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 The Brancatelli File

joe YOU BUY AND YOU FLY?
THEN YOU'RE HAPPY


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

July 13, 2000 -- This we have long believed: Airlines soak business travelers on fares, run planes late or not at all and generally treat us like 21st century serfs in suits.

This we have now learned: It's your fault. You are to blame for the unfair fares and the atrocious service. Every time an airline loses your bag after forcing you to check it when it didn't fit through those detestable templates, you're responsible. Flight attendant treat you like dirt? Your fault. Gate agent disrespect you? Your fault. Two grand to fly New York to Los Angeles? Yep, that's your fault, too.

It's time to stop blaming the airlines every time they screw up or rip us off. Because you, Mr. and Ms. Business Traveler and all the frequent flyers in flight, are to blame.

Right about now you're thinking Brancatelli, that sly, sarcastic bastard, is about to throw in his trademarked twist. Here's where he delivers a devastating denouement that somehow skewers the airlines and makes a brilliantly quotable observation about how we poor business travelers are abused by the blue meanies who control our flying fates.

You're right, of course. Here's that unexpected punch line: It really is your fault. You. You. You. Everything the airlines are doing to turn business travel into hell on earth is now your fault.

I come to this conclusion because there is no other logical, defensible position after examining the airlines' traffic figures for the month of June. Fares are at an all-time high, service is at an all-time low, but virtually all the major carriers racked up record gains in traffic and load factor, which is the percentage of seats they filled. They keep raising your prices and reducing your services, but you keep buying and flying.

I read that as an incontrovertible endorsement of what they're charging you and how they're treating you. If the airlines keep shoveling the high-priced trash and you keep buying it, then you can't blame them. You're talking with fannies in seats and dollars at ticket counters and what you're saying is that the fares and the service and the treatment you get is okay.

United Airlines, for example, is in the tank. It runs almost half its flights late. It cancels one of every eleven flights it schedules. Yet its traffic was up 6.5 percent in June and it filled eight of every 10 seats it could get in the air. You keep buying and flying United, so why blame the airline for its atrocious on-time performance and frequent cancellations?

Continental Airlines was the first carrier to impose the hateful fuel surcharge. It initiated virtually every successful fare increase we've endured during the last 12 months. Yet Continental's traffic in June was up 10.3 percent and its load factor was 80 percent, the highest in company history. You continue to buy and fly Continental, so why blame the airline if it continues to raise your fares?

It's the same with Delta and Northwest, where June traffic was up 8 percent and load factors were 82 percent. US Airways traffic rose 14 percent, American was up 5.6 percent, America West traffic climbed 11 percent and TWA's numbers improved by 6.9 percent. The load factors on all those airlines was around 80 percent. You continue to buy and fly them, so don't blame them when they screw up.

Don't think the airlines aren't thinking exactly along these lines. As an industry, they run only 73.4 percent of their flights on time, but they look at their 80 percent load factor and say, "We're doing a great job." They raise business-travel fares and make tickets more restrictive, then they see their traffic rising by double digits, and they think, "We're doing just fine."

Or as one airline executive I spoke to Wednesday morning said: "Joe, what part of 'The market has spoken' don't you understand?"

When I protested that I get hundreds of E-mails a week complaining about the cost of flying and the indignity of being a business traveler, his answer was equally succinct. "What do you want me to believe?" he asked. "Your E-mail or my numbers? You say business travelers feel they pay too much, but I don't see them staying home. You say they hate the service, but my planes are packed. The evidence I have says people are happy with the prices we charge and the service we offer."

Boom! There it is. You buy and you fly, they can justly assume you're happy with the fares and the service. And if anything goes wrong, it's you're fault because you continue to buy and fly. It doesn't matter that you feel you have no choice or that you must fly to do your business.

For the airlines, it's a simple equation: If you buy and you fly in the face of skyrocketing fares and plummeting service, then you're happy.

I can't argue with that. There's no fact--or extrapolation of fact--to prove otherwise.

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

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