THE TRANSMUTATION THAT FAILED
When an industry speed-up drastically shortens the time available for contact between flight attendants and passengers, it can become virtually impossible to deliver emotional labor. In that event, the transmutation of emotion work, feeling rules, and social exchange will fail. Company claims about offering a smile “from the inside out” (Delta) will become untenable. The living room analogy will collapse into a flat slogan. The mosaic of “as if” techniques will fall to pieces, and deep acting will be replaced by surface displays that lack conviction.
This is approximately what has happened in the U. S. airline industry. Flight attendants who had worked during the 1960s spoke, sometimes nostalgically, sometimes bitterly, of a “before” and an “after” period. In the “before” period they were able to do what they were asked to do, what they often came to want to do. As one twenty-two-year veteran of Pan American reminisced:
On those old piston-engine Stratocruisers we had ten hours to Honolulu. We had three flight attendants for seventy-five passengers. We had a social director who introduced each of the flight attendants personally and asked the passengers to introduce themselves to each other. … We didn’t even use the PA system, and we had a vocal lifeboat demonstration. There was more of the personal touch. The plane had only one aisle, and we had berths for the passengers to sleep in. We used to tuck people into bed.
There was time to talk to passengers. Layovers between flights were longer. Flights were less crowded, the passengers more experienced and generally richer, the work more pleasant. Descriptions of flying today are much different:
Now we have these huge planes that can go forever. I mean, we have twelve-hour duty days, with 375 people to tend [on the Boeing 747]. The SP [Special Performance plane] is smaller, but it can go fifteen or sixteen hours without refueling. We used to fly with the same people, and there were fewer of us. We would just informally rotate positions. Now you come to work all set to argue for not working tourist class.
When we go down the rows, we avoid eye contact and focus on the aisle, on the plates. People usually wait for eye contact before they make a request, and if you have two and a quarter hours to do a cocktail and meal service, and it takes five minutes to answer an extra request, those requests add up and you can’t do the service in time.
The golden age ended sometime after the recession of the early 1970s when the airlines, losing passengers and profits.
began their campaigns to achieve “cost-efficient” flying.4 They began using planes that could hold more people and fly longer hours without fuel stops. This created longer workdays, and more workdays bunched together.* There was less time to adjust to time-zone changes on layovers, and less time to relax and enjoy a central advantage of the work — personal travel. Like the airplane, the flight attendant was now kept in use as long as possible. Pan American shortened its port time (the time before and after flights) from one and a half to one and a quarter hours. One American Airlines union official described the result of the speed-up:
They rush us through the emergency briefing…. They’re even briefing us on the buses getting out there. When you get on the plane, you just start counting all the food and everything and start loading passengers. They’ll shut the door and pull away and we’ll find we’re twenty meals short.
Now if we worked in an auto assembly line and the cars started to come down the line faster and faster we’d call it a speed-up. But on the airplane they give more passengers to the same crew. They ask us to do a liquor service and a dinner service in an hour, when it used to be an hour and a half. . . and we do it. Now why is it we don’t call that a speed-up?
With deregulation of the airlines, the price of tickets dropped, and the “discount people” boarded in even larger numbers. t Aboard came more mothers with small children who leave behind nests of toys, gum wrappers, and food scraps, more elderly “white-knuckle flyers,” more people who don’t know where the restrooms, the pillow, and the call button are, more people who wander around wanting to go
* Companies are trying to eliminate “soft-time trips” and increase “hard-time trips.” A hard-time trip is one on which the flight attendant puts in more than her projected daily quota of flying hours. On a soft-time trip she works below that quota. In cases where a flight attendants’ union —as at American Airlines—has won the right to per diem pay for nonflying time, the company is correspondingly eager to eliminate occasions on which the workers can use it.
t In 1979, discount fares accounted for 37 percent of Delta’s total domestic revenue from passenger service.
“downstairs.” Experienced business commuters complain to flight attendants about the reduced standard of living in the air; or worse, they complain about less-experienced “discount” passengers, who in turn appeal to the flight attendant. The cruise ship has become a Greyhound bus.
The companies could increase the number of flight attendants, as the unions have asked, to maintain the old ratio of workers to passengers. One union official for Pan American calculated that “if we had the same ratio now that we had ten years ago we would need twenty flight attendants on board, but we get by with twelve or fourteen now.” One reason the companies have not done this is that flight attendants cost more than they used to. With regulations that assured their removal at age thirty-one or at marriage, flight attendants used to be a reliable source of cheap labor. But since the unions have successfully challenged these regulations and also secured higher wages, the companies have chosen to work a smaller number of flight attendants much harder. While some flight attendants find it hard to refute the corporate logic, others continue to question why this female labor was so cheap to begin with.
In the early 1980s there has been a super speed-up. The vice-president for In-Flight Service at United Airlines explained the economic background of this: “United has to compete for the travel market with low-cost, nonunion planes, with companies with lower overhead, who only lease planes—companies like PSA, Pacific Express, Air California.” In response to this greater competition, United instituted its Friendship Express flights. After only a year and a half, such flights accounted for 23 percent of all United flights.
On Friendship Express, the fares are lower, the service is minimal, and the seating is “high density.” It is not unusual for a flight attendant to handle a thousand passengers a day. The ground time is limited to a maximum of twenty minutes. (One United flight attendant said, “We don’t send Friendship Express flights to St. Petersburg, Florida, because with the number of wheelchair passengers there, we couldn’t make our twenty minutes deboarding time.”) With such limited groundtime, four segments of travel can be squeezed into the time of three. There is no time to clean the cabin or replace supplies between trips: “If you’re ten lunches short on the Friendship Express, well you’re just out ten lunches. You have to live with the complaints.” But the old ways of handling complaints are no longer available. Faced with disappointed passengers, the flight attendant can no longer give out free decks of cards or drinks. The main compensation for mishaps must be personal service — for which there is virtually no time.
The recession has required United, like many airlines, to lay off baggage checkers, gate personnel, ticket personnel, and managers. Lines are longer. Mishaps multiply. There are more ruffled feathers to soothe, more emotion work to be done, but fewer workers to do it. The super speed-up has made it virtually impossible to deliver personal service. Even those who have long since abandoned that ideal—passengers as well as airline workers—find the system stressful.
Management, however, sees no escape from the contradictory policy of trying to meet the demand for emotional labor while promoting conditions that cut off the supply. The companies worry that competitors may produce more personal service than they do, and so they continue to press for “genuinely friendly” service. But they feel compelled to keep the conveyor belt moving ever faster. For workers, the job of “enjoying the job” becomes harder and harder. Rewards seem less intrinsic to the work, more a compensation for the arduousness of it. As one veteran of thirteen years with Pan Am put it:
The company did, after all, pay relatively good salaries and give us free or reduced rates for air travel. There was a seniority system, so the longer you flew, the better most things got—vacations and layovers got longer and more pleasant. The fact that none of us was really happy on the job didn’t matter—that wasn’t why we were flying. We were flying for money, men, adventure, travel. But the job, the work on the plane, was the most strenuous, unrewarding, alienating concentration of housework and waitress-type drudgery to be found anywhere.
Before the speed-up, most workers sustained the cheerful good will that good service requires. They did so for the most part proudly; they supported the transmutation. After the speed-up, when asked to make personal human contact at an inhuman speed, they cut back on their emotion work and grew detached.