System impact when cost reduction is the main objective

During the past week, I got plenty of time and opportunity to observe
and experience the “services” of the US air transportation “system”,
i.e. airlines and airports, and given the extended time I
involuntarily had to spend as a customer of these services, gave me
ample time – I spent more than a third of the total hours available
during the past 7 days at airports and airplanes – to think about why
this system performs so poorly, at least from an end user point of
view.Below some speculations over why things have ended up in such a way
that it’s an extremely unpleasant experience to use the “services” of
the US air transportation system.

(Btw, this state of affairs might not be unique to US air
transportation, but I have to say that I have never experienced such
demotivated, ignorant, uncaring and uninterested staff and extremely
bad service anywhere in western Europe, where airline and airport
staff typically are both educated, well trained and willing as well as
actively encouraged to go the extra mile to solve any problems that
customers experience).

First, the US air transportation system is under lots of financial
pressure: heavy competition and price wars, combined by ever
increasing fuel prices, combined with congestion in air as well as on
the ground, combined with the financial earnings-per-share
requirements,  has resulted in a business model where costs have to be
cut and kept down at any price, even at the peril of the end user
experience. To keep costs down, many of the jobs/roles working in the
trenches of the air transportation system, such as cabin crew, airport
staff, ground crew, customer service representatives etc have become
almost minimum wage jobs with detailed job descriptions and dito
processes written in stone, attracting only the minimally educated and
dito minimally motivated people, people that face the risk of being
fired if they move even an inch beyond what is stated in their job
description document. Thus, whenever they encounter a situation which
is not fully described in their job description document, they take
one of two options: first, they try to avoid dealing with the problem
completely by sending the end user (i.e. me) on an endless wild goose
chase for someone else in their organization, preferably by calling an
1-800 number on the phone, of if that fails, they need to call a
supervisor to deal with the problem. The supervisor – if you manage to
get hold of him/her, has a similarly detailed and strict job
description, is equally unable/uninterested in solving your problem,
so you need to be really lucky as an end user and have your specific
problem described in detail in the supervisor’s job description
document to get any real results solving your problem. If not, you
need to be really persistent to apply this “let me talk to your
manager” process recursively, until you finally might end up with
someone up the mgmt-chain who has the authority to solve your

When the above business model based on extreme cost cutting of the
airlines is combined with monopolistic system components, e.g. airport
security, customs, immigration etc, where the employees have no
incentives and no interest what so ever to be effective nor service
minded, you end up in a really unpleasant “total system” experience,
where you as a customer is treated no better than cattle on their way
to the butcher.

Unfortunately, as an end user of the air transportation system you
really don’t have the opportunity to “take your business elsewhere”:
even if the individual airline would be willing to take the costs of
providing better service, e.g. by employing people who are both able,
willing and permitted to think and take decisions, you are still very
likely stuck in poor overall system performance due to the
monopolistic components mentioned above, and until the folks doing
these low pay jobs find some reason to care and be proud of the
service they provide to the public, we are gonna be stuck in a
situation where air travel is something to be avoided as much as


About swdevperestroika

High tech industry veteran, avid hacker reluctantly transformed to mgmt consultant.
This entry was posted in Management, Organization and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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