like that metric b/c it doesn’t say how many bags are lost compared to the total number of bags, but it’s small. And many of those are reunited with the owner after a short delay. I would love to see an airline use RFID and let me track progress like FedEx, but I don’t know that it would improve reliability as much as it would just give me peace of mind. Would it be worth the extra cost? I just don’t know. (I hope it is one of these days as the technology costs decline.)

  12. CF- out of curiosity, do European and Asian flag carriers generally use more flight attendants per flight than US legacy carriers? I only ask, because, almost without fail and regardless of flight length, European and Asian flight attendants are warm and deliver your peanuts with a smile (or, in the case of Air Dolomiti, which I flew on the 45-minute flight from MUC-PRG last week, your beverage with prosciutto, cheese, and cracker plate [!]). They still rush through the cabin, but their demeanor is pleasant, and that enhances the experience.

    Traveling Optimist- I do wish I’d been around during the golden age of air travel. Personally, I’m guilty as charged of always wearing jeans and “comfortable” clothing on planes (especially on long flights), but I like the idea of treating the experience as a more elegant one. I’m just of the wrong generation, I guess.

  13. United had started scanning bags in the make-up areas of the ramp as they were separated for local versus connections and interline transfers. There was even a validity check in place to compare the number of bags checked at the curb and counters versus the ones manually scanned by the bagroom workers.

    Bags still got lost. Late check-in, misloads on the plane itself, missed connections, cancellations, etc but it was able to at least improve their efforts to board the bag on the first outbound flight. Scanning was also used at hubs so, Fed Ex style, if for some reason the bag did not arrive at the final online destination, they could at least inform the passenger where the bag was last seen. Not perfect, but certainly an improvement.

  14. Zach – Great question, and I don’t know the answer. I do know that US airlines have been reducing the number of flight attendants onboard fairly consistently to the point where most operate at FAA minimums (1 flight attendant per 50 seats). I do think that, at least for the Asian carriers, a lot of it has to do with the service culture. In the US, flight attendants are “there primarily for your safety” as they’ll remind you every time you fly. In Asia, they’re there for safety but it seems to me they’re primarily there to serve.

  15. Interesting columns and dialogue here.

    A larger issue is the growing informality of society. Air travel has kept up with the times, both good and bad.

    Consider fashion.

    Gone are the days of men’s hats and ladies’ gloves. Men who attend football games no longer wear coats and ties (yes, there was a time). Women wear pants. Dungarees are now called fashion jeans now sell for $300 a pair.

    Perceptions of value have changed, too.

    Consider the Robert Crandall statement cited by The Traveling Optimist about passengers’ desires for low fares and cramped conditions in light of the public’s buying habits generally.

    Once, it was perceived to be a good value by consumers to buy high quality products which were relatively expensive. Durable goods like refrigerators and furniture were rare purchases because of this.

    We had shoe hospitals, socks were darned, and TV/radio repairmen made a living.

    Not so anymore– today folks want to buy things as cheaply as possible. Period. And if it breaks? Throw it away and buy another one (at Wal-Mart, of course).

    Air travel has changed from this perception of value. It’s all about that initial cost and the fact that airline seats are perceived as a commodity.

    As a fellow passenger told me during a six hour delay at Miami International Airport one time, “a plane is a plane and a seat is a seat.”

    It’s no mystery why the airlines operate the way they do; the public expects them to.

    Of course, this is the same public also greatly enjoys complaining about the injustices their affordable fares have afforded them.

    Myself included.

  16. Zach – Nothing wrong at all about the perspective of your generation, guy. It didn’t take me long to go from suits to khakis and polos, I can tell you that! I simply marvel consciously when I choose to wear denim on a plane and think of the days when my mother made sure I was “chu’ch ready” before even getting on so much as an interstate bus much less an airplane!

