Fluffy guidance, that’s what.
Airlines are in a heavily regulated industry, with rules upon rules. Every time you fly, government regulations demand you hear the same ditty about lighted egress routes and oxygen bags, the excuse being that they save lives (although rear facing seats would be more effective). In most cases, the rules tend to cover the circumstances. But not always.
When rules hit a snag, employees do one of two things:
- Strictly enforce the rules.
- Use guidance to modify the rules and accomplish your end state.
But have you looked at corporate guidance lately? It would be hard to do so for the airlines. I tried and struggled to find anything publicly posted. When I look at other companies, I find guidance, but it tends to be fluffy, using big words like “empowered” that don’t mean much when you’re dealing with irate customers.
The civilian side could take a lesson from the military. Commanders are taught to issue guidance so that their subordinates will have principles to guide their actions when they face situations not covered by the rules. A good example is Pacific Fleet, where the guidance fits on a sheet of paper but covers their mission, principles and what the end state should be.
Guidance gives employees flexibility. United could have offered to boot four passengers and give them first class tickets on a follow-on flight. It could have offered more than 800 dollars. If employees knew that their CEO wanted passengers to be happy flying United, then an employee bending policy to accomplish that would be celebrated. Guidance also gives employees a voice, because when established rules conflict with guidance, employees can and should point it out. Overbooking makes it hard to keep people happy if you get bumped. I’m willing to bet more than a few United employees have good ideas on how to prevent overbooking issues, although it’s doubtful they will be heard.
We have too many people claiming airlines haul people off because of profits. Yes, that’s a motivation, but not the entire story. I think it’s laziness on part of management. Issuing iron-clad rules is easy, especially from a cushy office building. Writing guidance so that your employees can navigate the difficult situations they face each day is much harder.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, United Airlines, American Airlines, or Disney. I don’t have the training in force choking and hand to hand combat to properly represent any of those organizations.