The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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September 24, 2015 -- In my overview of 15 years of JoeSentMe coverage of business travelers, I said I hope that I might be remembered for my first column, The Cowards and Traitors Among Us.
But I know better. If I'm remembered at all, it'll be for two purposely broad and specifically snarky columns I've written about the airlines.
Why We Hate the Airlines and Love Diet Coke makes fun of the airlines' insane fare structure, specifically hidden-city fares and the carriers' panicky reaction when we use them. Written in 1997, the column comes back to life whenever an airline sues someone who finds a way to publicize the hidden-city gambit. (United sued this year, in fact, and promptly got spanked by a judge and a kid who created a site called Skiplagged.) It's even in a prestigious college journalism textbook now.
The other, Business Travel With Sam, the Froot Loops Toucan, lampooned the airline industry's mania for codeshares. It is widely quoted more than a decade after I wrote it and I don't even eat cereal. But I know a scam when I see one. I do not understand why airlines can slap their codes on the flights of another carrier but it is fraud if you find Froot Loops in a box of Cheerios.
So I get that I've been somewhat pigeonholed as a journalist who writes snarky stuff about airlines. In fact, however, I write about lots of business travel topics and actually make my career out of the public eye as a publishing consultant. I don't live and die airlines, I'm not and have never been an "av geek" and I don't hang with or care about the aviation community.
To me, airlines are a business tool, like a laptop or the stapler on my desk. Of course, it seems to me that the people who make staplers are a lot smarter than most of the people in the airline C-suites. And that's where I get myself into trouble. I see stupidity and I feel compelled to write about it.
Who am I to deny the huddled masses what they want? Here is a collection of columns about airline idiocy from the archives of JoeSentMe. I think it exposes them for what they are.
THE YEAR OF STUPID THINKING
Four consecutive columns in 2002 skewered the airlines as they unveiled bizarre strategies to save themselves. American Airlines opted for a downsizing and reliance on regional jets. The moves began a long march toward bankruptcy and still plague American today as it grapples with Envoy, the nation's worst commuter carrier. Continental Airlines and its preening chief executive, Gordon Bethune, decided we simply weren't paying him enough for the privilege of flying Continental. His let's-be-nasty-now tack created the environment that eventually allowed an out-of-touch lawyer, Jeff Smisek, to become chief executive. How'd that work out for us? Meanwhile, US Airways somehow concluded that making our lives miserable would solve its financial woes. It didn't, business travelers fled and US Airways suffered through multiple bankruptcies. And United Airlines was so addled that it dumped the entire mess on an oil-industry executive who happened to be hanging around an airport club. He took the airline into bankruptcy, engineered a huge financial windfall for himself and eventually dumped the still-wounded United into Smisek's lap. Once again, how'd that work out for us?
DEAD CEO BLOVIATING
Bethune actually had saved Continental in the 1990s and then did what suddenly celebrated CEOs do: He wrote a book and decided he was infallible. His pronouncements became more and more bizarre as Continental floundered again after 9/11. His most arrogant utterance? A 2003 comment that business flyers would pay whatever he decided to charge because they had no choice but to cough up. Guess what? We didn't pay. Bethune lost an internal power struggle in 2004 and never ran an airline again. His book, From Worst to First, now sells for as little as a penny on Amazon.com.
STORES OF KNOWLEDGE
My father was a shoe retailer and one of my first journalism jobs was as a retail reporter covering the big-name major department stores. I watched the Walmarts and Targets kick the stuffing out of the big, bloated fancy stores and saw how they tried to survive by imitating the discounters. It didn't work for the famous old department stores and, as I pointed out in 2004, it wasn't working for the Big Six airlines, either. That's why we're down to the Big Three.
THE DUMBEST AIRLINE IN HISTORY
How does a financially successful commuter airline making relatively big money compared to its major-carrier partners blow it all in just 18 months and disappear off the face of the earth? Attend the tale of Independence Air, literally the dumbest airline in American history.
THE AXIS OF AIRLINE EXCESS
If the airlines were just stupid, we could shrug our shoulders, grit our teeth and do what it takes to survive the daily grind on the road. But airlines pay their top executives so lavishly that it's borderline criminal. Glenn Tilton, the aforementioned oil guy who ended up running United, earned 1,000 times what an experienced flight attendant was paid. And when he took the airline into bankruptcy, he floated a plan that would give him 8 percent of the new carrier. The New York Times called that "insanity squared." I called the money that Tilton and the other fumbling airline bosses "earned" the "axis of airline excess." And it continues to this day. When Smisek was recently sent home from United under the cloud of a federal investigation, he left with several lovely parting gifts: nearly $5 million in cash, a car, free flights for life, years of paid health coverage, 60,000 shares of stock and a multimillion-dollar package of performance incentives.
THE 'HORNY BANKER THEORY' OF AIRLINE PRICING
When world financial markets crumbled in 2008, the airlines' most profitable and price-insensitive customers disappeared overnight. It didn't matter that we weren't flying, one airline executive explained to me then, it was that the entire pricing structure essentially rested with horny bankers who'd pay almost anything to get home in time for a date.
THE LYING GAME
What happens when you while away the hours of an overnight transatlantic flight talking business with an airline chief executive? He'll lie as much as that horny banker looking to get laid. Then he'll take strikes, squeeze employees and passengers and claim all his carrier's woes were actually due to transient, external economic conditions. That's what British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh did in 2010, when he spoke with forked tongue and rammed through unilateral contract changes sure to provoke schedule-disrupting strikes. And if it all sounds familiar, consider that Carsten Spohr, the boss of Lufthansa, is playing the same game now.
WHEN THE GOING GETS GOOD, THE GOOD GET BAD
When they make profits at all, airlines are chronically low-margin businesses. Even in relatively good times, profits rarely reach the double-digit levels that shareholders demand. And strange as it may seem, airlines act more irrationally when they are making money than when they are gushing red ink. Which explains why JetBlue Airways, the most profitable start-up of the deregulated airline era, will cheapen its product to chase the chimera of a few dollars more. No matter that JetBlue bosses are doing exactly the things that will make them virtually indistinguishable from the chronically unprofitable airlines they once feasted upon.
TELL IT TO THE JUDGE
It may seem to you that I'm too harsh on the airlines. But I urge you to check the record. After all, I wasn't the guy who went in front of the Supreme Court and said that regulators, lawmakers and passengers aren't allowed to "superimpose a duty of good faith and fair dealing" on airlines. Delta's lawyers said that. And that's what the airlines truly think. Good faith and fair dealing has no place in commercial aviation.
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