Airlines’ real problem


Why is United Airlines having such horrible customer service problems?

The incident that everyone is aware of is a man being pulled from a flight by police in Chicago as reported here in the New York Times.  Many blame United Airlines for overbooking flights and failing to understand the right way to handle overbooked flights.

But other industry writers have said this has to do with law enforcement in aviation. While this lets United off the hook for bad operations (needing to get 4 crew members somewhere quickly), it doesn’t really capture the essential problem.  It also is not limited to United Airlines but impacts all of the other US legacy carriers.

United took another black eye when it refused to allow two teenaged girls on a plane wearing leggings.  It later came out that these girls were flying “buddy passes” and the airline has a strictly enforced dress code.  So, “move on, nothing to see here.”

The root of the problem is that flight crew feel unappreciated.  It is not because they are underpaid.  A 2016 survey by, shows their median salary at $70,000.  Not bad considering the additional benefits.  It can be attributed at some level to having to deal with nasty people.  Air travel is not as enjoyable as it once was, and the airlines seem to like nickel and diming their poor passengers (e.g., paying for window seats and leg room).  The newest abomination is “basic economy fare” where you don’t even get overhead bin space. Naturally, this makes passengers cranky, but that is not the underlying problem either.

The real problem is that airline management treats flight attendants as second class citizens. These members of the family are simply “marginal costs” to be minimized and easily replaced. This makes them feel unappreciated, leading to attitude problems.

In the research I did with Guillermo Wilches, we found that employee recognition (appreciation) led to higher levels of customer service behavior.  When employees felt recognized, they were more likely to engage in citizenship behaviors, essentially those behaviors that go above and beyond the things they are required to do.  One definition I particularly like is behavior that you cannot force employees to engage in, nor can you fire them if they do not.  It is this kind of “extra-role” behavior that causes employees to provide good customer service.  This type of behavior is not given unless an employee feels supported by the organization; this is not currently the state of affairs in the US airline industry.

The next step in the attitude change has to do with acting out.  Developmental psychologists use the term “modeling” to explain how children learn behavior from their parents.  This is also true for employees and their managers.

So, what to do?  Although airlines have become profitable again, it is not easy to “throw money” at employees to make them feel appreciated.  The good news is that recognition is essentially free.  As many have said, “never underestimate the power of thank you.”  IF airline management would begin to recognize positive behaviors, there would be far fewer incidents that make it into the media.  It might also improve flying for those of us who used to like it.


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