Should airlines be funny?

Sunday, July 17, 2005

During the descent of my recent Delta flight into Atlanta, the flight attendant came on the intercom to list the connecting flights. With a deadpan voice, he began: “I’m now going to read a very long and boring list.” He then paused for laughter that never came.

This wisecrack was just one of several that Delta Dan had made throughout the flight, and each one seemed forced and out-of-place. My discomfort with these jokes puzzled me until I spoke with Patrick Smith, author of the book “Ask the Pilot: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel.”

After echoing my feelings, he emphasized what he sees as the bigger picture – that airlines are trying to be funny without first figuring out how to communicate effectively on a normal, professional level. “Why should airlines expect people to appreciate in-flight comedy when they can’t even offer a coherent explanation about things like delays or lost luggage?” he asked me in an e-mail. “Airlines try to present difficult, complex situations in the simplest terms, and the end result is condescending baby talk: ‘Sorry, we have to bump you because the plane is out of balance.'” In other words, a bit of mutual respect is needed before the employee can come on after the landing and say, as a Pacific Southwest Airlines attendant once did, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to welcome you to Honolulu. Unfortunately, we are in Fresno.”

In Smith’s opinion, one carrier stands out in the struggling industry as having successfully married good business management with good humor: Southwest Airlines. Southwest gate agents often play games with delayed passengers, and their flight attendants sometimes sing the safety instructions or affect an Elvis or Mr. Rogers accent. That’s pretty funny.

On the business side, Southwest’s core values of humor and “luv” (the company’s stock ticker symbol) have helped the carrier remain profitable after Sept. 11, while its big spoke-and-hub U.S. brothers have struggled with expensive pilot contracts and fleet upkeep. Delta and Northwest may file for bankruptcy soon, joining US Airways and United in the hanger of shame. Yet for more than a quarter-century, Southwest has been the Chinese Food Truck of carriers: cheap, efficient, and profitable. And Southwest Airlines is the epitome of well-executed corporate humor. The reversal is poetic; after decades of stand-up monologues insulting air travel, we now have an airline famous for mocking itself. Airplane humor has made the round trip.

As large companies increasingly focus on improving their “corporate culture,” Southwest-style humor is spreading through the general business world. Such staid institutions as IBM and Fidelity Investments, for example, have admitted to hiring “humor consultants” for up to $5,000 an hour. If this trend continues, hilarity might become a legitimate metric of the corporate makeover.

Frankly, this trend worries me. When a company’s signature trait is democratized for widespread use, something awful ensues: It becomes generic. I’m concerned about what will happen if humor becomes another component of crafting corporate strategy. Will this be part of an MBA degree taught by the Rodney Dangerfield Professor of Corporate Self-deprecation?

And after management consultants begin recommending open mic time for the boss, what’s next? Will humor follow “revenue streams” as the latest for-profit principle to invade non-profit operational theory? Imagine donating blood in the care of Red Cross nurses who lighten the mood by wearing vampire teeth.

Part of the surprise of a Delta employee cracking jokes is that Delta is famous for being serious and conservative. Just look at its bland moniker. Its name doesn’t boast the regional loyalty of Alaska, Southwest, Northwest, Midwest, or America West – nor does it feature the jingoism of United, US Airways, Independence Air, American or American Eagle. And it certainly has neither the wit of JetBlue, Frontier or Ted nor the cultural cache of Hooters Air. It turns out that Delta was named after the Mississippi Delta, but you’re not supposed to know that – a rare example of an airline disowning its regional identification.

Delta lost $5.2 billion last year, its worst performance in 70 years of operations. Delta is scrambling for differentiation – just like everyone else. So why not throw in a few jokes? Why not punch up the in-flight jabber? Let’s have the passengers gasping for oxygen! Let’s have them rolling in the aisles! – but only if it’s safe to move about the cabin.

Like war, humor is not the answer. An airline on the verge of bankruptcy needs to do more than crib from “30,000 Jokes from 30,000 Feet.” Southwest Airlines shows that institutional humor can be one part of sound corporate governance, in addition to low labor costs, no-frills service, and efficient fleet maintenance. Delta must be similarly relentless in implementing common sense cost-cutting measures. They must root out internal operating inefficiencies. They must not be afraid to ask, “How many Delta mechanics does it take to change a light bulb?”

White lights lead to red lights, which indicate Andrew K. Stein ’06.