Flight Attendant Nap Time

by Jo Anne Nelson on October 3, 2011

I am a big fan of Virgin America. When I know that I will need to fly soon, I check their schedule and availability first.

Thankfully, I am usually able to fly with Virgin because their routes and timetables match my needs. As a result of the frequency of my flights with Virgin and so little time spent in the last few years on other airlines, I have forgotten a number of the reasons I dislike some of VA’s competitors so much.

But, I have recently had trips to markets not served by Virgin America. So, I flew two other carriers, United and US Airways.

Customer service is not high on either airline’s list of priorities. In both cases, flight attendants disappeared from coach sections for extended periods of time by closing themselves off from their customers.

In the first instance, on a United flight with my family from Paris to Washington Dulles in August, the attendants had several rows of empty seats reserved for their use. After taking off, serving lunch, and grumpily telling my husband and four-year-old daughter that they could not sit in one of their unused, but reserved, window seats to look out at the Atlantic for a few minutes, they hung curtains around the empty seats, pulled out pillows and blankets for themselves and settled in behind the makeshift privacy screen to take an extended break.

The crew referred to this time as “flight attendant rest time”. I alternately call it customer avoidance and flight attendant nap time. During “rest time”, you were out of luck if you wanted water or their help with anything.

OK. I can conceptually understand the need for a break during a seven hour flight, even though most of us work through a longer day without nap time and do much better with access to regular hydration during long flights. What I don’t understand is not having at least one flight attendant available to customers during the break period. And, don’t even get me started on my story about being held on the tarmac for five hours before departing for Paris or having to wait for over two hours for our luggage on our return to Dulles due to rain and thunder while all the other airlines in international arrivals arriving at the same time routinely unloaded and delivered bags without delay.

Last week, on a much shorter US Airways flight from Washington, DC to Phoenix, the flight attendants went to the back of the plane for an extended period of time and pulled curtains so that no one would disturb them. One again, no access to hydration or airline support in their absence.

Is there something I’m missing here? This retreat of flight attendants has never happened on any of my cross-country flights from DC to California on Virgin. In fact, there are few times in my life where I can recall paying for service in a captive environment and having no access to it like on these flights.

Do flight crews on United and US Airways work harder than those on Virgin? Are they less fit and thus saddled with lower endurance? Or, are they simply less attuned to customers and willing to sacrifice future business in order to preserve “nap time”?

There are many things that distinguish Virgin America’s customer service over the other two, but at any point on their flights, an attendant is available to meet customer needs.

I understand that there are differences between these airlines. Unions on United and US Airways probably dictate the breaks for the attendants. But, doing business like United and US Airways isn’t going to endear customers to them in today’s marketplace. Today and tomorrow, routinely transforming customers into passionate advocates is what leads to success and market leadership.

Think about it. Who would you advocate for? An airline that makes you feel like a low priority during flight and on the ground, or one that is happy to be there when you need them?

Do you have business practices that place convenience for you over customer care and service? If so, what can you do today to place customers first while still valuing your talent? Make it happen.

Jo Anne Nelson

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