Airline Culture: International Flight Attendant Service Design

Keiko Yamaki

Abstract The author is Japanese. She became interested in service development for airlines while employed as a member of the cabin crew by an airline (here called H), which while based in Europe flies to Japan. Based on that experience combined with subsequent fieldwork, the research reported here explores changes in the culture of cabin service, paying particular attention to the personal agency exercised by a subset of cabin crew members who are Regional Flight Attendants responsible for providing local language and culturally sensitive service to passengers from their homelands, as they have responded to a changing airline industry environment.

Today's airlines are deeply embedded in the global circulation of people, goods, and capital. They have also been primary actors in promoting changes in their own global culture. As the process of creating a global “airline civilization” has unfolded, they have been forced repeatedly to restructure their organizations in response to changes in their business environment. These changes have strongly influenced both the nature of cabin service and the working conditions of cabin crew members. On the one hand, their jobs have become more demanding. On the other, they have, through service design, maintained a certain distance from their work and continue to enjoy the freedom it offers. They face increasingly stiff demands but remain grateful to the airline for providing the opportunities they enjoy.


The research reported here grew out of observations by the Japanese author while employed as a Regional Flight Attendant (RFA) by a non-Japanese airline that flies to Japan. Using participant observation and interviews, it seeks to clarify changes in airline culture resulting from product development efforts to enhance air travel.

The development of the modern airline industry allows people to travel long distances quickly. But the airline culture that emerged from this development reflects more than new discoveries and technological advances in aeronautics. It also involves the creation of ways to manage information flows related to the transport of people and things, changes in political and economic institutions, and altered ways of life. As airlines commercialized air travel, they created values that spread through global networks. A new aviation civilization appeared.

As airlines became part of the global circulation of people, goods, and capital, they also became agents of cultural transformation contributing to the emergence of what has been labeled global culture. As airlines restructured their organizations in response to technological and social change, the working conditions of flight attendants were seriously affected. Flight attendants were not, however, passive victims of change.

This report follows the lead of Enterprise as an Instrument of Civilization (Hioki 1994) by treating flight attendants as active agents who respond autonomously to airline norms. Using a diachronic approach, it examines changes in work and life design as changes in culture as flight attendants adapted to changes in work environment and procedures.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >