Aviation and Communications still don’t seem to work in the same sentence

By Robert Mark on November 7th, 2006

The aviation industry has a history of some pretty repulsive communications efforts aimed at customers and employees, like charging an airline’s best clients the highest possible ticket prices when those customers needed them most … at the least minute.

For years, business travelers shook off the indignity of being not simply platinum flyers, but platinum payers as well.
Then came the tsunami of low-cost carriers that helped the legacy carriers decide they wanted to be our friends again. Perhaps friends is a bad choice of terms since no one would subject friends to airline travel today. Let’s say the legacies are trying to maintain market share.

On the labor side, the debate still focuses on whether unions exist to keep airline management at bay, or whether management reacts to labor out of pure defense.

Regardless of your perspective, the airlines have spent the past five years asking employees for givebacks (is that even a word?), with some regionals still focused on winning pay and benefit cuts. Mesaba Airlines is a prime example.

But there seems to be light at the end of tunnel now that a few carriers like American, United and US Airways made money last quarter. And what could be ugly about a profit?

Nothing really.

It’s the communications style airline management used to handle these recent successes that confirms just how badly they’ve again shot themselves in the foot.

Not surprisingly, turning a profit means everyone has their hand out looking for a share of the pie. And, not surprisingly, the airlines have rewarded executives with a few outstanding bonuses in an attempt – they say – to keep them from jumping ship to another more profitable career.

And what of the employees? They’re still working under the same giveback (maybe that is a real word) schemes. And worst of all, they didn’t even receive the courtesy of a note from management about executive bonuses before they read about it in the newspapers. Why are executive always surprised when employees react to these kinds of condescending tactics, especially from airlines that all employ internal communications people?

Here’s a thought for management.

Even though most employees will most likely not jump ship unless current working conditions or the negotiating atmosphere become extreme, appearing to focus only on what keeps senior management happy represents a strategic communications error.

The pilot, flight attendant and mechanic groups can be irritating, even arrogant at times, a perspective that has always made management cast them adrift as often as possible. Unfortunately they won’t go away. Ignoring them, or even appearing to ignore them as is the case with recent management bonuses means they’ll be nipping at your heels for months and years to come.

Unfortunately too, the stance that’s there’s no money won’t wash. Imagine though if in a gesture of good faith, simply in order to keep these people on your side of the economic table, senior management took 10 percent less in total bonuses and the airline split some of that money up for employees who have also weathered severe salary cuts?

Will this keep them happy forever? I doubt it. Good management is about more than simply making money. It’s also about not alienating one employee group from the other in the everyday course of business, at least not on purpose. Employees will work hard for people who treat them decently. But management must look like it’s making an effort.

In these days, as the leverage buyout possibility appears as a solution for airlines such as United, management would do well to realize that bad labor history at the carrier might well scare off a few buyers. If management is put in place to increase shareholder value, then it’s critical to look at all the possibilities. Carriers like Southwest, for example, have been profitable for 25 years in a row. The company’s relationship with employees is legendary.
And if you believe there’s no connection between labor harmony and profitability, there is that bridge someone is bound to try and sell you.

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