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Insider Series: Highs & Lows of In-Flight Service: America vs. the World

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Editor’s note about our Insider Series: TPG Contributor Carrie A. Trey shares some of her most interesting stories and perspectives in this Insider Series article. Please remember that Ms. Trey’s opinions and statements here are her’s and her’s only, and they do not reflect the opinions of the TPG Team. Disclaimer out of the way….please enjoy this latest installment from the one and only Carrie A. Trey!

Ever wonder why airlines in the Middle East, Asia and Europe are renowned for providing good service, while U.S. carriers have trailed behind in the service department for decades? Our airline industry insider, Carrie A. Trey, shares her insights about in-flight service—both good and bad—based on years of practical experience as a flight attendant.

When it comes to good in-flight service, carriers in the Middle East, Asia and Europe tend to leave the U.S. far behind. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
When it comes to good in-flight service, carriers in the Middle East, Asia and Europe tend to leave the U.S. far behind. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The in-flight service disparity between carriers in the U.S. and those in Asia, the Middle East and much of Europe begins with training. At U.S. legacy airlines like American, United and Delta, flight attendants must be trained on every aircraft in these large fleets, undergoing training programs that generally last seven to eight weeks—with only three or four days set aside for service training. Conversely, the big three airlines in the Middle East (Qatar, Emirates and Etihad, often referred to as the ME3), as well as carriers in Asia (like Singapore Airlines, ANA, etc.) and Europe (such as Turkish Airlines, Air France, etc. ) only require their crew to qualify for a few types of aircraft, allowing more time to be focused on their overall service training.

European airlines have regulations in place that limit cabin crew to only three or four aircraft type certifications, while at Emirates, all flight attendants only have to be certified on two types of aircraft—the 777 and either the A380 or A330/340. Within Emirates’ five-week cabin-crew training program, two weeks are spent learning SEP (Safety and Emergency Procedures), one week is set aside for First Aid, and then two full weeks are devoted to Economy service training.

Flight attendants at major Asian, European and Middle East carriers are required to spend a year or more dedicated to service in a particular class before they can apply for training in higher classes. After Emirates’ crew complete 1-2 years in economy, they can apply for two weeks’ worth of Business Class training and are dedicated to Business Class for another 1-2 years; this process will then repeat for First Class, Senior Flight Attendant and Purser. At Lufthansa and Singapore, crew are trained in both Economy and Business Class service during initial training, but then must go back to school to learn First Class. With this sort of experience-based system, crew are able to spend more time learning the intricacies of their product.

Conversely, on-board positions at U.S. airlines are strictly dictated by seniority rather than formal training and certification. This often means that jobs requiring a lot of hands-on labor are given to inexperienced flight attendants, in direct opposition to the logic of good service. At Delta, for example, the Business Class galley is considered one of the most junior positions on the airplane due to the heavy work load, but a crew member unfamiliar with the standards of this premium class runs the risk of falling short (and in some cases, far short) of passengers’ expectations.

Asian and middle East carriers love to hire flight attendants when they're young - around 21. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Some Asian and Middle East carriers love to hire flight attendants when they’re young, starting at age 21. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The ages at which crew are hired and retired plays a big role in the service divide, as well. Emirates and Singapore love to hire people while they’re young and impressionable, starting at age 21. Since their employment contracts require them to spend a year or more in each class/position before they can apply for promotions, many flight attendants leave the company after only a few years, unwilling to spend the necessary time to attain the status of Senior Flight Attendant or Purser. This high turnover rate enables airlines to keep their crew young and apparently serves their business models well enough to be profitable. European airlines generally state a retirement age of between 55-67 years old in their employment policies.

By comparison, U.S. airlines and the FAA have both shied away from setting a retirement age for fear of litigation. The result is a large pool of crew members with 40+ years’ experience, many of whom still do a fantastic job (like US Airways’ delightful, glamorous and 78-year-old Bette Burke-Nash), but who generally choose to fly international rather than domestic routes, and in some cases have lost their enthusiasm for people, flying, or both.

And lastly, there’s fear. At the ME3 and in Asia, crew are afraid of their employers, passengers and even each other. The recent Korean Air “nutroversy” exposed the iron-fist tactics of at least one of the carrier’s executives, while the ME3 have created a “report-and-rise” culture whereby employees are praised for informing their supervisors about mistakes/missteps made by their colleagues. ME3 employees who receive negative reports from their colleagues or even minor complaints from passengers (who generally earn perks to ease their irritation) are often harshly disciplined, risking loss of pay, benefits or even profit sharing. The end result is in-flight service carried out in the exact same—some might say robotic—manner on every flight.

In the United States, however, it’s just the opposite. Airline management is afraid of litigation by crew members, a common practice that has all but surpassed unions as workers’ main source of defense against management. Airlines won’t enforce dress codes, set a retirement age, reenact height-in-proportion-to-weight policies or even enforce service standards, all for fear of being dragged into a discrimination suit by an employee.

For the troubled U.S. flight attendant system, help seems to be on the way. Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.
With U.S. carriers making some changes to flight attendant hiring and retirement policies, it seems that (a little) help is on the way. Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

Fortunately, there’s light on the horizon. All three U.S. majors are currently hiring large numbers of flight attendants. Delta and United recently began offering substantial retirement packages, as well, which will help speed up attrition and make room for newer, fresher flight attendants just coming out of training. (We affectionately refer to this training as the “Charm Farm” or “Stewardess School.”)

However, until the FAA cracks down on retirement ages and begins requiring flight attendants to prove that they’re medically fit to perform their duties by passing a training test each year, I wouldn’t expect to see any drastic changes. At United, for instance, the only time that flight attendants have to prove that they’re able to jump down the 737 or Airbus slide is in initial training—and never again; a working flight attendant with 40 years of seniority part just has to be able to open the emergency door.

It will take a major attitude shift on the part of both management at U.S. airlines and the FAA before we see some real changes in the service culture here in the United States—changes that I, for one, would wholeheartedly welcome. Fingers crossed.

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