American Airlines vs. the Consumer

Most of us have heard the flight announcement about powering down our electronic devices. Imagine the surprise of passengers on an American Airlines flight last week when a flight attendant asked all passengers “including the other flight attendant” to please turn off all electronic devices. If the passengers were momentarily amused, their amusement soon turned into anxiety and anger as their flight crew began to argue—their flight was delayed for four hours because the flight crew had to be replaced.

Yes, American Airlines is in turmoil. Last week American Airlines also made headlines for demanding  that a family pay a $60 fee to sit with their five-year-old daughter. American Airlines filed for bankruptcy in 2011, and recently they have been canceling hundreds of flights a day.

Is American Airlines mere victims of a bad economy? Of course, the economy isn’t helping; but by and by they are victims of themselves.

Most weeks find me flying Southwest Airlines. It has been extraordinary how ordinary the traveling routine has become. This is in part because, almost always, things have gone well. Given what I have observed, the incident on American Airlines would be almost impossible on Southwest Airlines.  Not surprisingly, Southwest Airlines has amassed a record of 39 straight years of profitability.

In spite of their no frills service, Southwest Airlines is always at, or near, the top in customer satisfaction among airline passengers. Once we understand the power of values and principles, it is easy to understand why Southwest is successful and American is not.

Southwest has few rules (principles) for their employees to follow. “Always practice the Golden Rule” is one of their core principles. A story is told of an applicant for pilot: He was rude to a Southwest gate agent and found his job interview cancelled. Southwest doesn’t believe in the ego’s philosophy of shunning responsibility by blaming others. All Southwest flight crew members, even the captain at times, pitch-in to clean the cabin and get their plane turned around quickly. As a result, Southwest Airlines has the fastest turnaround from the gate in the industry.

In other words, to work successfully at Southwest, one has to surrender an ego’s sense of self-importance. One can scarcely imagine a captain on most airlines cleaning the cabin. Doing so may actually violate rigid job classification rules of some airlines. More than that, the captain’s ego may justify his choice not to help: “It is not my fault the plane is late.” Or, “If I help out today, pretty soon they will expect me to help on all flights.” Or, “My job requires me to stay in the cockpit.”

In her instructive book, The Southwest Airlines Way, Jody Gittell explains the factors responsible for the success of Southwest Airlines. One value honored at Southwest is mutual respect among employees. The easiest way to get in trouble is to offend another employee. Gittell contrasts Southwest with American Airlines where a virtual caste system exists. Mechanics look down on gate agents. Gate and ticket agents look down on ramp employees. Ramp workers looks down on cabin cleaners. Cabin cleaners look down on building cleaners.

Gittell’s book was written in 2002. Apparently American Airlines has done nothing to improve their corporate culture. But why? What has their leadership been doing all these years?

Without mutual respect, it is hard to run an efficient and profitable airline. For example, a quick turnaround at the gate is not possible without a high degree of coordination among different groups of employees across functions (e.g. gate agents, pilots, ramp agents, and mechanics). Gittell explains, Southwest facilitates coordination across diverse functions by putting in place practices that “build relationships of shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect”:

At Southwest, managers, supervisors, and front-line employees in each functional area said that their primary goals were safety, on-time performance, and satisfying the customer. These goals seem to be shared, in the sense that employees from each functional area referred to the same goals and could explain why they were important.

Shared knowledge is evident in that Southwest employees have “clear mental models of the overall process—an understanding of the links between their own jobs and the jobs of other functions. Rather than just knowing what to do, they knew why, based on shared knowledge of how the overall process worked.” When things go wrong, problem solving is the theme of the day. “What can we learn?” is the next thing on everyone’s mind. Finger-pointing is not part of the culture of Southwest.

Speedy flight departure is an important measure of performance in the airline industry. Communication is the key ingredient in speedy flight departures. This may seem obvious, but it is not obvious to all of Southwest’s competitors. At American Airlines, Gittell found that although they preached communication, employees reported it was a “low priority in action.” American Airlines employees,

… had little awareness of the overall work process, and instead had a tendency to understand their own piece of the process to the exclusion of the rest. When asked what they were doing and why, American employees typically explain their own tasks without reference to the overall process of the flight departures.

Shared knowledge was not evident at American Airlines. One shared goal was evident: Avoid blame. “At American Airlines, employees involved in the flight departure process displayed a great deal of blaming and blame avoidance towards each other for late departures and other negative outcomes,” observed Gittell. When avoiding blame becomes a primary goal, competition between individuals and across functions leads to unhappy employees and poor customer service.

American Airlines and many other failing firms appear to have one thing in common—a culture in which many employees are unwilling or unable to serve their customers. No one has proposed a bailout of American Airlines yet, but given bailouts of the automobile and financial industries, would we be surprised if a bailout occurs in the not so distant future?  Keeping such firms afloat with subsidies and bailouts hurts the consumer and hurts the economy. It’s not compassionate or economically efficient to transfer resources from those firms who serve the consumer to those who fail to serve the consumer.

Portions of this blog post appeared in my book The Inner-Work of Leadership

2 Responses to American Airlines vs. the Consumer

  1. Here, here! I love Southwest Airlines for exactly the reasons you point to here. Just a couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to fly to a conference. I took SW while my co-workers took another airline… United, I believe. They had all sorts of problems, including having their flights changed without their knowledge until they went to check in! I kept my mouth shut because they were already frustrated enough.

    On the flight to the conference, one of the employees was riding on with us. He let the flight attendants know that he would help with trash pick-up during the flight. Southwest Airlines was actually used as an example, during the conference, of a company doing it right. Thanks for the reminder!

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