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 The Brancatelli File

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ABOUT THIS COLUMN
United's meltdown was one of the major news stories of the summer of 2000. But when United settled with its pilots late in August, the general media pulled up stakes. United management had declared its problems solved and, pressured by the constraints of covering the Summer Olympics in Sydney and the presidential elections, most of the media moved on. In fact, the story was just beginning. United's traffic was plunging, the airline was hemorrhaging cash and its operations weren't improving. Yet United's management kept lying and denying. They were blaming the weather for their problems, insisting they would be profitable in the third quarter and claiming elite flyers were returning to the fold. None of it was true, of course. United lost a bundle in the third quarter--shocking Wall Street analysts who somehow expected profits despite the operational collapse--and the losses have continued unabated to this day. Most surreal of all: United's bosses continued to plan for the US Airways merger even though the regulators in Washington were signaling that the deal could never happen. -- J.B.

SENDING UNITED
A MESSAGE


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

September 14, 2000 -- The television crews have left the airports now. For them, the disaster that is United Airlines is yesterday's news. The newspaper reporters are gone, too. United has told them that everything is hunky-dory and far too many of my ink-stained colleagues have bought the spin.

But we're still here, all us frequent flyers, picking up the pieces of a summer decimated by the unprecedented meltdown of the nation's largest and most deceitful airline. How many days of work have you lost? How many nights did you spend in a flea-bag airport hotel? How many of your deals went down the tube? How many clients did you let down because United left you stranded at O'Hare or Denver or London or Tokyo? Did you miss your kid's birthday or a wedding anniversary because United couldn't get you home?

No, fellow travelers, this story is not over. We have endured too much to let it fade away because the world's attention has been diverted by the Olympics or the elections. Our lives have been mangled by United and the arrogant executives who thought they could buy us off with a few bonus miles.

In fact, the real story is now because now is when you are speaking. You're sending United a message, talking with your feet and your dollars. And you're telling United loud and clear that you're flying someone else. Anyone else.

NO JUSTICE, NO PASSENGERS
When United offered its double-mile bribe last month, I suggested that the airline's bosses didn't care about your pain, only their bottom line. After all, United offered nothing in April, May or June, when it was making your life miserable and its traffic was still rising. But August was

the month you began resisting. United's domestic traffic plummeted 12 percent. United's most frequent and profitable flyers, the target of the mileage offer, aren't taking the bait. Many have defected to other airlines, aided by those carriers' willingness to match their Mileage Plus Premier credentials. United is now scrambling for any traffic it can find, sending out discount coupons, issuing rebates to corporate customers and creating a raft of Internet promotions. On Tuesday, a desperate United even unleashed a general fare sale. Anything to get someone back on their planes.

HOLD OUT FOR BETTER TERMS
But United's callous and clueless management shouldn't be allowed to wiggle off the hook with some bonus miles and a few fare sales. Hold out for better terms. Keep booking away from United until it can operate 80 percent on time. Continue to snub United until it improves its dreary in-flight service. At the very least, book away until United automatically renews your Mileage Plus Premier credentials for 2001. If they want to win back your loyalty and your business, make them pony up the benefits in advance. In other words, hold out until United chief Jim Goodwin shows you the status.

FORGIVE, DON'T FORGET
Want to forgive United for how they treated you this summer? It's the charitable thing to do and I applaud your noble spirit. And say something kind to every United gate agent and flight attendant and baggage handler you meet. They've suffered right along with us. But never forget how United management treated you. The airline's systemic collapse has been nearly inconceivable. Want some numbers? Go to the Air Travel Consumer Report and examine the records. Here's a smattering of what you'll find. United's overall on-time performance was just 42.2 percent in July. That's 27 points below the industry average. Of its 2,227 regularly scheduled flights in July, 702 arrived late at least 70 percent of the time. That's a startling 31.5 percent of its daily operations. And pity the poor passengers booked on United Flight 1868. That flight, from Chicago/O'Hare to Philadelphia, operated 23 times in July. It arrived late 22 times. The average length of delay: two hours and nine minutes.

BETTER WEATHER AT AMERICAN'S TERMINAL
One last point while we're discussing the record. For months, United executives tried to blame the weather for its problems. Well, consider this: In July, United operated just 38.8 percent on time at its O'Hare hub. American's hub at O'Hare operated 61.9 percent on time. At New York/Kennedy, where United operates transcontinental and European flights, its July on-time rating was just 51.2 percent. American operates transcontinental and European flights at Kennedy, too. Its on-time rating was 73.5 percent. Any of you believe the weather was somehow better for American than United?

I'd think twice before doing business with an airline run by executives who lie about the weather.

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.