I’m sure you’ve seen or heard the various media reports on the saga of American Airlines flight 1348 from San Francisco to Dallas/Fort Worth on December 29, 2006. But just in case, here’s a link to a Dallas Morning News article on the subject shortly after it happened. (Note: any references I make to AA 1348 are based upon various media accounts, and not on any first-hand knowlege I have about the specifics of this flight. And there are always two sides to every story, and more to the story than what makes the paper.)

In summary, the flight was unable to land in Dallas due to some pretty spectacular and unseasonably strong thunderstorms that essentially shut down DFW for hours. Thunderstorms typically pop up and blow through, but not this time. Dallas took an almost continual hit for hours according to reports I’ve read.

While I came across the occasional one-off weirdo who thought airplanes should land in thunderstorms during my time as a Customer Service Manager for an airline, most Customers “get” the need to divert to another airport in situations such as these, and maybe even sit for a while when you get there. The challenge in successfully getting through these events for the airline and the Customer is how the situation is dealt with once you land in the diversion city.

A brief lesson on airlines and outstations such as Austin, Texas is in order. Your average airport “outstation” for an airline is equipped with just enough employees, ground equipment and gates to acommodate the number of flights and Customers that the particular city is scheduled to handle. Translation: if you get diverted to a city other than your destination, don’t expect to be dealt with immediately. The city you land at is likely to be working flights that are supposed to be there. You might land and see an empty gate, but even if that gate belongs to your airline, that does not mean that a scheduled flight isn’t inbound and about to arrive to unload, reload and depart full of Customers who are waiting at that gate to travel.

A diversion is usually meant for one thing, to offer the diverted aircraft the opportunity to re-fuel and depart for it’s intended destination. Keep in mind, the most likely reason you are landing at another airport is because you no longer have the fuel to wait out the delay in the air. If things run like clockwork, you will land, re-fuel, and depart just as soon as your intended airport is accepting arrivals again. And therein lies the problem. No one really knows when that will be. It could be 30 minutes, or it could be 3 hours. Or in the case of flight 1348, apparently never. Fortunately, situations like 1348’s are relatively rare, but certainly not unheard of…think Northwest and the Detroit snowstorm a few years ago.

Well, hope springs eternal, and hope usually keeps flights waiting for some length of time in these kinds of delays. This situation is further complicated by the fact that you will likely lose your place in line to takeoff by going to the gate. But at some point, one has to decide just how much is enough. In theory, this is up to the Captain in conjunction with the dispatcher of the flight at the airline’s operations center. In practicality, even if the Captain decides that enough is enough, where would he or she park the airplane if the local station says there are no gates available or employees to work the flight?

As long as airlines continue to operate, there will be lengthy delays when things like weather combined with an air traffic control system that has not been expanded to meet the demand for air travel seize up. When weather impacts the normal flow of traffic, someone is going to have to wait. AA 1348 waited, and waited, and waited while the lavatories overflowed, the last bit of food and beverage was passed out, tempers flared and if the news stories I’ve read are true, passengers were allowed down the aft stairs in order to walk pets that were in the cargo hold suffering along with everyone else. Not only was Austin faced with working its regular schedule of flights, thunderstorms also passed through which closed the ramp preventing ground workers from being outside. Although I understand that the ramp was only intermittently closed in Austin, and the lavs were eventually serviced on this flight. But speaking from first-hand experience, dumping a “ripe” lav doesn’t help alleviate much of the stench when an aircraft is just sitting on the ground.

After 8 hours of this, and frequent discussions between the Captain and the ground staff at Austin, the Captain took it upon himself to taxi to an open gate without the permission of the AA people in Austin. After 15 minutes or so, someone finally came and attached the jetbridge and allowed the Customers off the flight. By this time, most of the eateries were closed, and there was only a skeleton crew of AA employees to deal with the understandably peaved Customers.

Yes, I Have an Opinion

Call me crazy, but given that AA didn’t deal with this effectively as it happened, and frankly hasn’t dealt effectively with the aftermath, I’m afraid that the attention of a well-intentioned, but usually ill-informed Congress is about to fall upon the airline industry. The airlines will have no one to blame but themselves! In the aftermath of the 1999 Northwest debacle at Detroit, airlines voluntarily implemented a Customer Commitment in an effort to avoid legislation implementing a “Bill of Rights” for air travelers. Each airline’s plan is slightly different, but the overall plan can be viewed by clicking this link to the Air Transport Association’s website. You’ll note that Commitment # 8 is entitled “Meet Customers’ essential needs during long on aircraft delays.” As part of this, airlines developed contingency plans to deal with just the sort of situation that AA 1348 found itself in.

Those plans really do exist, I read one once! Unfortunately, they aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. These plans mostly contain a bunch of pie-in-the-sky platitudes about what the airline will do for it’s Customers that are stuck on a long delay aircraft. While probably well-intentioned, the trouble with such plans is that they were politically inspired falacies designed to placate an irate Congress, and once Congress lost interest, those plans started collecting dust. I’ll offer a crisp $20 dollar bill to the first reader of this post who successfully locates a frontline employee of any airline who actually knows where their airline’s plan is the first time they are asked!

