Sunday, August 12, 2018

Gutter Ballet

Most of you who know me, or read my posts, know that I am a capitalist through and through.  My thoughts and opinions on various topics usually side with management or Wall Street.  In this case though, I'm departing from the norm.

By now, you have probably heard of the story from Friday, August 10, and the theft of a Horizon Air Bombardier Q400 from a Cargo/Maintenance stand at Seattle/Tacoma Airport by a "disturbed and disgruntled" Horizon Air employee.  I won't go into the story of the joyride around the skies of Puget Sound either, that's been covered.  Nor will I paint the employee as disturbed, disgruntled, or suicidal.  It is still FAR too early to to start guessing.  What I will do in this post though, is go through the turmoil the front-line employees face at not only Alaska Air Group (AAG, the parent company of Alaska Airlines and it's regional subsidiary Horizon Air), but at other airlines as well.  I'm also going to touch on the subject of suicide.  It's more of an epidemic in this country than opioids, the Mexican cartels, or porn (yes, the Governor of Utah says porn is an epidemic).

As I stated above, normally I take the side of management in airline employee relations.  In this case, especially against AAG (and JetBlue Airways, my friends there tell me the almost exact same horror stories), I am firmly on the side of the employees.  Thanks to a management that is hyper-focused on its costs - perhaps at the expense of it's employees well-being - Alaska and Horizon employees work in a stressful environment.  AAG has been battling with Delta Air Lines and it's massive new Seattle hub.  Alaska Airlines, itself still integrating Virgin America, a merger which some industry watchers feel is a costly, badly-timed, and poorly-executed merger, went to the negotiating table with it's various unions in order to come up with a plan to cut costs further that would allow the merger to go through.  Work rule changes were adopted, and the cost-cutting became so micromanaged that AAG's flight attendants were instructed to stop offering the popular Biscoff cookies as a snack.  Passengers and Flight Attendants alike came close to a revolt, and the airline capitulated.

If you listen to AAG's earnings calls or read their SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) filings, the company's Board of Director's and Executive Management will do ANYTHING to keep the stock price from falling.  That is simply all they care about, employees and services be damned, as long as Wall Street is happy and the JD Power awards keep coming in.

BUT..the JD Powers awards reflect only what the passengers opinions are, not the airlines' employees.

AAG's employees (whose unions appear to be impotent in helping their members) bear the brunt of the cost-cutting actions.  Several colleagues at AAG have come forward and told me of their woes at AAG.

"We get those shiny JD Powers awards, and instead of bonuses like at Delta, we are given Positive Space passes instead.  How will positive space passes feed my kids?"  - Alaska Customer Service Agent, Seattle.

The positive space passes might be great for the bright eyed interns who work for nothing and are gaining experience while in school, but it does not cut it for someone trying to feed their family to pay the bills (a stark contrast to Delta Air Lines, who in 2017 awarded it's employees $1.1 Billion in profit-sharing).

"Mandatory Overtime is killing us.  I come home with my paycheck not showing the correct amount of hours as OT, sometimes none at all.  We get worked to the bone by the powers-that-be, and we love our work, but we also need to get paid for it." Horizon Ramp Agent, Boise.

Stations all over the AAG system do it.  Some use it to good effect and keep the operation humming nicely, and the employees happy.  Others, like at the hubs, not so much.

"I was sent to training in Seattle.  I had told about my health issues to the trainers and they said it wouldn't be a problem in the training rooms.  2 days later I was on a flight home to SLC for a flareup of my Chron's disease.  My boss back home was surprised but was under orders to reassign me to a non customer-facing position."  Alaska CSA/Ramp Agent - Salt Lake City.

AAG trainers and their superiors are known for churning and turning their training classes, usually with a few dropouts or burnouts.  There have been cases of AAG employees reaching out to AAG HR for physical, medical or mental help.  All AAG did was give them the Employee Assistance Hotline number and never bothered following up.  A few have tried committing suicide, but thank God they survived.

"I was struck by a debilitating disease and my superiors promised my position would stay the same and once I was better, they would make whatever accommodations necessary to aid in my return to work.  Not only did I get my diagnosis, but I found out I was pregnant as well.  Once they found out, I was out of their picture." JetBlue Systems Controller, Orlando.

It's amazing to think some of these supposedly beloved companies are this harsh on employees.  Or is it?  I've worked at JetBlue as well, and let me tell you.  It doesn't surprise me in the least.  These airlines that are under pressure need to wake up and realize their medically challenged folks need to be looked out for.

Now, I watched the press conference the other day with leaders from AAG, Horizon, and the Port of Seattle.  Only briefly did they gloss over the Employee Assistance Program.  A single sentence.  That's it.  Done.  Next Question.

Depression and Suicide are an epidemic in this country, and no one is willing to have a frank and honest conversation about it.  Thousands of us suffer and fight the demons in silence.  I've fought them since I was about 15 years old.  The silence must stop and we need to speak up.  Us airline folk tend to stick together, especially during the hardest times, but we don't have to fight alone.  If anyone ever needs to talk, I'm always around.  You see tons of posts from blissfully ignorant and pseudo-helpful folks claiming they will listen if you need to talk and then post the number to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, but who better to listen to you than a real friend or cohort who knows exactly what you're fighting with?  I'm not saying the NSPH is a bad thing, far from, it has helped many people overcome and get help.  It might have done a world of good for Rich, instead he may have only seen one way out.  We don't know.  I refuse to paint him into any corner until the investigations are complete.  My condolences to his family and friends, and to my friends at AAG.

For airlines like AAG and JetBlue, it's a race to the bottom, quite literally, into the gutter.  The dance the employees make to keep up appearances and keep the flights on-time and profitable, and bags onto the carousel within 20 minutes, is at best, a ballet on razor blades.  To my dearest friends in the trenches, keep up the fight, and make Brad Tilden, Robin Hayes, and their respective Boards of Directors LISTEN.