Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Airline Business...

I just ran across this posting describing the frustration that comes with airline travel...this time with Delta. Of course, the news this week also includes this story of a woman kicked off a Southwest flight for her attire (along with the companion piece here).

So, just what is going on with the airline business?

Here is my insider's perspective.

Firstly, the two ladies. While they are attractive young women (although the blond doesn't do a thing for me), let me be clear: They are not dressed appropriately for airline travel. For a night at the clubs: Yes. For airline travel: No. The word circling around the internet on the Kyla Ebberts story (but not heard in the MSM) is that she wasn't wearing any undergarments. Regardless of that...take a closer look at her photo in the link above. Her "skirt" is maybe 6 inches top-to-bottom. The top of her skirt rests clearly right on her pubic area. From the back, this would make her butt-crack clearly evident. Her top is pulled down to make it appear to all flow together, but she is clearly not dressed conservatively. Put her seated for any length of time in an airline seat, and her dress is entirely too short for the public to be exposed to. Qassim came in with her "Me Too" story, but offers little else (except to come off as a dim bulb, if you watch her TV interview). Her dress is a bit Marilyn Monroe-esque, which doesn't make it as "bad" as Ebberts was (in my eyes), but still more of a party dress than something for public view.

I'll get back to the girls in a minute.

Collier expresses a common frustration with airline travel: Having to deal with changing policies and an uncaring employee group. I'll tie into this too a bit later.

But first a story...

At my airline, new Captains go to a two day event designed to allow them to interact with some of the decision-makers in the company. I went in 1999. One of the issues percolating back then was something called the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights [I'd like a Bill-of-Rights Bill of Rights which says there is only one Bill of Rights. It is formed from the first 10 Amendments to our Constitution. Everything else is just policy. But I digress.], which sprang up after Northwest had a gridlock event (during a storm) and was unable to get passengers off their planes. Northwest is not the only problem-child here. American did it in Austin in 2006 (again with a major storm delaying flights into DFW), and then JetBlue most recently on Valentines Day of 2007 (where, let's not forget, that airplanes and jet-tugs were literally frozen to the ground). [Source] Everybody recognizes that these are frustrating situations to find oneself in...the question is: What can be done about it.

This event I went to in '99 brings all the big-cheeses in the company to these new Captains to offer their perspective on their parts of the company, and to answer very frank questions about the direction of the company. [Another brief digression...It takes a lot to become an airline pilot, and as a result, pilots are generally driven, focused individuals. We often believe that we could be successful at anything we tried. This can lead to a bit of arrogance...and in the case of new Captain posing questions to a CEO, the questions often come with more than a bit of attitude.] A question was asked of our CEO at the time (who has since departed) who he was supporting in the 2000 Presidential race. Answer: Al Gore.

However after this, he digressed into the PBoR thingi and what he saw for the future. He said then that the industry was moving 700-800 million passengers per year, and that the forecast growth of airline travel had the industry hitting it's capacity in the next 8-10 years (essentially now). When we hit capacity, there would be all kinds of cries for the government to "do something" to correct these problems. He said that he didn't believe it would matter which party was in power at the time...the government would have to do something.

I don't care what industry you're in, you can't operate at capacity forever. General Petraeus knows that he can't keep The Surge working past next spring. General Motors knows that you can only make cars and trucks so fast for so long. If you encounter one little problem, it throws a giant monkey wrench into the operation. There is no flexibility to adapt to the inevitable problems which will crop up.

Collier, after becoming frustrated at Delta over their changing policies, says: "I'll never be back". Delta (and every other airline) can change their policies-- at will--because they know that for every passenger who says "I'll never be back", there is at least one other passenger who has said the same thing to one of Delta's competitors. Collier isn't the only blogger with problems with Delta...Glenn Reynolds has had them too. Collier and Reynolds also both touch on something else: Uncaring employees. Not to offer a defense of poor customer-service in a customer-service industry, but I will appeal for a bit of understanding. Airline employees have seen jobs lost, their wages slashed, and their retirements disappeared. Couple that with watching more-than-a-few senior executives flee with extravagant golden parachutes, and a public which often seems to want a Waldorf-Astoria experience at a Motel-6 price, and a less-than-caring airline employee might be understandable.

