There’s an interesting blog post making the rounds by a fellow named Bob Sutton, giving angry exposure to a particularly gross story about United Airlines’ recently infamous customer service. In this story, a friend of Sutton’s paid United for their Unaccompanied Minor (UM) service to get their 10-year-old daughter to camp. Needless to say, the girl was “lost” and, in short, no one at United gave a rat’s ass. (The full post and Letter to the CEO are worth reading for the full horror show.) And I am really sad to report that this story sounds…about right, down to the multiple layers of dismissal which carried through to the complaint process. Am I disgusted? Yes. But surprised? [*sigh*] No. United may or may not be having a particular devolution of customer experience, but the general malaise of extraordinary apathy by airline employees is one I know well, seen across the spectrum of large American carriers.
Let me first say that this is not because airline employees are uncaring dirtbags, in particular when it comes to UMs. In my 14-year airline career, Unaccompanied Minors have always been a Big Deal. Losing them is Huge. I have known flight attendants be stretched thin and get distracted from giving them undivided attention, but I have never seen one lost and I’ve never seen the F/As not care. So to have so many layers of shrugs come from United is disheartening. But this problem is not restricted to United. Oh no. In my experience the connection has been clear: as employees began to feel like they are seen as worthless in the eyes of their companies, like they provide no services that are worth supporting (or recognizing) on a company level…they start acting worthless and stop supporting service on an individual level.
To put it another way, you get what you put out there: as airlines treat their employees as noting more than coffee-servers, bag tossers, bus drivers and button-pushers, that’s what they become. While it is not excusable to blow off a parent with a lost child(!) I also know that any employee helping out would – I can almost guarantee it – have to do it on their own time and expense, and have trouble helping due to a lacking support system for the problem. Even if you want to help, it’s possible no one else will. And then your effort is a black hole. I have had a number of occassions on the aircraft when I’ve wanted to do something nice for a passenger that required help or agreement from my crew, to which they literally said, “[airline name] wouldn’t do it for us, so why should we do it for them?” or “They might not back you and you’ll just get in trouble.” I disagree with taking out labor problems on passengers, but they have a point (especially on the latter).
For just one example of what might happen to a Flight Attendant in Sutton’s scenario, the parent might catch a F/A heading home after a 10 hour day (plus). S/he is on reserve, exhausted and only has 10 hours to get home and sleep before possibly being called out again on reserve to fill in for a flight that is – again – going to be understaffed and oversold. (Just one scenario, of course.) Taking care of the problem of that parent is the right thing to do, but the F/A had no direct involvement. Who did? Well that might take an age to find out…no one else is going to know where she is, no one else is going got have spare time on the job to randomly help you or a passenger…blah blah blah…you’re possibly looking at a couple hours to dig up a person with the power to actually help this father out. The father is not going to thank you for that (perhaps), and he’d be justified. He has the right to expect a company representative to resolve the problem the company created. Your helping out is nothing extra on the company level to him. It’s just the expected thing to do. But on the personal level, you’re going to feel “punished”. Not only will the company sure as hell not thank you for going “above and beyond” (something it used to praise long ago), it allows no leeway for such realistic situations. It is not going to credit you 2 hours extra work – or even 15 minutes. Worse, you now have 8 hours to get home (an hour commute each way?) and to sleep before another long work day. You go to your manager and say that you’ve still been working and you know there is no pay for this work that was not prescheduled and not part of your official job description, but you’d at least like your 10 hour rest to start now (instead of 2 hours ago). And the company will shrug. And if the company calls you before it’s “legally” allowed to, but you answer in your stupor of sleep, it will say, “Oh well. You answered. Your mistake. In to work you come.” And you’ll want to say, “but I was already lacking 2 hours of sleep because I stayed after to help out a passenger.” But if you did you’d hear a *click*. To top it all off, I’d have no confidence that the company would ever do the ultimate right thing and at least pay for the extra costs incurred by this gentleman. (This example is hypothetical, but typical. For a real one, read the comments below the blog post, especially the one by “greenpolymer”, a United pilot.) The personal expense is one thing; the lack of a support system all around is the real deterrent. Talk about negative reinforcement.
I would even love it if (at the very least) there were follow-ups to certain situations we take control of individually. Even when a baby was delivered on one of our flights some years ago, the crew was never told what happened to the mother and child. It would be nice to reconnect with how taking initiative makes a difference to a passenger. But that’s dreamland. For now, anything you do just dissipates into the ether…and possibly comes back to bite you.
I might be the kind to have Helpful Hannah written on my forehead, but I am also not flying full-time right now. I’m writing and doing other stuff. I’m not packing in double hours to pay a mortgage I could afford 15 years ago. I can spare a few minutes here and there to help people out and not end up paying for it for days with employer attitude that’s going to roll its eyes at me for doing so. It seems apparent that in the world of airlines, somewhere along the way, something’s got to give. Right now that something is “giving a damn”, but it can’t be that way forever (can it?!). Until someone figures out what that means (Illegal strikes? A return to regulation? A future of VirginAmericas?) or when it’s going to happen, I don’t see it getting better any time soon.