Misuse of the "Customer" Concept


FAA too cozy with airlines, whistle-blowers say | ajc.com

As a frequent flyer, it's really troubling anytime you read about systemic problems in the aviation system. First, there are problems in the air traffic controller world that lead to multiple near misses (problems that seem to go unfixed). Now, there's the ongoing scandal about airlines (including Southwest, American, United, and Delta) not following proper maintenance routines and practices.

How can you possibly be so short-sighted, in a business sense, as to take chances with passenger safety? It seems that the aviation industry is “results focused” in the sense that they brag about how they've had so few fatal incidents in the past few years. But that doesn't mean the process is perfect. They have been lucky for a while, possibly, but underlying process problems indicate an accident is bound to happen. Would a properly “Lean airline” be better about thinking in the long-term, ala Principle #1 of The Toyota Way?

One troubling development with Southwest is the management practices within the Federal Aviation Administration:

The Federal Aviation Administration has become so friendly with airlines that it no longer acts as the public's watchdog, whistle-blowers told Congress on Thursday.

“We are told that the airlines are our customers,” FAA inspector Charlambe “Bobby” Boutris said. “But we have a more important customer, the taxpayers” who want government to ensure a safe aviation system.

That's crazy. The FAA is supposed to be serving and protecting the passengers, not the airlines. This is like a supervisor in a workplace treating their employee as a customer… even in a “servant leadership” environment, that's not right.

FAA administrators told inspectors to back off from Southwest… so the inspectors had to become whistle-blowers in front of Congress. Good for them!!

Boutris, who was assigned to the FAA office in Irving, Texas, near Southwest's headquarters in Dallas, had raised warnings about Southwest skipping inspections since 2003. His supervisor, who has since been reassigned, suppressed the information rather than inconvenience Southwest, he said.

For the life of me, I don't understand the dynamic of why the FAA would want to not “inconvenience” airlines, other than outright corruption in who has been appointed to oversee the industry.

Douglas Parker, another FAA inspector at Southwest, said he, too, “discovered that several aircraft had been operated in an unsafe condition.”

Parker's voice faltered as he recounted how last June, while typing up a report about “unethical actions” at Southwest, he got a visit from a supervisor. The manager began picking up photos of Parker's family and commenting on the importance of family obligations.

“On his way out of the door, he made the following statement: ‘You have a good job here and your wife has a good job over at the Dallas [FAA office]. I'd hate to see you jeopardize your and her careers trying to take down a couple of losers,'” he said.

Peters said that despite the intimidation, “the poor condition of the Southwest Airlines regulatory oversight was a risk that neither Inspector Boutris nor I was willing to accept.”

Sigh, what a mess. What can we do?

“Customer focus” is good, but only if you properly define customer relationships. I'd prefer the FAA think of me and my fellow travelers as the “customer,” not the airlines.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I actually think the problem is the way people choose to interpret the idea. If I buy a car from a dealer they don’t sell it to me for $100. They don’t agree to not tell the government so I can avoid sales tax. They don’t agree to sell me a car that is not legal in the state. Customer service does not mean do what is in the interest of the customer irregardless of laws, regulations, good business practices, etc..

    I would say doctors don’t give patients anti-biotics for viral infections (but actually they do). They shouldn’t. When doctors behave irresponsibly and give antibiotics in ways that harm the heath of society, some might try to claim it is because they are giving the patient/customer what they want. That is not a reasonable excuse.

    In some ways the airlines are the customers of regulators. But that doesn’t mean that you ignore the law or the purpose of your organization’s existence. That argument never has made any sense to me. Does anyone say, “no company can treat those that pay them as customers because then the customer will say give it to me free and of course you have to, because they are the customer”?

    I suppose it might not be valuable to use the customer frame if it confuses too many people. I find it useful, but some do seem to get crazy ideas in their head when a government agency talks about customers.

  2. Mark,
    It’s important to remember that these issues are often more complicated than they seem on the surface.
    If a regulator has an overly adversarial relationship with an operator or manufacturer, they create an environment where problems are hidden instead of disclosed, resolved, and prevented. This goes back to the Deming concept of driving out fear. The Toyota Way is certainly built on the notion that if there’s “no problem” that’s a problem.
    Similarly, the FAA’s policies are generally built around the notion that there will be problems. What’s important is that they are disclosed as soon as they are identified, and that complete, comprehensive corrective actions are put in place.
    Clearly, there are signs in this case that the process broke down. Folks took the notion of openness and disclosure too far. While it is important to be responsive to the airline’s needs, and in a sense, that makes them *a* customer of the FAA, there is no justification for putting that relationship ahead of public safety.
    In fact, I would argue that the reason that a close relationship between the regulator and the regulated is important is to foster improvements in public safety.
    My concern with the current headlines is that a crackdown by the Congress and the FAA will silence the voices of disclosure and put a damper on the spirit of continuous improvement.

  3. Andy – you make a fair point about driving out fear. The FAA shouldn’t necessarily shut an airline down for admitting a problem they are working on fixing. But, it sure sounds like nobody was working to protect the passengers/taxpayers who I’d argue are they most important customer. I’d agree that the FAA and the airlines shouldn’t have an abusive relationship, but too cozy is probably worse.

  4. I’m going to blog more about this tomorrow, but the continued groundings and problems at American Airlines seemed to be tied, at least in part, to the politics and perception of the FAA.

    I heard one commentator today suggest that the FAA is “getting tough” after these stories of being too cozy with Southwest.

    IHT Link

    Rep. James Obersta is pushing on the FAA to improve:

    “Oberstar said on Wednesday that his criticism was “an effort to get them back on course, to being the gold standard in the world for aviation safety oversight and maintenance oversight, and to re-establish a safety mind-set and culture with the agency, instead of this coddling of the industry.”

    There has not been a crash of a big jet in the United States since an American Airlines plane broke up in flight over New York in November 2001 – a point repeatedly made by federal administrators and airline executives as proof that the air system is safe.

    That attitude could be dangerous, however, Oberstar said. “Time passes, and ‘Oh, we haven’t had an accident, and now we can be cozy and play patty-cake with the airlines,’ ” he said, describing what he fears could be the attitude of the FAA “As soon as you do that, you lose the enforcement mind-set, and you lose the sense of the margin of safety.””


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