Southwest Airlines flight attendants are unionized. They offer some of the best service in the US airline industry. American Airlines has some fantastic flight attendants, but the service customers receive is like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates. American Airlines flight attendants are unionized as well, in fact flight attendants at both airlines have been represented by the Transportation Workers Union (TWU).
I’ve been struggling to understand why US airlines don’t live up to the service provided by carriers abroad, and though I do think the work rules that make it entirely up to a given flight crew member to provide superior service rather than being rewarded (or risking their job) based on their performance with customers, it’s clearly not a simple story of union versus non-union. Southwest versus American underscores that, and Delta flight attendants aren’t unionized yet I’d place the average service experience between these other two airlines.
I asked TWU Air Division Director Mike Mayes why we get such different service outcomes at the two airlines. He suggests,
Bob Crandall was a business man, and he built American Airlines to serve business people. You board with your status, and the company is completely profit-based. When he left, American’s workforce felt even less tied to the company – it really just became a job.
At Southwest, Herb Kelleher built an entirely different model – totally employee-based. Southwest’s workers, despite their issues with management, feel extremely loyal to the company. Customer service drives their entire company. And to an extent, we see that in the way the companies interact with our members, but at the end of the day, both American and Southwest’s profits are saying, and they owe that profitability in part to the work of TWU’s workforce.
I don’t agree with Mayes that an airline focused on business travelers is going to alienate employees and lead to bad service. But my takeaway from this answer is corporate culture matters. And I think Mayes is right about that.
While the union is focused on getting the best deal possible for its members, good service isn’t simply about high pay. Employees do have to feel as though they’re being paid fairly (which is very context-dependent — it’s about the amount of pay, which will require more money in the U.S. than in some parts of the world, and it’s about how pay is determined and how and why it’s changed over time). If employees don’t feel pay is fair they will grow to resent their jobs.
But pay alone isn’t going to motivate service, even where pay varies based on satisfaction scores. I recently write that motivated employees need to like and respect their colleagues, and need to feel like part of a team with a shared sense of purpose.
As Mayes suggests, that shared sense of purpose exists at Southwest. Perhaps it was easier to build there,
- Starting fresh in the early 70s
- And starting as an underdog, under siege from the major carriers who didn’t want the government to even allow them to stay in business
But it was also the result of a culture that Herb Kelleher gets a lot of credit for, perhaps even too much credit, there was a whole team that built the airline and its culture and Kelleher wasn’t even the airline’s initial President when they were truly underdogs.
Doug Parker may dress up for Halloween, but Kelleher appeared in a tongue in cheek take on Chicago’s Super Bowl Shuffle all about having fun. Southwest employees clearly are having fun on the job.
But how do you ‘make’ employees have fun? That’s never authentic. Corporate efforts at forced fun always come off as contrived and the response is eye-rolling, not culture change. Doug Parker wants to pay employees more, thinking that will make them love their jobs, provide good service, and… profit. It’s not that simple.
Parker has also talked about giving employees a product they can be proud of, but then he’s introducing the least comfortable airline seats in the history of US legacy airlines.
United’s Oscar Munoz wants “5000 Jennas” has been listening to employees, giving them raises, and yet United’s the one whose passenger was dragged down an aisle and bloodied, and after promising employees would stop calling the police in response to customer service challenges did just that.
There’s no question turning around a legacy US airline is hard, context matters and there’s a ton of it. Maybe there’s no leader today in the industry who can do it. But there’s a window of opportunity at this point for a major network competitor to offer reliability and service if only because there’s not yet one occupying the space and being the low cost provider is an increasingly crowded place for a competitor to be.