Saturday, March 22, 2008

Commercial Aviation: Who Is Flying the Plane?

Lack of Leadership is Killing Airlines

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time in a number of US airports as I traveled from coast to coast. I have traveled quite a bit on commercial airlines, but, for a variety of reasons, it had been several months since I had last been on a commercial airliner. As is normal, a separation often allows greater clarity of perception, and that was true in this case. Herewith are some observations.

First: airline travel is terrible. This is nothing new, in fact it is a ‘Blinding Flash of the Obvious,’ but it struck me once again after having ‘missed it’ for several months. Everyone is uncomfortable, very uncomfortable, all the time. You stand in line at the counter, you stand in line at the security inspection positions, the seats in the terminals are marginally comfortable at best, assuming you can find one, and it isn’t stained or ripped, and the seats on airplanes are crowded and exceedingly uncomfortable. At least they are expensive.

While you wait you can eat expensive airport terminal food, because you won’t get any on the airplane. It would be nice to say that the food is delicious, but that isn’t true; the food is, at best, average.

While the overwhelming majority of the people who work at the gates and on the aircraft are trying hard, the sense is not that they are trying to be friendly because it is their job and they are service oriented. Rather, you get the feeling that, like all the passengers on the long slow train to hell they feel our pain because it is literally their pain as well. It is true humanity and empathy shining through. The fact that even when the flight crews and ground crews try the hardest they can to make this pleasant it is still a terribly uncomfortable experience tells us that some truly systemic problems underpin the many faults with the airlines and modern air travel.

While some people complain, in various magazines and articles, that people at the ticket counters or at the security positions are surly, I have never really observed that. Rather, I have generally found good people, working hard, trying to do their best.

Two: the actual service is getting worse and worse. It is not simply ‘since 9 – 11.’ Certainly there have been additional burdens placed in the way of those trying to provide better service because we need to ensure better security. But, we have been on a downhill course in airline travel for the past four decades. It is not simply that we have gone from something rare and exciting to something to be dreaded; we have also gone from passengers as people to be coddled to passengers as things to be loaded. The fact that the airlines have been able to take something as romantic as flying and turn it into a chore (at best) is a fairly significant indicator of an ‘across the board’ problem: the entire airline industry – world wide.

People pack clothes expecting them to be lost, or try to bring more onto the aircraft with them because they are tired of waiting for luggage to show up. Anyone foolish enough to actually dress well when flying simply adds to the spectacle at TSA security check, as shoes, belts, jewelry, jackets, etc., are all pulled off.

Third: worse is promised. We have now the wonderful thought of traveling on the Airbus A-380, with perhaps 700 close strangers. Just think how long that will take to load and unload, and how long it will take to get your bags. The 380 is a beautiful piece of machinery. I have followed its development for years, just as, as a kid, I first followed the 747. And in all these years I have read magazines like Aviation Week and read the pilot reports and the engineers’ assessments. I have never read a passenger’s report, one written by someone in a middle seat on a trans Pacific flight.

The fact is that the airline industry is the worst of all worlds, a so-called service industry led by engineers and accountants. Aircraft are designed based on engineering capabilities not passenger concerns, instead of working out ways to more smoothly and quickly board and deplane aircraft, or load and unload luggage, or move passengers in and out of terminals. Airline executives will bemoan the high price of fuel, but the fact is that fuel prices fell steadily for roughly 20 straight years and airlines still went out of business. Fuel costs are rising, true. But, aircraft are easier to maintain, there are more people flying and still the airlines are going out of business. High costs are fuel are a convenient crutch, but they don't explain the problem. As I said, this is systemic.

How to Fix it

First, focus on the passengers. Passengers are not an inconvenience (they’re just treated that way). Before we build the next airplane or the next terminal, sit down with a whole bunch of passengers and see what they would do. The fact that engineers would even consider a passenger airplane that was a blended wing, with virtually no windows - which was recently discussed in a leading aviation technology magazine - to would carry 500 plus passengers is an excellent indicator of a cognitive disconnect. How about designing an aircraft for ease of boarding and deplaning? What about designing a terminal that has four (or more) ramps to load and unload passengers from an aircraft, particularly a wide-body? How about designing aircraft and systems that work together for a fast, simple loading and offloading of luggage? Is the way we currently do these things really the best we can do? These would all seem to be relatively straightforward engineering problems that could be readily solved with a little intellectual elbow grease.

Second, Work with the FAA and the ICAO. Let’s find a better way to get aircraft airborne and back on land. Is it really impossible to solve the problem of waiting on the ramp? The stories are ludicrous, except true, of people spending hours in the aircraft waiting to take-off. (I spent four hours on the ramp in October, in a small airport, waiting to take off). The least cost to the company is the fuel cost and engine cycle time, the real cost is the anger and frustration felt by the passengers, anger and frustration they will direct at the airlines every chance they get.

Third, get upper management out of their ‘mahogany prisons’* and into the terminals. A few companies have demonstrated a close connection between upper management and the passengers in the terminals – SouthWest comes to mind – but many seem to be as far removed from their customers as is possible. When was the last time the senior officers of your airline traveled coach? Make it a requirement that they fly coach, with their families, at least once a quarter, unannounced. Let them wait in the queues, wait on the tarmac, finish the crossword puzzle and have nothing left to do, say a prayer that the airplane will soon be airborne so they can use the toilet, let them wait for all the bags to come through.

There are more ideas - if any airline is having trouble thinking of them, give me a call.

The fact is that airline travel should be the easiest sales pitch on the planet: a combination of the excitement of travel with flying – perhaps the most romantic invention in man’s history. Instead, we have all come to dread it. Leadership, not management, is needed to turn it around. The technology exists. The goal exists. We all know how airline travel should work. It now requires a little leadership to bring reality closer to that goal.

* A wonderful description of the executive suite in many large corporations, a term I first heard from Robert Townsend


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