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An Open Letter to American Airline Pilots

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I suppose this should have been written and shared last Friday, immediately after my flights with American Airlines. After all, timeliness is important – it conveys value, keeps you current, and is respectful. However, I don’t feel too bad for not posting until today. After all, I spent the weekend out of town at an amazing conference and came home to the usual  mini-crises that typify post-travel re-entry, broken washing machine and all.

And clearly, timeliness is not a huge concern for American Airline pilots.

But first, a little background for the rest of you. Here’s the thing. American Airlines pilots are currently engaging in a work slowdown of sorts, as reported here, and here. From my experience through the Dallas and San Diego airports last Thursday, and unfortunately Friday, the percentages of canceled and delayed flights quoted were very low.

After flying Alaska Airlines from Portland to San Diego last Thursday, my ticket called for an airline switch and I boarded my American Airlines San Diego/Dallas flight optimistically. I settled into my first-class seat (thanks dad for the miles!), organized my 17 magazines and buckled up. After about thirty minutes of going nowhere, the pilots told us there was a mechanical problem. Fifteen or so minutes later we were told we would be delayed at least 2 hours and would have to deplane.

At that, my Wealthy Businessman seatmate grumbled and cursed far more than the situation seemed to call for. “There’s nothing wrong with this plane, the pilots are screwing us,” he growled. Weird, I thought, as I am always the first to applaud a cautious approach to airline safety, what with my dislike of plummeting toward the ground in a metal tube and all. But by the time I reached the gate area, other grumbling passengers were confirming WB’s story, that the pilots were staging a work slowdown over contract issues. The next several hours are a blur of gate changes, delay announcements, uncomfortable gate seating and angry customer tirades.

When we finally reached Dallas late that night, it was clear that my connection had been missed. Efficient gate agents had our hotel and meal vouchers ready, but instead of spending a relaxing night in Nashville at my cool hotel, I got to stay at a very sub par Ramada. I think the view from my room makes my point:

Um…..should I be frightened?

At least I didn’t have much to carry (she said sarcastically), since my bag somehow made it to Nashville without me. Yay! Same clothes two days in a row and no toiletries! Flights the next day were similarly delayed, leaving me squeaking into my conference just in time, anxious and mentally unprepared.

So, that’s the story.  I hope someone out there knows an American pilot, and shares this with them, because I have just a couple of questions for the pilots I truly want answered.

Dear Pilots of American Airlines:

First, let me say, I can sympathize with contract issues, with compensation complaints, with fears that your jobs will be outsourced. I wish you well in contract negotiations, and I hope that at the end of the day not only are your issues satisfied but you still have an airline for which to work.

Cause I won’t be there. I’m guessing I won’t be alone in not being there. Which means YOU might be alone. And your gate agent colleagues know it. By the way, I hope you have something good planned for those poor folks, as they cover for you, lie for you, and take all of the heat for your actions.

Sure, last week I encountered Burned Out Gate Agent, and Perkily Hanging In There Gate Agent, and Avoiding Passengers By Lingering At the Far End of the Gangway Gate Agent. All of them on the front lines with angry, disappointed passengers.

But I also met Mrs. C., a gate agent in San Diego. When I asked her for an update, she honestly and VERY professionally replied that she had to wait with the rest of us to find out if the pilot “decided” to find any “mechanical problems” with the plane. At the surprised look she got from her colleague, she replied that she was tired of lying to customers and it was time to be honest about what was going on. At my query, she confirmed to me (VERY professionally) that the dispute was limited to the pilots, to which I said “oh, geez, you must be having a really rough day.”

Oh, no, Mrs. C. told me, dealing with plane changes, gate changes and delays were part of the job, and she didn’t mind. But, she said, as tears welled in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks, she had been with American Airlines for over 20 years, and had invested her life and career in a company whose very existence was now threatened because customers such as myself wouldn’t be coming back to American.

She’s right. I certainly won’t, not if I can avoid it.  For starters, business meetings were lost, vacations disrupted, and homecomings delayed. But it was more than that. As I sat in that airport surrounded by anxious, tired and overwhelmed customers who didn’t know when or if their journeys would continue, I saw clearly the stories behind the frustration.

I’ve lived those stories. I’ve been on a plane, flying home to my wedding. I’ve been on a plane, winging my way toward my honeymoon with my new spouse. I’ve flown alone with three little boys, toddlers and infants who could only be kept happy and quiet for so long before meltdown.

And the truth is, I’ve been on a plane, summoned home to the bedside of my dying younger brother, anxious to make it to him before he drew his last breath.

Those were the stories around me. They weren’t just people who bought a product, or purchased a simple service, but they were people who trusted you with critical moments in their lives they could never get back.

You deemed your contract negotiations more important than those stories, and you blew it. Let’s call it like it is. You started calling ridiculous mechanical problems (passenger reading lights, broken tray tables, etc.) and stopped valuing the customers who trusted you. Odds are by now each of those worst-case scenarios have happened more than once.

So I’ve got to know: How do you live with that? And will it be worth it? I don’t think so.

So Mrs. C., I’m so sorry, but you are absolutely right. You treated me with respect, with kindness, and with honesty, while never once badmouthing your pilot colleagues. You, I’d come back to.

But them? Not so much.

5 responses »

  1. Well said Tara – can you get this published in a more public forum for all too read and see? I wish I had an “in” at American because I’d forward this on if I did.

  2. While I agree that the delays are a horrible labor tactic, I do know that while American’s executives were forcing pay cuts and benefit cuts on American pilots (and other unions) those same executives were helping themselves to multi million dollar bonuses. It appears that the people who actually make the airplanes fly are living on not great salaries, while the executives get the money.

    • Marci, I am sure that is completely true, and if it is, the executives bear a more general but equally weighty responsibility for creating an environment in which reasonable people feel these are their only options. I don’t question that at all. I just don’t think that if I were a pilot, knowing that my direct action in those moments on a specific plane could have the repercussions I outline, that I could really pull the trigger, regardless of how unfair and overcompensated management was in general. Call a strike ahead of time that allowed people the choice of not traveling or of buying a ticket with a competitor? That would be a more ethical stance, in my opinion, that could potentially achieve the same pressures on mgt.


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