The Airline Case

The client in this instance was a reputed airline company, which for obvious reasons, shall remain unnamed. The case facts, in brief, were as follows:

Case Facts

The client had been running their operations in Europe successfully for the past decade. Then, during an ill-fated board meeting, the CEO, who had just returned from a vacation in Goa, asked the VP (Operations), “Why aren’t we in India?” The VP, who himself had just returned from the Riviera, was caught off guard. In his confusion, he assured the CEO that the India operations were being planned and would start in the next quarter.

And so it happened that the airline opened its first office in Delhi during the monsoon season in the early 2000’s. The economy was improving, and the local breeds of businessmen were beginning to forgo trains for planes. To improve acceptance and to reduce costs, 90 % of employees were locally recruited. The only foreign employees were pilots and head stewards. All initial studies pointed towards a reasonable ROI over the next couple of years.

However, the reality wasn’t that simple. The airline operations were plagued by constant complaints from the employees; the air hostesses in particular. It was extremely perplexing for the India operations head, who also happened to be a European. He had been deputed to India with promises of cheap labour and exciting career growth. But things were fast spinning out of control, with the number of employee complaints increasing day by day. So he employed a consultancy firm to conduct a root cause analysis of this problem.

Base Lining

Since the complaints were mainly from employees, the consultants decided that the study necessarily had to be conducted on board flights. After four weeks of free air travel, three cases of peanut allergy, four instances of missed flights, and one sexual harassment suit against one of the team mates, they presented a comprehensive 500 page report ( along with a 60 slide presentation) to the client.The three major gripes of the employees were as follows:

  • The Indian air hostesses resented being called by the captain to the “cockpit”. Each time an air hostess was paged to “come to the cockpit”; her friends would see her off as if she were never going to come back. It is surprising that the European captain, who always seemed to go off into fits of laughter while addressing his co-pilot as “Mr. Dikshit”, appeared not to be able to grasp the irony.
  • There was an incongruity between the size of the seats, which were predominantly designed for comparatively slender European posteriors, and the average Indian traveller, who was wont to fill the seat and then overflow. In such cases, the regulation seat belt buckle would often disappear into the folds of the passenger’s stomach. Air hostesses as a rule are required to check that seat belts are fastened before takeoff. Unfortunately, this requires them to often peer into the crotches of the better endowed passengers. No wonder the air hostesses actively discouraged their parents from boarding the same flights they were handling.
  •  Indian passengers as a rule carry their entire luggage as ‘carry-on’, thus creating pandemonium inside the craft as they try to stow it before take-off and remove it after landing. The concept of ‘travelling light’ doesn’t appeal to an Indian. So, every passenger carries enough luggage to just meet the maximum carry on limit. At the receiving end of this ‘economy-mentality’ are the air hostesses, who often have to tug and push errant bags that simply refuse to fit into compartments that were designed to house laptop bags and clutches. This forced exercise before every flight often put them in a bad mood, which had to be necessarily taken out on themselves or the company officials, since they couldn’t very well shout at the passengers.

Recommendations

The consultants proposed three neat solutions:

  • Replace ‘cockpit’ with the sexually inert term ‘pilot’s cabin’
  •  Install a simple circuit in the seat belt buckle that de-activates a small light bulb fitted onto each hand rest when the seat belt lock engages.
  •  Increase the cabin luggage compartment size. This was based on the realization that it is better to change yourself rather than fight an Indian consumer.

End Result

The company’s accountants then ran a cost benefit analysis of the recommendations, and presented the following findings:

  • The term cockpit was mentioned in all the flight manuals (2), flight attendant manuals (5), galley instruction manuals (1) and notices (3). Each flight thus carried 11 copies. The fleet consisted of 50 planes, amounting to a total of 550 copies. The reprinting costs to print all of these would amount to Rs. 3,850,000. The company HR division reported that organizing sexual harassment ramification and lingo retraining classes for pilots (to teach them to say pilot’s cabin instead of cockpit) would cost an additional Rs. 25,000 annually.
  • The indicator bulb circuit would cost Rs. 1000 per seat and installation charges would add another Rs. 500 in order to conform to DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) regulations. A typical Boeing 737 has 140 seats. This would result in costs of Rs. 10,500,000. The added strain on the electrical power consumption would be Rs. 800 per plane annually.
  • Refitting the planes with deeper luggage compartments would cost Rs. 50,000 per plane. In total, following the recommendations would add Rs. 16,850,000 fixed one-time investment and Rs. 65000 recurring costs to the company’s budget.

In contrast, playing ostrich would cost Rs. 3,000,000 in employee attrition and nothing more. (Ascribing a 10% attrition rate amongst its 300 strong air hostess work force due to these reasons, and a severance package of Rs. 1 lakh per employee). There wouldn’t be any brand value damage since all airlines in the Indian market were facing the same issues. Hence, the recommendations were summarily rejected.