(I wrote this post last Monday, when I was headed to speak in Huntington, West Virginia. The trip went well. I got home and promptly left again. I’m in a San Francisco hotel now, preparing to speak tomorrow. I have a busy life.)
I’m sitting in the Admiral’s Club in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, waiting for a flight to Cincinnati so I can then drive another three hours to West Virginia, where I will speak at Marshall University. The airport is crowded. The workers are a little more surly than usual, and except for seeing my good friend Karen at the gate in Denver, I’ve not seen many smiles. Of course, it is also possible I have not been smiling.
I have flown over 2.5 million miles with American Airlines – not just credit miles – actual miles. Most of it was flown with USAirways, which acquired American about a decade ago. They won control of the larger airline but lost the culture war. American is not the friendly airline USAirways once was.
I knew USAirways employees all over the nation. There was hardly a city in which I didn’t know at least one or two gate agents. I had a lifetime USAirways Club pass, and loved chatting with the employees in Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, LaGuardia, Boston, and a host of other cities. I knew the names of their children and where they went to college. I received free first-class upgrades 99 percent of the time, because USAirways thought good service and fair profits were both achievable. Their good will was reciprocated. For over a decade I gave my Christmas bonus to the USAirways employees at the Islip Long Island airport, all 17 of them.
I wrote the CEO of the airline occasionally, and always received a prompt reply. Their office called me a few times to talk about solutions to problems I had encountered. Things were, in a word, civil. Humanity won over profit. Commonality won over differences. Life was more gentle back then. I know what you’re thinking. Was it more gentle because I was a man? I really don’t think that had much to do with it. Flying is one of the few places in which I am treated pretty much the same as Paula as I was treated as Paul. Well, at least by employees. Passengers are another story.
I knew things were likely to get bad in the airline industry when United was allowed to acquire Continental, Delta absorbed Northwest, and USAirways acquired American. With only three legacy carriers remaining, it would only be a matter of time before prices went up and service went down. I was surprised how quickly it happened. Greed creates a lot of dangerous cracks in the foundations of capitalism.
A couple of decades ago I served on the board of a small television network. We were closely affiliated with a much larger commercial network, and I formed a friendship with one of their senior employees. He was always complaining about managers who “left money on the table.” I asked what the phrase meant. He replied, “To leave money on the table is to walk away from easy money. You see a place for bigger profits, and you don’t capitalize on it.”
A couple years later we were on a trip together and I told him I had noticed that the company rarely left money on the table any longer, but that it did leave people on the streets. Profits came before people. Not long after our conversation the network was sold, and my friend was out of a job. He became one of those people on the streets, only his streets were paved with platinum, thanks to a generous golden parachute.
Last week I spoke with the Chief People Officer of a company for which I’ve consulted a few times. Their CEO was one of the founders of a very successful travel company. The new startup, another travel company, focused on profits and people. The company was wonderful. They had achieved gender equity and took good care of their employees and customers. Then Covid hit and business travel came to a stop. The company kept the doors open for about 18 months, but eventually the leaders had to make the decision to shut it down. Their CPO took great pride in finding jobs for 99 of the 100 people employed by the company. For the company’s leaders, ending well was as important as profitability.
Large corporations rarely leave money on the table. Those at the top receive annual compensation hundreds of times greater than that of their lowest paid employees. Those executives never leave money on the table. I prefer companies with a heart, like the one that made sure their employees were taken care of when the business had to close. They remind me that capitalism itself is not evil. Greed is evil. These smaller companies are proof that capitalism can have a heart. They are the ones that give me hope in the future of commerce in our nation.
Well, it’s time to catch my flight to Cincinnati. Though I’m Executive Platinum with the airline, which means I fly over 100,000 miles a year, on this flight I’m likely to feel like I’ve felt for several years now – like I am little more than a flying profit provider. You can be sure the airline will not leave any of my money on the table.
And so it goes.