Posted by: Korry | April 12, 2012

Hi, I’m Your Pilot…Now Who The Heck Are You?

Imagine your morning routine with me for a minute.

After leaving your home for the office, you make your daily stop at Dunkin Donuts and say good morning to your friendly barista. A few minutes your later, you park your car and walk into your office but immediately find something strangely out-of-place. It’s the same building. Same cubicles. Same advertisements on the bulletin board near the water cooler. But for some reason, all your coworkers are different and you recognize absolutely no one. All the time spent building rapport was for not because each person you meet throughout your day is completely new. You don’t know them and they don’t know you. It’s almost like you’re starting from scratch.

Welcome to life as an airline pilot. Now it’s not quite this bad, but it’s close. Every day I ride the same employee bus, but often the only person I recognize is the driver. I go through airport security and see still more coworkers wearing uniforms I recognize but whose names or faces are completely new. I head to the chief pilots office, check my mail and print out a copy of the trip I’m about to start. And then I head to another airplane at another gate and meet another set of flight attendants and another pilot.

For the next day (or two or three or four) I’ll share my life with this new stranger. I’ll play “twenty questions” again and again. Where do you live? How long have you been flying the 737? Do you commute? Are you married? Any kids? How do you like to spend your off days? When do you think we’ll get a contract? Have you heard any good rumors? And so on and so forth.

Same questions. Different day. And unfortunately, I’m not exaggerating.

Heck, with the flight attendants, we don’t even stay together for several days. Instead, I often fly with a new set of flight attendants on almost every flight or two.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Pilots used to be paired together for an entire month. Often, flight attendants were paired with the same pilots for the same month as well! And over the course of that month, you got to know each other very well. You still played the same “twenty questions” but then you had more time to fill so you got to dig deeper and develop stronger friendships.

But due to different work rules and contracts as well as flight time legalities (to mention just a few), companies determined that keeping flight crews paired together for extended periods of time was actually quite inefficient. So they created high-powered software to schedule these individuals much more efficiently.

Undoubtedly, these new “preferential bidding systems” save airlines millions of dollars per year thanks to incredible efficiencies. But there are costs, too, which unfortunately are much more difficult to measure including such things as lower morale and a “me-centered” culture.

You see, life is all about relationships. Humans are social creatures and we long to be affiliated with a group. For pilots, this social need still exists, and pilots are even quite good at covering up this need for lengthy periods of time. We do our job well and that’s enough, right?

Except it isn’t good enough. Instead of keeping our eyes on those around us (other pilots, flight attendants, customers, gate agents, etc.) we slowly drift towards an inward point of view. We stop caring as much about getting to know our coworkers since it takes an effort to do so and on the next trip we’ll be starting over from scratch yet again. We don’t worry about the once-cherished esprit de corps and instead focus on how to maximize our own bottom line.

There’s no more “WE”, just “What’s in it for ME.”

Sure, not every airline employee feels this way, but the numbers are definitely growing…and fast!

As a manager in any industry, I would find this trend to be startling. It’s especially troubling for the airlines where margins are razor-thin. Personally, I see this movement towards “ME” and away from “WE” to be one of the most significant challenges facing the airlines today.

Thankfully, I believe solutions do exist, but they will require a new way of thinking along with increased effort from today’s cadre of managers to really focus on employees as people and devise new ways to develop the relationships between coworkers and with the company.

Next time, I’ll offer a few of my own thoughts on specifically how the airlines (or any industry) can accomplish this difficult task.

For today, I’d love to know your thoughts. Is this “ME” society simply an airline phenomenon or do you see it in your industry, too? 

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