Galley Gossip: Where did the service go?

Recently I read an interesting article in the New York Times, Up, Up, and Go Away, about an ex flight attendant who worked for TWA in the 1970’s when flight attendants were known as stewardesses and stewardesses were as glamorous as movie stars and passengers were treated like royalty and flying was..well…just better – in every way possible! The stewardess featured in the article above wrote about a recent flight she took from Miami to Charlotte and the lack of customer service onboard the airplane, on the ground, as well as the downfall of flying in general.

She wrote…

I have experienced the decline of service along with the rest of the flying public. But I believe I have felt it more acutely because I remember the days when to fly was to soar. The airlines, and their employees, took pride in how their passengers were treated. A friend who flew for Pan Am and I have a friendly rivalry over which airline was better. Friendly, yes. But we each believe we worked for the best.

Well that’s funny because I think I work for the best airline, and that’s an airline that’s still in business. And for the record, I, too, take pride in my job, as well as the way I treat my passengers, and this is during a time when passengers bash airlines for sport. Hey, times have changed. Flight attendants have changed. Passengers have changed. Technology has changed. Every single thing has changed. Has it not?

She wrote…

Airlines offer valid excuses for cutting back service. But what are they gaining when passengers leave a flight disgruntled, mistreated and hungry? It is surprising how easy it is to please passengers. Cereal and lots of coffee in the morning can do wonders for someone who had to leave home at 4 a.m. Pretzels and peanuts handed out with drinks make a difference in an era of flight cancellations and long security lines.

Much like most memories, one tends to romanticize the past. I, too, worked when flight attendants handed out wings, playing cards and magazines, back when we had all the pillows and blankets a passenger could desire. I also served cereal as well as pretzels and three dinner choices – in coach – and trust me when I tell you just as many passengers complained about the service then as they do now.

“This is nothing but garbage!” one passenger shouted at me when I placed the penne pasta on the tray table in front of her. This happened in coach over ten years ago.

“Is this all you have?” is another response I heard often back in the day.

I also remember that airfares were three times what they are today, which enabled an airline to offer you three choices of garbage…I mean food…as well as amenities in coach. Sure ticket prices have gone up, but by comparison they’re cheaper than they were ten years ago. In 1995 I bought a ticket from New York to Dallas for $800. Last month I bought the same ticket for $350 – and that was for a flight during the holiday rush, which is the second busiest time of the year to travel!

She wrote…

What works best of all, of course, is a smile. I trained for six weeks to become a flight attendant. Although the main focus was safety, I spent almost as much time learning good service. Airline employees’ frustration and exasperation are all too evident to their passengers.

Yet as I stand at the door and greet my passengers with a smile on my face and a friendly “Hello, how are you?” half the time my greeting is either met with a sour face and goes unanswered or I’m told exactly how they are, which is never good. After four of five snide remarks I eventually stop asking how people are, I’m too afraid! Keep in mind, it’s not easy for me, either, but I still try to smile, even though I’ve been working just under the FAA legal limit. My layover is not the same layover experienced thirty years ago by stewardesses in the past who had 48 hours of free time before having to work one trip home. Based on my schedule of the last six years, I average 8 hours between the time I say “Buh-bye” and the time I say “Welcome aboard” and push back from the gate again.

She wrote…

Once, stuck on a tarmac in Newark for four hours, a planeload of passengers got McDonald’s hamburgers and fries courtesy of the airline.

Not only do passengers have to bring their own McDonald’s food onboard these days, I have to make sure that the passenger who keeps getting up and down and going into the lav with a cell phone in one hand and a crumpled McDonald’s bag in the other isn’t up to any funny business. While I, too, trained for seven weeks to become a flight attendant, learning good customer service skills, I was also sent back to training in 2001 to learn what to do in case of a terrorist hijacking. That’s why I might not be smiling as I serve drinks down the aisle in coach. I’ve got my eye on that passenger whose been acting a little strangely. A stewardess never had to carry hand cuffs, etc, in their tote bags, but a flight attendant does.

The decline in service is a direct result of ticket prices today, which is why our flights are always full, staffed with minimum crew, and why people who couldn’t afford to fly thirty years ago are flying today? And that, I think, is a good thing, in a way. The airlines are giving passengers what they truly want – affordable prices. Not embossed napkins. People are no longer willing to pay for service, and the airlines can’t afford to give it away for free, not anymore, not in this day and age. Which is why all you get on a flight is a cramped seat, a can of soda, and a paper napkin – in coach – while getting from point A to point B as safely as possible and for as cheaply as possible. If better service is desired, you have the option to pay for it by purchasing a ticket in one of the premium cabins. It’s up to you.

When I first started flying fourteen years ago, passengers in the premium cabins enjoyed the fine dining experience we provided, which is still pretty much the same service we provide in 2008. Only now, unlike then, the seats in first class and business class are always full. There are more top tiered frequent fliers battling it out for those oh so precious upgrades than ever before. A premium class passenger spends about $6,000 to fly from coast to coast, which in todays weak economy is hard for an executive to justify in an expense report to management, which explains why luxury airlines like EOS and MaxJet went out of business in less than one year.

And with all the electronic devices brought onboard today, passengers in our premium cabins don’t really want the long drawn out service of yesterday, no matter what they say, because when they want to eat, they want it now, and they want it fast, and when they’re done, they’re done!

“Take it away!” I often hear, and before the meal tray is even lifted from the table the computer is out and the fingers are typing.

What bothers me the most about these types of articles, and there are many, is the way in which people still want to compare flying back then to now. Can you really compare the two? No other industry in the United States is criticized as harshly, with such backwards thinking, as the aviation industry. When you talk about those glorious days when all the stewardesses were young and beautiful and wore hot pants and mini skirts and smiled as they lit your cigarette in the piano lounge onboard the 747 to Paris, keep in mind that flight attendants weren’t allowed to get married or have children and were subjected to periodical weigh-ins before their trips. Sounds good you say? Well don’t forget that with all the glamour came a lot of empty seats. Back then only the privileged could fly. So just remember that the next time you purchase a ticket and want to reminisce about the good old days.

Photos courtesy of (vintage black and white) Carbonated, (Passengers) Heather Poole, (Computer) Heather Poole