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Flying the Unfriendly Skies: Airlines as metaphor for Higher Ed?
May 30, 2012 - 9:16pm

I want to write more about my fantastic time at Congress 2012 (and, by the way, you can find the archive of their Think Big lecture videos here, including the Sidonie Smith talk), but first I have to vent about my horrible traveling experience with a certain airline (ahem, United). I do so not only for therapeutic purposes (and as a warning to you all about traveling with them), but also because recently, here in the pages of IHE, there was an analogy made between the evolution (devolution?) of the airline industry and the changes taking place in higher ed.

On the way into the conference, I landed in Chicago to connect to Toronto and discovered upon arrival (at 6 AM) that my Toronto flight had been canceled. It is apparently no longer the airline’s policy to deal with these problems at the gate desk (which I was accustomed to), and instead all re-bookings are sent to customer service. Which wasn’t even open yet. On the way home, I missed my connection (once again in Chicago) because my flight out of Chicago left early. And once again, I was shuffled off to customer service where, because of weather on the east coast, there was a 4-hour line. There were flights I could have made, alternate routes I could have taken, but I missed every one of them because I had to wait in line while three over-worked and overwhelmed “passenger agents” did their best to accommodate all of us according to seemingly byzantine airline policies, FAA regulations, and other federal laws.

(And before you say that perhaps the gate agents’ computers weren’t equipped or weren’t properly trained to do these sorts of changes, know that towards the end of the ordeal, the gate agents were taking people out of line to their gates close by to help them solve their issues. So it could be done.)

Despite my seething rage (they said that I had been rebooked on another airline and when I showed up for the flight there was no record of me, and when it was finally fixed, the flight was gone), I actually had a lot of sympathy for the employees. They are laboring in a system that is difficult to navigate, unforgiving, and increasingly temporary and low-paid. While I was angry that I had to wait in a four-hour line to get the help I needed (just put me on this flight to Cincy that leaves in less than an hour!), I knew well what the gate agents were going through; how many undergraduates with informal advising requests and questions have I turned away because, as an instructor, it is “not my job”? We all are just trying to do the best we can in an environment where “policy” hinders our ability to properly serve the people who need our help. Moreover, many times, the agents had to wait for permission from a supervisor in order to change bookings or provide vouchers; they were empowered only to fulfill the simplest of requests, not to be trusted with larger decisions. Making matters worse were the recommendations that we visit the website or call the 1-800 number, where automated robo-helpers (meet Ask Alex; click at your own risk) or outsourced call agents were equally helpless or hapless.

Having grown up with a parent working in the airline industry, I am all too familiar with the (at best) romantic view or (at worst) completely delusional picture people have of being employed by an airline. “You get to fly for free!” is the airline industry equivalent to academia’s “you get your summers off!” Because I grew up and went to school adjacent to the airport, many of my friends’ parents also worked for an airline or in the airline industry. One of my friend’s fathers was a pilot who survived three different mergers and restructurings, but didn’t survive the final one into Canada’s major air carrier. He flew the long-haul flights to the Pacific Rim and was away for long periods of time, flying with shorter and short turn-arounds. My own father, who had a much less glamorous job in lower-middle-management (non-union), was wrecked by shift work. I think we were all grateful for the middle-class lifestyle it afforded us (my father, at least, barely finished high-school), but those days are long-gone, and even at the time, it was hard, stressful work that became harder and more stressful every year. My father used to tell me (only half-jokingly) that he would disown me if I ever became a lawyer or went to work for Air Canada.

But that was Canada. What about here in the US? Recently, on Tenured Radical’s blog, Ryan Murphy, former flight attendant and VAP, waxed nostalgic about the TV show Pan-Am and paralleled the decline the airline industry (at least in terms of job security and prosperity) with what is going on in higher education. I encourage you to read the entire piece, but here is his final two damning paragraph:

As we watch “Pan Am”, we do not think about the things I lost, or about that airline’s final days. We do not learn how the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 faced Pan Am with impossible competition from low-cost discount carriers that offered employees no benefits, no living wage, and no union representation. We do not learn how the 1980s Wall Street boom allowed “corporate raiders” to ransack and deunionize Pan Am’s competitors like Continental, Eastern, and TWA. We do not learn how women who spent three decades working for Pan Am lost their jobs with no notice as the carrier finally succumbed to the financial hemorrhaging in the wee hours of the morning of December 4th, 1991. And we do not learn that most flight attendants hired today work for low-paying subcontractors that carry the name and brands of major airlines like United, American, and USAirways, but circumvent their union contracts.

Instead, “Pan Am’s” audience fantasizes about the things that my coworkers and I most enjoyed about the airline industry. We watch Pan Am flight attendants wake up from post-flight naps in sharply appointed hotel rooms with views of the Tiergarten. We watch them run with their friends up the steps of Montmartre. And we watch them turn heads in hotel lobbies just off the Thames on their way to London Airport. In that gaze, “Pan Am” is a paean to pleasure at work. As my generation of academics is told that with our 4-4 teaching loads, our forced furloughs, and our health coverage givebacks that we should be “happy to have a job,” we might have something to learn from ABC’s fantasy. Indeed as we are told a tale about a group of women who demanded much, much more than the status quo, our interest in the stewardesses of Pan Am of 1963 might reveal a desire for a more robust future.

If the metaphor for higher education’s future is the airline industry, we are all in a lot of trouble. 

 

 

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