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William A. Levinson

Quality Insider

Airline Companies Are Driving Customers Away

When quality is poor, we should take flight and find another way.

Published: Wednesday, May 5, 2010 - 07:30

The airline industry’s complete disregard for service quality and total contempt for its customers has changed little since Quality Digest columnist H. James Harrington called out American Airlines for diverting his luggage on an international flight. American Airlines’ CEO, Gerard Arpey, underscored his company’s lack of understanding of basic quality principles by responding in a letter to the publication: “We carry about a quarter of a million people every day, and, inevitably, there will be mistakes that impact our customers.”

On Dec. 29, 2006, American Airlines’ official position that mistakes are “inevitable” had the inevitable consequence of stranding passengers of flight 1348 on a runway for more than eight hours. The passengers didn’t have access to food or water, and the toilets were soon overflowing. The inevitable mistakes, short of outright fatalities, across the industry underscores the desire of other forms of travel, but it would first be useful to express airline problems in the context of failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA). 

The severe perspective of FMEA

The FMEA process assesses each failure mode in terms of severity, probability, and likelihood of detection on a 1–10 scale, with 10 being the worst. The product of these is the risk priority number (RPN), which ranges from one to 1,000. Severity ratings of nine and 10 are generally reserved for failures that jeopardize human life or safety, or result in a violation of laws and regulations. As an example, a motor vehicle’s inoperable brakes or stuck accelerator would probably qualify for a nine or 10.

An eight on the scale would then be the worst possible failure that doesn’t jeopardize human life—the end product is unusable, but it can’t hurt or kill anybody. Failure of a motor vehicle to start would be an example. Failures of this severity or those of lesser severities, if they occur with sufficient frequency are, however, likely to dissatisfy customers to the point that they will avoid that supplier in the future, or even give it a bad recommendation. At the other end of the scale, customers might not even notice a failure of severity one or two.

In the context of air travel, we would assign the following severity ratings to common failures:

10: An actual plane crash. This happens rarely, because if a red light comes on or something else appears to be wrong, the flight crew won’t fly the plane.

9: An incident that could conceivably jeopardize the life or safety of one or more passengers. Let’s return to American Airlines’ stranded passengers, who were confined in an airplane for eight hours. The absence of a basic necessity such as water, and the presence of raw sewage (as might be inferred from news reports of “overflowing toilets”) would seem to qualify. To this may be added the fact that sitting for long periods of time can result in deep vein thrombosis, with deadly blood clots traveling to the lungs if the person involved is unlucky. Quite frankly, I’m surprised that no passenger felt that they were in danger and no one opened an emergency exit to get off the plane.

8: A cancelled flight that strands passengers overnight or causes somebody to miss a conference, business meeting, or similar activity. The service was useless, but did not put anybody’s life at risk. The airline cannot of course be blamed for a cloud of volcanic ash or weather that prevents safe operations, but there is otherwise no conceivable excuse for a cancelled flight. The diversion of Harrington’s luggage, which he needed to perform a job the next day, would probably qualify for this severity rating.

7: A cancelled or delayed flight that does not have the consequences described above.

5: Per qualitytrainingportal.com, “enough of a performance loss to cause the customer to complain.”


With regard to the issue of delays after boarding, I have absolutely no sympathy for the airlines’ complaint that they will now be fined if they strand passengers on a runway for three hours. There are very few, if any, conceivable excuses for even a one-hour delay after boarding. If runway capacity is the constraint or capacity-constraining resource (CCR) per Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints, it is easy to envision a form of pull production control, in which a minimal buffer of airplanes is allowed to wait on the runway so that the runway will never be idle. When an empty space appears in the buffer, the next flight’s passengers can be boarded so that airplane can move into the buffer. The airlines’ ongoing failure to work with their suppliers, i.e., the airports, to put these or similar systems into effect shows their nature as Theory X organizations, which simply don’t care about quality.

There are no excuses

If the airlines have a problem with this kind of criticism, they should be reminded that customers can rightfully take the position of the U.S. Military Academy, and they usually do. A West Point cadet is allowed to choose from only four answers to a superior’s question about failure to carry out a responsibility: “Yes, sir;” “No sir;” “I don’t understand, sir;” and “No excuse, sir.”

Things may in fact go wrong for reasons completely beyond the cadet’s control (and we would not be surprised if those in charge use common sense about handing out demerits or other penalties for such failures), but the underlying lesson is that even valid excuses don’t matter when people’s lives are at stake.

