Beverage ‘service’

I was on a short flight today and didn't hear the sole flight attendant tell us that it was a 'no beverage service flight'. About 20 minutes into the trip I asked her if I could have a glass of water. Her response caused me to think a bit. Clearly I was a 'customer' and she must have had extensive training in customer service. But at odds with this training was the obvious irritation she felt that I'd dared to ask for a 'beverage' on a no beverage flight. It seemed to me that she was trying to decide whether to refuse to bring the glass of water. Maybe she thought if other passengers saw me getting a glass of water she would have to serve them with one too.

Fortunately, for me, customer service prevailed and I got a glass of water. But she did not deliver this with a warm smile or any semblance of authentic service. Instead it came with a lecturette delivered loudly enough to put off other passengers from asking for water. Something on the lines of if I'd been paying attention as the flight took off I would have heard this was a no-beverage flight, and could I please remember that none of the flights on this route offered beverages (why beverages and not drinks I wondered?) and on the next flight I took on this route I must not ask for a drink/beverage.

Shortly afterwards she reminded all passengers to take the customer feedback survey with the carrot of winning 100,000 airmiles. So when I got home I logged into the survey. The first page offers a choice of languages. The second screen is stern about eligibility to participate in the survey "Star Alliance® partner flights (e.g. Lufthansa, Air Canada, Air China, etc.) are not eligible. United flights code-shared with another carrier's flight are not eligible."

Undaunted (since I was eligible) I entered my frequent flier number. The first set of questions related to the reservation process. At this point I noticed that the survey is addressed to United's 'guests' not 'customers'. So maybe the flight attendant felt I was an unwelcome guest, or a naughty child 'guest' – I hadn't listened to what mommy was saying. Finally, I got to the question I wanted that asked me to indicate my satisfaction with "United's flight attendant service on your flight" . I had five choices from "Extremely satisfied – Dissatisfied" and then a sixth possibility "Did not experience".

Here my dissatisfaction with surveys of this nature surfaced. I was satisfied that I got the drink I asked for, but I don't think I experienced 'service' in the way I interpret it. Of course, you can't check two options for the same question, so I copped out and put 'neither satisfied nor dissatisfied' – the opposite of what I felt which was 'both satisfied and dissatisfied' but that wasn't an option.

Later in the day, as I was clearing out my emails, I came across an article I'd skimmed the previous week when it was sent to me, and saved for more concentrated reading when I had a moment. The sender was continuing a face to face discussion we'd be having on equality and he'd sent me the article making the point that "Related to these issues of equality is the issue of dignity. The challenge: to create a world where the inherent dignity of each person is respected and honored. That's what we all deserve…that is where we are equal."

The he article he attached refers to the concepts of 'rankism', explaining that "Rankism occurs when rank-holders use the power of their position to secure unwarranted advantages or benefits for themselves. It typically takes the form of self-aggrandizement and exploitation of subordinates. It is the opposite of service." So, I wondered, had the flight attendant pulled rankism on me? Yes in part. Granted, I hadn't heard her announcement, but it wouldn't have taken significant effort to bring the drink and make a kindly point that short flights don't normally offer beverages, but she was happy to provide one in this instance.

The article is interesting in its discussion of the relationship between equality, rankism, and dignity. "To achieve a just society, we have to decide what it means to be a nation of equals. Indeed, at first glance, such a goal might seem absurd. How can we be equals when we are obviously unequal in skill, talent, beauty, strength, health and wealth – in any commonly recognized trait for that matter? The answer is that
people are equal in a sense they have always considered fundamental to being human: They are equal in dignity.

The article was written by Robert W Fuller, the author of Somebodies and Nobodies: overcoming the abuse of rank, and All Rise:Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity, strategy+business magazine in an interview with Fuller comments that "These books have generated a large following, but businesspeople have responded with ambivalence; after all, in many companies, the right to abuse rank is seen as one of the perks of a successful career. Fuller argues to the contrary that rankism diminishes both the "somebodies" and the "nobodies" (as he calls people of greater and lesser status), and he proposes that if organizations eliminated their rankism, they would be not just better places to work, but more successful in the bargain."

The same person who sent the article, talking about 'fairness' and what is deemed 'fair' pointed out that 'fairness' is usually described from the 'nobodies' perspective as in 'It's not fair that I can't get a glass of water, but she can'. An alternative perspective, rarely heard is from the 'somebodies' as in 'It's not fair that I get a glass of water and that person doesn't.' Next time I'll know to bring my own water – but what will the 'guest' who inadvertently asks for one from that flight attendant feel like?

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