Before becoming a research engineer in MIT's International Center for Air Transportation, William S. Swelbar spent nearly 30 years in the airline industry as a consultant with a focus on airline labor cost restructuring, regulatory issues, and communication strategy and support. Since October 2007, he has been writing a blog, "Swelblog: Swelbar on Airlines" (www.swelblog.com), which focuses on the most talked-about issues in the airline business - ranging from labor issues to customer service, competition and finance. An in-demand public speaker, he has concluded that "people really don't want fluff" and writes his blog accordingly.
Q. Why did you start Swelblog?
A. A good friend, a Wall Street analyst that covers the industry, encouraged me to write for some time. As I was making a career transition away from a pure consulting environment, the blog has proven to be one of the best decisions I have made as it forces me to stay current and as a result I stay relevant in the debates/discussions surrounding the industry. Being away from a consulting environment, I do not have the shackles of a client's interests to consider. I can just write.
Q. This is not a blog for the faint of heart: You name names in labor disputes at United Airlines, compare the airline and auto industries and critique media coverage of recent airline disasters. What has been the reaction?
A. When I introduced the blog in 2007 I wrote: "I did not start this blog to win friends or influence anyone. I'm a data guy, and I've been studying the industry long enough to come up with some strong opinions ... many of which aren't popular in either boardrooms or union halls. My approach is analytical because, in my view, the numbers don't lie."
The fundamental theme of the blog is the absolute need for change. The airline industry is plagued with many of the same legacy issues that now has two of the big three U.S. automakers in bankruptcy. The reaction to the blog has elicited some incredibly ugly, emotional and personal responses. But for me, the responses have emboldened the message of change because if it strikes that kind of a chord, I am getting close to many truths. I spend four to six hours working on each piece; I know I'm stepping on emotional issues (one of my sources is the comprehensive Airline Data Project, which was established by MIT's Global Airline Industry Program at airlinedataproject.mit.edu). Every stakeholder in this industry has to change and this industry has to get to a place where it at least covers the cost of its capital.
Q. Is the public getting enough information about aviation issues? Do mainstream media reporters gather enough background for their stories?
A. No, the media does not get enough background - that, too, was a factor in launching the blog. There are some great aviation reporters and there are others that frustrate me beyond words. Given the number of interviews I do, I continue to be startled by the pre-conceived agendas that exist. As a result, I think many sensitive stories receive some poor and unfortunate coverage. And if that is the case on an important story, Swelblog will probably call it out.