Flight at­ten­dants aren’t wait­resses in the sky

The Citizens' Voice - - EDITORIAL - BY ADAM MINTER Bloomberg opin­ion

The world’s first eight flight at­ten­dants took to the air in May 1930. They were all nurses, hired by Boe­ing Air Trans­port (fore­run­ner to United Air­lines, Inc.) to give early-era air pas­sen­gers a greater sense of se­cu­rity on­board. As air travel be­came safer over the en­su­ing decades, nurses were no longer re­quired in the cabin. Safety and se­cu­rity, though, re­mained the pri­mary statu­tory role of the flight at­ten­dant, even as pas­sen­gers and air­lines in­creas­ingly ex­pected them to per­form like servers at top-end restau­rants.

On Jan. 1, low-cost car­rier Fron­tier Air­lines Inc. broke with that tra­di­tion. Hence­forth, flight at­ten­dants on Fron­tier flights will be al­lowed to so­licit tips di­rectly from pas­sen­gers. Fron­tier ar­gues that the change in pol­icy will re­ward flight at­ten­dants for of­fer­ing ex­cel­lent cus­tomer ser­vice. In re­al­ity, tip­ping on planes — like tip­ping in restau­rants — will bear lit­tle re­la­tion­ship to ser­vice qual­ity. More im­por­tantly, it’ll make pas­sen­gers and flight at­ten­dants less safe.

In 2016, Fron­tier pi­o­neered in­flight tip­ping when it added a gra­tu­ity screen to the credit-card pay­ment tablets

used when cus­tomers bought food and drinks. Any tips would then be pooled and shared among the whole crew. The new sys­tem em­pow­ers flight at­ten­dants to de­ploy the gra­tu­ity screen at their dis­cre­tion — and to pocket what­ever is tipped. Pas­sen­gers are un­der no obli­ga­tion to tip. But, know­ing that the per­son ex­pected to keep you safe at 30,000 feet might be eval­u­at­ing your gen­eros­ity doesn’t make the op­tion feel par­tic­u­larly vol­un­tary.

And that’s where the prob­lems start. First, if the goal of tip­ping is to en­sure bet­ter ser­vice, it’s a fail­ure from the start. Decades of aca­demic re­search on tip­ping have con­sis­tently failed to find any mean­ing­ful re­la­tion­ship be­tween tip­ping and good ser­vice. In­stead, peo­ple tend to tip based on fac­tors that aren’t per­for­mance-based. For ex­am­ple, mul­ti­ple stud­ies have found that cus­tomers tend to tip white servers bet­ter than black ones, and at­trac­tive wait­resses — es­pe­cially slen­der blondes in their 30s — re­ceive more tips than those seen to be less at­trac­tive. Mean­while, there’s ev­i­dence that touch­ing a cus­tomer fleet­ingly — es­pe­cially a cus­tomer of the op­po­site sex — re­sults

in big­ger tips.

That’s prob­lem­atic, to say the least. When com­pen­sa­tion is tied to a sex­u­al­ized no­tion of “good ser­vice,” work­ers feel pres­sure to sex­u­al­ize their ap­pear­ance and be­hav­ior (lead­ing to a more sex­u­al­ized work­place), and to tol­er­ate in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior be­cause the cus­tomer is king and pay­mas­ter. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the restau­rant in­dus­try is the source of more sex­ual harass­ment com­plaints than any other U.S. in­dus­try — and tipped work­ers are ha­rassed by cus­tomers at a higher rate than un­tipped ones.

So far, air­lines haven’t stud­ied whether some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pens in com­mer­cial cab­ins. But, that doesn’t let them off the hook. Last year, the As­so­ci­a­tion of Flight At­ten­dants, the in­dus­try­wide union, re­ported that “more than two-thirds” of its mem­bers have ex­pe­ri­enced sex­ual harass­ment dur­ing their ca­reers.

That’s not just a per­son­nel is­sue ei­ther. In­so­far as sex­ual harass­ment un­der­cuts a flight at­ten­dant’s stand­ing and au­thor­ity in a cabin, it rep­re­sents a safety and se­cu­rity risk. That’s one rea­son why the White House re­cently an­nounced a task force to ex­am­ine pas­sen­ger sex­ual

mis­con­duct on com­mer­cial air­craft.

Just as bad, tip­ping has the po­ten­tial to di­vert flight at­ten­dants from im­por­tant safety-re­lated tasks to con­cen­trate on ser­vice func­tions that could earn them more money. In fact, a 2009 study found that flight at­ten­dants were al­ready hav­ing prob­lems bal­anc­ing their post9/11 safety and se­cu­rity du­ties with their in­flight ser­vice role. Reg­u­lar tip­ping could make that bal­anc­ing act even tougher.

The good news is that — so far — no other air­line has pub­licly an­nounced plans to fol­low Fron­tier’s lead on tip­ping. But, that could eas­ily change. Fron­tier is in the midst of a two-year con­tract dis­pute with its flight at­ten­dants and — like restau­rants — the air­line might view tips as a way of push­ing com­pen­sa­tion costs onto cus­tomers and off its bal­ance sheet; other air­lines may soon feel the same. Be­fore they adopt the prac­tice, too, the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion ought to take a more rig­or­ous look at how tip­ping im­pacts air­line cab­ins. To­day’s flight at­ten­dants, just like their fore­bears, are there to keep pas­sen­gers safe — and em­ploy­ers ought to re­ward them prop­erly for do­ing so.

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