The Missing Link

Airline management, with its cavalier attitude toward the traveling public and airline employees, is having a dire effect on air travel.

Air Line Pilot, May 2001, p.16
By Capt. John Blonsick (Delta)

The airline industry has taken numerous hits recently in the news media, public opinion, and legislative bodies. Passengers, legislators, and airline management and employees are engaged in a highly visible flap over solving customer service problems. Finger-pointing and assigning blame have become the norm in the discussion. Widespread passenger and employee discontent with the air travel industry may point to an as-yet-undiagnosed cause—the effect management decisions have on both parties.

The passengers

The past year has seen a 73 percent increase in passenger service complaints lodged against U.S. air carriers. Despite the airline managers’ vow, now more than a year old, to bolster commitment to customer quality, the level of passenger discontent continues to rise. One of the major faults in customer service cited in a recent government study was the failure of airlines to provide travelers with timely and reliable information about delays and cancellations.

As an example, when NBC’s "Dateline" says that airline managers blame air traffic control for delays, "You’re told that but, the [managers] are not telling you the truth. They are lying," says an air traffic controller at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. He says the problem is that airlines are scheduling too many flights that they know will be delayed, and schedule them anyway. Take O’Hare, for example. Airlines have scheduled 62 flights for departure between 7:00 and 7:15 p.m. But the air traffic controller says that even in perfect conditions controllers can allow only half that many flights to take off: "No matter what air traffic controllers do, 32 flights are going to be late taking off."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wants rules to compel the airlines to provide passengers with information about chronically delayed flights, to boost the minimum compensation for travelers who are bumped from flights, and to clarify policies about how passengers will be treated when delayed overnight. His original bill was shelved after airline management lobbyists vowed to improve the quality of customer service—a pledge the government report says they failed to keep.

The Orlando Sentinel, February 13, provided the following insight into the lack of forthrightness by airline managers in dealing with paying customers’ concerns: "‘I think [Sen. McCain’s bill is] more likely to fly this time because people are fed up,’ Richard Gritta, a University of Portland professor who was an adviser on the bill said. ‘People were fed up last time, but the airlines were promising, "Look, we’ll clear it up ourselves." They haven’t.’… And he faulted airlines for giving passengers bad information about the causes of delays and cancellations. ‘They’re flat-out lying to people,’ Gritta said. ‘This I blame them for.’"

The employees

While airline managers are being chastised for less-than-forthright treatment of the paying customer, the U.S. airline industry is facing unprecedented levels of labor unrest threatening widespread disruption in the form of strikes. Inasmuch as airline managers regularly mistreat the paying customer, that airline employees fare little better in treatment is not surprising.

Airline employees are chafing under concessions granted in early 1990s. These concessions provided the fuel for corporate earnings to skyrocket while employees’ pay and benefits remain grounded. Mechanics at United and Northwest, flight attendants at American, and pilots at Comair and Delta are either on strike or entering the endgame stage of the negotiation process stipulated in the Railway Labor Act. Airline industry negotiations to return employee investments have dragged on for more than 4˝ years in one employee group’s case while that airline’s managers have reaped immediate windfalls in the form of up to 40 percent pay and bonus awards.

Management foot-dragging during contract talks and its strategies for interpreting contract disputes through the court system both work to escalate labor/management friction and intransigence. As managers employ federal solutions as a negotiation strategy, labor views such tactics as "an act that poisons collective bargaining and subverts the process," according to the Associated Press on March 10.

The Atlanta Constitution, on March 10, reported that the director of George Washington University’s Aviation Institute has stated, "Under the Railway Labor Act, the company gets its negotiating power by being able to push contracts way beyond their deadlines. Labor gets [its] negotiating power by being able to disrupt the company, meaning the traveler." Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) says that the intent is to "clearly strengthen the hand of management in labor negotiations," according to the Wall Street Journal, March 12. Sen. McCain, commenting on a proposed aviation bill during a hearing on March 13, stated, "I’m sure the airlines will complain about this bill as federal intervention or meddling in their industry. However, I note that they seem to be welcoming federal intervention on the labor front."

The managers

Widespread dissatisfaction among airline passengers and employees is symptomatic of an underlying cause. The decisions of airline managers—decisions that determine the quality of air travel for the passenger, the quality of job satisfaction for the employee—directly affect both groups.

On CNBC on March 15, airline industry analyst Julius Maldutis engaged in a televised discussion that focused on industry concerns and the role of airline managers in successful passenger service, employee satisfaction, and financial performance. Particularly telling was the following exchange on the effect airline management has on the quality of service and employee satisfaction:

Jim Cramer ( "…it seems to be one of those situations where this company [Southwest] just does better than the rest of the industry. Is it because of the CEO?"

Joe Kernen (CNBC): "One guy can do it. It’s amazing. It’s almost like it’s only the airline industry where that works. Or General Electric."

Maldutis (CBIC): "This is the interesting thing about the industry. You have to look at one man, and analyze one man."

As the above discussion relates, customer and employee satisfaction often boils down to the personality of the CEO and his (major airline CEOs to date being an exclusively male domain) personal commitment to passengers and employees. The CEO and his management team are the architects of corporate culture. While airline CEOs all "talk the talk" regarding commitment to passenger service, few actually "walk the walk" and live up to their promises. Such decisions as over-scheduling flights into limited airport facilities, overbooking available seats, and not providing accurate information regarding delays and cancellations are examples of this corporate attitude toward customers. Prolonging negotiations while lobbying for federal solutions and not adhering to established collective bargaining processes are other examples of managers’ directing this same attitude at employees.

A narrow view of airline stewardship places corporate financial interests over the well-being of those who pay for and those who provide airline services. Airline management deservedly bears the brunt of public and legislative scrutiny by creating the current widespread dissatisfaction among both passengers and employees through their corporate cultures of fiscal myopia.

Capt. John S. Blonsick III (Delta), son of a rEAL captain, has served as chairman of Delta Council 71 in Orlando, Fla.