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Delta’s Removing Seats… What’s the Catch?

“What’s the catch?”

That’s what Bloomberg asked of this week’s biggest surprise in aviation news. That is, that Delta Air Lines will actually be removing seats from 179 planes in order to make more room — for passengers flight attendants. It’s a logical question to ask, especially from airlines who aren’t generally known for their stellar labor relations.

The backstory is that as airlines have squeezed in more and more seats, one place in particular that Delta shaved inches from is flight attendant galleys. On certain planes the galleys got smaller and smaller until they disappeared altogether. Their flight attendants have been unhappy about the worst of these shrinking spaces for years. It seems Delta has decided to listen.

The Bloomberg article opined that, “It’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that there’s a direct correlation between customer service and the amount of galley space.”

I beg to differ.

From a flight attendant’s perspective, there’s a direct link between galley space and service. This works in several ways:

  • When you reduce or remove a galley, service items have to be moved somewhere. Trust me, there is no space that was previously empty. That catering gets shoved into overheads bins, behind last rows, into closets and/or shuffled into the First Class galley (depending on the plane). It is certainly disruptive to the First Class service for us to have to run Coach service from there. It’s also disruptive to passengers if we have to pull items out from directly over their head – space that otherwise would also be available for their your bags, by the way.
  • Ever-more-cramped cabin spaces are always acknowledged as a pressure point in discussions about the rise of passenger disturbances over the last 10 years. The same principle is at work with cabin crew. We feel the pinch of having people on top of us all day long, too. It makes us stressed and cranky. Yes it’s our job to be pleasant, but we’re human. It gets to us. Trans-Atlantic flights run on 757 aircraft are a great example of a space-affected route. My work smile is quite resilient, but I cannot work more than two of those in a row. Every Coach flight attendant wants to pull his or her hair out by the end of a trip on that plane. It definitely affects customer service.
  • Not only does galley space give us proper storage for, and access to, the tools we need for our service, they are also the only inches that are “ours,” in which we can step away from the sea of faces to take a deep breath, eat a cracker, blow our nose, whathaveyou. I would argue that space is integral to our sanity.
  • I would also argue that just having your company appear to listen to you as a work group affects customer service. The feeling that my company cares (or does not care) about my quality of life at work directly impacts how easy (or not) it is for me to find a smile day after day and to care, in turn, about the experience of others at my work.

The author of the Bloomberg piece did have the insight to mention that the seat removal has a downside for commuting employees. That’s true, but the only actual grumble I’ve seen is from those saying, “Delta is just reversing what was a terrible decision, bah-humbug” (paraphrase, not an actual quote).

However, the Delta flight attendants I have directly asked about the announcement are all quite relived. Heather Simmons, an 18-year flight attendant said, “Everything is trial and error. I no longer care if it was a bad move to begin with, I’m just happy they’re fixing it now. Whatever makes it better [in the airplane], I will cheer for.”

Many gave credit to Delta’s new Senior VP of In-Flight Service, Allison Ausband. As a former flight attendant, her move into the role is the kind of fit that seems obvious to crew members, but rarely seems to occur at airlines. Ausband has overseen a number of welcome announcements already (Hello, employee airport spas!) and reportedly has more in store. I can’t remember the last time I found a management appointment exciting — I think it was never.

I’ve said it before: Happy flight attendants make happy passengers. It seems to work for Southwest, JetBlue and Alaska. Delta’s been doubling down on trying that theory in recent years, and judging by the success of their merger, it looks like it’s working. One can only hope the other guys catch on, too.

[Photo: Delta Air Lines]


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