Recently, actor Alec Baldwin had an encounter with a US-based airlines.
I just returned from another business trip and encountered what is becoming all too common - delayed flights, inaccurate flight information screens [flight is already an hour late and screen says "on time"], rude and impatient (and overstressed) airlines personnel, and brusque and authoritarian TSA officers. I certainly don't need to tell readers who fly frequently that the friendly skies have become very unfriendly and that traveling by air is not and never will be what it used to be.
So, I started contemplating all of this from an organizational psychology perspective, and I started talking to some of the airline service personnel I encountered. Like many service-oriented organizations, from tech support call centers, to retail sales, to the DMV, employees in these organizations are victimized by a system that has increased productivity and workload, asking fewer employees to do more and more. With the recession and rising fuels costs, airlines are shaving costs and personnel (and increasing revenue through "nickel and dime" fees).
Flights are filled to capacity (and often overbooked), and that means unhappy passengers getting bumped off flights, more delays, more missed connections, lost luggage...(frequent travelers, you know the picture). From the airline employee side, this means more stress caused by increased workloads and dealing with more customer complaints, while trying to provide service "with a smile" (or at least without a growl). This well-researched psychological strain on service employees is termed "emotional labor" - it drains the employee to try to cover frustration, anger - a host of negative reactions associated with serving unhappy customers - while trying to be cordial.
With pay cuts, job insecurity, and increased workloads, airline service personnel have plenty to be unhappy about. But it seems that the organizational culture in the airlines has turned from one that was focused on good service to one that barely tolerates customers (as the announcement says, "we are here for your safety and comfort," but there is little that is comfortable about today's economy air travel). It was ironic that the in-flight episode of 30 Rock featured an airline pilot who complained about passengers, and abandons his flight to attend a wedding reception saying "Let them wait on the runway."
It seems clear that there has been a shift away from a customer-focused service culture that was a hallmark of airlines a generation ago, to the "we-can-barely-tolerate-the-workload-and-the-customers" mentality of today.
So, what are some simple things that could help provide better customer service and a better organizational culture?
First, Improved Communication All Around. Open and honest communication is the foundation for a positive organizational (and customer-oriented) culture. Management should be straight with employees, communicating honestly when there are impending layoffs, increased workload, etc.
On the customer side, keep customers informed and do it consistently and frequently. Let them know what you know. Make sure announcements are current and frequent (and a positive tone, won't hurt).
Second, airlines need to increase service orientation training for airline personnel. I am quite sure that airlines are not paying enough attention to this because I know that several hotel chains are focusing on this and you can see the difference. On one flight yesterday, I noticed the sense of sheer exhaustion on one attendant's face, so I said, "You look tired, has it been a long day?" "No, I just started, but I've got 300 people to serve!" [The flight had a full crew, and the plane's capacity was 126].
There always have been, and there always will be, difficult airline customers, and I doubt that workloads of airline service employees will decrease. These things are difficult, if not impossible, to change. However, the airlines could do a better job of creating a more positive, customer-oriented culture [another irony, the CEO of the airlines in his in-flight magazine editorial talked about how customer service was priority one!]. That will make both customers and employees a lot happier.
Boy, I sure hope they find my lost luggage!