BEHIND THE DEMAND FOR ACTING
“A market for emotional labor” is not a phrase that company employees use. Upper management talks about getting the best market share of the flying public. Advertising personnel talk about reaching that market. In-flight service supervisors talk about getting “positive attitude” and “professional service” from flight attendants, who in turn talk about “handling irates.” Nevertheless, the efforts of these four groups, taken together, set up the sale of emotional labor.
The purpose of Delta Airlines is to make a profit. To make a profit, Delta has to compete for passenger markets. Throughout the postwar years, for example, Delta competed with Eastern Airlines for markets along routes they both serviced. (It now shares 80 percent of its routes with Eastern.)1 The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), established in 1938 in recognition of the national importance of air transport and the threat of monopoly, was granted authority to control market shares and prices. Until 1978 it established uniform prices for airline tickets and sharpened competition by offering parallel route awards. Companies competed by offering more frequent flights, more seats, faster flights (fewer stops), and—what is most important here—better service. After 1978 the airlines were deregulated and price wars were allowed.2 Yet a brief price war in 1981 and another shake-out of weaker companies has been followed by a general rise in prices. As it was before deregulation, service may again become a main area of competition. When competition in price is out, competition in service is in.*
The more important service becomes as an arena for competition between airlines, the more workers are asked to do public relations work to promote sales. Employees are continually told to represent Delta proudly. All Delta workers once received, along with their paychecks, a letter from the president and chairman of the board asking them to put Delta bumper stickers on their cars. The Delta Jogging Club (which included two vice-presidents) once ran a well-publicized 414-mile marathon from Dallas, Texas, to Jackson, Mississippi, to commemorate Delta’s first commercial flight. Virtually every employee is asked to be “in sales.”
But of all workers in an airline, the flight attendant has the most contact with passengers, and she sells the company the most. When passengers think of service they are unlikely to think of the baggage check-in agent, the ramp attendant, the cabin clean-up crew, the lost and found personnel, or the man down in commissary pouring gravy on a long line of chicken entrees. They think of the flight attendant. As one Delta official explained: “For each hour’s work by a flight attendant, there are 10.5 hours of support time from cabin service, the billing department, maintenance, and so on. Altogether we spend 100 hours per passenger per flight. But the passenger really has prolonged contact only with the flight attendant.”
As competition grew from the 1930s through the early 1970s, the airlines expanded that visible role. Through the 1950s and 1960s the flight attendant became a main subject
* Despite fierce competition in some arenas, airlines cooperate with each other. According to the airlines, flying is safe but, in fact, airplanes occasionally crash. When they do, the efforts of their public relations offices call for surface acting and sometimes border on illusion making. For example, the head of Delta’s public relations office received a call during my office visit. “A crash in Mexico City? Seventy – three died? It was a DC -10, too?” He turned to me after hanging up. “After that last Eastern crash, I was getting 150 calls a day. We don’t have any DC – 10’s, thank God. But I try to keep the press off of Eastern’s back. I say, ‘Don’t mention those planes.’ Eastern does the same for us when we’re in trouble.” of airline advertising, the spearhead of market expansion. The image they chose, among many possible ones, was that of a beautiful and smartly dressed Southern white woman, the supposed epitome of gracious manners and warm personal service, f
Because airline ads raise expectations, they subtly rewrite job descriptions and redefine roles. They promise on-time service, even though planes are late from 10 to 50 percent of the time, industrywide. Their pictures of half-empty planes promise space and leisurely service, which are seldom available (and certainly not desired by the company). They promise service from happy workers, even though the industry speedup has reduced job satisfaction. By creating a discrepancy between promise and fact, they force workers in all capacities to cope with the disappointed expectations of customers.
The ads promise service that is “human” and personal. The omnipresent smile suggests, first of all, that the flight attendant is friendly, helpful, and open to requests. But when words are added, the smile can be sexualized, as in “We really move our tails for you to make your every wish come true” (Continental), or “Fly me, you’ll like it” (National). Such innuendos lend strength to the conventional fantasy that in the air, anything can happen. As one flight attendant put it: “You have married men with three kids getting on the plane and suddenly they feel anything goes. It’s like they leave that reality on the ground, and you fit into their fantasy as some geisha girl. It happens over and over again.”
So the sexualized ad burdens the flight attendant with another task, beyond being unfailingly helpful and open to requests: she must respond to the sexual fantasies of passengers. She must try to feel and act as if flirting and propositioning are “a sign of my attractiveness and your sexiness,” and she must work to suppress her feelings that such behavior is intrusive or demeaning. Some have come to see this extra psychological task as a company contrivance. A flight attendant once active in Flight Attendants for Women’s Rights commented: “The company wants to sexualize the cabin atmosphere. They want men to be thinking that way because they think what men really want is to avoid fear of flying. So they figure mild sexual arousal will be helpful in getting people’s minds off of flying. It’s a question of dollars and cents…. Most of our passengers are male, and all of the big corporate contract business is male.*
The advertising promises of one airline tend to redefine work on other airlines as well. So although Delta’s advertising has assiduously avoided explicit sexualization of the role, Delta’s flight attendants must cope with the inflated image of the flight attendant put out by other companies. There may well be an economic pattern to sexual innuendo in these ads: the economically marginal companies seem to aim a sexual pitch at the richest segment of the market, male businessmen. United Airlines, which was ranked first in revenues in 1979, has not attached suggestive words to the female smile; but Continental, ranked tenth, and National, ranked eleventh, certainly have. But in any case, when what Doris Lessing has called a fantasy of “easily available and guiltless sex” is encouraged by one airline, it is finally attached to air travel in general.
As the industry speed-up and union pressure have reduced the deep acting promised and delivered in American* Many workers divided male passengers into two types: the serious businessman who wants quiet, efficient, and unobtrusive service; and the “sport” who wants a Playboy Club atmosphere.
based companies, there are signs that the same corporate logic that reached its nadir in the 1950s in the United States is now emerging abroad. Fortune, in an article about Singapore International Airlines entitled “An Airline Powered by Charm” (June 18, 1979), notes:
[SIA’s] advertising campaign glamorizes the cabin hostess as “the Singapore girl.” .. . To convey the idea of in-flight pleasure with a lyrical quality, most SIA ads are essentially large, soft-focus color photographs of various hostesses. In a broadcast commercial a crooner sings: “Singapore girl, you look so good I want to stay up here with you forever.” [The chairman of SIA has said] “We’re fortunate in having young people who get a Western education, speak English, and still take an Asian attitude toward service.”
This may be the service-sector version of a “runaway shop,” including not only runaway-shop labor (“with an Asian attitude toward service”) but “runaway” imagery to advertise it.
We might add that the first, and nonsexual, significance of the advertised smile —special friendliness and empathy — can also inflate the expectations of passengers, and therefore increase their right to feel disappointed. Ordinary niceness is no longer enough; after all, hasn’t the passenger paid for extra civility? As every flight attendant knows well, she can expect to face surprisingly deep indignation when her expressive machine is idling or, worse yet, backfiring.