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Aviation: Gratuities for cabin service

Denver-based ultra low-cost carrier (ULCC) Frontier Airlines hit the headlines when, on January 1, it started offering passengers the opportunity to tip individual members of cabin crew (flight attendants to use the US vernacular) when paying for food and beverages brought to their seats. The firm's credit card machines display the message "Gratuities are appreciated!" and offer options to add a tip of 15%, 20% or 25% to the total - as well as the opportunity for customers to elect not to give a gratuity.

Having travelled extensively with US carriers in the past, The Aviation Oracle got to recognise some regular faces among transatlantic cabin crew. Politeness and friendly familiarity undoubtedly resulted in better service. Occasionally offering the on-board team a small box of chocolates at the start of a long-haul flight (a cultural thing among some very frequent travellers) guaranteed a generous flow of complimentary alcohol from gate-to-gate. But never did the idea of monetary tipping arise. Indeed most airlines still forbid cabin crew from taking gratuities from customers.

Frontier's marketing slogan is "Low Fares Done Right", but is tipping cabin crew 'right'? Frontier has opened Pandora's box, even though there are no signs yet that other operators will follow suit.

Could tipping for in-flight service become more commonplace? (Mattes)

Safety versus service

We are told time and time again that cabin crew are on aircraft primarily for our safety - to assist when things go wrong and potentially help save our lives. Service is a secondary objective. While tipping cabin crew will not make them inherently less able to do their vital work, it does raise the question of whether some might become more focused on earning extra money, and less vigilant to passenger welfare and security issues.

Could the prospect of earning tips incentivise cabin staff to sell alcoholic drinks to already intoxicated passengers and increase the likelihood of distruptive behaviour?

A good tip often results in better follow-up service. How would we feel if a passenger sat across the aisle got more attention on an aircraft because they tipped more generously then we did? Could we eventually almost feel obliged to tip on aircraft, as has become the practice in US bars and restaurants? And if becomes the accepted norm to tip cabin crew, where does it end? Should passengers also offer a gratuity to the pilots - with higher amounts being justified by a smooth flight and landing, or an on time arrival? OK, so most pilots are very well paid but what about baggage handlers, check-in and boarding-gate staff? Maybe we should also give something to the security screeners if the queues are short and the checkpoint experience is stress-free?

Cultural issue

Tipping is ingrained in US culture - its certainly expected, although not mandatory, in bars and restaurants. Its also commonplace to tip taxi drivers, porters, parking valets and the practice sometimes extends to hotel room maids. Are airlines next? Gratuities are often used to increase the wages of workers who are paid at - or sometimes below - the minimum wage. US cabin crew, particularly those working for ULCCs, are not especially well paid but they are generally better remunerated than staff in the hospitality trade. If tipping becomes prevalent in the airline industry, will it open the door to lowering the base wages paid to cabin crew? It is an opportunity that could be exploited by a few of the ULCCs which typically attract a constant stream job applicants who are anxious to embrace the perceived glamour of flying.

Tipping would never have been considered when food and beverages were included in airline ticket prices. But now much of the industry is unbundled and works to a la carte pricing for on board service, an opportunity has been created. The Aviation Oracle supports the idea of tipping for good service, especially in low-paid industries where staff depend on discretionary income. Even so, soliciting for gratuities on aircraft seems to be pushing the boundaries a little too far.

How would you feel if you paid for a drink on an aircraft, and there was on option to include a gratuity? Could this practice extend to other airlines? Have you got a view on tipping cabin staff? If so please get in touch using the contact / comments form to the right of this feature. We will publish the best replies.

Text © The Aviation Oracle

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