Southwest can remove these two young ladies dressed as trollips (Thank you, Paris Hilton), because they know that by doing so, they'll please more than a few other passengers.

I hope the reader will not infer that these problems are limited to Northwest, Delta, JetBlue or Southwest.

I submit that the airline industry is operating very near to it's capacity. What you're seeing here is evidence of a systemic problem.

The FAA has very recently said that the airlines need to reduce "over-scheduling". The airlines will respond: "If the flights are all very full (see the "11-year Summary"), then how will reducing flights make things better? We're only offering what the public wants." The analysts will offer that (scroll down to "Announcing: The Marie Antoinette Solution To Airline Delays" and read the whole thing):
"... Delays are caused by flight volumes that the FAA Administrator's ineptly-managed ATC system cannot handle. Airlines are not adding a flood of extra sections for the holidays, so the number of aircraft flying across the nation will be about the same as last week-end, and the week-end before that...." [emphasis mine]

The solution here is long and complex, and a fast-food public won't want to hear it.

If you want the air travel system you're seeking, we've got to build more runways. Lots and lots of them. This will take both time (locating sites for new airport facilities and fighting the inevitable NIMBYs) and money (tax dollars). Boyd is right: The FAA needs to update their Air Traffic Control system. This has been occurring, but at a dial-up pace in a world used to their high-speed connections (pun only somewhat intended). For those with the means, please do not fall for the folly of the Very Light Jet phenomenon. While on the surface it may appear that you'll be skipping the security lines and the wonder of your chances of making that Atlanta/Dallas/Chicago major airline connection, these VLJs will do more to clog up an already slow system than anything we've seen in decades. The airlines could do a better job of scheduling (read: build enough time into your trip to allow for the flexibility that the system doesn't have today), but this will cost the public too. An idle airplane is like an idle factory: It isn't making money. The airline industry is only now getting out of the predicament where nearly 40% of the industry was either in- or near- bankruptcy. They don't have the excess profit margins to offer this gratis to the public. You want good service? Great. How much are you willing to pay to deal with an employee who isn't surly? The good service you get at the Waldorf doesn't come just with the territory. Those employees are well paid.

I offer this all not to dispute that passengers don't have a right to be frustrated at air travel today (you do), but rather as another perspective on these frustrations and what it will take to get to the service level both passengers and this pilot would like to engage in.


Lazmorph said...

Very well put.
I applaud you.

Nozzle said...

There is an old saying in military circles that you get what you "expect" from your troops. If you expect your employees to be polite, courteous, pleasant representatives of your company then that is what you will get. On the other hand, if you and management put your energy into apologizing or rationalizing the poor performance of your employees, then...I saw this clearly as a young Marine Major assigned to Aviano AB, Italy. I got more respect and courtesy from dime-store clerks than I got from Air Force enlisted personnel. Evidently, their Commander did not expect them to adhere to the most basic standards of military customs and courtesy. Marines on the other hand expect more out of our troops. And we get it...

azlibertarian said...

...If you expect your employees to be polite, courteous, pleasant representatives of your company then that is what you will get....

There is a difference between what you can expect of service members and what you can expect of civilian employees. (And, yes. I've been both.)

I think what you're really speaking of is "respect". In a military organization "respect" is assumed. As the saying goes, Rank Has Its Privledges, one of them being that your subordinates will respect your rank if nothing else. They have to...those who disrespect their superiors will soon be facing discipline.

An employee in a civilian organization also has to respect their bosses, but should that not be possible, they can always quit. The military member has no such freedom.

Respect, however, is a two-way street. In both civilian and military organizations true respect is earned, and it is applied in both directions. A military leader will make sure his subordinates are treated well, rewarded for above-the-call service, and promoted. The subordinate will walk through fire for such a leader. A civilian leader will do much the same thing, but he does it with money and benefits. This is where civilian employee disenchantment can manifest itself in an industry where employment conditions are declining.

Thanks for the comment, though.