The Los Angeles Times recently published an article claiming that the majority of people, according to a customer feedback survey, feel that business- and first-class passengers are treated with more respect than economy-class passengers. The very unsurprising poll found that people felt that, beyond the bells and whistles of premium cabins, coach passengers were treated a lot differently on a personal level, and that the disparity lends itself to tension onboard.
I read through the findings, and the more I thought about them, the more I analyzed these perceptions, and how they might be changed.
Let me start by saying that I cringe at the number of articles that go viral with titles like, “Ten Things Flight Attendants Hate,” or “How To Be A Better Passenger.” I think these ‘slow news day’ type pieces make our bad reputation as crew even worse. And to be fair, as a paying customer, it isn’t your job to be friendly to me or to walk on eggshells, lest I come by and smack you upside the head with a safety information card. The role of the passenger is merely to follow the safety and security rules enforced by us onboard. But should you be an entitled jerk? Of course not. However, I don’t think there should be an expectation that a passenger should constantly be on the defensive either, which seems to often be the case.
All that said, this made me think about how I treated my passengers, and why. And it all has to do with the way I’m treated.
To start with, I don’t know many flight attendants who view premium-class passengers any differently because of financial status. Our line of work isn’t known for being the most lucrative anyway, so we would really have no business passing judgment on others for not having a spare $3000 for a seat. However, I would clearly be lying to you if I said that most of us didn’t prefer first-class passengers to economy.
You know what the worst part of my job is? It isn’t cleaning up vomit or dealing with an angry passenger yelling in my face, which is what most people assume. It is when I stand at the aircraft door greeting people and get ignored. To have someone clearly see me and ignore my “hello” and walk on by is the most dehumanizing experience. It sounds trite and probably is, but all these years later I can’t get past the icky feeling of having someone not even think I am worth a simple “hi” or even just a quickly flashed smile. And it generally isn’t first-class passengers who do this.
Perhaps it’s because, in economy, people expect to disappear. They expect less interaction, and they’re right to expect that – with more people to serve, we simply don’t have the time to be very one-on-one with an entire plane full of people. That has nothing to do with class or status, it’s simply time constraints. But you would be amazed at how far politeness and friendliness goes. Even if you don’t think we notice, we do. And it gets returned whenever possible – maybe it’s a free drink, maybe we tap you on the shoulder and shoo you into an empty row. Or maybe it’s just extra-attentive service! But we always appreciate a friendly face, and word usually spreads among the crew when people are especially kind. Having fewer people to serve in first or business class gives us more time to establish a personal connection with our passengers. Because of that, I think they’re more likely to be polite to us. When people don’t feel anonymous, they act differently. I am sure it’s the same for us as well.
I can’t say that there aren’t plenty of awful, impatient flight attendants – I’ve been served by them, I’ve worked with them and boy, do strangers love to wind long yarns about them to me the moment I mention what I do for a living. And on a bad day, I hate to say I have probably been one. But we aren’t all like those people, especially not all the time. I can’t say I do my best job when people are rude to me. I can handle it and I still treat those people with kindness and respect (I can’t say I don’t mock them in the galley, however), but I am certainly not at my best.
The times, they are a-changing, and we deal with a lot more entitled behavior than we used to – and that sometimes goes for our coworkers as well as our passengers. But I think we need to view each other as people. Merely being spoken to in full sentences versus having “COKE!” shouted at me with a mouth full of Chex Mix and headphones on (especially when their response is to an entirely different question) is enough to make me want to better than my best. And that’s regardless of the seat you occupy.