Play Date at the Airlines - Part 3: Airline Culture and Common Issues

08 Jul 2017

Update: Version 1.1.0 can be found via PDF here. This is Version 1.0.0 on this page currently.

Originally I was going to talk about airline employee views intertwined with insider threat first. Except I realise context is important. Sorry if we haven’t gotten to the good stuff yet (at least what I consider 3cute5me), I promise it’s coming soon. Think of this as recon? Since it is.

Disclaimer: Everything here was done either in research, observance, Google-ing, there’s no SSI.


Airline family culture

Have you ever been to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in DC? I highly recommend it, they really go into depth throughout the exhibits of the commercialisation of air travel across the decades.

Why I bring this up is that air travel for commercial leisure is historically still fairly new and things are still being worked out. Outside of KLM in 1919 in the 1920s commercial airlines began springing up. The FAA was created in 1967 as a part of the DoT. Over the last decades and even in recent times with the US Airways merger with American Airlines there have been a lot of mergers into what we know as the primary largest legacy airlines: United Airlines, Delta, American Airlines.

This also means entire generations of airline families have occurred in this time. It is not uncommon for someone to work side by side with their parent, a grandparent, a great grandparent, maybe even more. Cool right?

You tend to see folks especially with seniority raving to one another fondly about the good old days in companies they worked for before they were acquired. The easiest modern day company to target would be United Airlines: employees refer to themselves by “old United” or “old Continental” rather than just “United”. This isn’t fair, however, as you’ll often hear the rundown of various companies through other acquisitions such as Delta of Northwest Airlines, the latest merger of US Airways employees into American Airlines, and more.

Everyone who is an airline peep is considered to be family moreso if they come from the same (series of) companies. I’m not sure how to describe this feeling if you’re not an airline employee or have never been a part of an airline family legacy, but there’s a very strong intimate familial bond that forms amongst folks.

I can attest that some of my strongest bonds I’ve ever made in my life so far have been my airline family, I love you all so much.

The point to this is that there is at least some type of acknowledgement or immediate attachment to other airline folks. It may be because of things like the work hours, for trainings and for business you’re likely going to be gone for weeks, more if you’re above a regular agent, you can’t talk about your work (I’m sure many folks with government clearances know this feeling very well) a lot due to SSI to someone without the same “need to know” basis, the stress and constant change that’s always happening.

When you get recruited into the airlines and undergo the training they emphasise the need to be able to adapt to change easily. Except for a lot of folks that’s easier said than done. Most folks struggle, throw in the confusion with conflicting information and that’s a recipe for disgruntled employees who end up being apathetic to changes (or the seniority gets to their heads). It’s nice being able to talk about your frustration with someone else who gets it, right?

Plus it’s really fun to talk with someone who understands you completely about how awesome your regular was and that you can’t wait to see them next week or how darn awful that one flight you worked was.

Speaking a ‘different language’ with airline lingo

Well golly that said here’s a quick run down again on some vocabulary pertaining much more to the gates in-depth now. This will come in handy soon.

Lets recap from earlier quick: folks inside of the airlines trust each other a lot, due to the nature of the work with SSI and other restrictions. They can’t really talk to anyone else about their issues/complaints, their airline colleagues are their second families.

With all the various systems and components that go into a passenger getting onto an aeroplane to their destination there’s a lot of vocabulary and things viewed as intimately just inner airline culture references. Essentially they feel like they speak a different language with airline lingo and jargon assuming (rightfully so for most) passengers do not know what they are talking about.

They’re pretty proud of that, too. That idea is played out in the form of training new hires to not use airline jargon else they may confuse the passengers (which is usually true) to openly talking about things without fear of being understood.

Ever had an agent kind of just blabber off into their own world totally ignoring you while they rebook you? That’s why.

Small stations vs hubs

The differences between those who work at a small station to an international hub are staggering for most airline employees. Folks at smaller stations tend to do multiple roles (e.g. ticketing and gates) compared to hubs where people rarely, if ever, switch in their careers to a different area. This is due to the highly competitive seniority bids for schedules and departments.

Plus there’s a ton more people.

Yes, you’re probably thinking right if you’re thinking on this while reading it. Due to having no exposure to other duties and positions most employees at hubs have a very limited knowledge set outside of their daily functions.

Travel tip: Don’t trust your ticket agent if they say, “Yeah your flight is okay,” if you know that other flights are delaying. Whether it’s because they legitimately don’t know or that they don’t want to deal with you, they have no idea how the gates work at all. It’s a foreign concept for them.

Overwhelming changes

It sounds like I’m stuck in a loop but golly I can’t emphasise this enough: they are constantly changing information whether by federal or international requirements or for internal reasons. It’s really, really, hard to keep up for most folks because they just want their day to end when it ends. I’m just a weirdo who’s super obsessed with these things. That said there’s a massive variance in what people know whether it’s a lack of knowledge or only recalling a previous standard.

I’m sure you go through a lot of training too but airline employees get a ton. I know, I was the one that had to make sure everyone did them and they had to deal with me chasing after them when they didn’t do their trainings. I know first hand that it really is overwhelming to most folks. Plus how are most folks really supposed to remember it all if it doesn’t matter to them until that one edge case happens so why should they care?

Of course you can and should argue that really, they should know things if they’ve done the training. That’s why they were hired? Except at the end of the day though they’re human, they want the work day to end so they can get home, just like everyone else. They can do their jobs and that’s what matters to them. Who really cares about that edge case? (Well I do but not the point here).

But hey it’s one more thing to complain about with your fellow colleagues, right?

Random aside I learned that apparently trying to rally employee moral by doing all of the training for both ATW and BTW to show it won’t take that long isn’t helpful at all. Especially since I’m me?

Outsourcing pains

Airlines are outsourcing, especially at smaller stations or departments (e.g. baggage service, ramp) to groundhandlers. They tend to wear a lot more hats, are overwhelmed, overworked, be less trained than mainline employees, and are more likely to overlook things in specific duties that a specialised employee would not miss. Look at airline targeted news for information on outsourcing at various airlines where they typically list all the stations impacted.

There’s a lot of anger, resentment, and feelings of betrayal for employees of those stations. Full disclosure I ended up at a groundhandler with just a handful of former mainline employees from my station. All the union folks were called scabs and other things by other union members who ended up leaving for other mainline stations (unhappily).

At my station luckily there were a few folks who ensured the transition would go fairly smoothly. On the other hand there were many stories about other stations where (former) mainline employees purposely sabotaged the new workers by destroying and removing things necessary for the operation to work.

It’s really hard to get a plane off the ground if you can’t figure out how to order fuel, don’t have the credentials to sign in nonetheless a phone number to get dispatch paperwork release, none of the required manuals or instructions on how to do anything, actually you’re now locked out of a crucial area and you don’t have the phone number for the airport either since the entire flipbook of numbers is gone, can’t find telex printer paper…

… or can’t even find where the telex printer is, and so forth.

If you’ve ever come across an employee who has had to move elsewhere or change to a groundhandler due to this, more often than not you’ll hear the disdain clearly. They’ll likely openly rant about it for a while. Then move on to the next passenger behind you.

Airline and home station loyalty really is that strong.