    I have previously argued that at least the Asian carriers do employ greater numbers of onboard staff than their American counterparts. They also remain a more paternalistic culture that places an extremely high value on service along with labor practices that allow them to kick the “Singapore Girl” to the curb no later than age 30 if she doesn’t marry before that. Young talent with low seniority means low pay which may offer more staff on board for the same dollar the high seniority flight attendants on NW, UA, AA, etc would be require.

    There’s also a different mindset involved, I feel. I wonder if Asian service workers, once they leave their careers as flight attendants, have regular opportunities to travel abroad again where American men and women of all ages are quite accustomed to bouncing around our own humongous country and globe-hopping beyond that as part of a multi-cultural and relatively affluent birthright.

    Either way, bottom line is Asian carriers rely on low-pay to supply larger staff who are trained in and inheritors of thousands of years of hospitality and tradition in treating strangers as honored guests.

  17. Asian carriers do seem to follow the famous Confucian notion that it is “a pleasure to welcome friends from afar.” The European FAs (Ryanair notwithstanding) seem to have a grasp on the art of positive attitude, as well.

  18. Personally I think Southwest helped kill the good old days, but they exemplify what Crandall said. The flying public benefits from the lower fares to the detriment of the employees. While pilots were always careers, Flight Attendents really weren’t a career, but have evolved into it. Give me a two year fresh FA instead of a 30 year burned out veteran who fakes a smile. Why a US airline doesn’t hire flight attendents of two year contracts which can only be renewed twice like Virgin Atlantic, I don’t know. I’m sure age discrimination charges would pop up, but maybe they could do like the Wynn does in Vegas, call them Models instead of waitresses, to get around any age issues. I liked Virgin America because the flight attendent had bailed on United to come work for a more fun culture. She looked like she still thoroughly enjoyed her job and had a ball. Air New Zealand had the beat flight attendents I have ever seen. Granted I was in First on LAX to AKL, but they delivered service with a smile, good humor, and very personably. First on UA in three cabin international wilts in comparison. Typed on my iPhone so I was unable to proof.

  19. Seems we all, to a degree, sympathize with the onboard staff of most carriers. Less staff, short layovers, long duty days and no real “service” left to provide and occupy their time as much as ours.

    At the same time, none of us are willing to pay even so much as a “Staff Surcharge” on top of the fare we chose to guarantee even one additional cabin worker on board.

    We get what we pay for.

  20. The non LCC carriers in Europe do indeed have higher staffing on their aircraft. I have flown on Eastern Airways Saab 2000’s and VLM F50’s staffed with 2 cabin crew and they do a light meal service with a coffee & tea service on flights less than 1 hour in duration. Austrian had 3 cabin crew on a 737 with a meal service in the coach cabin however the flight was very empty so getting finished was no problem whatsoever.

  21. You say: “I’d much rather be able to fly somewhere with a surly crew than not be able to fly at all.”

    But it doesn’t cost a penny for a stewardess not to be “surly.”

    Smiles are free. They just need to be encouraged by management.

    THAT’S where airlines have gone wrong.

  22. I’m not a union negotiator, Dan, but the general mindset of the flight attendant workforce is that it’s been quite some time since they were treated fairly by management.

    In Ms. Hood’s article she cites the threat of discipline if they did not properly place the company logo on the meal tray.

    Weight checks were ruled sexist and inhuman some years back, allowing flight attendants to let their bodies age (go?) naturally.

    UA’s crews in particular have felt left out since the mid-90s during the employee stock ownership program that failed miserably.

    The AA crews walked off the job during the last years of Crandall’s watch and aren’t in a much better frame of mind today, itching for givebacks following 9/11 wage cuts and productivity increases.

    With the new DL/NW merger all eyes are on the flight attendants who have seen several organization drives fail or get killed off.

    Cranky himself has admitted to flying with a few dragons on Southwest, the alleged last stand of “friendly skies” in this country.

    Being encouraged to smile by management seems a fairly tall order after nearly two solid decades of mistrust and hard feelings.

    I am thankful for having flown with at least some consumate professionals in the flight attendant corps, however, who represent themselves, their profession and their airline with poise, dignity and good humor.

