It's a story about customer attitudes that's made the rounds so much we're not sure who originated it. Airline executive Donald Burr often gets the credit. But here's how it goes: If an airline customer opens his fold-down tray and finds a coffee stain crews missed in the between-flights cleanup, the customer is likely to begin questioning just how good a job the airline is doing on other, more important tasks.
Are the meals fully cooked?
Did the pilot get enough sleep last night?
Did the mechanic who last worked on the engine check and double-check his work?
Before long, the story's originator suggested, that customer and others he talked to begin to have doubts. And when it comes to a brand, doubts can translate into lost customers and revenue.
So here's another story, this one courtesy of the chief audit officer at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Speaking recently to the UA Board of Trustees, Jacob Flournoy explained a 20-page report describing more than a dozen "issues" between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017, including an incident illustrative of the slippery slope when policies are not precise.
The UA System's policies allow guests, such as family members, to travel on UA-owned or leased airplanes if there is seating space that would go unused. That, it would seem, would fall into the category of no real harm because the seat is headed to the destination anyway, so there's no serious costs associated with them joining the official group.
What’s the point?
The University of Arkansas provides an example of why policies promoting ethical decisions on use of public resources are vital.
But in the instance of some annual Southeastern Conference meetings for chancellors, athletic directors and head coaches, 11 people went on the trip, according to the audit. Six were UA employees and five were guests. How were there that many unused seats available? The university added a second airplane to accommodate the extra passengers.
By following not just the letter but the spirit of the UA policies, many people would have recognized the ethical limitations on thinking that suggested ordering up a second plan made sense. It didn't make sense except in an organization not troubling itself with conservative use of UA resources.
It's not a coffee stain, so we're not all that concerned with the condition of the airplanes, but might it be considered an ethical stain? It's the kind of thinking -- either getting away with something or not even having the internal triggers to recognize an ethical boundary exists -- that can erode people's confidence.
Creating boundaries is what human resources and accounting policies are all about, so we're glad the UA has responded to the problems identified by auditors by changing behaviors, tightening policy language and reimbursing the university for trips that the UA should have never funded.
As with most laws and policies, the unlawful or unethical behaviors of a few can have a big impact on the perception of the many. Just ask members of Congress or the Arkansas General Assembly. People label members "crooks" almost as soon as they take office, just based on the actions of predecessors.
Businesses often address holes in policy more quickly and thoroughly than government because the entire activity of the venture is about money. Hopefully, the UA's activities remain focused on students. But taking care of the money in the system is taking care of the student by avoiding waste and abuse of resources.
Flying high and reaching for the sky are fine topics for graduation speeches, but manipulating the system to shuttle family and friends on a university-funded airplane trip doesn't reflect the values we hope the University of Arkansas embraces.
Commentary on 06/12/2018
Print Headline: Putting on airs