Life’s dif­fer­ent on the Fron­tier

At this air­line, your flight at­ten­dant is now ac­cept­ing tips

Woonsocket Call - - TRAVEL - By JUSTIN BACH­MAN

Use your credit card to buy a taco, a beer or a taxi ride, and it’s very likely the re­ceipt screen will so­licit a tip. A few years ago, that same op­tion ar­rived on air­lines, to the cha­grin of pas­sen­gers who re­mem­ber when most food and drink up there was free.

Fron­tier Air­lines, a pi­o­neer in the tip-your-at­ten­dant depart­ment, used to split their tips on each flight. As of Jan. 1, how­ever, Fron­tier’s 2,200 flight at­ten­dants no longer pool their gra­tu­ities. Now it’s ev­ery man and woman for them­selves, and per­haps one ben­e­fi­ciary will be the har­ried air­line pas­sen­ger.

“We ap­pre­ci­ate the great work of our flight at­ten­dants and know that our cus­tomers do as well, so [the pay­ment tablet] gives pas­sen­gers the op­tion to tip,” Fron­tier spokesman Jonathan Freed said Fri­day. “It’s en­tirely at the cus­tomer’s dis­cre­tion, and many do it.” In fact, it’s also at the dis­cre­tion of the flight at­ten­dant: At Fron­tier, they can choose whether to trig­ger the tip op­tion.

For decades, U.S. flight at­ten­dants em­pha­sized their role as safety pro­fes­sion­als-re­mind­ing pas­sen­gers that, at any mo­ment, they must be­come emer­gency per­son­nel if some­one falls ill, gets bel- li­cose or the flight ex­pe­ri­ences a prob­lem. Push­ing the drink trol­ley was just a side-job.

That mes­sag­ing got a tremen­dous boost by 9-11 and the U.S. air­line in­dus­try’s sub­se­quent whole­sale re­or­ga­ni­za­tion. As car­ri­ers emerged from the bank­ruptcy era and be­gan rais­ing pi­lot and flight at­ten­dant salaries, they also be­gan in­vest­ing in on-board ser­vice stan­dards as a way to com­mand higher fares while seek­ing cuts else­where.

The As­so­ci­a­tion of Flight At­ten­dants, which rep­re­sents Fron­tier em­ploy­ees, ob­jected to the in­tro­duc­tion of tip­ping in 2016. “Man­age­ment moved for­ward with a tip­ping op­tion for pas­sen­gers in hopes it would dis­suade flight at­ten­dants from stand­ing to­gether for a fair con­tract-and in an ef­fort to shift ad­di­tional costs to pas­sen­gers,” AFA Pres­i­dent Sara Nel­son wrote Fri­day in an email.

The union has been try­ing to reach a new con­tract with Fron­tier for two years. In Novem­ber, the flight at­ten­dants voted to au­tho­rize a strike, although fed­eral me­di­a­tors have yet to de­clare the talks at an im­passe.

“I think it’s just like in a restau­rant and, frankly, not an im­age the air­lines want to have.”

Despite the dif­fer­ing views on tips, Fron­tier at­ten­dants pressed to keep their own gra­tu­ities, to al­low for “bet­ter trans­parency” and counter past prob­lems with tip dis­tri­bu­tion, Nel­son said.

Fron­tier’s tablet-based pay­ment sys­tem al­lows flight at­ten­dants to skip the tip screen when a cus­tomer pays; the air­line said it doesn’t track how of­ten flight at­ten­dants so­licit tips via the tablets. Fron­tier de­clined to re­lease specifics about how much in tips it dis­trib­utes monthly, though Freed, the air­line spokesman, said flight at­ten­dants had earned “mil­lions of dol­lars” in tips over the past three years. (The union didn’t dis­pute that es­ti­mate.)

Nev­er­the­less, Den­ver-based Fron­tier seems to be in the van­guard. Two other na­tional ul­tra low­cost car­ri­ers, Spirit Air­lines Inc. and Al­le­giant Travel Co., don’t in­clude tip­ping in their cus­tomer-pay­ment sys­tems. Al­le­giant also has a pol­icy against tip­ping.

“I think it’s just like in a restau­rant and, frankly, not an im­age the air­lines want to have,” said Henry Harteveldt, a fre­quent flier and founder of At­mos­phere Re­search Group, which an­a­lyzes the travel in­dus­try. He said the new pol­icy may cause some flight at­ten­dants to see their in­come lag col­leagues, and could also af­fect ser­vice lev­els on board given po­ten­tial dif­fer­ences be­tween big tip­pers and oth­ers.

“This could re­ally com­pli­cate the cul­ture at Fron­tier,” Harteveldt said.

Bloomberg photo by Matthew Staver

Fron­tier Air­lines planes stand at their gates at Den­ver In­ter­na­tional Air­port in 2003.

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