When an unlucky passenger was violently dragged off a full United Airlines flight in Chicago in April, setting off a public-relations nightmare for the company, the blame naturally fell on the cabin crew, police and eventually airline executives.
But ultimately, the episode was set in motion elsewhere – on Wall Street.
Relentless pressure on corporate America is creating an increasingly Dickensian experience for many consumers as companies focus on maximizing profit. And nowhere is the trend as stark as in the airline industry, whose service is delivered in an aluminum tube packed with up to four different classes, cheek by jowl, 35,000 feet in the air.
“There’s always been pressure from Wall Street,” said Robert L. Dilenschneider, a veteran public relations executive who advises companies and chief executives on strategic communications. “But I’ve been watching this for 30 years, and it’s never been as intense as it is today.”
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Rich bonus packages for top executives are now largely tied to short-term income targets and fatter profit margins instead of customer service. Of course, bolstering profits – and in turn, stock prices – has always been a big part of management’s responsibility to shareholders, but making it virtually the only criterion for executive pay is new.
Five years ago, American Airlines factored in on-time arrivals, lost baggage and consumer complaints to help calculate annual incentive payments for top management. Today, these bonuses are based exclusively on the company’s pretax income and cost savings.
United has also scaled back bonuses linked to reliability and customer satisfaction for senior executives in recent years. But in the wake of what happened in April, bonuses “will be made more comprehensively subject to progress in 2017 on significant improvement in the customer experience,” the company said in a financial filing.
“Fifteen years ago, airlines competed with each other over who could buy the most planes or have the most routes,” said Jamie Baker, a top airline industry analyst at JPMorgan Chase. “Executives are just as competitive today, but it’s about who can achieve an investment-grade rating first, who can be a component in the S&P 500, and who has better returns for investors.”
These new incentives also partly explain why airlines are packing seats more densely and squeezing more passengers into the back of the plane. “Densification is driven by the desire to sweat the assets and generate revenues without having to commit capital to building new planes,” Baker said.
Such a shift isn’t unique to the airline industry.
“As in other industries, like manufacturing or consumer goods, the focus is on more traditional financial metrics like pretax income, margins, return on capital and total shareholder return,” said Andrew Goldstein, head of the executive compensation practice in North America for Willis Towers Watson. “Airlines haven’t abandoned operational and customer-service metrics, but they are putting less emphasis on those factors.”
With the economy growing at a rate of only 2 percent while the stock market rallies on promises of soaring earnings, something must give so profit margins can grow.
In the case of United or Spirit Airlines, whose repeated cancellations led to a melee among travelers this month at a terminal in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, it was customer service. At other companies, like Ford and Alcoa, it was the head of the chief executive that was served up when profits failed to meet expectations.
Mature industries – where double-digit annual profit growth is a reach in the best of times – are especially vulnerable to activist investors’ demands for board seats, bigger stock repurchases and other short-term financial rewards.
The pressure is especially brutal in the airline industry because the key expense, fuel, is for the most part beyond management control. Yet airline executives have largely convinced Wall Street that the bad old days of bankruptcies and fare wars are over, replaced by the kind of predictable annual profits more common among industrial companies.
That’s among the reasons fees have popped up in recent years for everything from checking bags to securing an assigned seat before boarding. Known on Wall Street as ancillary revenue, this stream of income is especially favored by investors because it doesn’t swing sharply the way fares do.
And so far, despite occasional bouts of air rage and frequent consumer complaints, Wall Street has been getting what it wants.
United’s stock has surged to more than $80 per share from $25 per share five years ago, with profit margins rising to 13.6 percent from 3.7 percent over the same period. Overall industry margins hit 16.3 percent, up from 5.2 percent in 2012.
Spirit’s operating margins are among the highest in the industry, topping 20 percent in 2015 and 2016. But Paul Berry, a company spokesman, said Spirit had pivoted to focus more on customer service in the last year, even as some larger rivals keep cutting costs to compete.
Despite rewarding top executives strictly according to financial targets, American said it, too, was committed to improving the passenger experience.
“Every single person at American knows we succeed or fail based on how well we serve customers,” said Joshua Freed, a company spokesman. “We will only meet those financial goals if we keep our customers happy.”
Still, the promise of steady profit growth has prompted even Warren E. Buffett to take a fresh look at airline stocks. He once famously called the industry a money-losing “death trap,” but reversed course late last year, with his company, Berkshire Hathaway, acquiring stakes in several airlines.
“In the past, airline stocks were seen as hazardous to one’s wealth,” said Baker, the JPMorgan analyst. “They were trading vehicles, and potential destroyers of capital.”
To be sure, some industry veterans insist it is a mistake to simply blame investors or hedge-fund managers for fostering a race to the bottom in customer service.
“The response isn’t to Wall Street. It’s to customer behavior,” said Alex Dichter, a senior partner at McKinsey who works with major airlines. “About 35 percent of customers are choosing on price, and price alone, and another 35 percent choose mostly on price.”
Dichter noted that when American added 2-4 inches of legroom in coach in the early 2000s, “as far as I know, the airline didn’t see one bit of improvement in market share or pricing.”
“The great irony is that most CEOs would love to compete on product and experience,” he added. “It’s much more fun. The problem is that customers aren’t paying attention to that.”