Screw the contingency plan! All that is required in situations like this is a little bit of common sense, a spirit of serving your Customer, and some initiative. And this is probably where the problem is. Your average “legacy” (I hate that word when it’s used to describe airlines, but I’ll use it here since all the papers do) airline has lost sight of the big picture. Rather than focus on Customers, and the awesome revenue generating power of Customer loyalty through consistently reliable service, airlines have become bean-counting sweat-shops where every penny expended is viewed as a sin, and every decision made outside of a tightly controlled choreography of penny-pinching, penalty collecting, nickle and diming of Customers is viewed with suspicion at best and discipline of the offending employee at worst. The average frontline employee has come to reflect this mentality. Snarly and “what’s in it for me” is the rule. Management tolerates poor service, and the employees continue to provide it. Employees, those who are left anyway, air on the side of caution, not bothering to think outside the box, because any decision not on the script might bring the hammer down on them.

WWFD, What Would Flyastrojets Do?

Well, here’s a contingency plan for you. It’s called 1-800-DOMINOS. (I really don’t have a clue if that number works, but you get the drift!) Order 20 pizzas and a case of water and soft drinks. Have them delivered to the manager on duty. The manager on duty puts them in the airline vehicle, and drives them to the airplane. Now, depending on the type of airplane, there might be a logistical issue or two with getting the food onto the airplane. Have the catering company with their elevated truck deliver the water while you, the employee walk the pizzas on. If they have the capability, have the catering company deliver food. Hell, just do something to at least feign some form of passing interest in your Customer!

Here’s a novel idea: unload the airplane! Granted, local scheduling probably will not allow for a diverted flight to immediately be handled by the diversion city. And there is the likelihood that after refueling, the diverted aircraft will be allowed to depart. But as you approach the 4 hour mark with no sign of an immediate takeoff clearance, it’s time to start thinking about cutting your losses and calling it a day.

It won’t be pretty, and it won’t be easy, but each Customer will have to be re-acommodated one by one. Most people carry cell phones nowadays. Give the Customers the 800 number to call while they are standing in line. They could be rebooked by the time they talk to an actual agent.

In a proper culture of service to the Customer, employees will want to help their Customer!

I could go on for days, but I will not. I think you get the picture. Doing nothing is not the answer.

The Problem(s) With Airline Service (In No Particular Order, and By No Means All-Inclusive)

With all of the employee cutbacks following 9/11, no airline is exactly over-staffed. There are barely enough employees to handle the load on a good day. Throw in 3 or 4 extra flights and you’ve got one big mess on your hands. An extraordinary weather event like what happened in Dallas on December 29th would throw a monkey-wrench into any operation, but especially one that is lean on staffing to begin with.

Working for an airline used to be a reasonably well-paying, respected occupation. While arguably necessary, wage cutbacks, pension terminations, and etc. have taken an unfortunate toll on airline employees.

When times were good, and airlines were little more than regulated public utilities the flew airplanes, poor work ethic and an entitlement minded attitude developed among some employees. Costs were sure to be covered as all the airlines had to do was go to the Civil Aeronautics Board and present their case that costs had risen and fares had to rise, and those requested fare increases were usually granted. Doing the best possible job in the most efficient manner was not part of the culture because it didn’t need to be. (My all time favorite example of poor work ethic: Ramp is closed due to lightening. Not safe to be on ramp. Employee A has reached the end of his shift. Employee A goes outside onto ramp that is supposedly not safe due to lightening, gets in company ground equipment that is not safe to operate with lightening within a 10 mile vicinity of the airport, and drives company ground equipment across that same “unsafe” ramp to employee parking lot to get in his car and go home. (I let that happen, and it’s bothered me ever since.))

Management has done an extremely poor job of linking employee happiness with Customer happiness.

Management has tolerated poor performance and a poor culture of Customer service because management refuses to accept the possibility that you cannot attach a number to everything and therefore, they cannot fathom that there is a link between good financial performance and good Customer service. Management has instead chosen to focus on revenue enhancement through nickle and diming their Customers.

Again, I could go on.

It would be easy to conclude that I’m some angry crudgeon who got laid off from an airline and has an ax to grind. Actually, the truth is quite the opposite. I left under my own steam for a job that frankly pays almost double my former salary with very few of the hassles of my airline days. I have the fondest memory of my time at the airline, and I don’t think I will ever form the kind of working relationships and personal bonds with any group that I formed at the airline. We all depended on each other in ways that you just don’t find in your average run of the mill office.

What the heck do the internet blog-based ramblings of someone who calls themself something goofy like Flyastrojets have to do with AA 1348 and Austin, Texas? That’s easy. AA 1348 and similar situations at every other airline have been allowed to happen because no one cares! No one is going to stick their neck out and risk losing the low-paying job they’ve got left in the name of caring for a Customer. Why don’t they care? See above.

All of that said, I’ve got high hopes for the airline business. Someone is going to figure it out. I’ve got a number of ideas that I think would make things better, and I will certainly share them in some future postings.