Monday Insight – June 20, 2022

Delays & Cancellations:
Airlines Lost In Space (And O’Hare, Too)

Robot: “Warning, Will Robinson… Alien life forms are approaching…”

The stories are coming in a flood… airlines reportedly have been caught flat-footed in a huge tsunami of air traffic. Delays, cancellations, bad hair days, whatever, are sweeping airports across the nation.

The perceptions, unfortunately, are mostly reality. Stranded passengers trapped in terminals without a clue, cell phone batteries going dead as they wait on hold with the airline sometimes for hours, desperate to get some information, only to finally be answered by contract employees in a far-away country who obviously honed their English skills watching re-runs of Mr. Ed on the local TV.

Consumers Rejoice! Help Is On The Way. Or, Maybe Not. This past week, the august leader of the Department of Transportation, whose depth of experience in global transportation is essentially watching the bus system at South Bend, Indiana, has threatened to take firm action against airlines for delays and cancellations.

That oughta be great. Consumers should be thrilled – no, horrified.

It’s like expecting the cavalry to come save the day, only to find it’s an indignant Cub Scout troop on a sugar high.

If we want more chaos and costs and confusion, this guy dictating new regulations is the one that can deliver, big time. This airline situation is a perfect vehicle to show that his team is “on it,” not to mention an attempt to shift some headlines from $5 gasoline, surging inflation, and consumer confidence diving deep enough to resemble a West Virginia coal mine. Bashing airlines – especially when valid – always gets the public attention diverted.

The Ball Is In The Airlines’ Court. But if airlines don’t take action now, at warp speed, we can expect this guy to take full advantage of the opportunity. Mea Culpa advertisements and apologies aren’t going to turn the tide. The hard fact is that the airline industry has let the situation get ahead of them – out of control.

Barnum & Bailey To The Forefront, Please. If the DOT gets involved, the political circus will be even more image-damaging to the airline industry than just delays and flight cancellations.

It will start with, naturally, Kangaroo-court hearings in Congress, where carefully selected people will be flown in, to tearfully recount tragic stories of delays and service screw-ups causing enormous physical hardship and pain, with the clear implication that such takes place every day on every flight at every airport. Then chime in the Vaudeville-like soapbox photo-op responses from indignant political hacks, denouncing the nasty airlines for creating winged Gulags out of airports across the nation.

And, to top it off, they’ll drag in a few airline CEOs for camera-ready target practice.

It’ll do the trick and replace the economic-related lead-in coverage issues now on the usual suspect network outlets.

No, The Nation Is Not At Record Passenger Levels. Here’s a factoid that may rain reality on some of the breathless media coverage of the chaos at US airports… and make the airline customer service situation even less excusable: we don’t have record passenger traffic.

No question, some airports are seeing record traffic. But that’s not the story across the USA.

Current passenger traffic is not exceeding 2019 levels – as a matter of fact, nationally we are at less than 90%. Airports:USA™ forecasts predict that for the year, we’ll clock in at @87.5%.

And this assumes that growing inflation, an expected recession, spiking jet-A prices, higher airline labor costs and rising fares don’t toss a few monkey wrenches into the program. So, the 87.5% is predicated on air travel demand not doing a one-and-a-half gainer into the deep end in the fourth quarter.

Nevertheless, The Service Problems Are Real… How Come? So, if overall we have less traffic than before the arrival of the CCP-Covid pandemic, how come all the media articles portraying crowded meltdowns in air travel? Simple. The fact is that these stories generally are accurate in description, if not the reasons reported.

Airlines – No Second-Strike Service Capabilities. Service breakdowns have been part of the system ever since Orville lost Wilbur’s luggage on the first flight in 1903.

But today, what’s clear is that airlines can’t respond as quickly to service failures… can’t recover when things go down the operational ceramic fixture.

A couple of fundamental factors in today’s airline operations are at the core of this situation.

* Staffing. Today, there isn’t a lot of manpower or even technical reserve capability at airlines when a thunderstorm hits ORD and proceeds to divert inbound airliners across the Midwest. Or when a day-of-week flight departure at San Juan has a maintenance cancellation. The back-up resources apparently just are not there to always effect a fast service recovery.

It’s sort of like Ford selling new cars, but without adequate service departments. When something goes on the fritz, there’s a wait for the fix.

Then there’s ground handling. Let’s face it, these jobs are not what they were 20 years ago. A huge part of under-wing work now is with contractors, not folks working for the airline itself with a reasonable level of compensation and benefits. Even passenger-facing customer service is often with such contractors. The long-term career potential is only until the contract is re-bid.

So, if there’s a challenge in regard to attracting dedicated workers, it shows up when the system goes “flifo” (a term for those once at American.) There isn’t a lot of job “ownership” from the $18 an hour agent for which the job is just temporary. It is a service issue.

Point: selling transportation is without being able to adequately service it is bad business and is an invitation for that former mayor of SBN to get involved. Airlines have the responsibility to their shareholders and their passengers to avoid this at all costs. The DOT is clueless and political.

* Dump The Rules & Allow Discretion. Slamming airline booking, fare and other rules down passengers’ throats tends to be the norm, even when operations go south. Not only do customers often have difficulty reaching an airline-related human being on the phone, too often that creature they do connect with is company rule bound, and perhaps a contract person that has zero discretion, and even less concern about the airline itself.

Add to that, under off-sched operations, these people – whether contractors or airline employees – have been under fire for hours. Not a good combination. The customer stuck at LGA is too often told about the restrictions and sacred rules, and not about how the immediate problem can be addressed.

* Partial Solution: Let Them Get Away With A Broken Fare Or Booking Rule. Now, anybody who has worked in direct customer contact, in person or on the phone, knows that occasionally customers make unreasonable demands, can be incredibly obnoxious, and sometimes aren’t even honest. These are not the majority, but these few tend to put customer service people on the defensive. “Don’t let them get away with anything! These are our rules!”

In all cases, but especially in off-schedule operations, the objective is to get the customer out of your face – on the way to the destination. If that means waving a fare-change rule or an add-collect in the case of a service melt-down, that is the foundation of good service. The airline won’t be on the courthouse steps filing “chapter” because a carry-on charge was waived.

Airlines Are The Solution. Now, this is not to imply that airlines are sitting on their hands. A number of carriers have implanted aggressive and innovative systems to address foreseen and expected off-schedule events.

But the question remains regarding handling consumers in transit when these things take place. The control of the message today is with the gadflies and media lightweights who use “delay” and cancellation data they don’t understand to define air service. The progress airlines have made with digital customer contact simply has not shortstopped the potential for alien life forms from the DOT to arrive at the front door.

Part of the solution in the near term is adjusting flight levels – that is in progress at every major airline. The other is to assure that the people buying tickets – the great unwashed riding in economy, in addition to the exalted Plutonium-level frequent flyers – don’t get the impression that airlines are not on their side. That’s where the solution is.

Passengers should never feel they are Lost In Airline Space. Right now, that might be the case. And some may mistakenly welcome DOT intervention.

Warning! Airline Industry…