Frontier Airlines' Undercover Boss

Frontier Airlines' Undercover Boss

Bedford was guiding his company through a complicated three-way merger when Undercover Boss came calling. Though slightly nervous about how his company might appear in the midst of such a disruptive process, he jumped at the chance for raw, unfiltered feedback from his employees. He got an earful.

Frontier Airlines' Undercover Boss

Seeing Through Employee's Eyes

Seeing Through Employee's Eyes

BNET: You're the head of the second-largest regional airline in the US. You don't need publicity. Why did you agree to this?

Bedford: I like to get out in the field; I do it quite often. And, as you know, we are currently undergoing a very complicated three-way merger between Frontier, Midwest Airlines, and Republic.

It's hard for the boss to go under cover in his own organization without the disguise. When you go out as the boss and people know you are coming, you just don't see the same thing. The airline is fully staffed, everything is shiny clean and polished, and people are smiling and waiting for you. It is just really hard to see the airline through the eyes of our employees when people are expecting the boss to show up.

Frontier Airlines' Undercover Boss

Opportunity, and Risk

Opportunity, and Risk

BNET: A merger is generally not a happy time for employees. Did you think that you should have waited until the anxiety died down a bit before you did this?

Bedford: When we were first approached to do the show in the spring, we were right in the middle of the difficult part of integrating the employee workforce... It was just a great opportunity to go undercover and see raw, up close and personal, how we were doing, how our employees understood the merger, and what impact our policies and procedures were having.

But, yeah, when you're going through a merger, it's sort of like moving to a new house -- you don't really want to invite guests over while you are still unpacking the boxes.

Frontier Airlines' Undercover Boss

The Ruse

The Ruse

BNET: What was the cover story to explain why this new employee was being followed by a camera crew?

Bedford: I was very curious to see how the Undercover team was going to slip me into the operation. They actually came up with a great ruse. It was explained that I was one of a couple different folks competing for a job, so the cameras weren't solely on me. They followed a couple of others around, and that gave me the anonymity that I was looking for.

Frontier Airlines' Undercover Boss

The Toughest Merger Decision

The Toughest Merger Decision

BNET: What are the toughest calls you had to make during the merger?

Bedford: The hardest thing to do for us was picking the brand. We purchased what we thought were two very good brands, Frontier Airlines, the hometown airline in Denver, and Midwest Airlines, the hometown airline in Milwaukee. We realized very early on that we were really only going to be able to sustain one of those two brands. And the question was, which would be the survivor?

BNET: Why did you go with Frontier?

Bedford: All the research we did showed what customers really wanted seemed to resonate best with what Frontier historically offered, which were affordable fares, good frequency, great products. Not that Midwest didn't have these things, but Midwest was more of your traditional legacy airline—full-service, first class. And frankly that just wasn't what the marketplace was telling us it wanted. It really wanted great value, affordable fares, differentiated service. For example, on Frontier, we have live TV, we're putting Wi-Fi on the planes. So it's got some neat stuff to it, but Frontier is your classic low-cost carrier that offers affordable, everyday fares.

Frontier Airlines' Undercover Boss

Learning to Listen

Learning to Listen

BNET: You came away from the experience wanting to make some changes to how Frontier does things. What were they?

Bedford: Well, the biggest change we absolutely had to make was communicaiton. We had to figure out better ways not only to share our vision with the employees, but also to listen. If there was one thing that I heard over and over again, it's that employees had great ideas and suggestions they wanted to make. When you asked them as a coworker, 'Why don't you just tell somebody?' They would say, 'Well, I talked to so-and-so, but... they don't care; they just want me to shut up and do my job.'

That is not what we want. We want to learn from the people who are on the front lines doing the work. We have to open our ears if we are ever going to learn.

Frontier Airlines' Undercover Boss

A Mile in Their Shoes

A Mile in Their Shoes

BNET: This experience changed your mind about your employees, how hard they worked and what their lives are like. Do you think it changed their minds about you?

Bedford: Well, I hope so. I have to tell you that it is very strange when you are having a conversation with somebody and they say, 'Well, our CEO, Bryan Bedford, says...'

It's one thing to tell people, I respect my employees; I think they are doing a really great job. And I do. But when you are out there in the field working with them, walking a mile in their shoes, you come away with a whole other level of respect about what it takes to actually run an airline .

Frontier Airlines' Undercover Boss

Living Our Values

Living Our Values

BNET: Would you recommend that every manager go through something like this?

Bedford: As an outgrowth of this, we are getting all of our officers out in the field. They will get an opportunity to work in other departments and see, whether we are in fact walking the talk.  Every company has a value statement, but if it's just words on paper, they are meaningless. You have to ask, are we really living our values in the eyes of our employees? That is the ultimate test.