How Radio is Like United Airlines

How Radio is Like United Airlines

Uh oh…


I fly a lot. I’ve got several million miles now logged on United Airlines alone and I hardly ever fly them domestically.

They almost always give me a complimentary upgrade to Business Class or First Class on international flights, and give me free international upgrade certificates to fall back on when they don’t. That is appreciated.

Still, I’ve watched service to customers decline over the past 20+ years, in small ways and large.

But I was shocked when I saw the video of security officers physically dragging an older Chinese man off his United flight because the airline had supposedly sold his seat for a higher fare. He was literally ‘bumped,’ left bleeding and dazed, because the airline wanted to maximize the fare for the seat he’d been given.

My son and his girlfriend, who is a medical doctor trained at Johns Hopkins, are both Type 1 diabetics, though neither knew that about the other before they started dating seriously.

They are on a trek right now through Patagonia, each carrying 40-pound backpacks along with a smaller pack that holds their insulin, testing meters, test strips and insertion equipment, as well as old fashioned syringes as a backup to pump failure.

Understand that diabetics will die without insulin, so its not like ibuprofen or thera-flu or viagra. And its not like Type 1 diabetes is rare. While the cause is unknown, the number of Americans diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes has increased by about 20% since 2001.

Yet my son is challenged at every TSA checkpoint. He is often forced to remove his insulin pump, which requires a painful re-insertion, as TSA agents making $10 an hour study it like something fallen from outer space.

And last Friday, on their way to Santiago. Chile, to begin their adventure, American Airlines refused to allow Chad’s girlfriend to board the plane with her insulin equipment, even though it was small enough to fit under her seat. They forced her to check it at the gate, and then — mistakenly, supposedly — sent it off with all the other luggage to baggage claim. Just for the record, that is a violation of the ADA federal law.

They voiced this violation. They produced letters from their personal physicians explaining their diabetes and the necessity of having their medical equipment, including insulin, accessible at all times.

AA had already misplaced their backpacks. They discovered that upon landing in Miami.They already knew they would be waiting for those to arrive on a later flight after they landed in Santiago.

Now they  had to decide whether to board their AA connection from Miami to Santiago, knowing they were trusting ground personnel in Miami to actually find and forward her insulin, without which she cannot live.

Guess what? They lost it.

And they were brusque and rude and inflexible at every customer touch point.

The problem is, if Chad and Natalie had protested too loudly, become outwardly angry, demanded to speak to supervisors, they could have been legally bumped from their flight. Gate agents now have the authority to kick you off any flight if you don’t treat them with deference, or you question their decisions.

“Relentless pressure on corporate America is creating an increasingly Dickensian experience for many consumers as companies focus on maximizing profit. And nowhere is the trend as stark as in the airline industry, whose service is delivered in an aluminum tube packed with up to four different classes, cheek by jowl, 35,000 feet in the air.”

There’s always been pressure from Wall Street,” said Robert L. Dilenschneider, a veteran public relations executive who advises companies and chief executives on strategic communications. “But I’ve been watching this for 30 years, and it’s never been as intense as it is today.”

“Rich bonus packages for top executives are now largely tied to short-term income targets and fatter profit margins instead of customer service. Of course, bolstering profits — and in turn, stock prices — has always been a big part of management’s responsibility to shareholders, but making it virtually the only criterion for executive pay is new.

Those quotes are from a piece in the NY TIMES by Nelson D. Schwartz. (Subscription may be required)

The smaller indignities were easy to overlook in the rushed and stressful process that is airline travel today, but that got my attention.

And once it had my attention it awakened my awareness of just how much things have changed, even for someone who flies hundreds of thousands of miles every year.

And that made me even more dissatisfied than I had been.

It has led me to look for international flight alternatives that might provide a better experience, like Emirates or Singapore Airlines.

Here’s the point, though: I think consolidated Radio is a bit like the airline industry.

The quality of what we offer listeners has declined over the past 20+ years. Drip by drip we’re growing the canyon between us and our listeners.

There is relentless pressure on GMs and Market Managers to squeeze every penny out of every budget.

And the last thing most Radio executives are spending their day thinking about is the listener.

When any business begins to focus more on what it can do for its top execs than on the consumers who keep the business strong, decline is inevitable.

The bright spot?

There won’t be video showing security dragging our best talent out of their studios. Most left quietly years ago.

And there won’t be video of irate listeners screaming outrage and profanities at the way we’ve treated them.

They’ll just move on to what’s next and rarely think of us again.

On second thought, that’s not such a bright spot after all.