By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 1/23/2007 1:09:50 PM ET 2007-01-23T18:09:50

How many times has this happened to you? You board your flight, settle into your pint-size seat, listen to the safety announcement — and then scarcely see the flight crew for the rest of the flight? When you ask for help, the flight attendants just hurry by, shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Sorry, we are short-staffed.”

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What kind of excuse is that? You’ve done your part: You purchased the ticket, checked in on time, greeted everyone politely, and what do you get? Miserable service. Understaffing is unacceptable, but it is a growing trend among many airlines these days as management struggles to save money at all costs. What the execs don’t seem to realize is that one of those costs will be passenger loyalty.

Optimal flight staffing depends on airplane type, passenger load and class of service. If a full 747 is supposed to have 16 flight attendants but only 13 are on board, then the flight is understaffed by three. Some airlines pay the working crew members an hourly bonus for every flight attendant slot that goes unstaffed, but if the financial pinch becomes chronic, they will take a more drastic step: decreasing the staffing guideline to meet a budget.

So now the 16-crew-member flight is reduced to 12 crew members with the same duties and service. This is not only happening on board the airplane but also at the gate, at check-in, among baggage handlers and, scarily enough, in the maintenance department. Upper management does not have a clue what the situation is on the airplanes. They think that with less staff the remaining employees will work harder and still get the job done. And they’re wrong! I work hard when there is a full staff; I don’t work harder when we are understaffed. The only difference is that I don’t blame you if you go to another airline because of the lousy service. In fact, I encourage it.

I was once in Chicago and watched as two airlines boarded two full 747 international flights side by side. Eighteen flight attendants boarded one airplane and 12 boarded the other. There were four gate agents for one flight and, remarkably, only one gate agent for the other. Right there, who do you think is going to have the better flight? And that’s not even considering the lack of maintenance and ground staff that you can’t see.

So, what can you, the passenger, do? First, complain when you do not see enough staff at check-in, at the gate or on the airplane. I’m not talking about the odd occurrence but rather a pattern of understaffing. Second, threaten your airline loyalty. If enough people do so, management will take note. If they don’t, take yourself to another airline.

When I was with Pan Am, it was not uncommon to have bare minimum staffing on board the airplane. I remember working a full 747 to Paris with only eight flight attendants. I was in economy with two other flight attendants and 347 angry passengers. I worked the galley, the drink cart and the meal cart, all at the same time. I was rushing around, sweating from every pore and so stressed out I actually started feeling chest palpitations.

The other two crew members were calm, cool and collected, but doing their best. When I asked their secret, they replied, “This is what the company is doing to save money. You are but one person, and if you kill yourself doing the work of three, they have no reason to reinstate the crew. So put on your insult-proof face, and don’t let them get to you.” OK, maybe Pan Am is a bad example, because it soon went out of business, but you get the point.

So, when you see me in the aisles smiling amongst the chaos and the inadequate service, you’ll know that I am wearing my protective mask. The whole crew is trying its best, and we know it isn’t enough. If you don’t like it, complain and threaten to change airlines. The airlines have stopped listening to their flight attendants. Now, only the passengers can make a difference.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.

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