In contrast to a war in which enemies use violence or sabotage to interfere with an organization’s operations, the airlines’ primary enemy consists solely of their own deficiencies, with uncooperative weather and volcanoes playing a secondary role. Harrington’s luggage was lost or diverted, and there is no excuse. American Airlines stranded its passengers on a runway, and there is no excuse. End of story.

Stranded passengers are the most visible symptom of the airlines’ problems, but recent personal experience shows less severe but more frequent reasons why the best course of action is to avoid using the airlines when alternatives such as ground travel or teleconferencing are available. 

Anybody for closed-loop corrective action?

Given my background in industrial statistics, I knew enough to stay away from Las Vegas’ gambling establishments. Clint Eastwood’s famous line, “Do you feel lucky?” applied sufficiently to Continental Airlines’ service to that city, although I suspect that lack of attention to quality had more to do with the outcomes than bad luck.

When CO 898 arrived at McCarran Airport on April 14, the captain announced that we would have to wait, because another airplane was at the gate that ours was supposed to use. That’s interesting; how did another airplane appear out of thin air to block a gate that Continental and McCarran Airport knew, perhaps four or five hours ahead of time, CO 898 would need? The delay was not major, but I would give the event a five severity rating because of the bad impression it gave the people who were on the flight, as well as any friends who were waiting to meet them at the airport.

I won’t hold my breath waiting for closed-loop corrective actions (CLCAs) from Continental or any other airline, because the repetition of the same problems over and over again suggests that the airlines don’t know what CLCAs or corrective action requests (CARs), or quality action requests (QARS) are. All of those begin with a description of the problem (gate not available when needed, in this case), and continue with identification of the root cause and implementation of corrective action to make sure it never happens again.

We then spent considerable time waiting for our luggage to appear on the carousel in the baggage claim area. Only when luggage ceased to appear and ours was still not forthcoming, were we advised to look at Continental’s baggage claim office. It turned out that our bags had been put on a previous flight and then secured with a cable outside the claim office. We therefore wasted another 15 minutes or so because no one bothered to tell us. This was not a major delay but it again indicates the airline’s lack of attention to service quality.

A possible correction might involve a highly prominent visual control at the carousel that indicates that some luggage arrived early, and that might even display the names of the passengers (as determined from the luggage tags) involved. If something like that was in fact present, it was not sufficiently “visible” for us and others to notice.

Matters were even worse on the return flight which was supposed to leave at 9 p.m. but was delayed until about 10:20 p.m. We saw a few other passengers leave to rent a car to drive from Newark to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton airport, because they apparently did not trust Continental to get them there at all that evening, although they would have (in retrospect) done better to wait. I would call this event a failure of severity seven.

This is not to say that Continental is the only airline that can deliver three defects in a single round trip. I distinctly recall an experience with another airline that resulted in our arrival in Dearborn three hours late, when we had to meet with a client the next day. A U.S. Airways flight was delayed about an hour, because the aircraft was sent to a gate that lacked the equipment to handle it. If part of this foul-up was the airport’s fault, the airline is responsible for working with this supplier to prevent a recurrence.

Then there was a flight from Harrisburg that was cancelled because there was a mechanical problem, but no mechanic available to fix it. The absence of a key person to handle an easily foreseeable problem is prima facie evidence of incompetent management and total disregard for quality.

In some cases, airlines give out vouchers to dissatisfied passengers but this action is containment at best. The idea is obviously to get the customer to shut up, go away, and hopefully not badmouth the airline to others as opposed to any workmanlike effort to fix the underlying problem. Events like these make alternatives to air travel highly desirable. 

The four-wheel solution

Passengers are being asked to arrive at the airport earlier and earlier to go through security screening. By the time passengers wait to retrieve checked luggage (for which airlines are now adding additional fees, even for the first bag), rent a car, and drive to wherever they need to be, wasted time not including the flight itself can easily exceed three hours. To this must be added whatever time the airlines’ frequent service defects add.

My experience with U.S. Airways has been so bad that my co-workers and I drive from Wilkes-Barre to Pittsburgh, which takes about five and a half hours via the Pennsylvania Turnpike. We are in fact likely to drive to any destination that can be reached in seven or eight hours rather than trust any airline to get us there on time and without problems. Driving becomes even more attractive when more than one person must travel, because the per-person cost is effectively divided by the number of passengers. Modern Global Positioning System equipment (e.g., TomTom, Garmin) can meanwhile warn of traffic congestion and suggest alternate routes, and such equipment can be purchased for less than the cost of a typical airline ticket.

