When flight attendants say their priority is safety, they mean it. In rigorous training, they learn how to fight fires, evacuate airplanes and secure the cabin against threats. They serve drinks, too. But that's not their most important role.
The world’s first eight flight attendants took to the air in May 1930. They were all nurses, hired by Boeing Air Transport (forerunner to United Airlines, Inc.) to give early-era air passengers a greater sense of security onboard. As air travel became safer over the ensuing decades, nurses were no longer required in the cabin. Safety and security, though, remained the primary statutory role of the flight attendant, even as passengers and airlines increasingly expected them to perform like servers at top-end restaurants.
On Jan. 1, low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines, Inc., broke with that tradition. Henceforth, flight attendants on Frontier flights will be allowed to solicit tips directly from passengers. Frontier argues that the change in policy will reward flight attendants for offering excellent customer service. In reality, tipping on planes — like tipping in restaurants — will bear little relationship to service quality. More importantly, it’ll make passengers and flight attendants less safe.
In 2016, Frontier pioneered inflight tipping when it added a gratuity screen to the credit-card payment tablets used when customers bought food and drinks. Any tips would then be pooled and shared among the whole crew. The new system empowers flight attendants to deploy the gratuity screen at their discretion — and to pocket whatever is tipped. Passengers are under no obligation to tip. But, knowing that the person expected to keep you safe at 30,000 feet might be evaluating your generosity doesn’t make the option feel particularly voluntary.
And that’s where the problems start. First, if the goal of tipping is to ensure better service, it’s a failure from the start. Decades of academic research on tipping have consistently failed to find any meaningful relationship between tipping and good service. Instead, people tend to tip based on factors that aren’t performance-based. For example, multiple studies have found that customers tend to tip white servers better than black ones, and attractive waitresses — especially slender blondes in their 30s — receive more tips than those seen to be less attractive. Meanwhile, there’s evidence that touching a customer fleetingly — especially a customer of the opposite sex — results in bigger tips.
That’s problematic, to say the least. When compensation is tied to a sexualized notion of “good service,” workers feel pressure to sexualize their appearance and behavior (leading to a more sexualized workplace), and to tolerate inappropriate behavior because the customer is king and paymaster. Unsurprisingly, the restaurant industry is the source of more sexual harassment complaints than any other U.S. industry — and tipped workers are harassed by customers at a higher rate than untipped ones.
So far, airlines haven’t studied whether something similar happens in commercial cabins. But, that doesn’t let them off the hook. Last year, the Association of Flight Attendants, the industrywide union, reported that “more than two-thirds” of its members have experienced sexual harassment during their careers.
That’s not just a personnel issue either. Insofar as sexual harassment undercuts a flight attendant’s standing and authority in a cabin, it represents a safety and security risk. That’s one reason why the White House recently announced a task force to examine passenger sexual misconduct on commercial aircraft.
Just as bad, tipping has the potential to divert flight attendants from important safety-related tasks to concentrate on service functions that could earn them more money. In fact, a 2009 study found that flight attendants were already having problems balancing their post-9/11 safety and security duties with their inflight service role. Regular tipping could make that balancing act even tougher.
The good news is that — so far — no other airline has publicly announced plans to follow Frontier’s lead on tipping. But, that could easily change. Frontier is in the midst of a two-year contract dispute with its flight attendants and — like restaurants — the airline might view tips as a way of pushing compensation costs onto customers and off its balance sheet; other airlines may soon feel the same. Before they adopt the practice, too, the Department of Transportation ought to take a more rigorous look at how tipping impacts airline cabins. Today’s flight attendants, just like their forebears, are there to keep passengers safe — and employers ought to reward them properly for doing so.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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Photo credit: Frontier Airlines has stirred up some controversy over flight attendants receiving tips. A. Doumenjou / Airbus