Should airlines allow in-flight “tipping” enhance the brand experience?

Image Copyright (c) HowStuffWorks

Image Copyright (c) HowStuffWorks


Asking for tips in Business Class

Recently, I met up with a senior airline executive in Bangalore, India. He shared with me a very interesting incident. While flying Business Class from London to Delhi on Air-India recently, he encountered excellent customer service by one of the stewardesses. But in Air-India, service levels are not always of a very high level, so this was an exception. She spoke to him for long, served him extra wine and then emphasized multiple times how flight attendants need to work long hours with little pay these days.

She returned before landing to again sweet-talk him into giving her a tip. He was appalled and didn’t oblige. I was initially surprised too, but thought that this might just turn out to be an interesting way to enhance the brand experience on board the aircraft.

Tipping – a norm in the hospitality industry

A tip is a small amount of money given voluntarily as a token of appreciation for a service rendered. We tip our servers as a way of thanking them for good service. We might also leave a very low tip, or no tip at all, as a signal that the service was substandard.

In the hospitality industry, tipping is a common practice and we see tip-jars everywhere, from restaurants to concierges. In the US, even taxi drivers are given a tip. And these can range from 10-20% of the full price of the service provided, depending on the quality of service delivered. And airlines are somewhat part of the hospitality industry too.

Allowing tipping on board a plane might just do wonders for the in-flight service. Flight attendants may be more attentive, less grumpy and may go out of their way to enhance your travel experience more often than they usually do. But that may mean too much tip for one crew member and nothing for another. One way of making this work can be to pool all the tip received for all the crew in each cabin, and then split it equally.

In fact, this might just work better for low cost carriers, as opposed to full-service ones, since the latter are presumed to include great in-flight service in the price of the ticket (even though that’s not the case sometimes). Having a tipping system may allow airlines to reduce their staff costs further, and enhance the in-flight service at the same time. But there are a number of hindrances to make this system work well.

Will in-flight tipping work?

A crucial difference between airline crew and others in the hospitality industry like concierges, servers, cleaners and doormen is that they’re often not even paid the minimum wage, whereas flight attendants generally have strong unions ensuring that they’re adequately, if not well-paid.

Moreover, how would a passenger decide how much to tip a crew member? Generally, the tip is a percentage of total price of the service. So does that mean that people need to pay $40 as a tip for a $400 one-way fare? That may be just a little too much.

Although tipping is a multibillion-dollar industry, it isn’t a globally consistent phenomenon. In fact, in some countries, tipping is illegal. But airlines by nature are global organizations. So it’s a dilemma, whether this will work internationally or not.

Now that I’ve discussed the pros and cons of the practice on board a plane, let’s hear your thoughts too.

Do you think it’s something that’ll enhance in-flight service delivery and the brand experience? Or is it too “cheap” to tip someone in-flight? If it’s good, how can airlines implement it easily? Let’s hear it in the comments section.

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Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam is the CEO of SimpliFlying and a globally sought-after consultant, speaker and thought-leader on airline branding and customer engagement strategy. He is also the youngest winner of the Global Brand Leadership Award and has addressed senior aviation executives globally, from Chile to Canada and from Sydney to San Francisco. Shashank's perspectives have found their way into major media outlets, including CNN Travel, CNBC, MSNBC, Bloomberg UTV, Mashable and in leading publications like Airline Business, ATW, Aviation Week, and others. Shashank studied Information Systems Management and Business Management at Singapore Management University and Carnegie Mellon University. Hailing from India, he splits his time between Singapore and Vancouver, among other cities.
Shashank Nigam
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Showing 22 comments
  • Mark Lowery

    Great question.
    Being from a background in service, my knee-jerk reaction is to say “Of course – tipping is great.”

    But further thought gives me reason to be concerned with this possibility. First and foremost is the fact that onboard employees’ primary functions are related to safety and security. In my mind, this brings up some concerns.

    * could that wad of cash in the employees’ pocket in any way compromise the delivery of safety-related service?

    * it the answer to #1 is even remotely a concern, how would (or could) the airlines prevent this?

    I’m not sure how this could be implemented effectively. After the past two crashes (both in 2009; both in the US), I’m not convinced that we want to see anything that could affect the focus on safety and security in the air.

    Looking forward to hearing different points of view.



  • Tommy Melendez

    Great topic Shashank. I was on a business trip to Chicago on Delta. I attempted to tip the stewardess. She was very helpful and I felt that she should be rewarded. She wouldn’t take it initially, so I ordered a drink and told her no change needed. She had the biggest smile. I feel that it wouldn’t hurt the company and it’s not a bad idea!

