OF THE BLUE
Coffee, tea or substenance
By Elliott Hester
the days when you could pull into a gas station and watch an attendant
pump your car with gas, clean your windows, check your oil and smile
as you drove away? This kind of service has all but disappeared. Blame
it on downsizing the quest for survival or a better bottom
line. But whatever the reason, gasoline "service" stations
have become an oxymoron.
The same holds true aboard airplanes.
When I was hired as a flight attendant in 1985, we served abundant
(though often tasteless) meals on all but the shortest flights. Trays
overflowed with salads and crackers and wobbling desserts. Entrees
simmered in ceramic containers. Passengers ate with stainless steel
Today's in-flight experience is quite different. Many flights have
no scheduled meal service. On some flights, hungry passengers are
required to snatch a grab-and-go bag containing bottled water, chips
and half a sandwich. It's the airline version of a self-service gasoline
On flights catered with meals, entrees are served in plastic throw-away
containers. Salads are rare. Stainless steel cutlery is a distant
memory even in first class.
Although first-class passengers are provided with meals far more often
than their coach-class brethren, they too are forced to eat with plastic
cutlery. Premium passengers can pay up to $9,000 for a round-trip
ticket from New York to Paris, yet they dine on caviar and chateaubriand
with the aid of something that resembles a childıs toy.
The absence of stainless steel cutlery has sparked a fierce debate.
Passengers want (and should be allowed to use) metal utensils. Though
many flight attendants agree, we're forced to tow the company line.
"Butter knives and forks can be used as weaponry," we say.
But just about anything can be used as a weapon. First-class galleys
are often catered with wine bottles and glass carafes. When smashed
against the edge of a galley counter, these items can become effective
weapons. Indeed, in the hands of the wrong person a fountain pen means
trouble. Are we to confiscate Bics during the boarding process? Shall
we stop pouring Pierrer Jouet?
While working the first-class cabin not long ago, I was startled by
the sound of angry voices. I poked my head into the aisle and saw
two first-class passengers (a husband and wife) wagging plastic forks
and yelling at my colleague. "I agree with you," the flight
attendant said, shrugging her shoulders. "But what can I do?"
Man and wife stared at one another incredulously. They dropped their
forks and sighed.
The airline industry was hit hard by the September terrorist attacks.
News of employee furloughs and discontinued routes sent CEOs crawling
to the government for financial help. But the situation is getting
better every week. Many furloughed employees are returning to work.
Canceled routes have been reestablished. But will in-flight meal service
ever come back? Only time will tell.
Years ago, my airline enacted a program that rewarded employees who
came up with cost-cutting ideas. It was a brilliant program. Flight
attendants thought hard and long about ways for the airline to save
money. Thousands of innovative suggestions poured in. Many were implemented.
The airline saved millions.
But now, after an unprecedented cost-cutting spree which was triggered
by the terrorists attacks, airlines are saving more than ever. Once
passengers become accustomed to the current state of service, however,
who knows what cutbacks will be next.
Aside from the fact that passengers are frustrated by long lines at
the ticket counter and even longer lines at security checkpoints,
they hop on a plane expecting service. Despite advertising campaigns
that suggest a level of service you might expect aboard the Queen
Elizabeth II, air travel, in its purest main-cabin form, is little
more than public transportation. Greyhound at 30,000 feet. Amtrak
In fact, millions of Americans ride commuter trains and buses to and
from work each day. They pay a fee, climb aboard, sit in a cramped
seat next to a stranger, and either sleep or read the paper until
arrival. If memory serves me correctly, there's no food service on
the New Jersey Path Train. Ditto for the Illinois Central and dozens
of commuter lines upon which passengers sit each morning and again
Yet the same person who endures a daily two-hour commute is incensed
that there's no food on a one-and-a-half-hour-flight from New York
to Chicago. With the possible exception of other hungry airline passengers,
only one group feels worse about the absence of in-flight meals. The
flight attendants. We feel your pain. We see it too. Day in and day
out we pass out pretzels or trail mix or a bag of almonds, and are
often greeted by the faces of disdain. (Having steeled themselves
for this reception, a few of my less reputable colleagues choose to
wear the same face.)
But one airline seems to have a handle on all this. When most were
slashing routes and furloughing employees in an attempt to stay alive,
Southwest Airlines never skipped a beat. If my memory serves me correctly,
they never furloughed a single employee. As a matter of fact, I heard
they were hiring a few months after the attacks. Why? Because they
offer basic transportation. No seat selections. No food. No first-class
thrones. No hot towels or free drinks or special considerations. It's
public transportation. Period. And most of their passengers don't
Perhaps one day we'll all feel the same.