Airline service suffers — are we getting what we pay for?

When airfare is the main purchase factor, service suffers and a puppy dies. 

airline serviceSometimes the public relations disasters for US airlines seem like they can’t get any worse. Then United Airlines kills a puppy. It died not because of a problem in the cargo hold, but because the animal was put in an overhead bin.

This airline service case of the puppy that died last year clearly has some blame to go around. There are all kinds of unanswered questions about why, even though the puppy’s owner didn’t speak English, other passengers didn’t intervene over a barking dog overhead. Perhaps some of them didn’t know where the sound was coming from, and many people do use headphones. Still, I would think an agitated animal would attract the attention of SOMEONE onboard.

Perhaps it was an inexperienced flight attendant

I have no idea how experienced the flight attendant involved was, either. United, however, like most airlines, tries to cut costs with employees when possible. Flight attendants, at least — unlike gate agents — are still airline employees and not contract workers. However, it’s not exactly a high-paying profession.

Click here to subscribeAverage flight attendant salaries are in the mid-$40,000 range, and while researching this post, I found a NY Times article referencing average salaries of $35,000 in 1987. New hires make even less. Plus, now flight attendants have to sell meals on board and deal with all sorts of new requirements ranging from not letting people bring carry-ons to not letting them move to extra-legroom seats. That is without mentioning the whole service animal issue, and the simmering air rage these days. In short, it’s a stressful job. And, airline service is the least of it.

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Seniority counts for fight attendants

Again, it is hard to know in the puppy case, but my guess is that Houston to La Guardia is not one of United’s more glamorous preferred routes, so it’s not hard to imagine that the flight attendant involved was somewhat junior. She was perhaps even one of the reserves who can get called in last minute need for airline service. (Seniority counts in which routes flight attendants can get, which explains why those on Hawaii flights still at times remind me of flying with my mother.)

In any case, boarding is an ordeal much of the time with seats and bags. It’s not impossible to imagine that if the case didn’t look like a kennel, a harried flight attendant could have figured it was just another passenger trying to get around carry-on rules.

The flight could have also had airline service issues. Passengers are sent down the jetway with too many bags, or families separated and suggested to “work it out on board.” I’ve been on flights with children and, in one case, a woman who could barely walk assigned to exit-rows.

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This may not be openly a money issue when it comes to airlines service

This may not purely be a money issue, but flight attendants haven’t had the worst pay cuts. Airline pay, in general, is down, adjusted for inflation from decades past, and some carriers aren’t even unionized anymore.

Today, passengers try to make sense of “economy light” and “basic economy.” Airlines increasingly contract out their ground personnel, especially at smaller airports. This means everyone, from the people who prepare onboard meals to baggage handlers to gate agents, may not be airline employees. In most cases they are near minimum wage employees of a subcontracting firm. (DGS, or Delta Global Services, is a big one, for example.) Subcontracted workers also don’t get the same perks to cushion their lower sales.

VPN: Key for Travelers' Internet Security DownloadTo be fair, some contracted workers I’ve worked with have been great, as have some obviously new airline hires who must be making the lowest salaries. But while I’ve never personally seen a pet debacle, I’ve seen some pretty bad snafus with airline service during boarding and baggage. (A brief example: when a passenger was rerouted from the East Coast via Chicago instead of Houston on a flight back to San Francisco, the contract agent didn’t just change the bag tag to indicate Chicago, she put both connecting cities on it, meaning the passenger got home, while their bag went with them as far as Chicago, and then got put on another flight to spend the night in Houston.)

Airline service improvements mean more kiosks and less humans

In addition, there are more and more kiosks, and fewer and fewer people, which to my mind increases the chances for things to go wrong. It’s quite easy, in fact, to leave part of an old bag tag on while self-tagging luggage.

On the other hand, cost-cutting moves allow airlines to not only make profits, but to offer some amazingly low fares. And much of the traveling public shows over and over again that price is their number one factor. So, when we hear yet another horror story of some airline mistake, maybe it’s time to remember: Travelers get what they pay for and service suffers.