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.

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