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Is This Any Way to Fly the Unfriendly Skies?

Long, long ago, doubters said that if we were meant to fly God would have given us wings. These days you have to wonder: if we were meant to fly would we have to sit in the equivalent of industrial-farming-sized cages being forced to listen to strange corporate/robotic announcements?

Over the last few days I flew back and forth from JFK to San Francisco on American Airlines. During the descents, a voiced and on-screen announcement declared that “in an effort to provide a clean airplane” the passengers should help the flight attendants dispose of any trash lying around. In stilted and passive language, the announcement suggested that they were only asking you to take action for your own sake, as if you’d be much happier and more comfortable in the last 20 minutes of the flight after you participated in the important work of tidying up.

There’s nothing wrong with asking for help — Jet Blue’s comparable announcement makes it clear that the flight crew is responsible for getting the plane turned around, and that they’d appreciate the help getting ready for the next set of customers; it’s candid, it’s realistic, and it takes a kind of pay-it-forward approach that doesn’t get under your skin.

Corporate Double Talk Prompts Employee and Customer Dissatisfaction

Back to the AA flight. The strained language-that-didn’t-say-what-it-meant was the perfect backdrop to a tiff between a mild-looking flight attendant and a somewhat red-faced passenger whose reading light didn’t work. The guy was definitely hyper-reactive — at one point he demanded that a pilot come and fix the light as if the true problem was that a flight attendant couldn’t handle equipment and a fellow from the cockpit could.

But the flight attendant’s response was remarkably off-key. She seemed like a nice person, but she never said she was sorry. Instead, she said, “I can’t do anything about it,” and later, “That’s all I’m going to do.” She made it quite clear that she didn’t care; she wasn’t interested in making the situation better so much as getting away from it. Even when she used more servicey language, her emotional tone was consistently flat and distancing.

Worse, when the red-faced gentleman went into greater detail about his history of dissatisfaction, she committed a cardinal sin of service by making the company their mutual antagonist: “I do understand, believe me. We’re in the same position.”

Resignation Leads to Apathy

They both calmed down eventually. The flight attendant “shared” that she couldn’t take it any more and she was quitting; this was her last month and she had only three more flights to go. It was as if the very fact of her leaving gave her a pass — she felt no need to pretend to be or feel kind, helpful, or nice — not any more. She didn’t escape down the emergency slide like Steven Slater, the Jet Blue flight attendant, but she certainly showed her frustration and her disdain for the job.

I wonder how long she has been behaving like this, and whether it started before or after she delivered her resignation. Makes you think about the connection between resignation (“I’m outta here”) and resignation (“I keep my head down and try not to notice too much so I can live with it”).

Is it possible that the scripted, corporate language, so stilted and distancing, actually validates the staff for being somewhat cold and mechanical? In the same way that repeated advertising exposure eventually has some impact on consumers, is it possible that indifferent service messaging eventually has some impact on employees?

Onward and upward,


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