Flight attendants: Lost The Fire For Customer Service Excellence? Time To Retire!

Last week, I spent over 18hrs flying from Vancouver to Miami, and back – across three airlines. While one was good and one ordinary, the flight attendants in one were seemed bored of their jobs and didn’t quite care much about giving a superior service to passengers.

Firstly, the two serving me were both at least fifty and looked visibly tired since it was the last flight of the day. And those of us sitting in the Emergency exit row were almost barked upon, “Are you qualified to be sitting in this row?” – should I have produced my college degree or something? I know they just want us to say “yes”, but the same idea could have been communicated in a much nicer manner!

While I didn’t have the energy to share some good customer service advise with them, Ron Kaufman did, on another flight. As some of you might recall, I’ve attended his workshop in Singapore and previously written an article on his teaching as well.

This is a guest article by Ron Kaufman. Ron is the world’s leading educator and motivator for upgrading customer service and uplifting service culture. He is author of the bestselling “UP Your Service!” books and founder of UP Your Service! College. To enjoy more customer service training and service culture articles, visit UpYourService.com.


I was flying to the United States when an In-Flight Supervisor recognized me and came over to chat. We spoke about current challenges and how quickly the airline was growing.

She lamented that some older crew felt jaded and uninspired to deliver customer service excellence. They tend to do the minimum of work in flight, she said, shifting the burden to younger crew members. This behavior was setting a poor example and had a negative impact on the morale of new hires, damaging their drive to deliver customer service excellence.

She asked me, “What do you think we should do about them?”

Immediately I replied, “Tell them it’s time to quit. And if they don’t leave or shape up, fire them.”

She was shocked by my response. “But they have a very strong union,” she said. “And they have served so many years. Doesn’t the airline owe them something for that?”

Again I shared my strong views about customer service excellence:

“Find them a meaningful role on the ground that harnesses their skills and experience to real advantage. If that doesn’t work, or they won’t do the work required, then fire them.

“And if you can’t fire them because of union, then create a ‘Department of Dead Wood’ and park them inside until they retire. They’ll still cost the airline in payroll accounts, but at least they won’t cause so much damage.

“As for the airline ‘owing them something,’ hasn’t the airline been paying the crew, training and rewarding them all these years? Haven’t the airline and crew members grown up together?

“Everyone shares good feelings for achievements and successes in the past. But shouldn’t we share responsibility, too, for building a strong and successful future?”

The supervisor was not comfortable with my answer, I could tell, but it certainly got her thinking. What about you?

Key Learning Point To Customer Service Excellence

When someone on your team loses his or her enthusiasm or commitment to deliver customer service excellence, it’s time for them to either change or go. This is especially true when that person is very senior and is looked up to as a role model by newcomers to the organization.

When you’ve lost the fire to deliver customer service excellence, it’s time to retire.

Action Steps To Customer Service Excellence

Share this insight about customer service excellence with everyone on your service team. Make it part of your staff orientation program so that new team members know what to expect of the elders.

Share this with your senior staff, as well. They must understand what it takes today to keep an organization going – and growing.

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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 6 comments
  • Oussama

    This is a thorny issue and it is not only a problem in North America, we are seeing the same at European and MENA Legacy airlines. The current laws let alone unions do not allow carriers to retire or remove cabin crew due to age or physical appearance. Having said that, the issue transcends customer service to the core of the job which is safety. Would a cabin crew member who is around sixty and overweight be able to efficiently evacuate an aircraft in an emergency. The answer is no one knows. I have experienced instances where a cabin attendant took twice as long to perform the food service than her colleague in the same cabin.

    The issue is so emotive that airlines are happily ignoring it since it applies across to all of them creating a level playing field. Seriously the airlines, unions and governments should come together to formulate benchmarks and criteria to address these issues.

  • Justin Summers

    You have to be passionate about your job, no matter how tired you are you must force yourself to be at least nice with your customer or clients for customer service is one of the important factors to get a good reputation for your business if you think you can't do this on your job then you can quit service excellence is really important i almost every kind of profession you have.

    Justin Summers,
    Service Excellence
    Empathy Communications

  • Uwe

    I enjoyed reading this article Shashank, as I do most of your work.

    I agree with the general concept and the need for providing good service to maintain a sustainable business. As both you and Oussama have pointed out though, due to legal limitations such as union contracts in North America and Western Europe, what you propose is usually easier said than done.

    In the GCC most airlines benefit from legal environments that outlaw trade unions and have very liberal immigration laws for hiring foreign workers. As a result, cabin crews are hired on renewable contracts of, say, two-years.

    I often do sympathize with cabin crew because they routinely deal with hundreds of passengers on a daily basis, some of who have a tendency to become irrational and difficult the moment they enter a long, narrow, aluminum tube. For that reason, burn-out rate is high and I don’t believe that the profession of cabin attendant is a realistic life-long career. Unlike in the unionized airline environment in North America, the pay and benefits vs. the working reality is enough to entice fresh, young people to continue for more than a few years and so most resign on their own terms after a few years, creating constant turn-over.

    Whereas the GCC’s legal structure allows for the rapid disposal of these front-line foreign workers, unfortunately, it is very protective of nationals. It is very difficult for an airline to rid itself of a non-performing “local.” Thanks to a “job for life” culture and a sense of entitlement, we see incompetent individuals rise through the corporate hierarchy to become managers and corporate leaders. This reality negatively dampens corporate morale at most airlines in the GCC. It is easy to critique the front line staff but an examination of their support structure is also warranted. As the old saying goes, “The fish rots from the head.”

    Well run airlines such as Southwest and Westjet create an entrepreneurial culture where the employee feels empowered, where there is frequent two-way communication both vertically and laterally in the corporate structure, where employees identify with the goals of the corporation and they see their own welfare as being directly tied with the company’s performance. In practice, I think all of this is easier said than done but there are some positive role models to follow.

    • Shashank Nigam

      Glad you enjoyed the article! While unions are there in US and EU, I think moving to a ground-duty can be feasible. In fact, staff should be encouraged to do that if they can't handle the pressures. In the end, it's the staff and people who make Southwest and Westjet competitive!

  • Renatolealferreira

    I was working for many years with Ryanair the biggest Low-cost airline in Europe. It was the same atittude in the stewards but there are those that really LOVE their job and they sometimes they do a service above the normal standards of the company. There will be always Excellent, good, average and bad employees in all airlines in the world.

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