The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Recently, the
Hypothesis 1: The nature of airline travel makes customer service difficult, if not impossible.Airline travel is difficult, but good customer service is not impossible. On her first trip out of China, my 85-pound administrative assistant looked at me in terror as airline screeners told her to take off her shoes, then her jacket, then her sweater, then her belt, and then scanned her all over with a wand. Airline travel is stressful.
Hypothesis 2: Customer service is not America's strong point.Each year, Businessweek ranks the world's best companies for customer service --
Hypothesis 3: Unions have crippled the airline industry.This hypothesis has legs. Think of great organizations like Nordstrom or Disneyland. When you walk through the door, you viscerally feel a service-obsessed culture. Nearly all major U.S. carriers are unionized. Unions can survive only if there is conflict between managers and non-managers -- if the culture is toxic. Increasing toxicity is the lifeblood of unions. The Association of Flight Attendants is the world's largest flight attendant union. Its trademarked rallying cry is
How do unions impact culture?Seniority-based rewards is a core union belief. Thus, seniority, not service excellence, drives flight attendant pay, benefit and scheduling. According to Steve Turner, Chairman of WASINC, a recruiting firm for international pilots, long-haul international flights are routinely staffed by the most senior employees. Many fly only one trip per month and still collect a full-time, senior-grade paycheck. Pay too little and employees quit and leave. Pay too much and employees quit and stay -- especially when there is no performance management system to drive out low performers. Travel on a United Airlines international route and you will find that almost all flight attendants are over 50 years old. Many are in their 60s and 70s and routinely ask customers for help stowing overhead bags. With no performance management system, a flight attendant can work until he/she dies of old age without fear of termination. Many "experienced" flight attendants start each flight by letting the passengers know they are in charge. Their message is clear, "I have been around the block; don't mess with me." The reason is described in the safety demonstration at the beginning of the flight. The announcement states that the flight attendants' primary purpose is safety. The unions have pushed the safety theme to move away from a customer service focus. In truth, almost no one reading this will ever depend on a flight attendant for safety. And safety procedures take days, not years, to learn. Seniority is irrelevant to safety. Contrast the United picture with my recent flight on All Nippon Airlines (ANA). I first saw the flight attendants as they walked toward Immigration. They walked confidently as a team, smiling and proud. Disneyland calls its employees "cast members" and tells them when a guest is present, they are on stage. The ANA attendants acted as if they were on stage. The flight attendants were mostly in their 20s, a few in their thirties. They were beautifully dressed with identical dresses and hair styles. As they walked through Immigration, each flashed a big smile and bowed or curtsied to an adoring immigration officer.