    It doesn’t cost us, the passengers, a thing, either, to smile at THEM, disarm them with our charm and let them know the minute WE get on the plane that we won’t be giving them any grief onboard. THEY will then usually go out of their way to return the goodwill and/or at least try to ensure we remain in our good moods and their good graces.

  23. JM brings up some good points, but I think that it is precisely because air travel is not a durable good that people aren’t willing to spend money on it.
    You can still buy high-quality appliances that last as long as (or longer than) white goods have in the past; you can still buy shoes expensive enough and durable enough to make having them repaired worthwhile (I pass two cobblers on my way to the train each morning). When you buy your flight to LAX, however, you’re not investing in something that’s going to last for 2, 5, or 10 years. The flight experience is ephemeral, and as with any other disposable product, price is going to be the thing that drives the consumer.

  24. @ Optimist

    I agree with you. My criticism was not directed solely toward flight attendants, but management as well; if management really cared about encouraging cabin crew to treat passengers with respecy, they would treat cabin crew with respect as well. The real issue is that airline management does not care about anyone these days, passenger OR employee.

    When money is tight, a smile goes a long way, and management has not smiled at ANYONE lately.

  25. I guess being over 50 I’m old school and was brought up to be nice and treat people with respect. I’ve worked in retail and for an airline in the past and no matter what management did, what problems you had at home, how you may feel inside, etc that no matter what you always treated the people who paid your salary kindly, with respect and did the best job you can. In the airline business the passengers pay your salary just as they do everyone else that works for the airline (or any job). Now a days employees tend to be stupid and think they will ‘get back’ at management by doing a poor job and people will complain and management will treat employees better. Well in the real work very few people complain formally to a company, they just take their business else where and tell everyone they know not to use a certain business because of whatever the reason.

    An employee can’t change how management runs a company, but there is no reason for them to not put their best foot forward towards the people who pay their salary.

    Also one other thing I learned from my airline days it that the worst employees tend to be the ones with higher senority. Why, because they are usually at the top of their contracted salary level and know they will never get a raise during the life of the current contract so will not go out of their way to do their job. They will do the bare minimum and make it easy for themselves. Lower senority workers will get step raises during a current salary and feel differently. They are usually younger and have a more positive attitude about their job. Also higher senority workers know that during any lay offs its first in/last out so their jobs are secure so there is no reason to ‘shine’ above your coworkers.

    I’ve seen lots of surly airline workers both as an employee and a passenger, and there is no reason for it. The public would be surprised if they knew some of the things surly (for lack of another word) airline workers do if they feel the passenger pissed them off just to get even. Hint…if you are checking a bag, never tick off the ticket counter person. There’s a reason lots of bags get lost and it’s not because of a poor baggage system.

    Sorry this turned out so long.

  26. I agree with CF’s argument here, travel has never been cheaper and more accessible to the average person and this has only been possible by facing some stark realities. Today we can travel further for less and take short trips to see friends and family for weekends, something that the previous generations would not have thought possible. Clearly for this luxury we have to accept some sacrifices. There are also some environmental issues that we will have deal with as with all our consumption choices. The fact that airlines achieve this balancing act with so few accidents is also something not to be forgotten. Personally I sometimes opt for premium classes of travel when I want to relive the bygone era and it’s worth every penny, other times I’m happy to go cheap and face the consequences. It’s always easy to look back in time with rose tinted glasses and I think this is what CF is trying to remind us.

  27. For the earlier posters, TWA and not AA first offered Comfort Class in coach by removing seats. Sure AA removed it because they were losing money, but UA has Economy Plus and charges for it.

    To bad the attitudes all around weren’t more pleasant. And I’d rather have TWA back than deal with either AA or UA.

  28. Comfort Class and “More Room Throughout Coach” were separate, but very much real, initiatives started by two different companies. AA introducted “more room throughout coach” in the late 90’s, before it bought TWA (perhaps in response to UA’s first iteration of E+?). AA had already determined that “more room throughout coach” wasn’t working by the time they bought TWA. (I don’t think that they got around to removing seats from all of their planes before they started putting them back in.) TWA itself had determined that on some routes (Florida, LAX, LAS, and TLV come to mind) Comfort Class meant they were leaving money on the table, and they themselves started to retrofit their a/c before they were bought.

  29. Cranky, I agree with your assessment except for one item – that we should somehow expect surly service as a consequence of wanting to travel cheaply. Personally, I don’t care about not getting a meal (airline food is horrible anyway), fine bone china coffee cups, or sitting in more cramped quarters than we used to get 20 years ago. What does bother me is the truly dismal attitude of too many airline employees today. A desk agent once yelled (and I do mean, yelled) at my wife because she stepped too close to the counter before her name was called in the bag drop lane. I’ve seen FAs yell at passengers, often ones that don’t speak English as their first language, because they ask for an instruction to be repeated. That kind of behavior is uncalled for, regardless of how cheap our tickets are, or how badly management is treating them on that day. Yes, we as the customer need to show some civility in the process – for example, why get angry with an FA or gate agent when a flight is delayed, they obviously can’t control or fix something like that – but the bottom line is, in the customer service business, that doesn’t give the employee the right to get angry in retaliation. I’m in the professional services business myself, and I can guarantee that if I raised my voice with a client, no matter how abusive, annoying, or wrong they were, or how bad my boss was treating me, I would be immediately disciplined. We shouldn’t allow airline employees to use these situations as excuses to mistreat passengers, either.

  30. Cranky- I agree with you up to a point. While I agree that deregulation has caused a mad rush to find the lowest fare available, I do agree with Ann Hood to an extent. I really do not think that it is beyond the airlines to provide cheerful service, on time scheduling and clean planes. I realize that the days of glamorous transportation is over, as you pointed out so astutely in your post. However, I do not think that it is beyond the airlines, no matter what fare charged, to provide those three basic pillars I mentioned above.

  31. Harry and Sriram – Firstly let me say I do not defend or even accept surly attitudes among service workers in any industry – airline, hotel, restaurant, retail, medical or even legal. I say instead that I understand it and, in line with Cranky to a degree, I accept it sometimes as inevitable for the sake of purchasing the product or service I need.

    From BS high-school jobs in fast food and retail all the way to hotels, airlines and retail again, I’ve come to expect that every customer will not always have good manners or not try to get something for nothing. Then comes the instinctive “pack mentality” that can trigger in mass transportation when something goes wrong – every dog wants a piece of the (service worker’s) carcass whether or not their beef is particularly legit. They just want their 10-seconds of “me, too” fame and glory.

    The Singapore Girl doesn’t get burned out or fired because of a bad attitude simply because she’s not allowed a career long enough to allow burn-out to occur. Same with Virgin Atlantic. The 30 year veterans on board most US carriers, while it may be true that it’s long past time to find something else to do if they don’t like serving customers anymore, still at least deserve fair treatment and respect from us, the customer.

    Americans as a culture have never liked being told what to do or ordered to perform. Ask anyone from the South, especially. They’ll go FAR out of their way for you, instead, if you show a little courtesy in simply asking for a favor. How many times do we witness someone getting to the front of line and only then trying to decide what to order or start fumbling through their belongings for tickets, documents, etc, exasperating the counter person and everyone else behind them?

    I flew to Baltimore over Christmas and approached the counter, completely flooring the agent by stating everything from memory she needed to ask before she had the chance to ask in the first place. “You’ve done this before?” she asked me, WITH a smile!!!!! From American Airlines.

    Where in the glamor days of travel it was natural to expect and receive good service. Today, I’ve changed that dynamic by merely asking for good service. Most often times I receive it.

  32. The Virtual Airline

    Harry – In more direct response to “The Three Pillars” let’s examine Qantas’ operations at LAX, the single most profitable market for that airline according to their own internal survey.

