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Friday, August 6, 2010

Resolving workplace conflicts

Written by Ma. Stella F. Arnaldo / Something Like Life / http://stella-arnaldo.blogspot.com   

ON A flight to Vancouver from Newark, New Jersey many years back – it was during those earlier tries by Philippine Airlines to fly that route – I was chatting with the flight attendant and telling her about how  I was going to visit my Aunt and Uncle who was living in Oak Harbor, Washington.

I told her that I would have to spend the night at the Vancouver International Airport, then take an Alaska Air flight to the Seattle Tacoma airport the next morning. There was still no Internet then, so I’d probably just have to read the entire Mabuhay magazine just to fall asleep.

The flight attendant left me to go back to work, and I went back to my movie. But as we neared Vancouver, the same flight attendant came back, two paper bags in her hand, and told me to take them as baon. I opened the bags, and in them were two trays of food, some rolls, butter and utensils.

The flight attendant told me that since I was going to stay over at the airport, I better just save my dollars instead of buying dinner there, which she probably knew wasn’t cheap. Besides, she said, the flight back to Manila wasn’t going to be full, so there was no sense in wasting the food that someone else could use.

I’ve never told any PAL official this story, because I knew that what the flight attendant did was probably unprofessional. Who knows if the airline charged her afterward for the food gone missing? (I assume there is some kind of accounting usually done after a flight returns to Manila.) But while I was freezing at the Vancouver airport and eating my PAL dinner, I was extremely warmed by the touching gesture of that flight attendant.

To me, that will always be the enduring image of the flag carrier. It is a caring airline. Its flight attendants are always ready to lend an extra hand to passengers, and will always try to make each passenger feel he/she is the most important in the world.

Compare this with other international carriers, and you will see the vast difference. My own sister had an unpleasant experience with one European airline, where the flight attendant simply stared her down when she asked for a blanket.

North American carriers are no different. Even if the flight attendant sees you struggling a bit with your carry-on luggage, he or she won’t even bother to help you put it in the overhead bin. (Apparently, this is the carriers’ way of cutting down on hospitalization costs. They are afraid if the flight attendant helps the passenger, the former could fall down and break her back or God knows what, and the airline will be saddled with a huge medical expense!)

Sure, you can take issue with how PAL’s web site sometimes bogs down as you are just about to make a reservation, or how its reservation hot line is perpetually busy, or how there is a long line leading to the check-in counters at the Centennial Terminal because someone thought it was better to have just one queue for all departures, instead of assigning one desk per departure/flight, etc. Or, yes, you may even have been pissed with their recent cancellations!

Still, you know, you’ll be flying a world-class airline with a kick-ass crew—from the pilots to the pursers to the flight attendants. If you want to leave Manila and land in your destination with a smile, you fly PAL. I still believe it is an airline with a heart, especially for its passengers.

So it is a bit troubling that this is the second time a dispute has erupted between PAL management and its pilots, flight attendants and the employees’ union. I hope that by the time this column comes out, a solution would have been found to break the impasse between the opposing parties. But if not, God help us all.

Some trace the problem to it being simply a case of pilots wanting to work in greener pastures. Foreign carriers know that PAL pilots are some of the best in Asia because of their superb training, so it’s not a surprise that their services are quickly snatched up. (Not just an urban legend, but PAL pilots really can land their planes smooth as butter!)

Others say it’s a question of job security—some pilots didn’t want to be moved to the smaller budget carrier Air Philippines Express, or didn’t want to fly domestic routes on top of their international routes.

A number also say it’s a case of mismanagement. The owner, beer and tobacco magnate Lucio Tan, never had any experience running an airline before and didn’t have to buy PAL. Quite a few also wonder why of all his companies, it is only PAL that continues to bleed?

But this goes back to my earlier story on the flight attendant. The heart of PAL is not really Lucio Tan, but the airline crew (without due offense to the other employees who are also integral to the carrier’s operations). They are the faces that greet the passengers on every flight. They make sure we take off and land smoothly at our destination. They are the ones we call when we need an extra pillow for our bad back, or a glass of water to parch our thirst in the dry plane air. If any emergencies happen onboard, they are trained to save us, the passengers first, before themselves.

I’m not discounting the fact that it is difficult to run an airline. All over the world, carriers are folding up or merging with  one another because stiff competition in the industry has made it impossible for them to recoup their investments and operating costs. This is why sometimes the first things to go are the in-flight food and quality service from the airline crew.

Workplace conflict specialists usually say that the most common cause of conflicts is when someone feels taken advantage of. A lack of effective communication skills on the part of management and employees adds to the problem. (By communication I just don’t mean an ability to articulate one’s thoughts clearly, but being able to listen and discern as well.)

These experts say it is important for management to make employees feel they are part of some greater cause. That each and everyone’s jobs is responsible for attaining the company’s goals, e.g., profitability and being the best in the industry. Management needs to understand that an employee is not just another expense but a partner in accomplishing its goals for the company. An employee is not just Employee No. 001 on the ID, but is a person who has a family and has obligations to them.

When the company is not attaining its goals, it is vital for management to communicate this to the employees, and inform them about the solutions being explored to get the firm back on track.

Employees, on the other hand, have the responsibility to do their jobs well, and follow their contractual obligations. They need to understand the management’s objectives and why their jobs are vital in accomplishing them. They have to speak up (in a healthy manner) when they feel uncomfortable with their conditions, instead of letting their feelings fester. Perhaps, they can even think of possible solutions to the problem which they can share with management.

In conflicts, it is important to keep the opposing parties in a constant dialogue. Everyone needs to keep an open mind on the measures that can be undertaken to resolve the conflict. Yes, there may have to be some compromises made, but if the objective is to keep the company going and everyone keep their jobs, then these must be accepted somehow.

My own experience in disputes is that honesty is always the key in resolving conflicts. You need to regain the trust of the other party to ensure that he will be able to accept the solution with an open heart. Without honesty and trust, there is no point in continuing any discussions whatsoever.

I hope the PAL management and employees come to a more permanent solution to their issues, instead of stop-gap measures to keep a temporary lid on their troubles. They need to have a more cooperative relationship instead of one marked by acrimony.

“PAL, you’re a great way to fly!” Sana nga it keeps flying.

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