Should We Tip Flight Attendants to Get Better Service?

Should we tip flight attendants on U.S. airlines to get better service?

Before I delve into this can of worms, a bit of context. I'm (unfortunately) old enough to remember really great service on U.S. airlines, even in economy. Along with niceties such as silverware and real dishes for hot meals (remember those?), macadamia nuts on flights to Hawaii and airline wings and books for kids, the norm was genuine hospitality, and it was fairly unusual to encounter a really rude or aggressive flight attendant, at least on the Pan Am and other U.S. carrier flights I remember flying as a child. Of course, there were some not so nice aspects too, since smoking used to be allowed (yuck!)

Luckily, even the recent U.S. carrier flights I've been on haven't been bad, and the little contact I had with the flight crews was perfectly fine. But plenty of folks who fly U.S. airlines more frequently than I do seem to encounter apathetic to borderline rude service from disgruntled flight attendants with some regularity, and contrast that with the stellar service they tend to receive from the best international airlines, such as Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa and Asiana

Many of these top carriers are Asian, which led to an interesting post by Gary asking: Why can't US airlines provide great service as Asian airlines do?

Gary posits that the two factors at work are culture and institutions. Cultural service standards are different, and the implication is that Asian culture tends to inherently provide higher levels of service (albeit more formally) than U.S. culture does.

Institutions, he argues, are the other key factor, and in the U.S. context they've had a signficant negative impact by virtue of management outsourcing much of flight crew scheduling, roles and responsibilities to labor unions. And just as with teachers' unions, seniority rules and an attenuated connection between performance and pay (coupled with a generally antagonistic relationship between unions and airline management) have resulted in many flight attendants who really aren't particularly motivated to provide great service (or engender customer loyalty in the travel industry).

Now, one could argue (and many flight attendants will be only too happy to remind you) that they are primarily there for your safety. And should you have the misfortune to experience a mid-air crisis or have both engines cut out forcing a crash landing in the Hudson River, there's no denying you'd pick a surly flight attendant that saved your life over a polite one in panic. While Sully justifiably became a hero after landing in the Hudson, with no passenger fatalities, the flight attendants were also instrumental in ensuring everyone got out safely.


But really, there's no reason why safety and service should have to be mutually exclusive.

I do agree with many of Gary's points about institutions, but I'm much less convinced about culture. If anything, the U.S. is more known for its service culture in retail settings than certain European countries, in particular, Germany. I adore the breads and pastries in German bakeries, but I learned long ago to accept very brusque service (and no, it wasn't just directed towards me given my extremely basic German–I witnessed similar abruptness with German customers).

In my favorite bakeries and small non-chain stores in the U.S., in general I find very welcoming service. And of course in most upscale restaurants and hotels in the U.S., service is very good. So that doesn't seem to jive with the in-flight service from U.S. carriers that many complain about, even in business or first class on international itineraries that compete with some of the better international carriers. 

On the subject of culture, I'll offer another example: I can't tell you how many times I've heard folks complain about service in Russia, or the lack thereof. But having experienced some of the best service ever at the Club Level of the Ritz-Carlton Moscow, as well as more recently at Les Menus Par Pierre Gagnaire at Lotte Hotel Moscow and at much humbler bed and breakfast accomodations in other parts of Russia, service (or the lack of it) is really more an institutional thing. Many Russians are every bit as hospitable and service-minded as their peers elsewhere and shine when empowered to do so, but certainly the institutions of the Soviet period did not foster what most of us deem to be great service. That, and not the inherent culture, is what causes the horrible service that still exists (as well as some individuals there that you'll find everywhere, who simply should not be in a service industry).

That's why I'd argue that the institutional aspect, and in particular recruiting, training, compensation and promotion policies are so much more important than culture. Think about it this way: what if flight attendants were subject to similar rigors of professionals at the most selective hospitality firms?

-Hiring: Hired as much for interpersonal and customer relationship skills as for flight and safety experience?

-Training: Trained rigorously not only in safety standards but also to exacting service standards and on exceeding customer expectations. Think more akin to the 15 weeks of training that Singapore Airlines flight attendants undergo, vs. the 8 or so weeks of unpaid training that most U.S. flight attendants have.

-Compensation and Promotions: One of the prickliest topics, but in their influential customer facing roles, flight attendants should have their compensation and promotions more directly tied to their actual performance, as measured by customers, and not simply by seniority or route

Unfortunately, we as passengers aren't going to change the unions or management of U.S. airlines any more than we're going to change tipping policies at U.S. restaurants and hotels. So why not tip flight attendants to get better service on U.S. airlines?

Think about it: we tip generously at restaurants if we've received particularly outstanding service, and there's a virtuous cycle whereby servers do realize that providing attentive, responsive and friendly service will likely as not get them a higher tip.

We may even tip a hotel concierge prospectively for anticipated help in securing hard to get restaurant reservations or tickets to an event. 

So why not tip a flight attendant, either after the fact for providing great service, or propspectively, in anticipation of great service? 

Let me say I haven't actually tried this, but I can see some pros and cons:

Pros of Tipping a Flight Attendant

  • If done prospectively, it may well ensure better and more personalized treatment: perhaps drink refills, a pillow or blanket, and a generally more pleasant flight
  • Flight Attendants have to deal with a lot of unpleasantness every day–even a modest tip, smile and thank you could really brighten their day and help get a virtuous circle going. What goes around comes around!
  • While there's no doubt the FA's most important is safety, most of his or her day to day work is not so different from staff in a hotel, or restaurant: serving and assisting guests. Why shouldn't they also be tipped for their service?


Cons of Tipping a Flight Attendant

  • Many flight attendants will never accept a tip, and some will find it demeaning, because they are professionals. Their salary may not be huge, but it is definitely over minimum wage, unlike many U.S. restaurant servers. A prospective tip can be seen as a bribe, and tacky.
  • Flight Attendants often appreciate a letter of commendation as a more professional and meaningful recognition of their great service. It may not be as important as they would wish in terms of compensation and promotion prospects, but it goes into their file and will help more long-term than an isolated tip
  • Unlike at your favorite restaurant, you are much less likely to encounter the same flight attendant again, so there's less of a chance of repeat service and of your regular tips positively impacting your service next time you fly the airline.

What do YOU think–should we tip flight attendants to get better service? Have you ever tipped a flight attendant?

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