American Airlines’ Mission Failure: A Lesson in Corporate Culture

You may have seen the story a couple of years back about a group of 41 Oklahoma fifth-graders and their teachers, booked on a once-in-a-lifetime field trip to Washington, D.C., were unceremoniously abandoned in the terminal by the world’s largest air carrier, American Airlines.

Photo by John McArthur on Unsplash

The kids had been planning their trip for over a year. American left the youngsters and the teachers stranded… by cancelling the June 2 flight from Oklahoma City to Virginia without arranging a replacement flight. The airline offered a refund, but that didn’t solve the issue at hand for the kids and their teachers. They needed to get across the country! American’s response was, in essence, “Not our problem.”

That was not just a scheduling failure. It was a failure of corporate culture. Enter Delta Airlines.

“When we heard about this group of students booked on another airline that (was) stuck in Oklahoma City,” said Delta duty director Jeff Trainer, “there wasn’t even a consideration given to not making an effort in finding a solution…When we see people in a bind, we don’t see customers of one airline or another. We see people.” Delta arranged for a chartered plane to fly the students directly to their ultimate destination, Washington D.C.–and, yes, Delta enjoyed a public relations triumph over a major competitor as a result. But I think this episode illustrates a lot more than an attempt to win positive media coverage. I think it illustrates the difference between two very different kinds of corporate cultures.

For a bunch of American employees (not just one!) to notice what was going on with those kids, and then not take appropriate action to fix the situation, there has to be what I call a corporate culture by default. This kind of corporate culture is based on priorities like covering your anatomy, not getting in trouble, and not taking the initiative when a special situation arises. This is not a culture based on a vision, a mission, and a set of values communicated from the top and then lived from the top. It is, typically, a culture based on the lowest, least inspiring common denominators in the workplace: fear and insecurity.

When a culture by default is driving the decisions on the ground, it doesn’t matter what the formal mission statement is. And just for the record: if you were to go to American’s website today and look for a mission statement, you would not find one. And neither would any of American’s employees! The airline used to have one, but apparently it is under construction now. Guess what? Until a compelling vision, mission, and values are consciously set and lived from the top down, that airline is like a 747 flying without a destination. It will land in some strange places, because it is following a culture by default. American is going to continue to produce lousy outcomes, like ten-year old kids tweeting about how they were abandoned by the world’s biggest airline and rescued by a competitor. Why? Because our actions always reflect our guiding beliefs and our culture.

American’s actions in this case demonstrated a belief that getting people where they need to go, when they need to get there, is not a major priority. That is why its people made the decisions they did. Make no mistake: Those decisions were not the employees’ failure. They were a mission failure, a failure of leadership.

Now consider the flip side. For a bunch of Delta employees (not just one!) to notice what was going on with those kids, and then choose to take appropriate action to fix the situation, there has to be what I call a corporate culture by design.

This is the opposite of a culture by default. It is something you choose, something you live, every day, on purpose. I have already shared what I believe are the signs of a major corporate culture failure at American: high among these is the inability of employees or anyone else to even find the airline’s vision, mission, and values online! Here, in sharp contrast, is what you find when you search for those same things on Delta’s website:

Mission Statement

We—Delta’s employees, customers, and community partners–together form a force for positive local and global change, dedicated to bettering standards of living and the environment where we and our customers live and work.

Vision Statement

To Be the World’s Most Trusted Airline.

Values

Honesty: always tell the truth

Integrity: always keep your deals

Respect: don’t hurt anyone

Perseverance: never give up

Servant Leadership: care for everyone

My point is not that Delta never messes up. My point is that, unlike American, Delta has elucidated a clear mission, a clear vision, and a clear value set that its employees, in this case, were 100% aligned with. As a result, they weren’t thinking transactionally when they saw a problem on the ground in Oklahoma City. They weren’t even thinking about whether the kids were customers of Delta! They were thinking about the relationship, not the transaction. And what was the result? A new group of engaged advocates for the Delta brand–the friends and families of those students and teachers, not to mention countless people (like me) who heard about what happened and were inspired by Delta’s choices!

This episode gives you some sense of the immense power of a culture by design … the kind of corporate culture that I believe companies like American need to focus on building and sustaining.

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