What is Aviation or Airline Culture Like Today?

What is Aviation Culture

Aviation or airline culture is an interesting thing.  The longer I am in aviation the more I am aware of whether it exists at a company or not.  You would be surprised at airlines that have none, or perhaps let it form on their own.  Airlines that have grown by merging have a more difficult time with culture because you cannot merge company cultures. (successfully, more later)

So let's start with the most important question I can think of for today.

  • What is more important, a passenger that is a make a wish kid, or being on time?  Depends on who you ask right?  We love to emphasize the mission of the on time machine, sometimes it's all we talk about. 
  • Or how about this, What's more important,the make a wish kid on your airplane or catching the employee bus to go home?

If an airline or aviation company has an established culture, they would most likely understand the importance of what the make a wish scenario.  What is more important being on time or an end of life wish for a child who is terminally ill?  Of course the correct answer is the kid, but deep down it may be something different.  

Resistance is Futile

Airlines are programed to be on time, to have that on time departure.  And while that is a good goal, sometimes there are some things that are just a little more important.  Rules would dictate otherwise, they are stringent and less flexible. 

Culture is the opposite, it has long term vision of expressing something that syncs to a long term goal with people

Passengers won't always admit it, but they want to see people, employees or crews, as they really are, human.  Compassion goes a long way, especially in today's social market where it is often hinted at but rarely exists.

Companies that would be ok with sacrificing time or even that stamp of approval from the FAA for ontime arrivals tend to do better in the people department.  Of course, all airlines should strive to be on time, but sometimes we need to take the red pill and realize, we work with people and we interact with people.  That is a value that drives behavior.  

The Go Home Scenario

So how about the go home scenario?  Would you be ok sacrificing your personal time to make a difference in someone's life?  That is what culture is about.  It's about helping others feel like they are part of something bigger.  When employees feel that, they feel a sense of belonging, which is usually followed by pride.  When potential employees are looking for a career move, they look at your companies culture.  Does it exist?  What does it look like?

In order to understand it more, I would like to share a personal painful experience with a major airline.  Its not a sob story, buy more of a character building experience that has stayed with me forever.


The company was doing terrible, and furlough notices were all the rumor.  The bottom seniority people were going to be let go.  This is part of corporate life.  When the notice came, it was stated to report to the chief pilots office to turn in your id, wings, manuals (the old days) etc.  If you did not turn them in, you would not get your last paycheck. (gut punch number one)

At the base chief pilots office there was a small line of pilots with depressed faces turning in their gear to the base administrator.  The chief pilot was in his office with the door open working on his computer.  The base administrator was a sweet young lady and she was more emotional  than the pilots were.  She was literally in tears asking us to hand our items in. 

That's empathy, and its impactful, even now.  How about the chief?  Was there a statement, of well wishes?  How about a "gee I am sorry this is happening guys"?  Nope, nothing, not even a nod of existence.  That's lack of culture, and to be honest it's the poster child for poor leadership.

Was he busy?  Was he too busy? Would it have killed him to say the company is looking forward to having us back?  The answer is no on all three counts, its a road sign of a closed road.  Years later we were offered our jobs back.  I declined after finding a better company where I was not treated as "just another"  What would you have done?

Culture cares, lack of culture does not give a rip.  To be honest that lack of caring attitude is everywhere but people are getting smarter, even if it is a slow process.  Working in a company where you are valued and not just tolerated is key.  In a way, I feel sorry for the neglectful chief.  He probably retired and no one cared a tiny little bit.  Impact goes a long way.  Believing in people does as well.  Healthy happy companies invest in making people feel like they are a vital part of something bigger then themselves.  (read that again)

Cultivating Culture

When culture is cultivated it creates a better product amongst a sea of competitors.  Look at major corporations that have built and cultivated a detailed culture with values.  Disney is a shining example.  I cannot think of one negative thing that anyone would say about them as far an a company experience.

  Is it crazy expensive?  You bet it is, The average person will need to save for a year to take their family.  But Disney makes you feel like your the center of the universe and their attention to detail proves it? 

Not convinced?  Have you ever seen a weed, in any of the landscaping in any of the parks?  Weeds are notorious, weeds grow overnight, weeds are an eyesore.  But you won't see them because they figured out the attention to detail.  And there is someone working every night pulling those weeds out to make sure you don't see them and they are super happy about it.  Those details generate a transparent honesty about how a company feels about its workers and its customers.

Now here is my last example of what culture is NOT.  It is sure to get a rise out of a lot of people but nonetheless, good questions lead to better answers.

Does your union have a culture statement?

I am not saying yay or nay to whether unions are beneficial, I am asking you to take a good look at the behavior of a union at your airline and think about it. 

Unions generally have been formed or imported into airlines because employee groups feel like they have been take advantage of by leadership.  No one would ever argue with that and your mileage may vary.

But what does the union leadership convey to its members loud and clear? 

I know what mine says.  Its says this:

"Contract above all" 

So what does that mean?  Ask ten people and you will most likely get a different answer from each depending on how beat up they are.  This statement that has been formed says something to me loud and clear.  Our contract is more important than anything else.  Anything!

  • We are first
  • Nothing else is more important
  • There will be no variations whatsoever
  • We will form numerous committees to make sure this contract is enforced to the exact letter of the law.
  • Our treatment will be professionally enforced and our input is vital to the success of the airline.

That poster is up on the bulletin board of every base.  What do you think it conveys to all the other employee groups?  

I often ask myself, who is the genius in charge that got everyone to buy off on this statement of entitlement?

Does it make things better?

Do other groups feel less important?

Is there a moat around the pilot group for this attitude?

These kinds of statements divide the room.  A skilled facilitator would guide the members of the union leadership to come up with something that expresses the importance of their CBA yet still reflects the company's culture so that they create a natural balance.  This has always bothered me, does it bother you?  Is your leadership this unskilled at making people feel like we are a vital part of a group that works together?

Secondly, from a management point of view how does that union statement make them feel about their job personally?

Is their job harder because their is this strict line in the sand that cannot be crossed or even addressed? 

Does it create a tension that has to be overcome so that it does not spill out to our customer base? 

How does one do that?  

How hard does one employee group make it for another to thrive?  I am not saying union groups are evil, I am saying that we don't put aside animosity to figure out the golden question.  Here is the golden question.

What is the Goal?

What is it?  You are going to spend a lot of time at a job over your career, what's the goal?  To get better at flying one more leg to San Juan, or making an impact in someone else's life that makes them a better version of themselves?  Culture matters.

Look for part two of this important discussion.


Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published