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John Strickland suggests the preoccupation with airline failures has become
more blood sport than critical analysis

Business Traveller (Asia-Pacific) · 1 Dec 2017 · JOHN STRICKLAND DIRECTOR OF JLS CONSULTING

John Strickland has held senior positions including network planning and revenue
management with airlines such as British Caledonian, British Airways, KLMuk and Buzz.
His 35 years of experience has exposed him to the business models of regional, global,
legacy and low-cost carriers. He now consults for airports, airlines and investors whose
businesses require strategic insight. Here he muses on why airlines have been subject to
such negative press in recent times – and whether they really deserve it;

This year has been a bumper one for the tabloid media and its reporting on airlines. If
some of the pieces, columns and articles are to be believed, a number of airlines have
sowed the seeds of their own destruction through arrogance, hubris, incompetence (you
can supply your own terms) and now, like all the best tragedies, their end is nigh. But is
this commentary fair or even accurate? Do airlines deserve the heavy criticism they receive
when they screw up, and does it point to the sort of systemic failure suggested?
There have been many examples in the past 12 months, but focusing on three, we can
see they are all very di erent incidents with di erent e ects and di erent reasons for the
First, we saw a customer being dragged from a United ight. The footage was terrible,
and it was followed by a response from company management that appeared to rub salt in
the wounds. The root cause seems to have been overbooking, though various explanations
were put forward. Although overbooking might seem outrageous, nearly all airlines do it,
and without it there would be fewer seats available. It’s a complex business, but really this
was an incident that was turned into a PR disaster. Notably, it hasn’t changed the policy on
overbooking, though you may be o ered considerably more money for the inconvenience
in future.
Then there was the network meltdown of British Airways on a busy May holiday week-
end. The route cause seems to have been a contractor switching o a key system which set
o a chain of events that almost brought the airline to its knees. Again, this was seen as
disastrous for BA and evidence that cost-cutting had gone too far. Media linked it to the
introduction of “Buy on Board” on its short-haul economy ights, despite there being no 1/2

link at all. In fact, BA’s problems exposed the real di culty of how to make decisions and
communicate when almost all IT systems on which this was dependent, were down. They
didn’t do a great job, and it cost them tens of millions of pounds, but lessons will be
learned and processes changed. IT failures have happened to many businesses, and will
continue to do so. Airlines aren’t unique in this.
Finally, Ryanair’s recent debacle of ight cancellations due to a self-in icted roster-
ing/pilot leave mess-up provided many column inches for the airline’s detractors. It was a
substantial own goal, but CEO Michael O’Leary was quickly out there admitting “mea
culpa”. Yet though it a ected many hundreds of thousands of passengers, it was, in fact, a
drop in the ocean. Ryanair has over 400 aircraft and approaching 130 million annual pas-
sengers. It also (normally) has very high levels of punctuality and consistently exceptional
nancial performance. O’Leary is no fool, and knows he has to x this quickly and restore
the faith. A big challenge, not least in terms of pilot relations, but he’s determined and
Ryanair has the nancial muscle and market presence to put this behind it.
So what can we conclude? Are airlines contemptuous of their passengers? Do they cut
costs to the point they have IT meltdowns but carry on regardless? Do they treat their sta
so badly they refuse to come to work? You will read something along these lines every day,
but the truth is far more complex. Airlines don’t deliberately seek to provoke hard-won
customers (or sta ) and they don’t enjoy media ridicule, but while inconvenienced pas-
sengers might enjoy reading journalists savage their airline of choice for its failures, the
next week or month they will probably be back ying with one or another of them.
Daily airline operations are so complex, and the various considerations so multiple, that
with such a juggle it’s still a marvel that so much of it goes so right so often every day. To
state the obvious isn’t to take it for granted, but using airlines we get to where we want to,
safely, and most of the time we get there on time with our luggage as well. We hear again
and again that there must be “no excuses”… well perhaps not. But there are explanations,
and from those, lessons will be learned, and would be even without the sort of reporting of
the last year. Let’s agree then, there should be no repeats, but to paraphrase Mark Twain,
the glib predictions of the demise of these ne companies are greatly exaggerated!
Daily operations are so complex, it’s a marvel that so much goes so right so often 2/2