    I speculate that the only employees Qantas has on the ground in Los Angeles are the station manager and their field sales team. Outside of that, American does the ticketing and ground handling for the Sydney flights while I believe Hallmark Aviation handles the work at Tom Bradley International Terminal. Other contractors come in to play for fueling, catering, cleaning and maintenance.

    In short, you have to get to Sydney itself before nearly everyone you come in to contact with is directly employed by Qantas.

    Why? Cost savings. The contractors pay less and certainly offer fewer benefits, in most cases including NOT offering travel on the sponsoring airline. The airline contracts cheap labor and leverages the relationship towards providing the service standards the customer expects.

    Doesn’t always work, does it? Again, we as the customer do not care about such details. We turn a blind eye of entitlement to the operational realities created by the very thing we as consumers insist upon – cheap fares, frequent service, etc. If we’re only willing to pay $200 for something instead of $1000, somehow the company offering the product has to find a way to shoehorn its expenses in to that $200 price and leave the customer alive and in one piece on the other end, the MINIMUM requirement today for a satisfying experience.

    Meals? Gone or reduced.
    Staff? Gone, reduced and possibly contracted out.
    Maintenance? Headlines to the contrary, I still trust Qantas and every major/legacy carrier with my life. I have to if I’m going to stay connected to family and friends or business marketplace.

    Sydney is too far to swim. And who has the time to drive from LA to Boston? BOTH ways.

  33. The Traveling Optimist- Look, I agree with your points completely, and I know that in a free, deregulated market offering cheap fares, Airlines cannot afford to provide many of the things that Ann Hood described. However, I still will argue that airlines can provide my three pillars. You mentioned in your post about Qantas’s operation at LAX. I recognize that in many places, airlines now contract out most of the basic ground services to separate contractors, however that does NOT stop them from making sure that they offer those three basic pillars I talked about. It doesn’t cost them a huge amount of money to make sure that they exist. You focused on my point about cheerful service, and I agree, some passengers are rude to flight attendant and other staff, however that (hopefully) is the exception and NOT the rule. If the airlines were truly serious about cheerful service, then they would invest in proper management training for their staff. I know that runs up against cost constraints, but hopefully, the airline would recognize short term cost with long term loyalty.

  34. Sriram – I do agree with what you’re saying. I mean, of course I don’t want to deal with surly people, and if I’m treated wrong, I’m going to certainly fire off a letter to the airline. But I guess my main point is that in the glory days, you were served food by hot, smiling flight attendants on silver trays (or whatever). Those days aren’t going to come back.

    There are many people to blame for surly service, but we also have to remember that there are a lot of people giving excellent service out there as well. So what could be done (without thinking about cost) to increase customer service levels across the board to meet the higher levels that we do often see?

    *Management could give front line personnel more latitude to help the customer instead of requiring them to follow procedure so often

    *Unions could stop fighting the desire to offer pay for performance to the front line (If you ever flew Delta’s Song unit, you probably had great service from the non-union flight attendants. They picked the cream of the crop and put them on Song.)

    *Unions could stop acting like they’re going to be able to return to the previous high pay levels, because it’s just not going to happen. All that does is get the hopes up of senior flight attendants and makes them angry.

    *Management could schedule the flight attendants to fly less so that they have time to rest and prepare more for each flight

    *Management could staff more flight attendants onboard each aircraft

    Of course, many of these cost money. I’m sure there are plenty more things that could be done, but none of them are easy. It would be nice for someone to really tackle this more, but to keep costs low, we aren’t likely to see much change.

  35. Harry – We are in complete agreement with each other. Good service, clean planes and dependable schedules are all basics that any airline should expect and deliver from its operations and workers.

    I’m hoping to go to New Zealand this year. Like Cranky I absolutely love Air New Zealand’s product. As an AAdvantage member, however, I’ll probably end up on Qantas (not, by any means a shabby second) simply for the miles and because American flies to neither location. So, I’ll put up with hit-or-miss service on AA to LA then look forward to a wonderful 12-hour flight on an airline that has gotten it right far more than wrong.

