American Airlines’ Latest Fiasco: Don’t Blame The Employees

A lack of accountability always starts with leadership.

You may have seen the recent news story about the American Airlines flight that went horribly wrong for a Kentucky youth group.

A pastor leading a group of forty teenagers on a mission to help children in Mexico showed up at the airport with plenty of time to spare to make their flight. They were two hours early. But when they got to the front of the line at the check-in counter, things went haywire. One American Airlines employee insisted to another employee that the best way to check this group into the flight was to process all forty passenger tickets, and then to process all forty bags. This unorthodox advice, which I can’t imagine was the proper operational procedure, launched a cascading sequence of errors that resulted in the kids and their pastor spending over ninety minutes at the counter, trying to get themselves and their bags checked in!

Once everyone and their bags were finally taken care of, the group made a mad dash for security and then ran for their gate … but when they got to their gate, the American Airlines employee on duty told them that the doors had closed.

They were three minutes late, and they would not be allowed on the plane.

The kids and their pastor begged. They pleaded. They explained what had happened back at the counter. None of it mattered. The woman on duty wouldn’t open the door. That plane took off withoutforty of its passengers!

How does something like that happen? Good question.

The kids couldn’t book another flight until the next day. They had worked hard and raised $1,500 to go on this trip … but they ended up missing two days of it, and incurring additional bills for hotels and meals that they didn’t expect — all because of a series of poor decisions from a series of American Airlines employees.

This story went viral quickly, as well it should have. But we mustn’t miss the point. This was not really a story about employees.

It would be too easy for us to focus on the outcomes:  that ninety-minute check-in delay, or the image of the gate attendant knowingthat forty of her passengers were missing (as she must have known), and choosing not to open up the gate and let them in, even after the kids explained what had happened. And it would be too easy for us to assign blame to the employees who seem to have produced those outcomes.

If we blamed them, we would be missing the point. This was actually a failure of culture, which means it was a failure of leadership.

Here is what I mean. The leadership of a great organization has an obligation to make a special kind of commitment to its employees, a commitment that they can always feel safe in asking for help when they need it, and always feel comfortable enough in their work environment to know they will never be penalized for asking for help. It is obvious [1] that that wasn’t happening here… and that, right now American is not living up to that commitment. As a result, its customers and its employees are suffering.

It’s clear from the various accounts of the incident that oneoverworked front-line employee was left to do the vast majority of the work in checking in this very large group. She either didn’t know how to do her job properly, which would be a training failure, or she didn’t have the tools and support she needed to do it properly. Add to that the very real possibility that she may not have felt safe enough to ask a colleague or a manager for the help she obviously needed. I suspect is she was afraid to ask. Don’t blame her for that. Blame the leadership that let her down.

What about the employee who looked at those forty kids and their pastor and told them that, because they were three minutes late, they couldn’t get on their flight? My bet is she either didn’t know how common it is to hold a flight for a large group (hint: it’s verycommon), or she was afraid to suggest something along those lines to the flight crew. The first situation would be a failure of training; the second would be a failure to provide a workplace where people feel safe enough to speak up about how they can do the job better. Both are failures of leadership. Again: Don’t blame her. Blame the leadership that let her down.

This was not really a customer service failure. And it was not an isolated incident, either. It was yet another symptom of a systemic cultural problem at American, a pattern in which employees fail to develop accountability toward customers… because leadersfail to demonstrate consistent accountability to their employees. The accountable leader is always committed to create a safe environment where employees can thrive.

This was a leadership failure. Specifically, it was a failure of culture. If you want to make sure that kind of failure doesn’t happen in your organization, make a personal commitment to your team to give them a working environment where they feel safe enough to ask for help when they need it, secure in the knowledge they will never be penalized for doing so. Then follow through on that commitment. Accountable leaders build accountable organizations!


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