  • Amy Burnis

    No. Airlines should pay employees salaries that ensure a consistent level of high quality service. Flight attendants are not servers. They are there to ensure the safety and security of passengers.

  • Dave Hurme

    The airlines are offering less and less each year, if you have to pay extra for people to do the core roles they are hired for something is wrong. It won’t be long before the airlines realize they can make additional funds if they charge a fee to use the washrooms.

    Their brands are already significantly damaged with poor customer service and lack of interest in customer needs, anything that results in extra fees isn’t going to go over that big until the airlines improve on their current performance.

  • sainath "sai" nagarajan

    very interesting question. tipping is only the ‘tip’ of the iceberg, and unfortunately not the best solution due to the imbalance between public-goals of in-flight service and private incentive associated with tipping.

    also, there is no benchmark for consistency given the sheer diversity of travelers and crews, their world views and expectations of what constitutes ‘good service’. a ‘tipping culture’ can result in unintended consequences for travelers, ranging from sheer awkwardness to outright disgust. worst case, it can distract flying crew from their primary goals of ensuring safety & security.

    i see an opportunity for airlines to institute real-time customer satisfaction measurements during the flying experience … so that they can better manage brand-experience in real time and introduce the promise of incentive for consistent quality/ performance.

    when service quality metrics at an individual and crew-level are linked to an incentive compensation system, it allows for better abstraction of key performance indicators, and can contribute to overall value-creation.

    over the years, the focus of in-flight service has steadily shifted from ‘service’ to ‘safety’ and more recently ‘cost management’. absent in much of these shifts has been a serious dialog on the human impact of change. lets have a human dialog before we put up tip jars, whether publicly or through ‘private contracts’ executed under the ‘guise of good service’.

  • Mark J. Hahn

    Don’t you think the airlines already get enough “tips” from us? Tips, how about taking off on time, stop losing my luggage and stop charging me for everything above and beyond the original ticket I purchased to begin with?!?

  • Monis Mahfooz

    It souldn’t be.. if airlines have to improve thier services they need to train thier crew accordingly and if required Airlines need to offer incentive in form of monetory or non monetry rewards. Offering a TIP is something which really sounds cheap for an Air Crew..

  • Steven Eberly

    Tipping has never been disallowed on any US airline that I’m aware of. A large proportion of crewmembers will decline a tip if offered, though. Aircrew consider themselves professionals, and like other professionals, do not require a tip to do their job to the highest standards. Do you think your surgeon will do a better job if he’s looking for a tip?

    Pilots are a very strange group as far as motivation goes. They will do an outstanding job, striving for perfection at all times, no matter what the recompense or situation. This fact has been a boon to airline management, as they can continually take away from the pilots’ total compensatory package, and will still get 100% from them on every flight!

    Flight attendants see themselves as security and safety professionals first, and rank their service requirements a distant second. In-flight service will improve when the airlines recognize their employees as a vital part of the profit stream, and elevate them from liability to asset in the corporate structure. It has more to do with attitude that money, thus tipping will do very little to improve service and may actually be a detriment to branding, as it brings the industry down another notch from the exceptional mode of travel that it is.

  • Walter White

    Tipping is different everywhere in the world. Japanese do not have tipping and would be offended. If anyone really looks at the cost of Business Class and First Class International tickets versus Economy tickets, there is plenty of money being spent in those cabins by the customers. The airlines should figure out a way to compensate their employees so as to ensure excellent service on every flight. This can be done with motivational means. The best solutions I’ve heard so far are at airlines such as Virgin Atlantic, whereas their Onboard Pursers “evaluate and rate” each attendant on each flight. These ratings directly affect that attendants future schedule. This non-seniority based system of rewarding good performance with good schedules is amazing. US Carriers should start to actually monitor and evaluate their Attendants on every flight. They would be surprised at the huge increase in customer satisfaction as these currently un-supervised employees actually do their job and are motivated to move their service up to the next level.

  • Roger Hobson

    A reward system to give incentives for good performance is one thing. Being asked for a tip is another. Your friend should have noted the crew’s name and details and reported them to the senior cabin crew or written to the company. Asking for a tip in any line of business unprofessional.

  • Shashank Nigam

    @Steve, I love that surgeon analogy that you use. I’d actually be scared if my surgeon is looking for a tip to do a better job. Similarly, airline passengers should be scared if the crew asks them for tips for making their trip safer.

    But as we go up Maslow’s hierarchy, we leave “needs” like safety behind, and approach “wants” like good service. The passenger will feel better if he receives better service (like in Asian carriers) but will have to live with it if it’s not there (like a number of US carriers). It’s unfortunate that good service is a “distant” second behind safety, not a close second. And if tips is what’s needed to ensure a good experience on-board, then why not?

