United Airlines officially brought back its pre-departure beverage service on Tuesday and flight attendants have responded with weary indignation at the reintroduction of the traditional onboard welcome for Business and First Class passengers.
Pre-departure beverages are one of the most looked forward aspects of air travel for some passengers, especially leisure travelers who only truly count their vacation as underway once a flight attendant has offered them a glass of (slightly warm) fizzy wine.
But while passengers might love a pre-departure beverage, for flight attendants the pre-departure beverage service is near-universally hated. And to add insult to injury, flight attendants at U.S.-based airlines are expected to do it for free.
The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) has objected to United’s move back to pre-pandemic normalcy on the grounds that the service could increase the risk of Covid infection just at the moment that case rates across the United States are starting to rise again.
Flight attendants on the frontlines agree with that argument but are just as much annoyed at the extra workload as they are concerned that the resumption of pre-departure beverage service could put them at greater risk.
To put it simply, offering pre-departure beverages is a real pain and it’s a job that even crew at international airlines who get paid to do it don’t enjoy.
The problem is that pre-departure beverages are an extra and very time-consuming job on top of a long list of other important jobs that all have to be completed within the few minutes before passengers board or during the boarding process.
Of course, all these jobs take time but a delayed departure is not an option. Once boarding is complete, the doors need to be shut as quickly as possible to achieve an on-time departure. Woe betides the flight attendant who delays departure for failing to complete their pre-departure tasks.
Before boarding gets underway, security and catering checks need to be completed, the cabin readied and the pre-departure drinks actually poured – because, naturally, none of this is done before flight attendants arrive at the aircraft. And, obviously, all of this needs to be with as few crew as possible and under stopwatch conditions.
Then comes the actual service. As the flight attendant union points out, crew are expected to weave in and out of passengers who are boarding the aircraft and traipsing through the cabin.
Getting back to the galley for refills becomes a game of ‘Ninja Warrior’ fighting against a constant tide of passengers while simultaneously trying to avoid getting sideswiped by suitcases and rucksacks.
Inevitably, at least one passenger will knock over their drink, requiring a rush for napkins and careful removal of shards of glass from the carpet. Others will be disappointed with the choice of pre-departure beverages on offer – for now, United is only offering still water and sparkling wine.
Some passengers, though, will put in special requests – something that the airline hasn’t factored in but will make the flight attendant look bad if they politely decline.
It’s not necessarily a ‘hard’ job but it’s an added stress at what is already the most stressful part of the flight for most flight attendants. And to think, flight attendants at U.S. airlines aren’t even getting paid until the last door is shut. No wonder they would prefer the pre-departure beverage service to go the same way as inflight peanuts.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.