Thousands of travelers and consumers criticize airline executives for their management of once-great companies. They look at management decisions from a distance and see what appears to be a group of inept executives abandoning routes, charging high fares, cutting back service, and laying off employees -- all the while pulling down big salaries and bonuses.
And yet, a review of the résumés of industry executives reveals a group of well-educated and talented individuals with solid business experience both inside and outside the industry. Are airline executives really inept?
I don't think so.
Recently I was on a major airline's inaugural flight from Atlanta to Rio de Janeiro. Apparently, this flight was a big deal for the airline because it had a number of top executives at the gate and aboard the plane. This gave me the chance to sit down and seek some answers. After talking with several executives and pilots, I concluded that they are earnest, hardworking individuals who understand the importance of the U.S. airline industry to the global economy.
As I pen this, I am sitting in a seaside café along Rio's famed Leblon Beach - trying to figure out what has gone wrong in the airline industry. I have looked at the problem from all angles, and I have to give top management of the airlines passing grades. Having weathered 9/11, they have dealt with declining traffic and rising fuel costs as best they could. It's been a difficult job.
That brings us to a more obstinate problem: labor unions and their leadership. Let's leave aside the union workers, a hearty group of individuals who just want to do a good job and earn living wages. Let's look instead at union bosses, the Tammany Hall of the industry.
Union leaders are grossly inept. They live in a world of paranoia and greed. Do they really want the best for their workers?
I think not.
Let me tell you about my recent experience with a union representing airline workers. It is dumbfounding but true, and it lays bare the arrogance and megalomania of the union leadership.
After having a dialogue with a number of hardworking members of this union, who are currently on strike and struggling to make ends meet, I set up a financial-assistance fund for the workers and solicited donations for them in a recent column.
Within days, the union's national leadership called for me to shut down the fund. I was stunned. Is this how the union honors its hardworking members, by denying them relief?
I asked the union leadership that very question.
The union's response: "Cease and desist." They also threatened me with legal action.
I now find myself threatened by a large organization that can spend virtually unlimited resources on legal fees to get its way. This type of abusive power and manipulation of the legal system reminds me of how the American Civil Liberties Union intimidates its opponents.
Although this experience is only a microcosm of what happens every day, it leads me to believe that it's not the airline executives who are the monsters in this drama. I contend that much of the current woe of the airline industry comes from these heavy-handed union bosses, who look out for their own interests at the expense of their members' welfare.
After all, who's losing here?
The little guy.
The union bosses are getting paid, and the union lawyers are getting paid - it's only the union workers who aren't getting paid. They're out of work. Meanwhile, American consumers are paying higher prices.
I once read that an airline union called the demise of Eastern Airlines "a victory." How can losing thousand of jobs be a victory? Will the mechanics' union also dance on Northwest's grave?
To be fair, some airline workers unions do a good job. The pilots unions, for example, have done an excellent job supporting their members.
But I say, let the antiquated unions die a natural death. They are already on their last legs. The fact that a union would try to prevent striking workers from receiving much-needed support just demonstrates their perishing grip; it is a last vestige of prehistoric behavior.
We already have a large bureaucratic system in place to protect workers' rights. It's called Congress. Congressional oversight would serve airline workers far better than their unions currently do. People like Maxine Waters, Democratic member of the House of Representatives for 14 years, and Ted Kennedy, Senator forever, work tirelessly and fairly for workers' rights. Let them have a go at it for airline employees.
If we allow airlines and employees to deal with each other directly, under Congressional oversight, I believe they will work together to provide top-notch customer service.
But if we allow the adversary relationship between airlines and unions to fester, and if we continue to let union bosses have their way, our great airline industry will suffer the fate of our once-great steel and automotive industries.
And that will be a very sad day.

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