BEHIND THE SUPPLY: SUPERVISION
The lines of company control determine who fears whom. For flight attendants, the fear hierarchy works indirectly through passengers and back again through their own immediate supervisors* As someone put it, “Whoever invented the system of passenger letter writing must be a vice-president by now.” Any letter from a passenger—whether an “onion” letter complaining about the temperature of the coffee, the size of a potato, the look of an attendant, or an “orchid” letter praising an attendant for good service — is put into the personnel files. These letters are translated by base supervisors into rewards and punishments. Delta flight attendants talked about them as much as they talked about the reports of those in the official line of authority—the senior attendant on the crew, the base supervisor, and the plainclothes company supervisors who occasionally ghost-ride a flight.
* At Delta in 1980, there were twenty-nine supervisors in charge of the 2,000 flight attendants based in Atlanta.
In addition to the informal channels by which passenger opinion passes to management and then worker, there are more formal ones; company-elicited passenger opinion polls. The passenger is asked to fill out a questionnaire, and the results of that are presented by letter to the workers. As one male flight attendant, seven years with United, describes it:
We get told how we’re doing. Twice a year we get sent passenger evaluations. They show how United, American, Continental, and TWA are competing. Oh, passengers are asked to rank flight attendants: “genuinely concerned, made me feel welcome. Spoke to me more than required. Wide awake, energetic, eager to help. Seemed sincere when talking to passengers. Helped establish a relaxed cabin atmosphere. Enjoying their jobs. Treated passengers as individuals.” We see how United is doing in the competition. We’re supposed to really get into it.
Supervision is thus more indirect than direct. It relies on the flight attendant’s sense of what passengers will communicate to management who will, in turn, communicate to workers. (For the indirect “bureaucratic” control more common to the modern workplace, see Edwards 1979, ch. 6.)
Supervisors do more than oversee workers. At this juncture in Delta’s history, the fear hierarchy bends, and supervisors must also pose as big sisters in the Delta family—bigger but not by much. These largely female, immobile, and nonunionized workers are not greatly feared by underlings, nor much envied, as the comment of one flight attendant suggests:
It’s not a job people want very much. Some girls go into it and then bounce right back on the line. The pay is an inch better and the hours are a whole lot worse. And you have to talk oatmeal. My supervisor called me into her office the other day. I’ve used seven out of my twenty-one days of available sick leave. She says, ‘I don’t want to have to tell you this. It’s what I have to tell you. You’ve used up too much of your sick leave.’ She has to take it from her boss and then take it from me —from both ends. What kind of a job is that?
Supervisors monitor the supply of emotional labor. They patch leaks and report breakdowns to the company. They must also cope with the frustrations that workers suppress while on the job. As one Delta base manager explained: “I tell my supervisors to let the girls ventilate. It’s very important that they get that out. Otherwise they’ll take it out on the passengers.” So the supervisor who grades the flight attendant on maintaining a “positive” and “professional” attitude is also exposed to its underside. For example, one flight attendant recalled coming off a long and taxing flight only to discover that her paycheck had been “mishandled.” She said she told her supervisor, “I can’t take this all day and then come back here and take it from youl You know I get paid to take it from passengers, but I don’t get paid to take it from you. I want my money. I just got my teeth cleaned three months ago. Where’s my check? You find it!” What is offstage for the flight attendant is on stage for the supervisor. Managing someone else’s formerly managed frustration and anger is itself a job that takes emotional labor.