Flight Attendant ServiceService Marketing and the Job of the Flight Attendant
This project looks at the standing and formation of the job of the cabin attendant at a major airline. The underlying approach is to suggest possible avenues to resolution to the prolonged labour dispute between British Airways and Unite, the cabin attendants union. It will look at the perceptions of the cabin attendant from the viewpoint of the airline, the passenger and the cabin attendant. It looks at ways the job could be made more interesting or rewarding for the employee, the management philosophy concerning original thought and ideas and the motivation of cabin attendants.
The basis of the project is a discussion with a senior cabin attendant the history of British Airways and the management philosophy of Willie Walsh, CEO of International Airlines Group, which includes British Airways of which Mr Walsh was formerly CEO.
Table of Contents
Organisational Efficiency 6
Enhance Job Satisfaction 6
Actively solicits/rewards employee suggestions 7
Employee motivation and opportunities 9
Summary and Conclusions 11
Marketing Functions of the Flight Attendant
The relations between British Airways management and the flight attendants as represented by the flight attendants union, Unite, have not been cordial in the past several years. A key element in the overall problem is, just what is a flight attendant, a low-level service employee or a professional? A major element of this project will revolve around this question, and the importance of the flight crew or more important a hierarch of the importance of their duties. From a marketing perspective this will look at their importance to the safety of the aircraft, the aircrew, and most important the passengers they “serve”.
The objective of this project is threefold:
- Possible job restructuring
- More reward for the employee
- Provide better customer service
- Increase organisational efficiency
- Organisational handling of employee suggestions
- Employee rewards for
- Welcome afforded unsolicited ideas
- Success of unsolicited ideas in being utilized
- Employee motivation and career opportunities
- Career Path to managerial status
- Rotation to other positions in the organisation
The outcome of the strife between Unite and British Airways has been negative for both sides both financially and in terms of public relations. As opposed to the business school ideal of a “win win” negotiation the negotiations between Unite and British Airways has been “loose loose”. The objective of this report to the management of British Airways, which will also be supplied to Unite, is to provide a basis for understanding the problems and objective of each side and to thereby hopefully move to a positive resolution as opposed to further unproductive confrontations.
The following is based on a discussion with a senior British Airways cabin attendant. The subject tried hard to overlook her strictly personal feelings, which were rather negative toward British Airways as might be expected after several years of protracted labour dispute with an employer. She denied any direct involvement in any of the demonstrations, and claims to have tried hard to maintain a professional attitude while supporting her fellow Unite members. A sort of personal middle ground in terms of relations with British Airways with which she has many years of service.
The approach also included a careful review of the history of the relationship between Unite and BA and the management approach of CEO Willie Walsh.
Ways in which the job could be changed to make it more satisfactory for employees, to offer better service for customers, and to make the organisation more efficient?
To attack the question posed in reverse order, there is essentially no way that cabin crew can impact the efficiency of British Airways. Clearly, the reduction of cabin crews would be totally unacceptable to Unite and its members. There is little in the duties of cabin crew that would impact efficiency except perhaps finding a way of delivering passenger drink orders more rapidly or some similar insignificant change.
Enhance Job Satisfaction
The consideration here is that cabin attendants are usually considered little more than flying waitresses and waiters. The fact is that they are really highly trained professionals whose primary responsibility is passenger management and safety. Passenger management can be a simply as getting passenger into the correct assigned seats or highly complex and critical in the event on a mechanical or inflight emergency. Their first responsibility is passenger safety ahead of all other considerations. They are highly trained in fields as diverse as handling rubber life rafts to first aid for inflight injury to defibrillation for cardiac arrest victims.
One of the key problems in employee relations with cabin crews is the perception that they are simply food and beverage service personnel. The fact is that they are far more and deserve far more respect as professionals than they usually receive. The marketing problem is that airlines do not want to use their ability to react to inflight emergency as a marketing point. The fact that there is no way to receive prompt medical attention for in flight health emergencies, even if the cabin crew is well trained to react appropriately is not a desirable marketing approach. For this reason the carriers tend to portray cabin crew as decorative and accommodating as opposed to the highly trained and skilled professionals they are.
This dichotomy of approaches is a key part of the reasons for, and the solutions to, the labour problems of British Airways. If the airlines treat cabin crew as decorative waitresses, or low level “common employees” they will react by using their professional organisation as a labour union that uses strikes to gain higher wages. The need for airlines to recognise the professionalism of aircrews beyond pilots would simultaneously reduce labour disputes and enhance job satisfaction. The entire procedure would be self-reinforcing.
Whether or not management actively solicits/rewards employee suggestions or welcomes unsolicited ideas and the success of this within the organisation?
So far as can be determined externally, British Airways has no policy as to unsolicited suggestions from employees at any level. There is a mention of savings totalling £4.5 million that resulted from employee suggestions in a book entitled Human Resources and Personnel Management. The reference is a single sentence. (Aswathappa, 2002 p. 395) There is another web reference, to this same amount relative to an economic downsizing on the website, “Management Study Guide”. The balance of the statement is, “…The company would have suffered from huge losses, had it not adopted employees’ suggestions. It is right to some extent that employees can misuse industrial democracy but with a proper management of HR functions, this problem can be solved and the operations of organization can be taken to the next level.” The research for this project located no discussion of any related British Airways policy and the interview that is the backbone of the project contains no reference to any such policy.
The hostility between Unite and British Airways management probably precludes any realistic possibility of positive employee suggestions and similarly probably precludes upward transmission of such ideas. This is obviously not a well considered policy as the flight attendants make up a body of intelligent people that are in constant contact with British Airways Passengers, and thereby comprise a potentially rich body of knowledge of ideas that would please passengers and possibly even drive some incremental traffic to the carrier.
