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 The Brancatelli File

joe RUIN AN AIRLINE,
THEN FLIP BURGERS


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

February 22, 2001 -- The cosmic questions of business travel usually surface while we're waiting on our third check-in line of the day, whiling away the delays in an airport club or stuck on the tarmac sweating out a two-hour ground hold.

"What's your favorite hotel?" one frequent flyer often asks another. "Had any luck cashing miles lately?" is a favorite. "Do your kids understand why you're never home?" is a biggie.

And then there are the most cosmic of all business-travel questions: "What could possibly be the career path of the CEO who runs this stinking airline? Would any other company in the world actually hire this bozo?"

These last two questions really puzzle us. After all, we are business people before we are frequent flyers. We can't understand how an airline chief executive can prosper when his product is so awful, his prices are so high, his employees are so disgruntled, his customers are so miserable and the company's stock price is in the tank. Where, we wonder, do these characters go after screwing up in the airline business?

This week we have an answer. After you destroy your airline, alienate your employees, enrage your customers, disappoint your investors and make the lives of business travelers nearly unbearable, you slink off to run a troubled fast-food chain. That, apparently, is the career path: Ruin an airline, then flip burgers.

We have John Dasburg to thank for that information. He quit Monday as president and chief executive of Northwest. On Tuesday, he was introduced as chairman, chief executive and president of Burger King, the struggling fast-food chain based in Dasburg's home town of Miami.

While he sat for ten years in his ivory tower at Northwest headquarters in suburban Minneapolis, Dasburg perpetrated all manner of crimes against travelers. He deferred the purchase of new planes, saddling Northwest with the oldest, creakiest fleet in the American skies. He created a culture of despicable customer service that led to the 1999 Detroit disaster in the snow. Thousands of passengers were stranded on planes without food, water or toilet facilities for up to 10 hours. Northwest eventually settled lawsuits stemming from the incident for more than $7 million.

Dasburg's in-flight product has been a sad joke. At one point, he eliminated movies on domestic flights rather than repair all the broken video monitors on Northwest's aging planes. A crash program to update Northwest's tatty international business class is still incomplete. And rather than invest in the beds that are now standard for long-haul first-class service, Dasburg abandoned Northwest's first-class cabin on Asian flights, thus sacrificing the highest-yield business on the airline's most important overseas routes.

His financial failures were no less spectacular. He said nothing as Northwest's co-chairmen upstreamed tens of millions of dollars in "management fees." He hired many of the same financial hit men who nearly destroyed Continental Airlines when it was run by Frank Lorenzo. His one "victory," saving Northwest from bankruptcy in the early 1990s, was accomplished only by wringing brutal concessions from employees. Then he wasn't smart enough to share the bounty when the financial picture brightened. The result was a two-week pilot's strike in 1998 that cost Northwest $1 billion in revenue. The airline now faces a potential strike by mechanics, who've been working without a new contract for more than four years. His relations with the airline's unions and his own middle managers were so poisonous that a Reuters story noted Tuesday that "there is not a plane that can fly him out of Minneapolis quickly enough."

The top spot at Burger King is just desserts for the 58-year-old Dasburg. The company's sales have been flat for years and its most recent product innovation, a supposedly tastier French fry, was a hideous marketing blunder. Burger King franchisees loathe the company and Burger King's parent, the British liquor company Diageo PLC, can't wait to dump the chain. Dasburg will be the third chief executive at Burger King in less than a year and it is already clear that Diageo doesn't think all that much of him. His pay is contingent not on sales or profits, but on how much cash he can raise in a Burger King disposal. He has no seat on Diageo's board and there is no job for him at the parent company once Burger King is shed.

The good news is that we frequent flyers are now free of Dasburg. And Dasburg's successors at Northwest, Richard Anderson as chief executive and Doug Steenland as president, offer at least a glimmer of hope. Anderson is comparatively well liked by Northwest employees and he is credited with the modest revival of the airline's service in the last year.

Anderson and Steenland may just be passing through en route to fast-food postings of their own. But Dasburg's reign of terror and error at Northwest has left them an unprecedented opportunity. Any minuscule improvement in service or operational performance will allow Anderson and Steenland to position themselves as quality gurus. Bringing labor peace and a modicum of collegiality back to Northwest will allow them to claim they are management aces. Any show of courtesy to corporate clients, frequent flyers and suppliers will be greeted with exaggerated huzzahs.

Then, when they are ready to leave commercial aviation, Anderson and Steenland can get real jobs at real companies.

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

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