November 27, 2012

Why Don’t We Tip Flight Attendants?

In my career I’ve done a fair amount of traveling. Airplanes have become a place of solace for me, ironic as that may seem. Despite opportunities to be connected to the interwebs when 38,000 kilometers from terra nova, I prefer to use this oxygen deprived fuselage to both catch up and to (re)think. The introduction of the tablet has made it even easier. The number of times I’ve received glaring eyes from my seat companion for opening up a laptop are innumerable.

And bless you @pachikov for inventing Evernote. It’s my lifeline to rambling thoughts, pieces of information, things to remember, writing, photos and even a book. (more on the latter another day)

My reflections on air travel, however, lead me down a path of meandering musing.

Why don’t we tip flight attendants?

In roughly half the latté and tea shops I visit on this planet, there is either a tip jar or a tip line built into the credit card slip. When it’s the holiday season or end-of-school-year period, custom dictates a gift to be given to the teacher — a different type of tip — for teaching service provided. Restaurants — aside from several countries in Europe who build in a tip — pretty much mandate tips. It’s an expectation not a debate. And of course when was the last time you took a taxi in North America without tipping the driver?

So, why don’t we tip flight attendants?

Are they providing a service like the cashier, server, teacher or driver? What’s different? They seem to serve me drinks, food and other niceties on request. So do the others, right?

Is it the cost of the ticket? Perhaps. One has a potentially higher level of ‘free’ service expectation when forking over a wad of hard earned money to travel on an airline.

Is it history? Sure. If it’s never happened in the past, who really wants to start such a movement? (at least I don’t know of any airline tipping)

Is it role image? Does a flight attendant come across as more regal than the cashier, server, teacher or driver and as a consequence we paying customers hold them to a higher remuneration standard? “Flight attendants make oodles of money,” we might say. “They don’t need any tips. Look at where they get to travel to. They’re so lucky.”

Although those theories sound good to me, I think there is something else to consider.

Customer Experience

Airlines are notorious for two key facts: they’re bad at customer service and they have a tarnished and possibly unbreakable ‘culture of fiefdoms’ organizational structure to overcome.

Aside from low cost carrier anomalies like JetBlue, Southwest and WestJet, overall customer service of the network carriers in the airline industry is, well … pathetic. According to a J.D. Power and Associates North American Airlines Satisfaction Study, average customer service satisfaction ratings of the the network carriers is 647 on a 1000 point scale. Comparatively, the number one American telecom firm — yes, a telecom firm — was Verizon Wireless who gained a score of 762. That is a very wide gap although still not best in class. As an airline customer, with this rich tradition of bad customer service prevalent across most airline companies, it’s no wonder you’re not thinking about tipping your flight attendant. Why would you?

If the airline customer experience and satisfaction scores were to increase to the 900’s, I wonder if we the customer might actually begin thinking about tipping the flight attendants when they deliver us a meal. We might be having such a remarkable time through the entire experience — on the ground and in the air — we might feel compelled to tip.

But the second part to this customer experience issue is the aforementioned notion of a ‘culture of fiefdoms’. This is where the flight attendants get caught up in the vortex of corporate myopia and disenfranchised employees. You may already be incensed with the airlines because your previous experience of getting tickets, switching tickets, losing luggage, missing connections, being late, getting bumped off of flights, not being provided anywhere to stay due to cancelled flights — the list really can go on forever — ensures you don’t think highly of flight attendants in the first place because of the way the airline system is set up. It is a culture of fiefdoms where the parts do not operate uniformly together; they are separate pieces working independently and at times (seemingly) in competition with one another. Why would you feel compelled to tip a flight attendant if your non-flight attendant experience with the airline has been so disastrous? You probably wouldn’t.

But, if the airline industry were to fix their entire customer experience process and shift their scores into the 900’s, I wonder if we might think twice about tipping the flight attendant.


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