An article in the Guardian related to the labour disputes between Willie Walsh’s British Airways and cabin crew contains some material that reflects on the relationship between the airline and its cabin crews. The underlying problems are those of an “old line airline” competing with more modern low cost competitors. The Guardian makes the point that, “This huge pressure matters more than the current question of whether crew should work with cold sores or ingrowing toenails, or take less time off with flu (perhaps caused by working in a cabin full of recirculating air).”
Then CEO Willie Walsh was anxious to press ahead by, “cutting regional services, enforcing tighter employment conditions and, most importantly of all, reducing the company’s massive pension liability by reaching a deal with employees. But BA staff fear that they are being made the victims of endless cuts in terms and conditions, rammed through by an insensitive management.” (The Guardian, 2007) The fact that the problems and solutions discussed in this newspaper article written in early 2007, before the subsequent financial crisis, are still festering is not indicative of good human resources and personnel management.
Employee motivation and opportunities for progression–for example whether the job offers a well-defined career path toward managerial status or provides opportunities for rotation to other positions? Or is it just a dead- end job?
The career path of a steward or stewardess is ordinarily to gain increasing seniority to the point where he or she becomes a chief steward or stewardess, a purser or an inflight service or cabin service manager. All of these are the same job, but different carriers use different titles. It is not unheard of for cabin crew to move jobs within the airline to ground based functions, but this is not really an element in the basic career path of a cabin crewmember. The basic career path is to gain seniority and some supervisory function within the cabin crew. There are also certainly management executives, both inside and outside the airline industry, that have put in time as airline cabin crew as part of their historic career. There is also the possibility of a senior cabin crewmember to become a training instructor or some similar position, but again this is an exception to a typical career.
The cabin crewmember is a highly trained professional member of the flight crew. They obviously have some duties that are relatively menial such as restocking lavatories and keeping passenger cabins clean and neat by collecting rubbish. This is also closely connected to aircraft safety. In addition to these duties they usually are involved in food and beverage services to the passengers, but their primary responsibility is passenger and aircraft safety.
Most passengers do not appreciate the scope of the safety training of the cabin crew. It includes emergency passenger evacuation management, use of evacuation slides/life rafts, in-flight fire fighting, outdoor survival in hostile environments such as jungles, at sea, in desserts or on ice. Their so-called first aid training involves everything from minor scratches or bruises to CPR and defibrillation. The training also includes ditching or emergency landing procedures, cabin decompression emergencies and the handling of dangerous, hostile, aggressive or inebriated passengers. All the members of the cabin flight crew must also hold a Certificate of Demonstrated Proficiency, which indicates that a required level of training has been met.
What this indicates is that there is a conflict between the professional requirements of the position and prestige and social view of the position of cabin crewmembers and other flight crewmembers such as pilots, co-pilots, engineers and navigators. There is also conflict between the crew’s viewpoint concerning the relationship between themselves and their companies as to professionalism and labour employment. There is an old airline joke; “Most of the time we are overpaid (waitresses, bus drivers, etc.), but we occasionally earn a whole years salary in less than a minute.”
Probably some flight crewmembers, including pilots, can view their positions as dead end jobs, but most probably do not. There is usually a sprit of camaraderie or team spirit involved in flying jobs that is difficult to describe or to identify, but it is there. The concept of team management probably applies within the aircraft, but does not, at least in the case of British Airlines, carry throughout the company.
Summary and conclusions
The underlying conclusion produced by this entire study is that the job of the airline cabin attendant has little to do with marketing and there is little that the companies or the crewmembers can do in terms of service marketing. By doing an exceptionally bad job a cabin crewmember may discourage a passenger from flying the airline again, but this is probably rare enough to be disregarded. The passenger’s perception of their value is seldom if ever related to their primary responsibilities of aircraft and passenger safety. The concept of relating cabin crew performance to marketing is a perception capitalised on by the advertising agencies that picture beautiful girls marching in lockstep wearing tight skirts in Korean Air Advertising, or a stewardess that understand the passengers need better than his wife and brings him noodles at midnight.
The reality is that these are not people low on the personnel chart that are interchangeable, but qualified professionals with highly responsible jobs on which passenger lives can depend. The basic question of the applicability of airline cabin crews to the concept of service marketing is inappropriate. Airline services are a commodity, which are marketed through route structure, scheduling and pricing. Pleasure flying is not done on airlines. Travel to a destination is what is being sold. While what is being sold is a service, it is the basics of the service that are being sold, not the frills designed to differentiate a basically similar commodity product. In discussing their results airline executives do mention market share and product positioning, but the tools used are schedules and routes. The only viable brand marketing tools are loyalty card that provide “miles” to the passenger, which can be exchanged for additional services or service level upgrades. Airline marketing is done on the Internet, and is based on the time and cost of getting from origin A to destination B. The happiest passenger is probably the one that has a couple drinks and falls asleep watching a movies he or she has seen before. The cabin crew can contribute by bring the drinks quickly and then walking quietly.
There is very little that the cabin crew can do in regards to increasing airline efficiency, improving customer experience, or making effective suggestions to improve airline efficient. At British Airways they receive negative motivation and are probably content with their career paths. The view that cabin crew fits the following description is unrealistic; “…a front-line employee of a service that deals directly with customers. The employee should be low on the organisational chart, reporting to either a manager or supervisor, and employed primarily in a ʻfront-stageʼ capacity—that is, delivering some aspect of the service that brings him or her into regular contact with customers. They have a distinct place on the organisational chart and do deal directly with the passengers/customers. There is a hierarchy in the cabin crew and that usually is a senior member that has some of the duties of a supervisor, but the position is not usually considered one under supervisory authority. This does not fit the description of service marketing position nor is there a chance for cabin crew to do any effective marketing. (O’Connor, 2001)
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