The end of efficiency: Why airlines need to let the frontline team act ‘on the fly’


For much of the last century, successful businesses were efficient businesses. They were organisations where the workforce was occupied all the time. Downtime was unproductive time and to be frowned on. Whether it was a factory assembling car after car on a production line, or a retailer checking customer after customer through its tills, or an airline getting millions of passengers from A to B, the emphasis was on volume, efficiency and operating at maximum capacity.

Then the world changed

Advances in a host of technologies, from data analytics and artificial intelligence to social media and robotics, presented new opportunities, and a vanguard of disrupters seized that opportunity to outflank rivals still trapped in the thinking of the Industrial Revolution. To offer just three examples, Airbnb provided a fresh alternative to the blandness of efficient hotels; Deliveroo encouraged consumers to rethink the homogeneity of fast food, and Uber challenged established thinking across the entire transport sector.

These disrupters have done more than create headlines; they’ve reshaped consumer expectations and, all of a sudden, the game is no longer about joining the vanguard, it has become a matter of adapting or dying. So, what do carriers need to do today to adapt to this new reality, to this rapidly emerging business model, to the end of efficiency?

From efficiency to responsiveness

First and foremost, they need to make a difficult shift in mindset: they need to stop aiming to be 100% productive. For most of today’s business leaders, this is not merely challenging – it is terrifying. They need to throw out the rule book and allow colleagues the space to think on their feet.

Tech has done much to empower the frontline team in the aviation industry, with many carriers using it to give colleagues the power and flexibility to respond to individual customer needs. But examples of poor customer interactions – and the damaging fallout – are still all too common.

When Dr Dao told United Airlines employees that he wouldn’t vacate his seat to accommodate United staff, the cabin crew pressed ahead with company protocol – with disastrous results. A preconceived ‘rule book’ outcome was sought that left no room for manoeuvre – the man was dragged off the flight and the now-infamous bloodied images went viral.

United CEO Oscar Munoz admitted this happened because “our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.”

Since then, United has committed to providing colleagues with extra training designed to enhance their ability to handle difficult customer-service situations. Now they’re all about empowering colleagues to resolve customer-service issues in the moment. To that end, a new app is being rolled out that will allow team members to provide passengers with compensation (financial and otherwise) directly from their company-issued iPhones. A new Flex-Schedule program that emails passengers to see whether they mind being bumped in return for a travel voucher is also being trialled.

In a similar vein, Delta, which has had its fair share of media drama too, now allows gate agents to offer passengers giving up their seats up to $2,000. Abandoning ‘efficient’ follow-the-rule-book thinking means they have the space to make the right decisions on the spot.

From employees to partners

The most successful businesses of tomorrow will be those that today free themselves from the outdated thinking that insists on a workforce operating at 100%. They will re-engineer their operations so their workforce is operating at 80%, perhaps 70%, capacity. This will free up people so they can spend 20% to 30% of their time finding solutions to the major issues – the issues that no one has had time to focus on because they’ve been kept 100% busy, running ever faster to just stay still.

Underpinning this shift in mindset is the realisation that people are more than arms to operate machinery, legs to walk aisles and faces to mouth corporate platitudes. Most importantly, stop trying to get them to fit a neat little box.

Frontline colleagues are the first people your passengers meet. They give your brand meaning. They should be able to use their judgement and act in passengers’ best interests immediately – not worry about conforming to time-consuming protocol.

Accept that people are different, they grow and contribute in different ways. It’s your job to figure out how to put that to use the best way. Look at the great work Heineken does with its X-Factor style call-outs for innovative ideas from its workforce and the initiatives, like useyourlocal.com, that have resulted.

The best ideas will not necessarily come from the people in the organisation who are perceived to be the smartest. Empower everyone throughout the organisation. A workforce of 10,000 is likely to produce a better outcome than a crack team of 20. Give everyone responsibility for noticing and responding to customer demand, for finding a solution to the intractable problem, for developing new skills, perspectives and levels of understanding. Demand ideas, not just labour.

From tactical ads to strategic solutions

This is not an easy shift. Empowerment alone is not enough. It must be empowerment with information – but you then need to work out which information. For example, when we began on this path four years ago, we forgot the crucial step of facilitating the team leaders so that they could lead this transformation and new way of working.

But in a way, that is the point: individuals in your organisation, and your organisation as a whole, need to be empowered to make mistakes. Small, continual mistakes are learning opportunities and should be encouraged. Authority should be distributed to the edges, not clutched to the centre.

These are exciting times. The dominant business model is changing, and every day we must rethink our approach to ensure we remain relevant. Just as airport gate agents need to have the power to offer on-the-spot compensation in exchange for passengers relinquishing their seats on over-subscribed flights, so we all need to think beyond briefs and this quarter’s consumer tracking. We need to search for answers to the most complex business challenges facing our clients – and surprise those clients with our ideas.

That is what the end of efficiency and the new business model means for our business. For every organisation, there will be a different implication and a different response, but for all businesses this is a critical moment in time ­– it’s time to break free of Industrial Age thinking and leap forward into the Age of Inefficiency.

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