Working for the Airlines: the Worst of Times?

Once upon a time, the U.S. airline industry was a good place to work, and employees showed up at work with smiles on their faces. So went the discussion I had recently with a retired airline worker, as we endured an almost eight-hour delay on a flight from the West Coast to Washington.

Many on our flight were baffled by the lack of communication from workers at the gate, who weren't surly--they weren't saying much at all. The former airline worker explained that many working the gate often don't know what's causing the delays--and their salaries tend to be skimpy. An MSNBC article backs that up:

Airline employees have been kicked around a lot in recent years. Management has threatened their unions, cut their paychecks, eliminated their pensions, changed the work rules, reduced personnel and even hidden behind bankruptcy protection — and yet has found it possible to shower bonuses upon their CEOs and top brass. Let's face it, employee morale is broken and no amount of company pep talk is going to fix it. Just go to Chicago O'Hare or Atlanta Hartsfield airport during the peak flight hours. You'll see many employees doing their jobs, but their spirit is all but extinct.

As news swirls that this summer might be one of the worst travel seasons ever, I wonder: is this the worst time to be working for the airline industry?

Honey attracts bees

After reading a variety of air-travel horror stories online, I realize my eight-hour delay pales in comparison. The Wall Street Journal shares the story of a woman who failed to make it home for a rock concert, tickets for which had cost her and her husband $1,500. A Washington Post article explains how Northwest Airlines confused two young children flying alone, and put them on the wrong flights. The MSNBC story alludes to rude travelers, urging them not to poke, yell at or otherwise berate airline employees.

Someone, somewhere within each airline should convey the importance of communication to all employees. Instead of not saying anything, for example, gate workers might just offer a line or two; even one bit of knowledge can be empowering for passengers feeling helpless. Likewise, travelers would do well to stay calm and be kind. You can always register a complaint once you get to the other side. And, according to a Wall Street Journal story, a shred of relief may be on the horizon: The U.S. Department of Transportation is mulling whether to increase the compensation airlines give passengers bumped from overbooked flights.

Not exactly stress-free travel

Just how bad has summer travel been? According to the July 17 Wall Street Journal story:

Canceled flights last month more than doubled -- 20,301 flights never got off the ground, according to flight-tracking service FlightStats.com, compared with 8,710 from the same month last year. More than 30% of all flights scheduled to land in the U.S. for the 40 largest airlines arrived late in June, with an average delay of 62 minutes. Hundreds of thousands of travelers were left waiting for hours, even days.

Why? More storms and too many jets, a recipe for cancellations and long delays. Add an occasional problem with Canadian airspace crucial to Northeast traffic, airline cutbacks, a bit of finger-pointing between the FAA and airlines plus a labor dispute or two, and you have a summer travel nightmare.

Here's hoping August offers friendlier skies.

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