  36. I flew often in my youth in the late 60’s and 70’s only because my mother worked for Mohawk Airlines. I have wonderful memories of a bygone era. The pilot of a National Airlines Sun King (half full) 747 flight from JFK to MIA actually bringing me plastic “wings” and personally affixing them to my lapel. Go figure, a wide body on a domestic route. I was in awe as an 8 year old and will never forget it. Playing cards with the airline logo, great meals etc… It was truly an “event” to fly. The personal touch is long gone. I cringe today at folks wearing shorts, flip flops, PAJAMAS (on a recent redeye). The class of people that fly today has made flying an event to simply be tolerated unforturnately. Boy do I long for the bygone era. But I guess affordability and availability is king!

  37. Jim – Right there with ya, man! I remember Bonanza, Mohawk, Hughes Air West, Ozark, Southern,Texas International and National Airlines, each with a unique character not likely to be seen again. Long live Braniff and the end of the plain plane!

  38. As a former employee of TWA and proud of it, yes – those were wonderful times in the airline industry. Sterling silver tea service, china plates, fantastic meals on board in coach and out-of-this-world meals in first class. You had to dress appropriately (business attire) to travel. Never a thought of anything less. In fact, my boss insisted that any time you went to the airport, whether for business or just to pick someone up, you may not be in anything other than business attire! I remember one time going spur of the moment in dress slacks and sweater and hoping not to be seen – I did not wish to be fired. You were paid well, treated fairly, had a pension and looked at your job as a career.

    However, during all of this wonderful time, I also remember being blamed by passengers for delays due to fog/snow/etc, employees being swung at by passengers frustrated at a delay beyond the agent’s control, and having things thrown towards you. In other words, passengers’ attitude has not changed from years past to the present with regard to delays/cancellations and have always taken it out on airline employees.

    Airline employees will put up with a lot, but there is a point when it becomes too much to take. Personal attacks on employees by passengers is just as uncalled for as the snarls given by employees. Rudeness is unjustified on both sides but it happens. No longer is “airline” a career for ground employees – most have to take on a second job just to get by. Pay has been reduced with give-backs and, in most instances, you can receive higher starting pay at In-and-Out Burger.

    Management now expects employees to work flights as a single employee with a “floater” employee to assist once boarding begins. The stress can be horrendous. Yes, automation helps, but nothing can take the place of another employee or two to handle problems one on one. Why such a reduced workforce? Pricing. You cannot expect the same service for reduced costs.

    So – while I also long for the good old days – today’s air travel is what it is. A cheap way to get from point A to point B: faster than greyhound but catering to the same crowd.

  39. Sorry, but I cannot accept the logic that cheaper prices automatically implies lousy service.

    By that measure Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Virgin, Cathay, should not exist as airlines. Forget the fact that Singapore Airlines with one of the best on board services, is also one the world’s most profitable.

    Stores like Nordstrom who are renowned for their service also should not exist.

    You consider an airline getting 70% accuracy as good. A Boeing 747 has 4 million components. At 30% inaccuracy that would be 1.2 million parts failing. I doubt you would be willing to get in to that aircraft. Nor do I see you using a FedEx or DHL or UPS, if they had such poor performance.

    Heck even Domino’s Pizza gives a time bound and product quality guarantee.

    Even a Motel 6 or any other “low cost” lodging chain, greets you with a smile and a warm welcome. If cost was the only governing factor, there should be no 4 Seasons, no Burg Al Arab, or no Ritz Carlton.

    Airlines, in the US, and their staff seem to have forgotten that ultimately they are not merely a transporter, but they are also in the hospitality business. With the added “protection” of “security risks” airport and airline crew have reached new heights of obnoxiousness.

    Other countries in the world too have aviation systems, but no where have I found the callousness of the US.

    No wonder US airlines are forced to dole out free upgrades like candy, with the unfortunate side-effect of only lowering the value of the business class.