An opportunity for rail

The airlines’ well-deserved reputation for poor quality should meanwhile create an opportunity for the passenger rail industry. Driving is not an option for our upcoming trip to the World Quality Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, for instance. DeLorme’s Map and Go software estimates 14.5 hours by automobile, not counting stops for rests and meals. However, Amtrak’s schedule shows that rail travel would take more than 20 hours, plus about two hours to get from Wilkes-Barre to the nearest train station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This is surprising, because railroad speed limits are much higher than even interstate highway speed limits and the train generally has the right of way.

Wikipedia reports that trains outside the Northeast are often limited to 79 miles an hour due to regulations that date back to 1951, although positive train control will remove this restriction in 2015. Even at 79 mph, for moderate distances, reliable rail service should be competitive with unreliable air travel, especially if a change of airplanes is required. Amtrak seems to be missing a huge opportunity to take passengers away from the airlines.

Internet conferencing

I have several friends whose business travel takes them to China, a trip that is expensive, involves a good deal of jet lag, and many other inconveniences. The internet now allows people from across the world to participate in business meetings without leaving their desks. As an example, internet services such as GoToMeeting.com offer access for up to 15 people for under $500 per year, which is less than the cost of a single international airline ticket.

GoToMeeting’s GoToWebinar will accommodate up to 1,000 attendees for just under $500 as well, which even for a single event, could easily cost less than that of an airline ticket for one attendee at, for example, a training class or professional conference. Organizations such as Industry Week, American Society for Quality, and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers now offer webinars and even training classes via the internet.

Internet technology is now so sophisticated that a doctor in one country can examine a patient in another, or even perform surgery via remotely controlled equipment. It is therefore easy to envision the use of web cameras through which off-site professionals can practice “go and see” in a factory. Suppose, for example, that a quality engineer in New York wants to see what is happening in a factory in California. If the factory is equipped with suitable web cameras, the engineer can “go and see” from his or her desk without wasting his personal time, the time of his employer, or his employer’s money on lodging costs and air travel that is often unreliable.

Of course, it would be important that the factor’s employees understand that the web cameras are not there in a “Big Brother” context. Workers may be more comfortable if they are given control over the cameras while they use online collaborative tools to solve problems and make improvements.

Airlines are doing a consistently poor job, and there’s very little evidence of any genuine desire to improve. If they believe this statement is unfair, they should post completed QARs or CARs on their web sites so that customers can see if and how they plan to prevent recurrences of problems that seem to happen again and again. In the meantime, their track record suggests that they want people to look for alternatives whenever possible, which will bring business opportunities for railroads and providers of online teleconferencing and collaboration services.


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.


not all bad

I have had some not so good flights, but overall I have been pretty lucky with air travel. Since we're naming names, I would like to share my very positive experience with Virgin America.

Two years ago my husband and I were on our way to CA for my daughter's wedding. On the way to JFK we were caught in traffic and nearly missed our flight. The staff at Virgin took excellent care to make sure we were on the plane, but alas, our luggage had to wait until the next flight out to San Francisco.

My daughter's veil was in my luggage, so with great trepidation I agreed to allow it to be sent separately. That night (next morning NY time) I called Virgin to make sure that my suitcase was indeed sent along.

The luggage arrived as scheduled and the bag was even marked for special handling. The staff was excellent the entire time, especially when I explained about the veil.

Another thumbs up goes to Delta who handled my mother's special needs attentively during our last coast to coast from Newark to Fresno. I had booked the flight on line and indicated that Mom is handicapped. The airline(s) were careful to make sure that a wheel chair and porter was available at all times during initial boarding as well as the layovers in SLC.

My experience with Cathay Pacific was absolutely wonderful. They still offer complimentary in-flight meals, by the way. Tasty ones, too!

So, the moral of the story is, there are still people who care enough about their jobs to do them well, and some of them work for the airlines. But I agree wholeheartedly with the new legislation regarding fines for leaving human beings trapped in a can for more than 3 hours, especially since once we board we have basically waived all of our rights. I was a big fan of JetBlue before that whole fiasco, now I won't fly them.

Shop by airline and not by price. Reward those who treat you right.

P.S. United left 6 servicemen stranded at LAX for 9 hours last November - if there had been some communication on the part of the airline, they could have gotten another ride to Fresno and been home 4 hours later - but the staff at the gate couldn't be bothered. My son-in-law's unit now refuses to fly United.

