March 1, 2007
MarkBernstein.org
 
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Service Fight

The flight had been delayed by weather, but Linda and I had snagged a last-minute upgrade and were comfortably ensconced in first class. (The only time I actually can use my free upgrades seems to be the Boston-Chicago route, perhaps because it's only barely worth upgrading.) We were waiting to be deiced.

In the front galley, the gate agent (who'd started boarding by apologizing for the confusion — "the most confusing day I've had in twenty years at American") was having a disagreement with the chief flight attendant.

It was not a mild or a casual disagreement. Voices were raised, and then raised some more. And it was all our fault: after we'd been given the last two upgrades, a late-arriving couple in first class had finally arrived at the gate. Should this couple get the first class seats, for which they had paid? But that would mean asking us to move again, and we'd already switched seats once. (We pieced this together later; what we knew at the time was that the gate agent was furious with the flight attendant, and the flight attendant was far from happy, and both considered their rival to be completely ignorant of service, tradition, or common sense, or dignity. This is American Airlines! They are flying American Airlines!

Now, obviously this is not what you want to have happening on your plane. You never want the audience to see you sweat — especially not on an airplane, and especially not in paranoia-inducing contemporary American airports. You never want to have a divided service front. The company should speak with one voice. And it was awkward for us and for the nice other couple: none of the passengers cared much at all, no one was making a fuss. We cared much less than they did.

It felt like when you were a kid visiting a friend, and their parents, experiencing a disagreement and having got past "not in front of the children," had also skipped "and never in front of the neighbor's children" and were going at it hammer and tongs.

In the end, they asked us to go back to coach, and the flight attendant literally showered us with snacks and drinks.

But, you know: if you're going to mess up this way, it's a lot better to have employees fighting bitterly about great service than to have them sitting around and not caring. The planes American flies between Boston and Chicago were originally TWA's — some of the pilots conspicuously hang their hats so you can see their old TWA business cards in the crown — and I started to avoid TWA because, when things went wrong, people just didn't seem to care much.