Damned MBAs


I have just finished a series of domestic and international flights where I had opportunities to informally speak with pilots from US Airways, United, Delta, Northwest and American Airlines. I also spent plenty of time chatting with flight attendants of at least a half dozen airlines.

We spent most of our time discussing the plight of the airline industry and what they, as worker bees, expect to see happen as the airlines maneuver for federal loan guarantees.

Both pilots and flight attendants have been asked to bear a significant part of the pain of change that managers have told them the airlines will have to endure. However, almost to a person, the workers have minimal confidence in their leaders to bring the industry into profit mode.

I was surprised at the lack of faith demonstrated by every level of worker in the executives who are leading America’s largest airlines. Most of the pilots and flight attendants, upon learning that I was a journalist and travel writer, wanted to know what I have heard about their bosses and whether I had confidence in their abilities to make the hard changes needed.

Everyone agreed that changes need to be made, but I found little consistency in what changes should be attempted. The only common theme was the distrust of management. Pilots, with whom I spoke, almost to a person, blame management for the woes of the industry.

Pilots justify higher salaries in part by looking at management pay raises. They see that when they sacrifice salary or scheduling, a manager or managers somewhere in the airline receive bonuses for negotiating the pilot agreement. Pilots see sacrifices made by them and their fellow workers squandered by management – many times enriching the very managers pilots deplore.

This tension between high-paid pilots and even higher-paid airline executives spills over into every negotiation. Pilots hear the management whine, but never seem to see CEOs and COOs taking a hit in their million-dollar contracts or their bonuses. To a pilot, they would like to see some give back from managers to the company. They have not seen it to any significant degree, thus pilot demands steadily increase along with executive pay.

In unguarded observations, they even marvel at the amounts of money that they are being paid to do something they love, or at least used to love. That is, fly. Even flight attendants who have had the weakest union representation could not believe how the airlines “rolled over” and acquiesced to their last negotiation demands. They never expected to win such pay increases and schedule changes, but they aren’t keen on giving anything back when management seems to be lining their pockets.

Pilots mutter the word MBA with disgust – Harvard MBA with even more disgust. They blame the elite business school trained executives for the demise of the industry. They blame “bean counters” for ruining the airline world. I have yet to meet a major airline pilot who speaks well of his airline management.

Yield management, pilots assert, is the creation of accountants gone amuck. The pricing structure, these pilots note, makes no sense.

Major airline pilots said that matching pricing with airlines such as Southwest and Frontier was a mistake. Since the majors offer far more service such as interlining of baggage and more convenient airports, pilots believe that the traveling public is willing to pay more for more service. What the pilots with whom I spoke would like to see is a fair price for good service and added consumer benefits. There is a total disconnect between the workers and managers when pricing comes into play.

This hatred and distrust of management has taken its toll. In the airline industry it is hard to have a creative and loyal relationship between the front line troops and management when those flying the planes detest and question their leaders and managers.

The first step in fixing the industry is to mend this management/worker tear in the industry fabric.

We have good examples. The most successful airline, Southwest, has continued to grow with earned trust between the worker and the managers. This airline is a perfect example of where the positive dynamic of a good workplace is worth far more than simple dollars and cents.

And Southwest managers are loyal to their workers and vice versa. When the going got tough after 9/11, Southwest did not furlough flight attendants and pilots, they committed to keeping everyone working. Through those tough days, Southwest was an airline that came together to make the hard times as positive as possible.

I have only heard, and still hear, cries of betrayal from many who were laid off and still have not been called back. It will take a lot more than government loan guarantees, union salary reductions and pricing changes to fix what is broken with the airline industry.

We all know that there are big changes coming to the airline world. The best start is a restoration of trust between airline executives and the front-line airline troops. Then they can turn their attention on restoring the trust between the airlines and the traveling public.