Why Airline Service Suffers

Anyone who flies has noticed it. Jay Leno, David Letterman and just about every other comic has made fun of it.

And even I, a longtime working member of the incredibly safe airline business, have referred to it in uncomplimentary terms, writing that the phrase "airline service" is oxymoronic (def: a concept or thing composed of contradictory or incongruous elements).

Now, the latest annual survey of airline quality conducted by Wichita State University in Kansas has underscored yet again what we all know through experience: That the degree to which U.S.-based airlines and their people are dedicated to giving their customers good and attentive service is at an all-time low, and sinking fast.

Specifically, the Wichita State survey found complaints about airline performance overall increased 17 percent in 2005 over the previous year, and the rate of "mishandled" bags jumped significantly as well. But the real story is far deeper than just lost bags, delayed flights, botched connections and dropped reservations. The real story of the decline of the airlines as a service-oriented industry is a tale of deregulation, financial pressure and stupid management tricks that have destroyed the morale of perhaps the most naturally motivated work force in the nation. And the story has been in progress for at least 28 years.

Altitude Attitude

First, it's really important to understand that bad airline service is more of an overall attitude than one specific incident. Most experienced travelers can handle a delayed bag or missed flight if there's a helpful, even sympathetic, and knowledgeable professional on the other side of the counter who sincerely tries to help and seems to care.

But airline service becomes oxymoronic when airline personnel adopt the old Ma Bell attitude (as satirized long ago by Lily Tomlin): "We're the phone company. We don't have to care." Unfortunately, the we-don't-have-to-care attitude is now more the standard than the exception, although it comes from disillusionment rather than monopolistic arrogance.

Before the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 (a folly that has already cost us more than $30 billion of destroyed airline capital and countless careers), airlines were grossly overcontrolled by a benevolent government dictatorship called the Civil Aeronautics Board.

All fares were the same, all the ticket rules were the same, and no airline could begin or end a route without witheringly expensive and lengthy route "cases" before the CAB, a process that absolutely needed to end. But the architect of that change -- Cornell economics professor Alfred Kahn, who possessed no apparent understanding of how the airline business really worked -- helped sell Congress on the incredible illusion that the airline industry was not a vital public utility.

Worse, he sold both Republicans and Democrats on the concept that the United States would be better served by inducing vicious, predatory competition in the industry that helped foster a field of new airlines doing things on the cheap.

Such instant airlines such as Air Florida (of crash-into-the-14th-Street-bridge-in-D.C. infamy) and People's Express, by their very low-cost existence and sponsorship by government, were in essence a rebuke to the established legacy carriers for being stupid enough to pay for such frills and extras as established, professional maintenance bases and established, professional flight-training academies.

An efficient airline, so the Kahn-sponsored theory went, was one that kept costs low in all areas, and there was no apparent reason to own your own facilities or aircraft when they could be leased, personnel included. The fact that aviation safety was a delicately balanced equation utterly dependent on the very stability deregulation was designed to destroy never dawned on Congress, and essentially hasn't to this day.

As a result, both service and safety became cost-accountable items, and since a new breed of airline accountants could see no difference between the cost of a sandwich and the cost of safety, everything was subjected to massive and often dangerous cuts.

Cost Cutting Gone Too Far

But Congress made a second mistake that would prove to be the undoing of the industry: In a hell-for-leather rush to deregulate, it refused to establish a floor of minimum prices that would have guaranteed survival. Throughout the '80s -- while airline safety sank like a rock as a direct result of deregulation's cost-control effects and rapidly increasing competition -- a new malady crept in that Kahn had not expected: the lemminglike propensity of airline leaders to price their product below cost to maintain their share of the market, even if they went bankrupt in the process.

Suddenly even the newest of airlines with the youngest and lowest-paid workers were facing the unexpected truth that when your prices are too low and costs have to be cut, the only place to turn is to the workers themselves, the very people who are still giving reasonably good service (or were at that time).

Now, it's true that salaries had risen to substantial heights under the old CAB, and that airlines learned they could avoid strikes by caving in to their unions and then passing on the costs by asking the CAB to raise fares for everyone. After nearly 40 years of that routine, fares were far too high, salaries had risen to sometimes unsupportable levels and air travel was still largely a luxury.

But the old system had, in fact, a few hidden benefits, chief among them something at least two generations of Americans have only heard about: competition based solely on good service. In other words, if you couldn't compete with each other on price (as we currently do), then the only way to win fliers to your airplanes was with a better experience.

Cabins were well-appointed if not luxurious, meals were served on all but the shortest routes, the food was anywhere from passable to outstanding, and (most important) the better airlines knew how to give the type of attentive care only major overseas carriers such as Singapore, Thai and Cathay Pacific still provide. In short, the average attitude of the personnel could be summed up like this: I am (fill-in-the-blank) airlines, and I'm here to do everything possible to make you love us!

It would be grossly oversimplified and wrong to assume that all airline pilots, flight attendants and agents (etc.) loved their jobs and were good at giving attentive service. But high-quality, attentive service was the model if not the norm. Generally, it was fun working for an airline, and not just because of the free or reduced rate travel open to employees.

Working for an airline had panache and style, some glamour and a lot of action, and for people who loved working with and for other people, it was heaven. And today?

With overcrowded airplanes, little civility in dress or demeanor of passengers, few meals, fewer amenities, industrywide salary cuts of epic proportions, and (the worst sin of all) airlines canceling pension plans because they've robbed the fund of hundreds of millions, far too many of America's airline employees are shell shocked, depressed, disillusioned and resentful. In effect, we're now an industry full of employees going through post-traumatic stress and wondering why we ever thought it was fun.

And that, in a nutshell, equates to bad and inattentive service with a "who cares" attitude. Morale, in other words, is the key, and it's in precious short supply today.

There are major exceptions, of course.

Southwest Airlines' brilliance as a company hasn't been in its choice of airplanes or the hedging of fuel expenses, it's been in maintaining a reasonably fun place to work in a harsh environment, and you can see the positive results in the friendliness and helpfulness of Southwest employees.

There are other airlines with reasonably satisfied work forces, too, as well as pockets of top-quality people who refuse to let the deregulation blues destroy their service attitude. But across this once great industry, the problem of poor customer service is primarily the human result of trying to do things on the cheap for too long, and the ultimate result of attempting to balance the books of below-cost airlines on the backs of their employees.

Stated another way, whether it's safety or service, we get what we pay for. And a coast-to-coast flight for $250 will never pay for the service we want.