We like transparency. We like business leaders who are willing to be challenged by their employees.

But what do you do after an exchange like the one we learned about this week, between an American Airlines flight attendant and the CEO of American Airlines?

Actually, calling it "an exchange" seems overly polite. By all accounts, this was a blunt statement, delivered in front of other employees, summing up exactly what the flight attendant thinks of her own airline and CEO Doug Parker's leadership.

Then, the whole thing leaked to the rest of the world.

It put Parker on the spot, for sure. So here are the flight attendant's comments, as reported by Gary Leff of View From the Wing, along with what it tells us about American Airlines, Parker, and good business leadership in general.

'Our standards suck'

The flight attendant started out by telling Parker that she hears from American's premium customers that the service offered on the airline's main competitors--that would be United Airlines and Delta Air Lines--is simply better, according to Leff's report.

She went on to say that she thinks American's newest flight attendants aren't getting the training they need to be able to serve customers well, and that "half" of American flight attendants don't follow service standards anyway.

Then the kicker: "She looked right at her CEO and said American's service standards 'suck' compared to United and Delta,'" according to this report. 

We 'match our service to our competitors'

"Suck" is an interesting word choice, isn't it? It's informal and impolite, but not quite a curse word. It suggests a bottom-of-the-barrel mentality, with little care, little effort, and poor results.

You might not be surprised to learn that I hear from airline employees quite often. American Airlines employees especially have a lot of complaints. They're the ones protesting their own airline, suing it over its uniforms, and airing their dirty laundry about scheduling and seniority.

Heck, just after this exchange, American Airlines released a survey showing that most of its employees have a really big problem with senior management. Of course, Parker knows all that too.

His response here, according to Leff, was to say that at American Airlines, "we work really hard to match our service to our competitors, and they do the same to us."

And that just creates more problems.

'You keep comparing us to Delta'

I suppose we should give credit in that, technically, Parker did give a response. Not necessarily a good response, mind you, but he didn't ignore the question and the accusation.

But the reply points to a problem that an American Airlines pilot called Parker out for seven months ago, at a similar employee forum. 

"You keep comparing us to Delta. That's a mistake. American Airlines never compared themselves to another airline. American Airlines always set the standards and the other airlines copied us," the pilot said in an April employee forum, according to Leff.

I'm not an airline CEO, and I don't have any aspiration to be one. But you don't have to lead an airline to realize that if you make it appear to customers that there's no real difference among the airlines, you ultimately turn your product into a commodity.

You might make a short-term gain, but long term there's no advantage. Nobody has loyalty to a commodity. Nobody cares whether a commodity provider survives. Nobody is willing to pay appreciably more for one commodity provider over another. 

And people aren't as willing to forgive commodity suppliers when they come up short.

Which is exactly what the flight attendant quoted here is claiming.

There are no A's for effort in airlines. Only for results. Or to put it differently and perhaps more accurately, most passengers don't really remember over the long term what beverages you provided, or whether your flight was on time, or how big your bathrooms were.

They remember how you made them feel. It's the same with almost any industry.

And if you're eager simply to match what you provide to your competitors, chances are they won't really feel anything at all.

Published on: Nov 25, 2018
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