Quality of provided meals notwithstanding, there's a world of difference between flight attendants and the fast food workforce, but they do share one common bond in that neither of them accepts tips. But now in the day of creeping costs in the airline industry from creeping baggage charges to seat selection fees, one carrier may provide another reason to part with what's left in your wallet.
U.S.-based Frontier Airlines announced that as of 2019, flight attendants will be accepting individual tips in exchange for the food and beverage services they provide. The announcement is actually an extension of a tipping system introduced three years earlier by Frontier, encouraging customers to add a gratuity of up to 20 percent. But those tips were split between attendant personnel at the end of the flight.
Now, the roughly 2,200 attendants who work for Frontier will be allowed to pocket their gratuities without the need to share those additional earning with their colleagues. It's an option that major airlines frown on. United Airlines has a code of conduct that forbids such practice, and while Delta and Southwest discourage tipping, they generally leave it up to the discretion of the attendant, especially if a passenger is insistent on rewarding an in-flight worker.
Many veteran flight attendants who refuse tips see the option as insulting to their profession and undermines their role as practitioners of in-flight safety, a function that's been vital in plane hijackings, especially since 9/11. But the Association of Flight Attendants, which has opposed tipping since 2016, see the Frontier policy shift as symptomatic of something else.
"Management moved forward with a tipping option for passengers in hopes it would dissuade flight attendants from standing together for a fair contract," said Sara Nelson, the union's president, "and in an attempt to shift additional costs to passengers."
Since 2017, the AFA, which represents Frontier and 19 other airlines comprising a total of some 50,000 employees, has been trying to negotiate a new wage contract with Frontier. The union sees the new tipping option as a way to split the workforce if talks percolate towards employees opt to go on strike. That's exactly what happened in November, although the U.S. National Mediation Board hasn't decided if the dispute warrants Frontier flight attendants taking to the picket lines.
Then there's the perception from the consumer point of view. The optics of a passenger declining to tip don't throw a favorable light on that traveler among the rest of the steerage.
It's a situation that etiquette expert and former flight attendant Christopher Elliott has frequently mulled over. "Of course, tipping is optional, but now if you don’t tip you will be considered a cheapskate,” he said.