Monday, October 18, 2010

Ground Ops Not as Easy as it Looks

Sometimes I read about a television program and get all excited then forget to watch it. Afraid that would happen with Sunday night's episode of Undercover Boss, I set an alarm just to make sure I didn't miss the head of Denver-based Frontier Airlines learning how his airline really gets off the ground.

For making feel-good entertainment for the general public, the producers of Undercover Boss chose well when they selected Frontier's chief honcho, Bryan Bedford. The deeply-religious, Catholic father of eight, is chatty and personable and you just can't help liking him. He comes off as interested in people and genuinely touched when his travels give him the chance to meet fellow Christians and learn how different their lives are from his.

Yes, what a difference! The airline boss lives in a palatial Colorado estate landscaped to the hilt. Brief clips of home life show the Bedford brood, roller-blading in their own private indoor rink, but during his week on the tarmac, Bedford's wearing a polyester, company-issued uniform and eating a sandwich out of a sack with co-workers trained to keep one eye on the clock.

Michael Yarish/CBS
For those of you unfamiliar with this new reality show by CBS, Undercover Boss serially disguises the chief executive of a large business and insinuates said boss into the daily operations of the company. These are jobs that pay by the hour, where the end of the year bonus - if there is an end of the year bonus, is in the two-digits. The presence of televison cameras at the heels of the clueless new guy brought in to work various ramp jobs at the various cities Frontier serves, is explained with the fiction that Bedford, using the nom de tube "Richard" is a reality show contestant competing for job.

Aviation does not lend itself to transient laborers. Not only is there an entire language of acronyms to be learned, there are mountains of regulations and countless procedures that - no matter how modest the job - must be followed by each employee in order to safely move millions of travelers and their things from place to place, every single day.  This means that in reality-television jobs are simplified to the point of absurdity.

Cleaning an airliner after 200 people have had their way with it may not be rocket science, but there's more involved than a cursory wipe of the toilet and a repositioning of safety belts. Yeah, sure its funny when Richard gets to experience first (rubber-gloved) hand how airplane toilets are emptied under the supervision of the safely-distanced Hector, who is wearing his own rubber gloves along with a splash mask.

Jan Brown flight attendant
on United flight 232
receives NADA air safety award
And I'll grant that flight attendants no longer spend the better part of a year in training. Still there's a lot more to the job than tying on an apron and asking people to take their seats. Just ask, Jan Brown, Donna Dent, Doreen Welsh or Sheila Dail, flight attendants who, in their careers have saved lives.

All of this is to say that for an aviation geek, Undercover Boss was a disappointment, in spite of Frontier's genial boss. Bedford aka Richard went to the right places, to the hardworking folks behind-the-scenes, who are too often eclipsed by the glamour of swaggering pilots and the high-flying ways of airline executives. And Bedford was able to convince me that his heart is in the right place.

But you just can't reduce commercial aviation to a made-for-TV presentation, even in a highly produced one. The business is just too big for that.

1 comment:

focusoninfinity said...

I've never figured out how undercover "employees" are covertly inserted in strict union seniority, or strict non-union seniority work environments?

When I worked for the airlines in strict seniority crafts, without the objective of ferreting-out covert observers looking for illegal or in appropriate practices; but for correct
"bids" purposes, we'd check the seniorities of recent arrivals for correctness.

Seeing the recent arrival was from station "XYZ", we'd typically ask, "How they liked working with old Bob there?" If "Bob" did not know them, or they did not know Bob--very odd, suspect?

How the legitimate seniority list verification check was surmounted, I've never figured out?