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William A. Levinson

Quality Insider

American Airlines’ Fiasco

An inevitable result of its attitude toward quality

Published: Monday, March 19, 2007 - 22:00

On December 29, 2006, passengers of American Airlines’ Flight 1348 were confined in a parked aircraft for eight hours. By this time, “The toilets on the American Airlines jet were overflowing. There was no water to be found and no food except for a box of pretzel bags.” This fiasco was an easily foreseeable result of the airline’s apparent attitude toward quality, as might be perceived from CEO Gerard J. Arpey’s letter to Quality Digest magazine, written some time prior to this incident. The letter took issue with Quality Digest columnist James Harrington’s criticism “Of airline quality in general, and specifically that of American Airlines.” It stated in part, “We carry about a quarter of a million people every day, and, inevitably, there will be mistakes that impact our customers.” The attitude that mistakes are “inevitable” is inconsistent with modern quality science, and it fosters an organizational culture in which otherwise-avoidable mistakes do indeed become inevitable.

There are no excuses for poor quality

The U.S. Military Academy allows cadets only four answers to a superior’s question as to whether a task or duty was completed properly: “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” “No excuse, sir,” and “Sir, I do not understand.” James Kimsey, a U.S. Military Academy graduate and the founding CEO of America Online, elaborates, “If you have to take men up a hill and write letters to their moms that night, there’s literally no excuse. If you have to lay off thousands of people from your company, there’s no excuse. You should have seen it coming and done something about it.” The quality sciences provide tools such as the failure mode effects analysis (FMEA) for seeing it coming and doing something about it, so planning failures by American Airlines and other passenger airlines are indeed inexcusable.

The excuse that AA ticket agents gave stranded passengers who, after waiting in line for three hours, were refused hotel vouchers to cover their overnight costs was that “The problem was caused by weather and American wasn’t responsible.” This wouldn’t cut it at West Point, the AA passengers involved shouldn’t accept it for an instant, and it will probably and rightfully cost AA hundreds of times as much money in lost business as the vouchers would have cost.

Although AA cannot be blamed for the weather conditions that initiated this situation, it’s wholly responsible for any lack of foresight and planning that aggravated it, along with the attitude that “Inevitably, there will be mistakes that impact our customers.” The easily foreseeable results of this organizational culture are that the affected customers now agree wholeheartedly that mistakes are inevitable at American Airlines, and that the airline got its name on page A1 of the Wall Street Journal in the worst possible context. For good measure, the online WSJ article, written by Susan Carey, reminded its readers that Northwest had had a similar incident in 1999:

“The five or six lawyers on board [Northwest Flight 1829] were fast becoming the most popular passengers, as others quizzed them about the possibility of a lawsuit. Mr. London, the passenger from Toronto, found one attorney who figured there might be a case against the airline for “false imprisonment.” Seizing the moment, Mr. London, 32, circulated a notebook through the cabin. Gathering that it was from a lawyer enlisting clients, more than 50 passengers signed up on behalf of themselves and their families.”

The highly-negative visibility for both airlines underscores a principle that Henry Ford stated 85 years ago:

“If the machine does not give service, then it is better for the manufacturer if he never had the introduction, for he will have the worst of all advertisements—a dissatisfied customer.”

There was a time when a satisfied customer might have recommended a supplier to seven or eight friends, and a dissatisfied one might have badmouthed the supplier to roughly the same number. Today, the Internet allows a customer to share his or her dissatisfaction with hundreds, thousands or even more. A negative news article or letter to the editor in a local paper could cost an airline thousands of fares from a single city.

The same news in a national paper like the Wall Street Journal, whose subscribers include frequent business travelers, could cost an airline hundreds of thousands of fares. Perhaps consequences of this nature are what it will take to make management teams understand their basic responsibilities—or else accelerate economic natural selection by weeding out those organizations that are simply unfit to survive into the next decade.

Scott McCartney, writing in the January 12, 2007, Wall Street Journal, cites a possible reason that American didn’t move the airplane to a gate and allow the passengers to get off: “Moving a plane to a gate for a bathroom break could cost a flight its place in line among the hundreds trying to leave. It could also mean the crew might run into federal time limits that regulate the work day.” The first reason is no reason at all. Even Mom-and-Pop stores are familiar with giving customers numbers so they don’t have to wait in line, and factories employ numerous systems for just-in-timing work through the production line. Even if the airport is responsible for this deficiency, this doesn’t relieve the airlines of responsibility for demanding a correction. Quality auditors won’t accept the excuse, “Our supplier gave us defective materials or poor service,” because an organization is responsible for addressing its suppliers’ quality problems.

