Air Transport World

Talking to employees: airlines discover internal communications.

Talking to employes: airlines discover internal communications Airline employe communications programs in the U.S. for decades were typified by industry publications that lived on a diet of flattering chief executive portraits and "dead fish and bowling ball" photos of employes. In the past several years, however, a new attempt to improve employe communications has swept the industry. "Everyone is doing it, some better than others," said one industry analyst. "It is the 'in' thing."

In the early 1980s, when airlines ran into a debilitating recession for the first time without the protection of the Civil Aeronautics Board, some airlines realized early on the value of effective employe communications. The toll competition had taken on the industry was bound to increase due to the dual pressure of new entrants and recession. Profound change, not cosmetics or lip service to change, was forced on carriers.

American Airlines Chairman and President Robert Crandall saw that if he was going to take the airline anywhere in the new environment he needed his employes to come along. Recognizing the task would be easier if they volunteered for the trip, Crandall and other American managers started to speak candidly about what the airline had to do, how it had to change to survive and propser in the new world.

American success

Starting with generalities, the communications program worked towards specifics. In late 1982, American published a pamphlet, "A Blueprint For The Future," and mailed it directly to every member of the Transport Workers Union. The pamphlet spelled out in very clear terms and specific numbers exactly what management offered in the upcoming contract negotiations. Similar pamphlets followed to the other American labor groups. By late 1983 American had a remarkable achievement: All of its unions had agreed to the revolutionary two-tier wage rates. A few months later American placed its 163-aircraft order for McDonnell Douglas MD-80s, and the airline's expansion was off and running.

The point is not that the two-tier is such a wonderful thing--that is still in debate. The point is that American, followed by Western, PSA and others, went to its employes with an information effort that was perceived as credible and reasonable by the labor groups. These groups recognized the industrial environment had been revolutionized by deregulation and changes had to be made. By talking to employes as a group of intelligent, thoughtful people who were not so captivated by greed as to be willing to drive their companies into the ground before giving ground, these airline managers not only saved their companies, but early on set their airlines on a course for success.

Many of the existing expanded communications programs were born out of a need to get specific agreements from employee groups. Now, however, airlines say these programs have become fixtures, growing even more, as management has become aware of the continued need. …

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