How many airline employees does it take to screw in a light bulb?

On Labor Day, which marks the end of both the summer travel stampede and one of the year's busiest travel weekends, one's thoughts naturally turn to the labor situation in the airline industry. Or at least mine do.

In a service-intensive business like commercial aviation, the quantity, competence, and state of mind of flight attendants, reservations agents, check-in personnel, and other front-line workers have a lot to do with the quality of the travel experience.

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In an extended piece on the state of the industry post-9/11, Associated Press business writer Brad Foss pulled together a number of telling stats comparing the airline business of today with its previous incarnation five years ago.

Labor-wise, here's the money quote: "There are 155,000 fewer full-time employees industrywide today, compared with August 2001—a decrease of almost 30 percent. And over the past five years, the nation's six largest airlines took 816 planes out of service—a 23 percent reduction."

Let's factor another labor-related variable into the equation: compensation.

I don't have figures for the average salary and benefits packages earned by today's airline workers, but we know that the compensation trend line dipped precipitously over the past few years. Salary reductions, after all, have been the centerpiece of the aggressive cost-cutting regimens embraced by the largest airlines.

So, there are fewer employees doing more work while receiving less compensation and fewer benefits.

It's no wonder that today's version of "Coffee, tea or me?" is "Tap water, take it or leave it."

Happy Labor Day!

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