It’s also difficult to understand why deplaning and perhaps even catching some sleep in a comfortable employee lounge is more fatiguing to the flight crew than sitting in the cockpit, but this is something that the Federal Aviation Administration must address.

Flight 1348 from a FMEA perspective

Most quality practitioners are familiar with the failure mode effects analysis (FMEA), which identifies what can go wrong, how likely it’s to go wrong, and the severity of the consequences. Each possible failure mode receives 1-to-10 ratings for severity, likelihood of occurrence, and likelihood of detection or mitigation. Multiplication of the three ratings yields a risk priority number (RPN), which ranges from 1 to 1000. Anything with a high RPN demands the implementation of proactive countermeasures.

Severity ratings of nine and 10 are generally reserved for threats to human safety (such as brake or steering failure on an automobile) or noncompliance with government regulations (such as a toxic chemical release). An incident that results in permanent disqualification from ever serving a customer again if that customer can possibly help it, negative word-of-mouth advertising, and negative national publicity would easily qualify as an eight. In fact, if the conditions in which the passengers were confined qualified as physically abusive or legally tortuous—recall that passengers and attorneys on the Northwest flight were talking about “illegal imprisonment,” and a Flight 1348 passenger used the phrase “held hostage” to describe her ordeal—a nine rating for this failure mode might be appropriate, with only a fatal incident meriting a ten.

FMEA also rates each failure mode on how likely it is to occur. While severe weather conditions aren’t likely on any given day, their eventual occurrence is a near-certainty. Northwest’s 1999 fiasco should have been an additional warning that an incident of this nature is not only possible but likely, and that contingency plans should be made for it. However, “In the case of Flight 1348, according to interviews with four passengers plus officials at American, the problems were compounded by a lack of staff, the result of cost-cutting and holiday vacations, and some bad decisions.”

Cost-cutting and staff reductions are management failures, not excuses

American’s management was responsible for the inadequate staffing that, according to McCartney, resulted in an inability to service the stranded airplane’s toilets or deliver fresh drinking water to the passengers. Cost-cutting is not an excuse, as Henry Ford spelled out eighty-five years ago:

“Cutting wages is the easiest and most slovenly way to handle the situation… It is, in effect, throwing upon labour the incompetency of the managers of the business.”

Not hiring enough people to do a job properly—whether they’re airline staff or nurses in a hospital—is simply a variation on cutting wages or using substandard materials, and customers owe their suppliers absolutely zero tolerance for any of these practices.

Management is also responsible for letting too many workers take the day as vacation. If passenger airplanes are flying during the holiday season, common sense dictates that one should have enough people to service them even if one must pay overtime. I recall, in fact, having a flight cancelled in 1994 or 1995 because an airline, which I recall was American, had no mechanic available to correct a problem because it was a holiday.

Nowhere in two graduate-level reliability engineering courses, nor in the Quality Council of Indiana’s review materials for ASQ’s Certified Reliability Engineer exam, did I ever see anything about failure rates or hazard functions taking holiday vacations. McCartney points out quite rightly, “Why not acknowledge that airlines, like department stores, do a lot of business at the holidays and staff accordingly, at all levels of the company, from airport station managers to top executives? You think retailers let their sales people take vacation on Christmas Eve?”

Can the military mindset save the passenger airline industry?

Many airline pilots are retired military officers who understand that there’s absolutely no conceivable excuse for the management and command failures that caused the Flight 1348 fiasco. “After more than eight hours on the ground, and 12 hours after the plane had left San Francisco, the captain told passengers he was going to an empty gate, even though he didn’t have permission,” McCartney writes. The pilot deserves credit and praise for taking responsibility for the welfare of the passengers and crew members under his care. This behavior is entirely consistent with a military background, although it’s also practiced by competent managers and leaders who have never been in the Armed Forces. Perhaps the best way to turn around our struggling airlines is to place them under the management of people who neither give nor accept flimsy excuses for appalling performance.

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About The Author

William A. Levinson’s picture

William A. Levinson

William A. Levinson, P.E., FASQ, CQE, CMQOE is the principal of Levinson Productivity Systems P.C. and the author of the book The Expanded and Annotated My Life and Work: Henry Ford's Universal Code for World-Class Success.