In Defense of Airline Employees


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It has become fashionable to bash airlines and, by extension, airline employees. It seems that everyone has an airline story and delights in telling it to anyone who will listen. The subject matter ranges from the mildly inconvenient long wait at a baggage carousel, to cancelled flights, to the catastrophic events surrounding Heathrow’s opening of its ill-fated Terminal 5. The reaction is often “You think that’s bad, wait ’til I tell you what happened to me last week.”

Employees of many of the world’s airlines today are probably bearing the brunt of their customers’ frustration as never before. I can’t imagine a more beleaguered lot. They are on the firing line every day, fielding questions and criticism about problems that are not of their making. It’s a wonder to me how many of them maintain any kind of positive outlook or demeanor.

But they do. Most of them not only soldier on, but rise to surprising heights of customer service on occasion. As I am penning this post, I am seated as I often am on an Air Canada flight, where I have just witnessed what can only be described as a touching customer experience.

A young family boarded the aircraft; mother, son aged maybe 5, father carrying an infant. The little boy was wearing a jaunty cap that bore some resemblance to the headgear of the airline’s pilots. As soon as she spotted the little guy, the flight attendant who was welcoming passengers aboard stopped the process and called out, “The captain’s here.” She then took the little fellow by the hand and walked him straight into the cockpit where she announced to the flight crew, “You guys can go home, the captain’s here. He’ll take over now.”

The little boy was beaming as he was welcomed by the real captain; his parents were delighted then and later in the flight when the flight attendant came back to their seats and took the little fellow back to the cockpit for a longer visit with his new-found colleagues. She certainly made that trip an event for that family. Do you think that 5-year-old passenger had some stories to tell his grandparents when he landed? Such events are not scripted; they depend entirely on the empathy, sensitivity and creativity of the employee involved.

This episode on one flight among the many thousands of flights every day made an impression that will, for that family and for those who witnessed it, last a long time. It caused me to reflect that some employees are amazingly resilient and able to cope exceedingly well with what’s happening around them. This particular Air Canada flight attendant seized an opportunity to make customers feel good about their experience. The incident also illustrates the power of an employee single-handedly to create memorable customer experiences.


  1. Jim

    I find myself agreeing with you. As ever. Customer-facing staff have very difficult jobs, having to strike a balance between the conflicting needs of customers, managers and other stakeholders at the same time, as they do.

    All of us who fly a lot have a mixture of good and bad stories to tell. Those of us who fly far too much generally try and take as much into our own hands as possible, so that we don’t have to rely on airline staff any more than necessary.

    But you know, the peculiar thing in your story is that you need to defend airline staff at all. Shouldn’t them doing a great job be their job. Shouldn’t that be business as usual. That you feel you need to publicise great service as though it was a rare event and to defend airline staff speaks volumes about the miserable state of service in airline travel today.

    Time to break out the Tardis I think.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

    Further Research:

    Docter Who and the Tardis

  2. Graham

    Much has been written about the role of customer-facing employees as boundary spanners, treading as they do that fine line between the company and its customers. Some handle it well, some very poorly. But, they are on the firing line every day; to rise above the pressure and deliver exceptional service is just not that easy for many of them. It may be unrealistic to think that their job is, plain and simple, to deliver great service, period. When you think of the obstacles that are often put in front of employees in doing their jobs well, it is actually not surprising that much customer service falls short of what customers want.

    Organizations have to understand that the interaction between customer and employee is not simply a customer experience, but is an employee experience as well. How pleasurable do we make it for the employee? I’m convinced that the better the experience for the employee, the better will be the experience as seen by the customer.

    So, let’s not blame the employee when service is not what we’d like. Some of those boundary spanners rise to the occasion and create truly memorable experiences for customers, even whan they do not have to and they are not rewarded for doing so. That’s simply who they are. They know intuitively when to seize an opportunity to impress a customer. The more people like that organizations can hire the better.

    Jim Barnes

  3. Jim

    I agree with you about the challenges faced by boundary spanning staff.

    I worked with an ex-cabin crew member on a first-generation customer experience job some seven years ago at Lufthansa. She told me that Lufthansa, like all airlines, has a real problem recruiting customer-focussed staff to be cabin crew. They are just not that easy to find. The net result was that Lufthansa took on staff who perhaps would not have been their first choice, if they had a larger number of suitable applicants. And Lufthansa are pretty good at in-flight service in my extensive experience with them over several decades.

    Having said that, I still believe that providing great service should be seen as business as usual. Putting the vagaries of management and customers to one side (a big caveat), aren’t we in danger of setting our sights too low? Of expecting to fail and being surprised when we don’t, rather than the other way round.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

  4. Graham

    The mere fact that customer service levels are almost universally low means that expectations/sights are already set quite low. My research confirms that customers aren’t really expecting much of most service providers these days. That being the case, what a tremendous opportunity is facing companies who can get it right. The danger is that companies will conform to the existing standards and won’t try to do better, thereby setting their own sights far too low. We all know that exceptional service is possible, because some companies both large (e.g. Four Seasons) and small (e.g. my neighbourhood grocer) are able to deliver consistently at a high level.

    Jim Barnes

  5. I don’t want to interject myself into your dialogue–though apparently that’s exactly what I’m doing.

    The biggest difficulty most front-line service employees face is that deep-down, they know what they should be doing. We know that our interaction with clients should be forward-thinking, progressive, and customer-oriented. We’re here to provide solutions to problems, not just because our company loses business if we don’t, but because it’s the right thing.

    The problem is most organizations truly do not align their decisions along those lines. “Employee Empowerment” is a catch-phrase, not a reality. Customer Relationship Management is profit-oriented, not solution oriented. Service and support are costs to be kept as low as possible, not value additions.

    Though service levels are indeed low across all industries, it’s amazing some of them do as good a job as they do, given their overhead constraints.


  6. The Financial Times Management Blog had a great piece on ‘Service with a Snarl’ recently. The author contrasts the appalling, rude, couldn’t-give-a-damn experience at Currys in the UK with the vastly superior service of companies like Whole Foods and Best Buy in the US.

    We all have similar tales to tell. My most recent was at the hands of a rude cashier at Media Markt in Cologne, Germany recently (how dare I want to buy 20 cheap USB stick drivers to put my forthcoming conference workshop on!). The cashier was having a very bad day and everybody got to share in it.

    Whilst recognising that some front-line staff are under a lot of pressure, it is no excuse for a bad attitude or rude behaviour. Period. Sadly, we have to face the fact that some people are just not fit for customer-facing roles and should not have any contact with customers.

    Service staff are a bit like politicians. We get the service staff we deserve. If we don’t expect and demand more, we only have ourselves to blame.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

    Further Reading:

    Service with a Snarl

  7. Steve

    Thanks for interjecting. This was not intended to be a dialogue.

    I understand completely what you are saying. It has always impressed me how much more front-line employees know about customer satisfaction and the things that drive it than do their superiors who are several times removed from the customer. That’s why I have been encouraging some of my clients to establish employee advisory groups that can meet with management on a regular basis to tell them what they are hearing every day, and to provide input into the interpretation of customer research results, among other things. It’s amazing what management can learn if they would listen to front-line staff (and customers, of course).

    Graham makes a good point. There are some people who should not be allowed anywhere near customers simply because they don’t have the personality for it. The better customer service companies hire for personality and fit, and then get down to training on the details of the job. If they are just not nice folks, it’s awfully difficult to encourage them to smile and be polite.

    Jim Barnes


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