Bryan Bedford, the CEO of recently amalgamated Frontier Airlines (comprising Midwest Express and Republic Airways), is this week's punter on the CBS show Undercover Boss. The premise is simple: a company's boss goes incognito and carries out the less glamorous tasks at the company.
Working on the front line is not unfamiliar to AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes, who regularly checks-in passengers and loads bags, or Air New Zealand Rob Fyfe, who appeared in body paint and little else for a safety video. For Bedford, going undercover entailed donning a toupee (he's bald) and glasses and trading his suit for Frontier-branded shorts and t-shirts to clean aircraft, load luggage, be a flight attendant, and service lavatories for one week.
As you would expect, there were funny moments. Bedford got sprayed with "blue juice" for the lavatories and couldn't keep up with the safety demonstration, at one point skipping how to wear an oxygen mask, saying: "Oops. Missed that part."
But how did his experience affect his management of Frontier? After the week he goes back to his senior management and reports: "From many different perspectives our airline is doing okay. But we've got a lot of work to do too."
Bedford experiences seven minutes is not enough time to leave an aircraft as clean as it should be; "cross utilization agents" ("Anybody hear that term before?" Bedford quips to management) work on the ramp and then, exhausted and sweaty, check-in customers; and the 10% pay cut the previous management made was making it hard for Bedford's employees to make ends meet. Tui, the flight attendant who Bedford worked alongside, flies six days and also deejays and luaus in order to send his children to college so they, Tui says, do not have to work three jobs like him.
Flightglobal publication Airlines Business featured a profile on Bedford last year and readers familiar with straight-talking Bedford would expect him to make these rational changes, including restoring the 10% pay cut. I was left with the impression Bedford should have, like Fernandes and Fyfe, been on the front line earlier. Bedford has seen the value from being out there and hopefully he will return to it and other executives will do the same.
Bedford also sets out to make a difference in the lives of the employees who worked with him not knowing he was the CEO. Amongst other niceties, Bedford gives Tui $20,000 to help pay for college tuition, a daunting debit Bedford sympathizes with as he has eight children himself.
Bedford was particularly touched by Sue, the energetic and always-laughing "aircraft appearance" team member (read: aircraft cleaner). Underneath her exuberance, however, was grief for her murdered son, Andre. Bedford gives Sue a holiday and tells her Frontier will name an aircraft after Andre, and Sue will select which animal goes on the tail. (She later chooses an antelope.)
It is an act that should remind everyone in the industry that buried in quarterly reports, fleet listings, and worldwide timetables are the people who bring aviation to fruition. Sue, like many Frontier employees, never asked for much and found herself enjoying the small carrier ethos. Her voice becomes hoarse--but her smile remains--as she reflects on Frontier naming a jet after her late son. "Every time I see that plane I'm going to say, 'There go Andre. There go Andre.'"
Readers in the United States can view the full episode on the CBS website here. For those (like yours truly) in other countries, you should be able to find the episode flying around the internet.