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The Perverse Magnetism of the Airline Business

The Perverse Magnetism of the Airline Business

As consultants, we should be observing the environment for best and worst practices, right? If you’re in this profession long enough, some ineluctable trends begin to emerge. We have to put the dead rat on the table (as my friends at Hewlett-Packard were fond of noting.)

One such trend is that the U.S. airline business draws stupid management to its ranks with the ferocity of an energized electro-magnet in a junk yard. With only two exceptions—Herb Kelleher at Southwest Air, and Gordon Bethune at Continental—the industry has created a tropism in modern times that draws benighted leaders to its ranks.

Examples abound. Some years ago, a USAir executive decided that the planes could actually be reconfigured right at the boarding gate to accommodate more or fewer class passengers. It was exactly the chaotic disaster that my German Shepherd could have predicted. The procedure was scrapped rather rapidly, but not before millions had been spent, while concurrently some flight attendants qualified for food stamps because their pay was so low.

CEO Frank Borman personally destroyed Eastern Airlines because of his obsessive hatred for unions and refusal to engage in discussions. Perhaps he had been weightless as a former astronaut for too long. TWA and Pan Am were brought to earth by rapacious, short-sighted executives who undermined tens of thousands of employees while enriching themselves. Where is Juan Trippe when you need him?

Board a USAir flight today and they’ll call first class, chairman’s whatever, dividend preferred, 1K, and all those who voted Democratic. There are only three people left in the boarding area NOT boarding. On United, the flight attendants do a bizarre hopscotch trying to ensure first choice of meals to million milers per lifetime, hundred-thousand milers per year, executive platinum sterling members, and other categories, while full-fare, first-class passengers get last choice. That’s right, the highest margin payers are trumped by people who largely accumulated miles through discount fares and upgrades.

Jet Blue managed to ruin an otherwise decent reputation through a series of passenger-unfriendly decisions, stranding thousands during a blizzard on hot, cramped airplanes with empty galleys and full lavatories. Their brain trust couldn’t devise a way to disembark these poor miserable souls, but rather treated them in a manner that would have brought the ASPCA swooping down with the cops on an animal shelter run with that much disregard for life. Of course, Jet Blue was busy with another problem, realizing they had no way to communicate with their own pilots during a crisis.

Did I mention USAir? They can’t figure out how to transfer luggage in Philadelphia. That could be a problem for a few days, but they’ve had this problem for over TWO YEARS. Maybe they need a task force of eighth-graders to work on the problem.

The airline boards of directors (of course, which comprise the people HIRING these executives) had better realize:
1. You can’t have happy customers without happy employees. That means, let me see: sufficient staffing, sufficient pay, and sufficient working conditions.
2. Line employees have the best and most innovative ideas if they are just asked and heeded. When is the last time an airline’s senior management spent a week doing the actual labor, hustling bags, changing reservations, hosting at the air clubs, boarding people on the flights?
3. If everyone is an elite, no one is an elite. It’s bad enough the air clubs are playgrounds for screaming kids and refuges for fat people in shorts with their bare feet on the furniture. Treat first class passengers the best if you have pretensions of having a first class. Insist on some decorum at the clubs.
4. Hire the best and the brightest, not people who failed elsewhere whom you think will magically become brilliant in the rarefied atmosphere of your executive offices. They won’t. They’ll simply paint the planes a different color (at a cost of millions), launch a new slogan (at a cost of millions), and continue to neglect the employees and the passengers (at a cost of tens of millions). Every time Stephen Wolf became CEO of still another airline, he painted all the planes, one time infuriating pilots with a light color they claimed couldn’t be easily seen making accidents more likely.

Only the airline industry in the United States could make our auto industry management seem decent by comparison.

© Alan Weiss 2007. All rights reserved.

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Alan Weiss is a consultant, speaker, and author of over 60 books. His consulting firm, Summit Consulting Group, Inc., has attracted clients from over 500 leading organizations around the world.

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