This is a story about American Airlines flight attendants,  leadership, and how to manage a team during unprecedented times.

It's also about loyalty: how to demonstrate it to employees, in the hope that they'll be more loyal to you as well.

Personally, I can't imagine being a flight attendant. I'd be horrible at the job in the best of times--but especially, right now, no matter what airline we're talking about.

Every day there's another new story about bad passenger behavior. Even as I've drafted this article, we've had news about several new incidents:

  • An American Airlines flight bound for London had to turn around and go back to Miami because of "a disruptive customer refusing to comply with the federal mask requirement," according to the airline.
  • A United Airlines flight to Tel Aviv turned around and went back to New York after two economy class passengers allegedly " self-upgraded" (there's a euphemism for you) into business class and refused to return to their seats.
  • A Delta Air Lines passenger was arrested after allegedly being disruptive, including refusing to wear a mask despite "being asked dozens of times," and after he (again, allegedly) "pulled down his pants and underwear and exposed his buttocks" to the flight crew.

Yikes. I don't know about you, but these kinds of things don't happen at my job. At the same time, American Airlines and its competitors are trying to hire thousands more flight attendants, to support expanded schedules and post-Covid opportunities.

Against all of that, we heard this week from the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents 25,000 American Airlines flight attendants. They have a proposal--in the union's words, "a temporary reduction to onboard service levels and customer touchpoints."

Specifically, they want two small changes--things that might strike some people as rather minor and technical, but that apparently are a big enough deal that the union's national president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer all signed the message proposing them:

  • the right to "entrees with salad/soup/appetizers in premium cabins when possible," and 
  • the ability to reduce "main cabin beverage services on domestic and IPD flights." ("IPD" stands for "international premium destinations.")

I like a free beverage on an airplane when I'm flying in coach as much as the next guy, but I can't imagine too many passengers choosing another airline over American Airlines because of one fewer diet Coke, or because the soup comes with the entree.

That said, this proposal, which was covered across most of the airline industry media, is a perfect example of why I think the airlines are the single industry that people should follow no matter what business they're in.

It's like a nonstop parade of business school case studies, brought to you by publicly traded commodity companies that face the same issues as other industries, but that have to perform on stage in front of thousands of analysts, journalists, and deeply interested customers.

I write about this, with many other examples, in my free ebook, Flying Business Class. Here, I think the lesson for other business leaders is to stop and think of small, inexpensive, even revenue-neutral changes that you might be able to make that would make life just a little bit easier for your employees. 

Obviously, we start with the assumption that you're already paying fair, market rates and treating people with respect, but ideas that smart employers might employ include:

  • Giving employees an option to get paid more frequently, if they want to.
  • Offering the option of a 3 or 4-day workweek, assuming everyone can get the same amount of work done.
  • Offering additional remote work flexibility, or even just reassuring workers that if they've had that option during the pandemic, they won't have to give it up.
  • Ruthlessly going through your administrative processes, and getting rid of the ones that no longer matter.
  • If you have legacy rules like dress codes or uniforms, trying to improve them or making more flexible
  • If you have employees who work on shifts, making it easier for them to volunteer to cover for each other when needed, or otherwise making scheduling easier for employees to plan around.
  • Letting employees choose teammates for various projects if that ability doesn't already exist.

Of course, the best idea might be simply to ask your employees. Again, I'm assuming that you're paying employees fairly, to begin with and that you're looking here for whatever might be the equivalent of "serve the entree and the soup together" for your business. 

Happier employees, more loyalty, and no real cost? It sounds like a proposal that's almost too good to refuse.