    @Walter: Continuing my reply to Steve, it’s because of the international nature of airlines that tipping can’t be made official (my personal opinion). It becomes a cultural thing, and some may take offense.

    @Roger: I like the solution that Walter proposes, and you touch on too. Sort of an incentive system for crew who perfom well. If Virgin Atlantic can do it well, then why not others too?

  • Roger Hobson

    I dont disagree – a tip given should be a sign of good service or good job performed, but to actually ‘ask’ a customer for the tip reminds me of being in an American diner a few years ago, where the waitress got really angry because I did not tip her the customary 20% on the bill. The fact that the meal was awful and her service was desultory didn’t seem to occur to her. So it does not always work.

    I can give you an example of a failed approach. Years ago CX cabin crew were the top, professional approach and excellent service. When the last wave of cuts came in the late nineties, CX decided all crew would now be contract staff (not permanent jobs). Service levels dropped dramatically over night. The standards dropped and CX are now way behind the likes of SQ, TG even EK and QR. Now you have said to the crew, actually we don’t care what your standard is because you only good to us for 1 year at a time, so what incentive is there to the crew ?

  • Phil Koesterer

    I’m having a hard time imagining the brand experience of flying business/first class being enhanced by the addition of gratuity for the crew. Isn’t outstanding service the bare minimum for operating in this category?

    I don’t fly business/first class on a regular basis, so maybe I’m missing something, but as a consumer it would be difficult to sell me on this idea being anything other than another insulting add-on charge from the airline.

  • Peter Richardson

    Shashank, If you mean should we tip the crew of the airlines. My answer would be no. After 22 years in the aviation business, I would view a tip from a passenger as a very nice gesture, but would not accept it. Why would the crew of a professional airline accept a gratuity for something they already get paid to do? I just can’t see it.

  • Shashank Nigam

    @Peter, good point. In fact, that’s what I believe too, that if I’m paying for a First or Business class ticket, I’d assume great service is a part of it. I just wanted to seek more views from industry folks like you, and see if such an avenue for ancillary revenue exists for airlines. Seems like the answer is “no”, from all the discussion going on over at SimpliFlying:

  • Tony Triche

    I agree I would not accept a tip, but not necessarily because it’s something you’re being paid to do (most service professionals are paid salary plus tips), the reason I would politely refuse and would dissuade the practice is this:

    While the cabin crew are at the service of our customers, our primary reason onboard is to act as a safety and health first responder. I would not want to deflect from the fact that the cabin crew are SAFETY professionals primarily. In an emergency situation I want customers to take my crew and myself very seriously….tipping would deflect from that.

  • Carroll Eristhee

    I think it is a great idea. Why not? It would surely enhance the experience provided to the tipper. The option to give a tip via credit card would not seem like a bad idea. A number can be associated with the flight attendant, as a selection option for giving the tip. Using a credit card system would eliminate the physical money exchange.

  • Shashank Nigam

    @Carroll: I like the idea of paying a tip by credit card! Then this would be an accountable system and a good valid source of ancillary revenues for the airline!

  • Cathy Bristoll-McGowan

    I also would agree that tipping is inappropriate, and also for safety reasons, but in a different way. After many years working on the ground in Las Vegas, I have seen that tipping is sometimes meant to be encouragement to the flight crew to overserve alcohol, sometimes leading to unruly behavior in the air.I would not be surprised if that was a part of the reason why several airlines have recently gone to credit card payments on board the aircraft, it is less temptation to deal with cash at all, and eliminates the change issue since the flight attendants aren’t given a bank. And besides, most airlines strictly forbid their employees to accept tips either in the air or on the ground.

  • David Tait

    Shashank, I would like to ask if you could disclose on which carrier out of London your friend received this rather strange request? I am sure that it it not a practice endorsed by the airline and that they’d appreciate knowing about this. If such things are happening in Business Class however I hate to think what’s going on in in this carrier’s Economy cabin!

  • Daniel Poirier

    Maybe a Tip would help.We need to enhance the service, After all the airlines charge for everything else. From blankets to meals to maybe using the LAV in the near future, our Cabin Crews are constantly getting their salaries reduced. Maybe the enhancement of the possibility of getting a tip, may enhance the service, it works in restaurants.

    • fisherman

      Always tip the pilot and the crew when you are leaving the plane. Just hand it to them and thank them for a great flight.

      You got a great price for the discounted ticket so don't just be cheap as your fundamental reason for this benefit.

      Tip the crew $20 each and the Captain $50 or $100. If you can't, then don't.

      If you can… DO without a doubt.

      Don't tell them who you are, they will already know.

      Next time(s) you fly with their airline, watch what happens.

      Appreciation goes a long way everywhere.

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