The labor cost. Follow Up

The Fort Worth Star Telegram’s Mitchell Schnurman has THIS POST on SkyTalk about companies keeping morale high to maintain profitability.  It’s timely since it coincides with my own blog post about the labor cost that American Airlines is incurring with its battle over costs with the unions.

Profitability is about quite a few things in a major company such as an airline.  It’s about keeping a strict eye on costs, certainly.  It’s also about keeping a close eye on cash flow and cash holdings.  One little storm can cost an airline tens of millions of dollars.  It’s about maintaining strong metrics in ontime departures and arrivals and it’s about being smart enough to buy a fleet to do the job you have without overextending oneself.

Some airlines have been profitable with poor labor relations.  Generally that has occurred at a “peak” in the airline industry curve and almost always when contracts are in place and not up for re-negotiation.

How an airline survives the downturn in the airline industry has a lot to do with employee morale.  Employees with a strong, loyal morale tend to fight for their company.  They realize that their jobs and their success are tied to their airline succeeding more often with more customers more of the time in those bad times.

Employee morale isn’t about high salaries.  It really isn’t.  Study after study has shown that employee morale can’t be maintained at a high level with just a high salary.

It’s about making employees a part of the business.  Giving ownership of problem solving to employees who experience the problems.  Providing a share in the profitability and providing benefits that allow them to feel secure with their families while they work.   It’s also about employees perceiving “shared pain” on the part of their management team when things are bad.  There is nothing worse than an executive earning a bonus while other employees are “sharing the pain”.

A workplace where treatment is both fair and just is also important.  Valuing the inputs of a baggage handler should be just as important as valuing the financial analyst who monitors and sets pricing.

It isn’t just about your union employees delivering great service to customers either.  It’s about being able to get agreements to cover your needs now and the future.  A company that is doing right by its employees is better able to negotiate union contracts to cover new flying, new aircraft and new partnerships.  The faster you can negotiate those contracts, the more competitive advantage an airline has.

It’s notable that Southwest and Delta airlines are working very hard with their union employees to put new contracts into place to cover opportunities for new business very quickly.  It’s also notable that airlines such as American Airlines and United Airlines aren’t doing too well with their employees and aren’t executing new strategies to compete and, most importantly, earn sustaining profits.

Employee morale isn’t the only key factor to success.  But it is one of the top 2 or 3 key factors and one that several airline CEOs seem to be ignoring more and more as time passes by.  Historically, the airlines who have done well both in regulated and deregulated environments with respect to profitability are those that had genuine leaders as CEOs.  Shareholders would be wise to pay more attention to leadership at the helm and a little less attention to quarterly profitability.

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