Why Airlines in America are Lagging

Business Traveler Magazine recently released their 2012 Best Airlines list and once again there wasn’t a single U.S carrier in the top five, minus the exception of the “Best North American Airline” category. Also missing from the top of the “best” list were American airports. So, we have to ask. What is going on in the U.S airline industry? Well for starters, I suppose we can blame the current high fuel prices and our bad economy. However, this trend seems to have started long before the U.S economy went south. We’re talking late 1970s when the government approved the deregulation of the airline industry which opened the door for more competition; mainly low cost competition. For those that remember, there was a time when air travel in the U.S was glamorous and the service was impeccable. Those days are long gone for most of the legacy airlines such as American Airlines, United and U.S Airways.


The first low cost airline was Southwest Airlines which first took flight in 1971. The airline started with only a few airplanes and has now amassed into one of America’s most popular airlines with a fleet of 572 Boeing 737s and nearly 400 more on order. The airline has also moved into many of the legacy carrier’s different hubs, such as United Airline’s Denver hub and U.S Airways’ Phoenix hub. Southwest has a successful business model by offering low cost, easy access flights to nearly everywhere the larger, major carriers go and mainly to where they don’t go. They have also succeeded by choosing one type of aircraft to fly which has a beneficial impact when it comes to maintenance cost whereas the major carriers have many different types of airplanes in their fleets. Many of them are old and require more routine maintenance and are fuel hogs.


Another reason for the decline can be related to staffing issues within each carrier. The battle between airline management and the airline’s unionized employee groups seems to be a constant struggle for many carriers. The thing with unions, although they can hugely improve the work rules for the employees is the expense and efficiency it costs the airline. On many occasions, there are times when a flight will be canceled due to a contractual obligation such as the crew reaching their maximum duty hours for the day. Those rules are in place for a reason and were hard fought battles by the employees to have them in place; however for passengers it can be confusing and greatly misunderstood which ultimately leads to customer hostility to that particular airline.


Morale within the industry is also at an all-time low. Employee pensions and staff are being cut along with changing work rules while management continues to reward their executives with hefty bonuses. This has created a lot of animosity between the people working on the front line and the folks who are constantly looking for reasons to justify that plush corner office.  All of this reflects on the airlines ability to maintain a good reputation among their overseas counterparts.


In November of 2011, American Airlines filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. Last month a federal judge ruled in favor of American’s management to toss out the pilot’s collected bargaining agreement leading to salary cuts that began this month. American has started canceling flights due to a sudden surge in pilots calling in sick and minor maintenance issues which normally would have no effect on the flight. The management at American has put the blame on the pilots stating they are purposely doing it to show their frustration with management. This is a recent example of how morale can severely affect day to day operations.


When it comes to American airports, efficiency isn’t usually part of the equation. This is summed up fairly easily. The U.S has some of the most congested airspace in the world with over 80,000 flights air born over the U.S daily and 5000 flights being handled by controllers at any given moment. Ultimately the constraints of heavy air traffic can weigh on inbound and outbound traffic causing lengthy delays, both on the ground and in the air. Now factor all of that in with weather issues over a busy airport and a messy chain reaction occurs. Unfortunately, not much can be done to prevent these issues.


So, what can be done to improve the American airline industry? The first and most important thing would be to improve on customer service. This is the most complained about issue with the consumer and by far the cheapest solution for the airlines. As consumers we feel on many occasions that the airlines don’t listen to our concerns and request. They simply do what’s more efficient for them, which is usually nothing. Why would they? They know their airline might be your only option and you will take what they give you and if not, they know someone else will. Perhaps getting the customer involved in creating better standards with respect to customer service might be a good step. Only the customer knows what they want.


Getting management involved in customer service issues should be a standard requirement for every airline. An executive is far less valuable in the sense of knowing what is actually going on with their company. They only see the statistics and lack a real ability to resolve any customer service issues. Occasionally having management work alongside front line workers might improve employee moral as well as the opportunity for them to discover the respect they tend to ignore.


All in all the airline industry in the U.S is a messy and complicated one. The resolutions to make it better needs to start with the high levels of management.  Perhaps they don’t see an importance in ranking among the “best in the world” but they should see the urgency to create a well-rounded product that can at the very least establish customer satisfaction and a happy work force.