We all realize the gravity of what happened on 9/11 and the immediate adverse effect it had on the airline industry. Many people were afraid to fly after that date, business travel was cut out almost completely, and some people still refuse to fly. But devastating as they were, those events merely exacerbated-albeit severely-problems that had been building in the airline industry for years.
Why write about airlines in a manufacturing publication? First, because many of the problems plaguing the airline industry are also plaguing other industries. Second, because the underlying cause is also the same-the airline industry has lost sight of basic principles.
The result is that waiting in long lines, ever-poorer customer service, fewer benefits to frequent fliers and unexplained flight delays have combined to make people lose faith in America's airlines. Simply put, air travel is making the average person more frustrated and unproductive than ever before.
The answer to the problems plaguing the industry is really quite simple-it's called Basic Management 101, or Back to Basics. There are many basic principles that the airline industry is not practicing. Why? Because they have been in business for a long time and, in varying degrees, resist change.
For the most part, senior managers of airlines did not get their jobs because of their experience gained coming up through the ranks of aviation. They wanted to run an airline because it was fun. If you look deeper into the organization, people know what needs to be done. They don't need to be told what to do; they just need to be left alone to do their jobs. Unfortunately, management forgot this many years ago.
The basics are simple. Maintenance offers a good insight into what has happened to this industry. Airline maintenance operations have become increasingly convoluted and unproductive, sending mechanics on long chases for parts, tools, material, equipment and documentation, while the aircraft waits. Logistics, setup, and prestaging equipment and tools have become increasingly forgotten in the industry where they were once standard operating procedures. Management allows mechanics to spend hours searching for these items because the paying customer is actually expecting it to happen anyway.
For example, many business travelers have been delayed an hour or more by the need to change a tire on an airplane. The problem? The mechanic had to search all over the tarmac and terminal area for tires, jacks and other required items before beginning the tire change. Of course, given the extent of maintenance staff cutbacks, the mechanic may not even be immediately available.
The answer is simple. The mechanic should be able to go to one area where tires, and all of the equipment and tools required to change tires, are prestaged and ready to move directly to the airplane. But as many of you may have experienced personally, this is rarely the case.
The wisest statement of all came from one airline executive when he said that the airlines typically do very well when the weather is bad or the entire airline is taking huge delays. However, when operating on "average" days, there is poor management and planning. And it's those average, normal days that are eating up the airlines one piece at a time. Going back to the basics of managing would help them tremendously, as it has in many other industries.
What to do next? There are plenty of management improvements available to the airlines. Let's get the ball rolling or, should I say, get the planes flying.