It doesn't matter what class you're in - there's only one thing that makes a flight enjoyable or not
Rebecca Harrington/Business Insider
- People fret over what class they're in on planes, but the only thing that truly matters are the people staffing the flight.
- A bad flight crew can making flying a nightmare, while a good one can make it a dream.
- I realized this on a trip of three very different flights from Quito to NYC.
On a recent flight from Ecuador to New York, I realized that it doesn't matter what class you're in, how new the plane is, or how extensive the in-flight entertainment is.
The only thing that determines how enjoyable a flight is is the crew.
Growing up outside Minneapolis, I've flown Delta since they bought out Northwest - in the main cabin, Delta Comfort, first class, and even one unbelievably luxurious flight from London to New York in Delta One.
While the size of your seat and your food options may change from class to class, a cranky flight attendant can make or break a trip. Likewise, a fantastic flight crew can make the naturally uncomfortable act of flying a dream.
Case in point: Even though I was in Delta Comfort on all three flights I took to get back from Ecuador, I had wildly different experiences on all of them.
While I knew my Quito-to-Atlanta, Atlanta-to-Detroit, Detroit-to-Newark jaunt would be an adventure, I didn't expect each leg of the journey to be so different.
Rebecca Harrington/Business Insider
All the flights arrive in and leave from Quito around midnight, and mine was scheduled to depart at 12:30 a.m. Since it was an international flight and I was in Delta Comfort, I had two goals for the flight: Watch as many movies as possible, and take advantage of the free drinks.
When I boarded, I was feeling frazzled. I wanted a glass of white wine. But there were no flight attendants to be found.
I knew they had important duties to perform before takeoff, and I didn't want to bug them. I figured I'd wait until the captain told us we were free to move about the cabin before asking for my first drink.
Yet two hours passed without anyone checking in. I finally pushed my flight attendant call button. The man assigned to take care of first-class passengers came my way, asking what I needed.
At this point, I needed a whiskey-ginger, I told him. He acknowledged my request, and summoned "my section's" flight attendant to tell her. She finally came through with the beverage cart 15 minutes later, and gave me one tiny bottle of Jack Daniel's with my ginger ale.
There was no smile, no feeling of warmth, and she seemed particularly annoyed when I was surprised they didn't have the delicious Biscoff cookies I love so much.
Hours later, I was one movie down and had only had one drink so far. It was around 3:30 a.m., and the same flight attendant came through with what was supposed to be the breakfast service. She asked if I wanted a cheese plate or a chicken salad sandwich. What??
I chose cheese plate (I wasn't even hungry, but OK) and asked if she had anything to drink besides soda. She said yes. I asked for a Baileys on the rocks and she gave me the tiniest bottle of Irish liquor I have ever seen. I poured it onto the ice. A sad inch of booze covered the bottom of my plastic cup. So far, I was falling far short of my goals.
And that was all the service I got on my five-hour international flight. I never saw another flight attendant. At 6 a.m., I entered America in a foul mood.
The saving grace
But then, miraculously, my second flight was a dream.
I walked through the door, and jokingly apologized to the head flight attendant because he was using my seat to greet oncoming passengers. We immediately started chatting and established an amusing rapport.
All the flight attendants on the flight clearly knew each other and enjoyed working together. They joked with one another in the aisles, acted as a tight team to make sure everyone's carry-ons would fit onboard, and even looked up our arrival gate to reassure one man he would make his connection on time.
The minute we reached cruising altitude, they came through with the beverage service. When one of the flight attendants I was joking with came to take my order as I was watching my third movie of the day, I asked for a screwdriver.
"Two vodkas?" she asked. "Yes, I think that's a good idea," I replied. Goals, met.
Another member of the crew struck up a conversation with me, and I told him it was clear they were having a great time. "I love my team," he told me. "We're going to Vegas tonight!"
Long after all the cups and Biscoff wrappers were cleared and the tray tables were put away, he came back.
"Another round?" he asked.
"Why not!" I responded, and he hand-delivered another vodka-orange juice to my seat.
When we touched down in the Motor City, I was sad the flight was over.
The only thing that matters
An airline could do everything perfectly, but if the person delivering the service to you at the end of the line is having a rotten day, or doesn't like their job, or doesn't want to help, that's all you're going to remember.
The first flight crew made me feel bad for asking for a drink, when that's part of the experience that I was supposed to get. But the second crew made me feel like I was at a friend's house, putting me at ease and making me feel pampered and appreciated at the same time.
My third flight had a good crew, and I remember it as a good flight - simple as that.
Delta's CEO Ed Bastian told Business Insider's Benjamin Zhang in December 2017 that he's made taking care of employees a priority under his tenure, and that overall pay is up 80% since 2008.
"We had a number of things we had to invest in and the most important thing was our people," Bastian said.
Maybe the first flight attendant was having a bad day, but it seems that mentality hasn't trickled down to all of Delta's people yet.
Ashley Black, a Delta spokeswoman, told me the company sees focusing on people as the way they're going to take the brand to the next level. Since they're in the customer service business, she said, finding the right people to deliver tip-top hospitality starts with recruitment.
"We realize that every interaction is an opportunity and every moment matters," she said. "Our goal is to remove any distractions or barriers so that Delta people can connect with our customers and deliver a more personalized experience."
With airlines trying to squeeze every penny they can in an era of shrinking profits, they could get a lot more bang for their buck by focusing on people above all else.
Mood lighting or fancy new planes or brand new movies aren't going to make people lifelong customers.
Good feelings are how you build loyalty. And positive interactions with real people make all the difference in the world.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.