“I can’t believe you’re changing planes in Charlotte.”
That was the last thing my wife said to me as I packed my car to head for the airport. She had spent a very frustrating evening in said airport while the rest of the family celebrated our son’s graduation from college. But that was 20 years ago.
As it turns out, some things don’t change.
A mid-afternoon hailstorm had closed Charlotte’s airport for two hours. So, my 10 p.m. flight to Fort Lauderdale was delayed two hours – just like everyone else’s. My fellow passengers and I settled in for an uncomfortable wait, trusting that the chaos would dissolve into some semblance of order.
We sat glumly as the posted departure time deteriorated from 12:10 a.m. to 12:20 a.m. to 12:45 a.m. to 1:15 a.m. and so on. If you’ve been through this (and who hasn’t?), you know what’s most frustrating is that the airline staff rarely tells you what’s going on.
Around 1 a.m., an overhead announcement let us know that a limited supply of cots was available on Concourse D. It’s fair to assume that most of us were contemplating that our flight might be cancelled. But, the announcement put us on notice and brought the subject into the open. Our petty grumbling was evolving into a mob mentality.
About that time, the gate agent gave us an update on our flight. The plane was ready and the crew was aboard. But, we couldn’t depart because the crew didn’t have a place to sleep at our destination.
WHAT? We were expected to sleep at the airport because someone had failed to find the crew rooms at the Ramada?
People were on their feet. Some were yelling and cursing. Others tried but failed to remain calm. One passenger offered room and board at their house, promising that each crewmember would have a private room and would awaken to an ocean view.
About that time, a supervisor grabbed the microphone and informed us sneeringly that it was “illegal” for the flight to take off until rooms were arranged and they were “working on it”.
It wasn’t what she said so much as how she said it that set us off. In a reprise of my wife’s experience two decades ago, she showed no empathy. Her tone was condescending and her manner impatient.
Wanting to be heard above the mass of screaming in which many were now engaged, a young woman – about six feet tall and stylishly dressed – jumped up onto a chair and unleashed a string of foul language that nearly made this ex-sailor blush. She ended it with an unkind description of the supervisor’s derriere so colorful and accurate that a few in the crowd let out a guffaw.
The supervisor stomped off and disappeared down the concourse, her destination unknown to us.
Empowerment was a popular business buzzword during the 80’s and 90’s. A colleague (and still a good friend) defined it simply. An employee is empowered when he or she:
Knows how to…
Is allowed to… and
It’s a very elegant definition. Concise and easily understood, the first element is about training, the second authority and the last motivation.
It must be a difficult model to follow in the airline industry. An employee should not be allowed to violate FAA regulations. And, they certainly must be required to follow guidelines set by their employers. They are not allowed to make changes to accommodate their customers. In this case, how could they?
Still, something beyond my being inconvenienced bothered me.
When Ms. Derriere returned she brought three plus-sized policemen with her. Recognizing that no one threatened violence, they wisely kept their distance and maintained a low profile.
We finally got off the ground at 3 a.m. and I got to bed around the time I normally arise.
The next day, I figured out what was bothering me. If I had an experience similar to that of my wife in the same airport with the same airline (American Airlines has since acquired US Airways) two decades ago, there is something wrong with the corporate culture that no one has bothered to address. It goes to the core of empowerment. A great training program has little effect if employees don’t have the authority to help their customers. How could they be motivated (want) to do their jobs well?
I am left to wonder how American’s CEO would feel if couldn’t go to work without the police to protect him from his customers.