We often hear people use the term "culture" and
it usually is in reference to someone's ethnic background
or the difference between THOSE people and Americans.
But the term also refers to how we operate in our personal
and work environments. The dictionary defines the word culture
as "the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns,
arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human
work and thought." It also characterizes culture as "the
predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize the
functioning of a group or organization."
It is in this context of organizational character that I
want to tell you how each of us, sometimes unwittingly, can
impact the culture of others.
In our ever-shrinking world of business, mergers have become
commonplace. We sometimes bemoan the results of those mergers,
as when fewer and fewer oil companies lead to higher prices
that seem to increase more rapidly than ever, or when it seems
newspaper and electronic media ownership is concentrated in
fewer and fewer hands.
I want to share with you a merger in progress that I have
been watching evolve, ever so slowly, and realizing how much
we, as consumers, actually influence the development and finalization
of these business marriages.
My business travels have forced me to focus on less-than-a-handful
of airlines in order to maximize my effectiveness in getting
where I need to go and ensuring the ensuing mileage rewards
that will lead to some benefits for being on the road so much.
Cost is always a factor so I have decided on using Southwest
Airlines (a long-time favorite), Alaska Airlines (mostly for
north-south travels in the Western U.S.), and America West
Airlines, which is currently merging with U.S. Airways.
The merger of AW and U.S. Air has gotten to the point where
if one airline can't get you somewhere, its online reservations
program automatically tells you if its pending marriage partner
can. Therefore, I may end up heading east on America West
and return on U.S. Airways, or vice versa.
And it's been during these "partner" trips that
I have learned that there's a culture war of sorts going on
between crews of both airlines. They are fighting not only
for their individual survival, but they are also trying to
protect many things that have great meaning to us as passengers.
I first noticed signs of this war when I overheard two flight
attendants in First Class discussing their objections to trading
in their more formal uniforms of dress shirts/blouses, jacket
and slacks or skirt for the more Southwest-like polo shirts
and shorts of their new "partner".. The discussion
was heavy and the objections strong to America West crews
having to "lower" their standards to U.S. Airways
plans. There was also talk of what would happen to the seniority
system on e airline favors.
On my return flight, another similar discussion involved
the war over what kind of soda, coffee, and juices would survive
the merger talks, the type of menu we passengers would get,
and whether long-established crews and the accompanying chemistry
and trust relationships would be broken up by the merger.
I always thought the choice of beverages was simply an economics
choice among purchasing agents. But I found out the longer-established
U.S. Airways wanted to control the decision-making on food
service because they had already lost some of the bigger battles
in the merger war. The flight attendants were bemoaning the
fact that regular U.S. Airways passengers flying on America
West were showing displeasure that the product lines they
were accustomed to on "their" airline were not being
served on America West.
Those of us who heard the discussion were warned that OUR
favorite drink might get replaced as a concession to giving
the U.S. Airways folks a consolation prize of sorts in the
merger. Why, I wondered, do the U.S. Airways folks need a
consolation prize? I was told that the decision had already
been made that the new merged airline, which will retain the
U.S. Airways name, will be led by Doug Parker, who currently
heads America West, and NOT the current U.S. Airways CEO,
I got confirmation of that when I switched planes in Phoenix
and saw luggage tags on several U.S. Airways crew bags that
read, "Save Dave", an obvious reference to keeping
their old boss in the captain's chair. Suddenly, I began to
wonder if this merger war could impact not only service levels
and what we're fed onboard, but also the focus of he pilots
in the cockpit.
I was assured by a pilot I approached about the subject that
the support for Dave was a way of the crews expressing concern
about a change in their "culture". When I asked
about changes to sodas and food, things that impact passengers,
I got a shrug that told me THAT was NOT anyone's priority
in the very front end of the aircraft. And, I was told, safety
would never be compromised by the merger.
Yet I knew that where it really matters, in the galleys manned
by the flight attendants, the merger wars for our hearts,
minds, and stomachs, is wildly churning, just like the wardrobe
battles of polo shirts versus skirts and jackets. Then I wondered,
"What are the mechanics talking about and what angers
them?" Could ground-based safety personnel issues be
a hidden danger here?
It's a bit comical to see the difference in the discussions
involving the billions of dollars that a merger creates. As
a senior executive, director and officer of a publicly-traded
company, I know merger discussions tend to focus on planning
for long-term successes, limiting liability issues, and making
sure everything works well. On the front lines, however, in
the trenches of the airline wars, the focus seems to be on
more simple issues like food, uniforms, and who will win the
war for controlling the executive suite. I wonder who will
win THIS culture war.