(eTN) – And you thought the passengers were mad.
Airline employees are fed up, too — with pay cuts, increased workloads and management’s miserly ways, which leave workers to explain to often-enraged passengers why flying has become such a miserable experience.
A rich record of the employee discontent emerges from regular question-and-answer sessions held at US Airways, which is both the worst-performing big airline in the country and a company that encourages its 36,000 workers to direct tough questions at its chief executive, W. Douglas Parker.
“Doug, I watched you on CNBC today,” said one e-mail message from a worker, sent on Oct. 25. “And I hate to tell you but the interiors of our plans [sic] smell bad and they are filthy. As an employee I am embarrassed to admit working for US Airways. When are you going to quit talking and do something about it?”
The rancor is not any worse at US Airways than at most other big carriers. What is different is that Mr. Parker, 46, subscribes to the let-it-all-hang-out school of employee relations. He says management learns a lot about how the airline is actually performing through an uncensored give-and-take — and he willingly provided transcripts of the Q. and A. sessions.
The brawling dialogue does, however, suggest that airline service might get worse before it gets better. The current US Airways is a result of the most recent big airline merger, with America West Airlines in 2005. Mr. Parker tried unsuccessfully to acquire Delta Air Lines a year ago. Now, other airlines are mulling mergers as a way of cutting costs to offset high fuel expenses. Such deals could start a broader service decline.
In recent months, US Airways had the worst record for on-time flights and misplaced bags among the major airlines and it piled up the most customer complaints at the Transportation Department.
“How long do you think the airline will be around the way it’s running right now?” a US Airways worker wrote in July.
Many US Airways employee questions are more parochial — about benefits and free travel privileges. But quite a few inquiries reflect the workers’ concerns for customers.
“Who thought it would be a good idea to have pink Pepto-Bismol ads on tray tables talking about diarrhea?” a worker wrote in July. The Pepto ads were replaced in August.
Another employee wondered in October 2006: “Why can we not get better quality snack items for our coach customers? One customer recently compared the generic pretzel nubs we serve to the fish food you buy in a .25 gumball machine at any zoo or park.”
Actually, fish food would appear to be too costly. “We’ve worked with our purchasing team,” management explained, “to bring in many companies to compete on our main cabin tidbit item (pretzels). To date, no one has been able to match our current cost, about 3 cents per package.”
Mr. Parker, at quarterly sessions, answers a mix of questions from workers who have crowded into a meeting room at the Tempe, Ariz., headquarters and those sent by e-mail from around the country. The sessions are videoconferenced companywide.
Workers who normally answer questions from the media handle the overflow on those occasions, posting answers on an internal Web site and putting some of the exchanges in a weekly newsletter. They often quote prior remarks by Mr. Parker, so much of the grilling is directly addressed to him.
What makes the exchanges unusual in corporate America is that the questions are presented precisely as they were asked, full of attitude and, often, anger.
“Not some sanitized version,” Mr. Parker said in an interview. Employees, he added, “are going to talk about it anyway.”
So, last April, a question came in: “A statement that Doug made in a letter today was ‘Most of our reliability issues were related to a difficult reservations system migration. That project is now back on track …’ NO IT IS NOT, not even close! Could we please use some of the money that we were going to purchase Delta and get a computer system with the capabilities that we require?”
Another question that day: “I was on an Airbus yesterday that was extremely dirty. The headrests on the blue fabric seats were a grayish brown color. Several seats were ripped. The seat cushions had no cushion left. Are we the 99-cent store airline? How do I take pride in this product?”
Airline mergers may be profitable but, in the short term at least, they are rough on passengers. “The only success so far has been on the financial side,” John McCorkle, a US Airways flight attendant and union officer based in Philadelphia, said in an interview. “It was an absolute disaster for our employees and our customers.”
Mr. Parker said the merger saved two troubled airlines from potential financial ruin and that, over time, service would improve. In the meantime, blunt employee input “keeps management extremely honest,” he said.
Last March, when US Airways combined its two reservations systems into one, it was a mess. Kiosks that dispense about half of the boarding passes did not work properly. Neither did the Web site, where 16 percent of passengers check in. That left ticket counter agents, who normally handle the other third of check-ins, to process nearly 100 percent in some locations. And many of them had not received adequate training on the new system, so they were moving more slowly. It amounted to triple the work for a temporarily less efficient group.
The reservations mess, though in a sanitized way, had been explained to Scott Kirby, the airline’s president. “I certainly knew we had issues,” Mr. Kirby said. “But until I went out and met with employee groups, I didn’t appreciate the problems we were having.”
Spending a day at the hub in Charlotte, N.C., about one week into the mess “really was an epiphany,” Mr. Kirby said. “I wrote a diatribe on my BlackBerry on my way back to Phoenix.” Because of the reservations problems, just 55.5 percent of US Airways’ March domestic flights got to the gate within 15 minutes of scheduled arrival times, an industry low that month.
Distrust between the sides of the 2005 merger — old US Airways is known among the rank and file as East, America West as West — has in some ways grown worse, not an encouraging sign in an industry contemplating other mergers.
Pilots from the two sides were unable to reach an agreement on merging seniority lists: seniority dictates everything from what kind of plane they fly, to where they fly them, and when they get days off. Mediation in October 2006 also failed.
And in arbitration, the sides refused to compromise, pushing plans that would have shoved opposing pilots far down the seniority list.
When East pilots felt an arbitrator’s decision favored the West, they sued in June to overturn the new seniority list. That is a big setback for getting pilots onto a single labor contract and working as a single group, which could make US Airways run more smoothly and perhaps reduce delays.
“With all headaches the merger caused,” one worker said by e-mail message in October, “does Doug regret not just letting the old US Airways die on their own???”
On this one topic, the corporate officials answering questions for Mr. Parker seem to become testy. “Aren’t we getting tired of asking this question? It’s been two years. Time to move on,” the answer came back.
But an airline merger is, in some ways, the combination of two giant collections of resentments — over bankruptcies, lost pensions, more work for less pay. Workers want it all back, but they seem to want something else, too.
“Does Doug love the West and the East employees equally?” one worker wrote in July.
The answer, posted on the company Web site: “Of course, he loves everybody equally.”