NEW YORK — The tall, well-dressed man boarded the 747 airliner, found his seat--4F in first class--and opened his attache case. Throughout the long flight from Los Angeles to Narita, Japan, he read, ate, got some sleep, chatted with the flight attendants and made some notes on a yellow pad.
A typical traveling businessman?
Or a spy in the sky?
As it turned out, he was one of United Airlines' 18 "observation specialists"--part-time employees who travel the world incognito to make sure that service is up to par and crew members have the proper attitude and demeanor.
A few days later, one of the attendants on the flight was summoned by a supervisor who was holding a report filed by the mystery passenger.
"Your interaction with passengers was limited mainly to the meal service," the report card read. "The occasional interactions I observed in the flight were pleasant and you have a nice smile (but) more assistance would be helpful on deplaning, i.e. returning coats and garment bags. Addressing first-class passengers by name is needed, to add a personalized and professional tone."
Service Complaints Up
United is not alone in conducting such secret surveillance of its employees. In the nine years since deregulation, airlines have had to trim costs to remain competitive. Among the reductions have been some of the amenities they offer passengers; as a result, complaints about service have soared.
Recently, though, the airlines have realized that better service gives a competitive advantage. They are attempting to improve service or, at least, trying to give the impression that they are working on their deficiencies.
All of the nation's 10 major air carriers, except Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines, have some kind of surveillance program. Delta and Northwest say their top management people, who travel frequently, can keep an eye on how service is rendered.
Pilots' Speech Rated
The programs are aimed at assuring that passengers are treated properly by everyone from reservation clerks to baggage handlers. And, though the airborne investigators do not critique the way pilots fly their aircraft, they do grade them on such things as their announcements to the passengers.
The undercover fliers come from all walks of life. Some are off-duty flight crew members; others are employees borrowed from other departments; some are retired employees. A few are actively employed in non-airline jobs and take a few days off every month to ride the planes. Still others are just indefatigable fliers who like the free travel their clandestine jobs allow them.
The airlines refer to them by various names: USAir calls them ghost riders; Eastern calls them mystery shoppers. Whatever they are called, the practice angers some airline employees, especially the flight attendants, who appear to be the most affected.
"We are opposed to it. These are basically fishing expeditions," said Judy Stack, assistant to the president of the Assn. of Flight Attendants. "We don't think they serve any constructive or useful purpose. Instead, it intimidates the flight attendants. It is management by fear."
Stack said the major complaint is that many of the people who make the observations are not qualified to do so. The flight attendants have no objection other airline employees doing the job, she said, but the use of free lancers irks them.
"The observer might say in the report that the sweet rolls were not served--but what the observer doesn't know is that the sweet rolls were not delivered that day. Or they might be critical that an attendant did not call a first-class passenger by name, when that passenger was a late boarder whose name was not on the manifest."
All of the airlines also, in fact, often send supervisors, who identify themselves to crew members, to observe and critique. Nevertheless, the carriers maintain that secret observations are also necessary so that actual attitudes and service to the average passenger can be observed.
'Real World' Readings
"It is human nature that if people know they are being watched they change their behavior," said Elisha Miller, manager of in-flight performance for United. "We want to have an accurate reading of how the customer in the real world perceives our performance."
Continental Airlines uses off-duty flight crew personnel to do such observing. Kathleen V. Ward, staff vice president of Continental, said, "Workers have no way of knowing if these are just 'ghost riders' or dead-heading employees."
Eastern launched its mystery shopper program about a month ago, and plans to expand it soon throughout its entire system. Eastern's observers receive no payment, except the free travel. All of them are retired people who have flown on Eastern frequently over the years. As such, they are expected to be familiar with what businessmen and other passengers are looking for when they travel.