Merging airlines: When 1+1=1.25

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DULLES – I used to work for IATA. It was one of my first corporate communications jobs. And it was a great introduction to a complex industry.

I had grown up in airplanes, so why not see how they’re run?

And what a world it was.

Largely started by former military pilots out of the Second World War, the business was run with a suitable level of machismo and by people who often felt that they belonged to a special club — that few were deemed capable of joining.

Of course that was only partially true. And things have changed. Sort of.

In the Continental / United merger in the US a new business is being created that will have $30B in revenues and 83,000 ‘co-workers’. They have big plans for new planes, new lounges and a new start in customer service. But all that is pending to see if the merger works. Or if it’ll just create the worst of both carriers.

Here’s what CEO Jeff Smisek says:

“The base of the culture — that is, how we treat each other as co-workers and how we treat our customers and how we communicate with each other and how we communicate with customers — that isn’t changing.”

And maybe that’s a bit of a hold-over of the old world-view of airlines. The one that says it’s all about numbers and systems, and then you can let some other people look at things like service and culture.

Mr Smisek suggests that United Continental will look at culture apart from his ambitious plans to:

Move the HQ to Chicago

Deal with United’s labour issues

Combine IT systems

Bring two giant companies and their fleets together

Which seems like the wrong end of the stick to me. Having done similar work with some of the biggest mergers and change projects of recent days, we can say with some conviction that ALL of those things are what culture is all about.

If the IT doesn’t work, the planes aren’t ready, the people won’t work and the leadership isn’t engaged and clear about their strategy… then you don’t have a culture at all.

Communications in the airlines business could do with an overhaul. That’s true. But communication for communications sake doesn’t affect the business hardly at all.

Focus on the business issues. Make the changes. Drive results. And explain what people need to do to get there, and you’ll start to see results. (And a new culture.)

Up, up and away…

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