    Am I glad I do not have to fly within the US any more. My sympathies to those who still have to.

  40. Devesh – We are talking about domestic US travel here. In the international world where flights are much longer, things are certainly very different. And that’s why the airlines you mentioned are so successful. Their very small short haul network is relatively inconsequential to their success.

    Your attempt to equate 30% of flights being delayed with 30% of an airplane’s parts failing is wildly simplistic. It is so much bigger than problems with the actual airplane, which account for a very small portion of delays. You have to take into account infrastructure constraints, weather problems, and crew delays. None of these touch the airplane at all.

  41. CF,

    Let us compare. If you were to take ASEAN carriers SQ, CX, TG, MH, the majority of their flights both in terms of numbers and passengers are in the 2~4 hour flight times. Fares between Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur are extremely competitive. I would put them on par with US fares, or probably cheaper. Let us not forget the low cost carriers Air Asia, Tiger, IndiGo, SpiceJet and others who are giving the mainline carriers a run for their money.

    In India, the average flight is 1:30 weighted average, and fares are in the $60 range. Yet, even a low cost carriers dole out free bottles of water, and full service carriers will serve a hot meal/snack on a 1 hour flight.

    And people costs are high in India, Singapore, and Hong Kong. The typical cabin crew earns about $2000 a month in India, $4K in Singapore and Hong Kong.

    Commerce aside, the starting point for good customer service is attitude. In Asia, air travel is treated like the hospitality business. In the US it is people movement, and therein lies the root of the rot. Having lived in the US many years, I know Americans are hospitable, warm and welcoming. Why does this attitude go out of the window ?

    Any where in the world, customers will always use the QCDS parameters to make their buying decision. Quality, Cost, Delivery, Service. In air travel, Quality would translate to reputation, and Delivery to schedule.

    In the world, I have not found a country superior to the US when it comes to retail customer service. Retailers compete on price, but that will only carry business so far. Branding and loyalty is built on the service.

    Ultimately rude behaviour will beget rude behaviour, and that is what needs to change.

  42. Devesh – I’m not sure where you’re getting your figures, but I’d like to see them. Let’s look at Cathay. They have the following flights under four hours:

    1 to 2 hours: Taipei, Manila
    2 to 3 hours: Ho Chi Minh City, Cebu, Shanghai
    3 to 4 hours: Beijing, Incheon, Osaka, Nagoya, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Penang, Tokyo

    Now let’s look at flights beyond four hours:

    Mid Haul: Sapporo, Jakarta, Surabaya, Denpasar, Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai
    Long Haul: Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney, Auckland, Dubai, Bahrain
    Ultra Long Haul: London, Paris, Frankfurt, Johannesburg, Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, New York

    So I’m not sure how you come to the conclusion that the majority of their flights are within 2 to 4 hour flight time. Also, compare that to a US airline and you will see far more flights within the 1 to 3 hour time frame by far. That’s a very different market. Even the 1 to 2 hour market is very different from the 4 to 5 hour market.

    Also, you say let’s not forget about the low cost carriers, but I have yet to hear that Air Asia is a beacon of good service and amenities. I do know, however, that they’ve taken over many of the short haul flights that Malaysia was running because they couldn’t run them efficiently.

    As for India, it will be very interesting to see how that plays out considering every airline is bleeding profusely right now. Certainly, there are some cultural differences here. They say that certain cultures expect free food and there’s no way to get around that if you want to have a successful business, for example, but in the US people have proven that it’s not important.

    My guess it that while customers may make decisions on Quality, Cost, Delivery, and Service as you say, they put a much greater weight on cost than elsewhere. In fact, though people like to say otherwise, they’ve proven with their wallets time and time again that the majority of decisions are made on price and schedule. (Is that quality or delivery?)

    While people do want better service, they aren’t willing to pay for it on shorter haul flights. Yes, this is a sweeping generalization. Some routes like JFK to LA can support higher levels of service, but the majority of intra-US travel won’t.

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