Leadership “At the Front”
Let me start with a short story about a trip I recently took. On my return, I was booked on a 1055 departure from an airport from which I had not previously flown, connecting to another flight in Houston, TX. I had no idea how slowly (or quickly) the security line would move, so I showed up with plenty of time (and, of course, went through security in about two minutes). There was no airplane at the gate when I got there because the airplane was coming from another airport, and making a stop at Houston. The weather was very foggy and did not improve. The flight that was supposed to arrive at my airport at 0925 couldn’t get into Houston and had to divert. This was known at about 0820. By 0900, with no airplane, we were told that the flight was being cancelled because there was no airplane. I was rebooked on a 1915 departure that evening. You can imagine all the fun that I and my fellow passengers had waiting around the (very small) airport all day. At about 1840, we were told that the inbound flight was delayed, but that it would arrive at about 1930. By 1930, with no airplane at the gate, we were told it was scheduled to leave Houston at 1950 and we would depart at 2040. When the flight arrived, we boarded and pushed back from the gate only to be held because of weather at Houston (my connecting destination). After waiting on the airplane for an hour with two status updates from the pilots, we taxied back to the gate, and we all lined up to get rebooked. I tried to rebook via telephone while waiting for the other passengers to work with the gate agents. After explaining to the phone agent that I would not connect through Houston to Los Angeles in order to connect to Denver – all the next day, I finally gave up and, working with the gate agents, was rebooked for a 0830 departure to Houston to connect to a Denver flight. Over a period of more than twelve hours, we were informed of the situation no more than four times. I know I was extremely frustrated, and I think my fellow passengers were too. This was not the worst experience that any traveler ever had, but neither was it a good experience.
So, where does the leadership come into play? The morning of my 0830 departure (the day after my originally scheduled flight), as I was waiting at the gate, an airline employee came to the gate (we knew he was an airline employee because he was wearing an airline “high visibility” vest). He started asking for our observations and thoughts about the previous day’s experience. He was the airline’s airport manager. This was his second week on the job, and, while he knew the details of what had happened the day before, he wanted to know what we, his customers, thought about it and what could be done to make it better.
It would have been very easy for this man to stay in his office and not risk being exposed to angry and inconvenienced customers, but he didn’t do that. He stepped up and engaged us directly (and very personably). He listened to us and he discussed what needed to be done and what might be done. Obviously, one thing that he could do immediately, was to improve the frequency of communication – even if that is to say that nothing has changed. The only other thing he could do was relay to the airline company that modern airplanes aren’t the only thing that needs to be up to date. The airlines are in the business of moving us (you and me) from where we are to where we want to be – when they said they would. A huge part of that is situational awareness, and that requires coordination among a number of different organizations; the airport, the airline dispatchers, and the FAA. Not a simple task, but one that is being done in other areas, but enough of that.
The point here is that the local leader (airline manager for the airport) stepped up and asked how he might be able to do things to avoid the kind of experience that I and my fellow passengers had the day before. He didn’t wait for a report or listen only to the airline employees’ side of the story – he wanted the raw data. I think that shows good leadership – at the front.