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The Management Lessons of a Beleaguered Industry

Airline companies may be the businesses everyone fantasizes the most about trying to fix. And just now, the fixing would require more work than usual. A new round of mergers, a new climb in costs and a new wave of customer dissatisfaction all pose fresh challenges. Add to that an industry work force whose wages have plummeted by $15 billion since 2001 and whose morale is at a low ebb plus an air traffic infrastructure that experts as well as customers realize is overstressed, and the overall industry repair problem can seem impossible. Thomas A. Kochan, along with Greg J. Bamber, Jody Hoffer Gittell and Andrew von Nordenflycht, takes up the task in the forthcoming book Up in the Air: How the Airlines Can Improve Performance by Engaging Their Employees (Cornell University Press, January 2009).

In this interview with MIT SMR editor Michael S. Hopkins, Kochan, who is a professor of management at MIT and a leading analyst of workplace relations, identifies the need for totally altering employee/employer relationships as the critical opportunity and threat faced by the airline industry. Kochan explores the airline industry models that have worked (and are working) along with those that haven’t. And he suggests that the airline industry isn’t alone in encountering fundamental choices about how collaborative their workplaces will become. One of the keys, Kochan explains, is employee engagement and empowerment of service employees on the front lines.

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