Airlines: 86 the Attitude

At the end of a double in a fairly high stress pub and grill , I was approached by a lady in her 40s and told me that I had ruined her best friend’s birthday. She was the cap at a table of nine, five women, four men, and they had been dining and drinking for about three hours. Not that it bothered me, their bill was over $300 which meant, if these people were thoughtful enough, I would get $50-$60 off this one table.

I don’t think it’s uncommon for servers to make it through particularly grueling shifts by looking at the patrons not as people but as dollar signs. Why do it? Two reasons really: Every thing you do to create a better experience for the customer means that the dollar figure will creep up (theoretically) and conversely, everything you do poorly means that amount will plummet. The other, and more important reason is that as a server or a bartender you will be treated poorly by one of those people, so seeing them not as people but as money helps.

In some cases you will be told that you have ruined a complete stranger’s 35th birthday. Being told that you have ruined somebody’s birthday is not something many even keeled people will hear in a lifetime. So when this woman jutted a finger into my face and accused me of malice I stammered an apology and worked to the rectify the situation.

“I — I — I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to, of course. What happened?”

“Well, you placed the check in front of her so she could plainly see how much the ENTIRE meal cost,” she railed at me, “And when I took a look I saw that you did not comp her birthday dessert.”

Processing that amount of ridiculous in the span of a few seconds is incredibly difficult. Had I been a diner within earshot of this woman berating another server I would have laughed loudly. The professional me, however, worked to rectify the situation in the only way that was appropriate. I apologized profusely and said that I would be glad to have my manager comp her desserts.

When I returned with the check I locked eyes with the birthday lady and gave my sincerest apology (which wasn’t sincere at all, but thank you theater school), to which her response was mild mortification at her friend’s behavior, clearly.

As the table left, I wished them a good evening and said happy birthday once again. They were gone and I told the story to my coworkers and we all had a healthy laugh.

I have hundreds of these stories and I’m not special. Serving, bartending, managing in a restaurant is particularly humiliating work for plenty of reason. By entering a restaurant the average IQ of the typical diner drops fifty points when they sit down. A seasoned gourmand at home suddenly has no idea how to pronounce arugula or any idea what it is. The ability to read has flown out the window and therefore makes ordering from a menu impossible. God forbid there are seven people who want to split the check in eight unequal ways and forget to include tax in their calculations. For every ten terrible tables there is usually one table that makes the evening just slightly manageable. Bless them.

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I imagine that the people that work in the airline industry, the gate agents, the flight attendants, the baggage handlers, and even the pilots, have to deal with the same amount of ridiculous and demeaning behavior as those who work in the restaurant industry. Just sit there and watch a flight get delayed and how the masses rush to the gate agent to say that the delay is unacceptable. Personally, given the choice between being delayed and the plane falling out of the sky, I’ll take the delay.

Unfortunately for the airline industry in America, the employees are terrible at their job from a customer relations stand point.

By now most of the Western world is at least aware of the doctor trying to make a flight from Chicago to Louisville, who is violently dragged off the plane (reaccommodated) because there are four pilots who need to take the flight so that a flight in Louisville is not canceled.

From top to bottom, nearly everyone agrees that this was handled terribly and rightfully so, United Airlines woke up to it’s second PR nightmare in a month. Thank God for Twitter. Which got me thinking, why don’t the people involved in airline travel treat the customer experience like working in a restaurant?

Traveling by plane becomes more like riding greyhound by the month as United, American and Delta try to cram more and more people in every plane and rase the price. Customers are no longer passengers, instead, they are cattle. When you fly, you give up your rights.

That’s not a joke. I spoke to a friend of mine who is a pilot and he said the airline was absolutely in their right to kick that man off the flight, and when he refused he was breaking the law. Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United, intimated that much in his feckless letter to United employees. United Airlines and Delta, who have both had a rough week of it in the PR department, don’t care about any of this because they don’t need to. For now.

I’m not fine with that, but it’s not going to change without a Passenger’s Bill of Rights (which has failed before). The lack of competition in the airline industry has allowed the big three to set the rules, or Sky Law. The amount an airline is allowed to compensate someone for their travel is capped. There are no restrictions on how much leg room is required in the average seat. Airlines can charge whatever they want for flights, despite that fact that profits are soaring and the price of jet fuel is plummeting.

This latest episode in the drama of airline travel is a metaphor to how the average customer feels. We shell out all this money and we either get terrible service or we end up with a busted lip and no way home.

While the price of flying might not change, the relationship each airline has with its consumers can. I can’t recall the last time a flight attendant was polite to me or anyone within five rows of where I was sitting. Or when did a gate agent apologize for a delay (even though they are rarely at fault)?

I’ve had burgers and steaks ordered medium rare come out well done. While I didn’t cook the meat the only course of action was apologizing and working my best to rectify the situation. Sympathy, earnestness, and contrition cost nothing, so why do airline employees refuse to give an inch?

If the airline companies want to at least hide the fact that they are robber barons in the clouds, they would do well to change the attitude of the people who have to face their consumers every day. The alternative is that the business will fail. While it may not happen overnight you can only hide a bad product, continuously over cooked meat, or a bad return on investment for so long.

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About a month after my birthday mishap I was working a sleepy lunch shift when I recognized the woman who came striding through the door. She took a seat at a four top, even though she walked right by the sign that said please wait to be seated, so I walked over with a few menus and asked how many she was expecting. Only one.

While I made my way back to the server station to get her a water it hit me that she was the woman who accosted me for ruining her friend’s birthday. She ordered, she ate, she barely acknowledged me but I kept up my usual pleasant facade. At the end of the meal she declared, “Everything here is so good.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” I said as I took away her plate.

“You know, I wasn’t going to say anything,” she began. My stomach sank. “I think you were my waiter when I came in here a couple weeks ago. It was my friend’s birthday.”

“Possibly.” I didn’t want to let on that I remembered that experience vividly.

“I’m really sorry about the way I acted,” she said. “I hadn’t seen my friend in years and everything was just going terrible up until dinner.” She told me this long story about how everyone had bailed on the earlier part of the festivities and the surprise party she was planning got ruined and blah-blah-blah. “I took it out on you. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said with a tight lipped smile.

She paid, thanked me again, and left. I opened the bill fold to see how much that dollar sign had left me. Twelve percent. I rolled my eyes and shrugged.