Airline Service Quality

William, unfortunately the bottom line is that carriers are fully aware of their failed processes and are absolutely willing to compromise quality and satisfaction if it maximizes profit (or minimizes loss) based on their business models. They are willing to overbook flights more than 10% over actual capacity fully realizing that they will inconvenience a small percentage of the customers. We have all heard the pleas for passengers to accept some remuneration for volunteering to take a later flight. They believe that they are still improving profit by paying customers to accept a lower quality of service. The competitive environment has lead to wholesale outsourcing of some services to low bid contractors also fully realizing that there is an impact to customer satisfaction. While there is some competition to perhaps infuriate fewer customers than the market, they are still willing to deliver poor quality of service. Until the customers realize that they are really getting what they pay for and will agree to pay more for improved service and amenities, this madness is not going to change.

Luggage and delays

I have encountered several instances where my luggage arrived on a flight before the one carrying me. The first question on my mind is "How can this happen because passengers and luggage are NEVER allowed to travel on different aircraft!" This has been "explained" to me several times (Federal rules, no less!) when I try to capture a last minute seat which is available on the earlier flight, but alas checked baggage prevents my earlier, desirable, departure.

It would be great if media personnel asked better questions. For example, "How often do you consider it permissible to have delays caused by leasing a number of gates at our airport?" At my airport one (well known and generally profitable) airline leases two gates. It also has three different flights using the two gates over the course of 75 minutes in the afternoon. When the first two arrivals are late, guess what happens to the third? I was scheduled to depart on the third aircraft which was delayed so much I could not make a connection and had to rent a hotel room at my cost at the connecting airport (You know, the weather was bad. . .). Instead of brushing this off as "due to weather" we should learn how often this is considered acceptable.

Other pet airline peeves

You forgot the incessent lying at the gate regarding delays, flight status and the like. What's so wrong with being honest- most of us are adults!

No excuse, sir?

I hear what you are saying and you make many good points. I especially appreciate that you offered a reasonable suggestion for corrective action on the early luggage arrival incident.
But I can’t help but think how much this just sounds like another case of taking advantage of the opportunity to blast an easy target. Everybody hates the airlines and what good press it is to come out with both barrels firing and rip into them for everything we can in one short article. I guess quality writers are no different from the rest of media when it comes to jumping on the bandwagon.
A couple other thoughts I had during the article:
- Are you willing to pay more? After all, airlines have been losing money and going bankrupt for years. Somewhere in between the two extremes of being totally incompetent managers and having the economic deck totally stacked against them lies the truth. I’m sure it is not at either end of the continuum. But improvements don’t always come for free.
- Would you accept it if an airline executive just took one of the cadet lines and said “No excuse sir”, left it at that and walked away? Or would you accuse him or her of not facing the music. I believe if you want to criticize a person in a leadership position, you will criticize no matter what they say. So nice try with the cadet reference, but I think if he said ‘no excuse sir” you’d rip him for that.
- I always question motive when I hear the comment “they don’t care about quality” , “total disregard for quality”, “little evidence of any genuine desire to improve”, etc. I always assume it’s done for sport and effect when values are assumed and attacked.
- I did see the comment from KJP about the insiders point of view. Too bad. I was hoping it wasn’t really as bad as that, and I know sometimes its sour grapes coming from insiders, but it is not surprising. Heavy beaurocracies tend to create those problems. I hope they can fix it.

Insider Point of view


Having come from Automotive and now working for a major airline, I can only say your comments are completely on target. FMEA, Lean, and Six either have been tried and abandoned or in most cases have never been pursued.

The management style is that of 1920's American manufacturing. Most amazing to me is the lack of software used to track the dozens of government forms utilized in day to day activities. 15% of the workforce could be eliminated as well as 50% of the errors with a basic ERP.

People are promoted based upon tenure not ability and unlike most industries I’ve worked in; everyone has been here at least 20 years. And oh yeah don’t forget we have unions mixed throughout some groups but not others.

Some of the parts manufacturers, maybe 25%, are versed in improvement methods but not the airlines themselves. With the possible exception of Southwest.

Airlines driving customers away

Despite the opportunities for Amtrak, they have their own logistical issues with the "host" railroads and bureaucrats (read Congress). Limitations on available equipment also play a big role. Even so, Amtrak has made great strides in the positive direction in many areas, while the airlines continue to rob the passengers at every turn. Where else in business can you pay more and get the same service or even less for your money!