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 The Brancatelli File

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ABOUT THIS COLUMN
United's operations collapsed in the spring and summer of 2000. By the time this column posted on August 24, three of every four United flights were running late. Worse, the airline was canceling hundreds of flights every day. Makeshift villages of stranded travelers popped up at United's hubs. Stories filtered in about international flyers waiting days for flights that never arrived. Yet United management denied everything and focused instead
on planning for the US Airways merger--and building a new worldwide headquarters. When they finally admitted that there might be a problem, the bosses blamed pilots and mechanics. Their contracts--negotiated in 1994 with $5 billion in givebacks--had lapsed and they were using in a wide variety of job actions. Even today, however, there's absolutely no evidence that United manage-ment made any attempts to solve the operational meltdown. Their only action was to offer travelers a bribe. Instead, travelers booked away en masse. And other carriers poached United's elite flyers by the thousands. Two days after this column posted, United settled with its pilots. The deal made them the best-paid pilots in the skies. And it begs questions still unanswered today: Why did Goodwin take crippling job actions for months and then give a sweetheart contract? Wouldn't it have been much cheaper--and less ruinous--
if United management caved before the pilot-owners flexed their muscles? -- J.B.

WILL YOU TAKE
UNITED'S BRIBE?


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

August 24, 2000 -- There is only one question now and how you choose to answer will go a long way toward deciding the face of business travel for the rest of the decade.

Will you take United's bribe?

Will you overlook the 25 percent on-time performance, the thousands of cancellations and stay loyal for bonus miles? Will you ignore the disrespect and the contempt emanating from the airline's management and continue to fly United just to rack up some additional Mileage Plus credits? Will you tell United--and all the other airlines that are watching--that you can be bought? Will you put up with anything just for a few stinking miles?

That, fellow travelers, is the question. Take the bribe, fly United despite its operational and managerial collapse and all may be lost. Take United Airlines' bonus-mile bribe and you'll tell the airlines that nothing matters--not fares, not on-time performance, not schedules, not service, not the truth--except miles.

Say no to the bribe and continue to fly other carriers--any other carriers--and United and all the other majors will get the message that service matters. Schedules matter. The truth matters. Competence matters.

Make no mistake about this, fellow travelers. United's announcement last week offering bonus miles and fee waivers was a bribe. It was not an apology for the airline's unprecedented and atrocious service this spring and summer. It was not even a promise to improve. It was a bribe, pure and simple, based solely on your recent decision to begin walking away from this rotting hulk of an airline.

After all, in April, when United's on-time performance slumped to 65.6 percent, the airline denied there was a problem. Its traffic was rising, so chief executive Jim Goodwin and president Rono Dutta ignored the trouble and started negotiating the US Airways merger. In May, when United's on-time performance dropped to 56.6 percent, United did nothing, content that its traffic was still rising. In June, when United's on-time performance skidded below 50 percent, United continued to do nothing because its traffic was still rising. And instead of working to fix

his airline, Goodwin took a road trip to Washington to promote a US Airways merger. In July, when United began its total meltdown, Goodwin and Dutta did nothing, still content because its traffic was not falling. Rather than address the problems, in fact, they further diverted management time to a new task force to plan for the US Airways merger.

The offer of the mileage bonus only came last week, when traffic and advance bookings began to plummet, when travelers finally began booking away because United's on-time performance has fallen below 25 percent. Faced with passengers choosing to fly anyone but United, Goodwin and Dutta finally came up with a plan: a bribe of 25 percent bonuses for Mileage Plus Premier members, 100 percent bonuses for Premier Executive and 1K members and a waiver of some booking fees for the masses.

Worse, Goodwin and Dutta are trying to bribe you to ignore the fact that United is offering no improvements, no corrective action, no management attention to the problems. As the airline has crumbled, Goodwin and Dutta have canceled flights and padded scheduled flying times, two actions that have inconvenienced travelers further. But as far as we can tell--or United has announced--not a single management executive's time has been diverted to address United's collapse. As far as we can tell, or United has announced, not a single additional employee has been sent to the airports to help the delayed and distraught crowds. As far as we know, or United has announced, Goodwin and Dutta have no strategy to restore United to operational normality.

Worst of all, United apparently has been lying for months about the root of its problems. It claims the problems are due to pilots refusing to fly overtime or bad weather or air-traffic control. But in the week or so since United has begun posting specifics about cancellations on its Web site, more than half of the canceled flights have been due to mechanical problems. On Tuesday, for example, United admitted to 76 cancellations; 49 of them were due to maintenance problems or damaged aircraft. Fifty-six of Monday's 68 cancellations were due to mechanical flaws or damaged aircraft. On Sunday, 52 of United's 68 cancellations were attributed to mechanical problems or damaged planes.

The truth is plain for all to see: United Airlines has collapsed. Three of every four flights operated late last week. The airline is canceling upwards of 10 percent of its flights on any given day. Lost bags and stranded passengers are strewn across the nation and around the globe. Its pilots and mechanics are working on expired contracts. It is bleeding passengers so fast that it has lowered its third-quarter earnings expectations twice in the last 30 days. Management is planning for a merger that may never happen rather than addressing existing catastrophes.

Goodwin and Dutta's response to this utter chaos is a cold and calculating mileage bribe to induce you to look the other way.

Shame on you if you take it.

This column originally ran at biztravel.com. This annotation originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com in December, 2002.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.