Nudging for Better Service

I'm currently reading an interesting book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. It's called Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The book is basically about the ways that we can "nudge" people to make good decisions without eliminating their freedom of choice. For example, workers in a school cafeteria can "nudge" students to make healthier choices by giving prime placement to healthy foods. Kids can still choose junk food, but the cafeteria is employing psychological tools to nudge them to make the choice that's better for them.

The book goes on to explain how this sort of "nudging" might be used to improve all sorts of things in our lives (retirement savings, health care, etc.). While all that was interesting, I was most interested in the psychological research behind the theories. Sunstein and Thaler present much of that research at the beginning of the book. For example, they site a study where people in two groups were given free buckets of extremely stale popcorn to eat at a movie theater (though they weren't explicitly told of the popcorn's staleness).

"In the experiment, half of the moviegoers received a big bucket of popcorn and half received a medium-sized bucket. On average, recipients of the big bucket ate about 53 percent more popcorn -- even though they didn't really like it."

They use a bunch more examples to illustrate that human beings have an insanely huge ability to act illogically. We rarely do the most prudent, or logical thing.

Flight attendants, it turns out, are human beings. Recently, I've been doing a casual and totally amateurish study of service on AA's LAX-JFK "flagship service." I've noticed that the flight attendants on these flights exhibit exactly this sort of illogical thinking.

I've compared a few different types of service, all of which are comparable because they are all examples of premium products I received via upgrade. Below are my observations.

Observation Number 1: Flight attendants provide better service in F on a two-class plane than in J on a three-class plane.

When I take a connection in DFW, ORD, or STL (my favorite, though it ends me up at LGA, not JFK) and fly on an MD-80 or a 757 (or, once in a while, a two-class 763), I've always received excellent service in F (first class). FAs keep my glass full. They whisk away my food service tray as soon as I finish eating. They do everything they can to make the experience feel as "first class" as possible. (This can be a tall order, seeing as the product itself -- the seats, the IFE, the meal choices -- are kind of crappy compared to transcon flights on widebodies. The FAs pull it off, though.)

When I fly direct on the "flagship" route, on a 762 in J (business class), I frequently feel like I'm getting subpar service. Sure, the 762 is a nicer plane. The seats are better (footrests!), the meal service is better, and the IFE is better. But when you're in J on a three-class, there's some sort of subconscious instinct (á la the human tendency to act illogically) that kicks in that says, "The passengers in F get our best. The passengers in J should only expect to get almost our best."

When sitting in J on LAX-JFK flights (or JFK-LAX), the FAs are less attentive to distributing drinks and hot nuts right after takeoff, filling drinks mid-flight, clearing trays after meal service, etc.

Pax in F on a three-class transcon are more likely to get the service and attention they deserve. J passengers get the short end of the high-end service stick.

Observation 2: Flight attendants stop providing quality service when the lights go out.

I start with the assumption that the quality of service in J or F should not vary based on the flight's time of day. Customers pay the same price for a ticket on a plane that takes off at 5pm or 11:30pm. So shouldn't the quality of the service provided by FAs be the same?

Of course it's not. Strange and mysterious changes take place inside the head of a FA as soon as the lights go out. They think to themselves, "The captain has turned out the lights. Therefore the passengers must be sleeping. Therefore I can ignore them, and I can spend the flight sitting in the galley reading my cheesy paperback romance novel."

But what if I'm not sleeping? Maybe the lights are out, but I have my reading light on and my laptop out. I'm awake.

Now, my seat in J is virtually always because of an upgrade, but if I were a full-fare passenger sitting in business, I would be thinking, "WTF! I paid $1200 for this seat so I can watch the FA sit in the galley and read a book?!?!" The darkness acts like those buckets of popcorn. The lights go out and the FAs natural reaction is to slack off.

You'd think this is a problem on redeyes, and it is (especially if you're the one guy in J not sleeping). But it's a lot worse on evening flights. I frequently fly the 8:45 JFK-LAX flight home from New York. It lands in LA at around midnight, and the sky outside the plane is dark the whole time (and as a result, they turn down the cabin lights). But most people on the plane don't want to sleep, since they want to stay up and go to sleep in LA when they land (to avoid the jetlag). A few weeks ago, I was on that flight, and only two or three people in J were asleep. Nonetheless, there was a stretch of over an hour when not a single FA made their way through the cabin.

Observation 3: Flight attendants provide better service when the flight includes a full dinner service.

Transcon flights (especially in the widebodies) that provide full meal service are especially nice. These are the flights that depart around breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Before takeoff (or thereabouts), FAs distribute printed menus. They serve the meals, along with appaetizers (in the case of dinner), made-to-order sundaes (lunch and dinner), and fresh-baked cookies. They keep drink glasses full. They pay attention.

This is especially true of the dinner service, which on flights between JFK and LAX features a separately served appetizer and salad, as well as the sundae.

On these flights, FAs tend to offer exemplary service during the meal service, and continue to offer that same level of service throughout the flight.

But then there are the snack flights. This is where the only food you get is a cold "snack": a cheese plate, a doughy calzone, a salad with cold fish or chicken. In those cases, the FAs do a quick meal service as soon as they can, and then they retreat to the gossip clubhouse that is the front galley.

Again, like that bucket of popcorn, meal service serves as some sort of subconcious indicator that the passengers on the flight deserve quality service. Lack of meal service allows the FAs to offer less than their best.

Observation 4: Flight attendants provide better service when there are no celebrities aboard.

I hate getting an upgrade, only to find out that a celebrity is sitting near me. Don't get me wrong... I like star-watching as much as the next guy. But so do the FAs.

When a celebrity is onboard, the FAs tend to fall over him or her. And they do so at the expense of their service rendered to other passengers.

(Big exception: When I flew BOS-LAX in F with Mel Brooks, he did not want the FAs paying any attention to him. He was a total mensch, and the FAs were great to the whole cabin.)

Observation 5: What else?

What kids of differentiations in service have you observed? Post in the comments.