The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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Business Travel With Sam, the Froot Loops Toucan
January 23, 2003 -- Dazed and confused by this week's astonishing news that Continental, Delta and Northwest will defy the Transportation Department and create an outlaw code-share alliance, I inadvertently turned down Aisle 412 of my local SuperDuperMonstroGiganticHyperMart and found myself communing with Tony the Tiger and the other demented denizens of the cereal world.

It turned out to be a fortuitous diversion. You can learn a lot about the cupidity of the major airlines from Sam, the Froot Loops toucan.

Once I got over the sticker shock--at $4.67 for a 16-ounce box, I'm thinking Cap'n Crunch must have once done a tour of duty in an airline pricing department--I got to wondering about the major carriers' obsession with code-sharing. As a bagel-for-breakfast guy, I don't know much about cereal, so I didn't know whether I could buy a box of Cheerios and find Wheaties inside.

So I grabbed a box of Cheerios and examined it carefully. It didn't say it was code-sharing with another cereal, but, you know, I'm a frequent flyer so I don't believe everything I don't read.

Then I flagged down a passing stock boy. "Hey, fella, is it possible that there are really Froot Loops in this box of Cheerios?"

"Excuse me, sir?" he answered.

"Well," I said, "how do I know there really are Cheerios inside this box of Cheerios?"

"What else would there be inside a box of Cheerios?" the stock boy asked.

"I don't know," I responded. "Maybe Wheaties or Raisin Bran. You know, like airline code-sharing, where one carrier puts its name on the flights of another carrier."

The stock boy looked panicked, like maybe he'd need to call security. Finally, he said, "You'll have to see the manager, sir."

Trying to find a manager in a SuperDuperMonstroGiganticHyperMart is like trying to find an airline executive who doesn't blame $35,000-a-year flight attendants for his carrier's multi-billion dollar losses. So I went home and called the customer-service lines of the big cereal makers.

First I called General Mills (800-328-1144), which makes Cheerios. I asked the polite telemarketing lady whether General Mills would ever code-share and put Wheaties in a box of Cheerios.

"That could never happen, sir," she replied. "we're very careful to maintain the integrity of our brands."

I called Post (800-431-POST) and Quaker (800-234-6281) and got the same answer. And Kellogg's (800-962-1413) said Froot Loops would never share its name with Rice Krispies or Special K or Frosted Flakes--or any other Kellogg's brand.

"Have you ever heard of Froot Loops being packed inside a box of Kellogg's Special K?" I asked the Kellogg's lady.

"No, I never have," she said, "and I'm sure I would have heard. Besides, that sounds like consumer fraud. I'm sure that's not allowed."

Okay, now I think I understand: If General Mills puts Wheaties inside a box marked Cheerios or if Kellogg's puts Froot Loops in the Special K, it's consumer fraud. But when the airlines slap each other's names and codes on flights, that's standard operating procedure. And when three airlines--Delta, Continental and Northwest--tell the Transportation Department to stuff their consumer-protection rules, we're supposed to ignore their brazen disregard of duly appointed federal regulators.

Now that we've called a Froot Loop a Froot Loop, let's move on to practical issues. Do domestic-airline code-shares, and worldwide code-share alliances like Star, Oneworld and Skyteam, have any consumer benefits?

Of course not. There are a few modest service enhancements--coordinated schedules, frequent-flyer program and airline-club reciprocity, one-stop ticketing and check-in--but nothing that couldn't be accomplished without the fraud of one airline slapping its name on the flights of another carrier.

In exchange for those ersatz advantages, frequent flyers deal with higher fares, diminished competition and the perplexing maze of riddles posed by code-sharing.

When I fly United these days, am I actually flying Lufthansa? Or is it an Air New Zealand flight? Or maybe it's British Airways, an airline with which United once shared codes. You laugh, but I once booked an Alitalia flight that was a Continental code-share, but was actually operated by Ansett, the now-defunct Australian airline. You haven't seen confusion until you've seen an Italian-American flight operated by Australians. And when we book a Delta flight in the future, should we expect the snippy rudeness of Delta, the smug superciliousness of Continental or a flight on a 30-year-old Northwest DC-9?

All of this brings us back to Tony the Tiger, Cap'n Crunch and Toucan Sam of Froot Loops fame. Cereal makers are too proud of their brands and too ferociously protective of their reputations to consider switching the product they put inside their boxes.

Airlines, obviously, do not care. For years, Delta has been slapping its code on flights operated by Korean Air, a carrier whose safety record is substandard at best and criminally negligent at worst. Over the years, U.S. carriers also have thought nothing of partnering with other suspect airlines: National Airlines of Chile, Garuda Indonesian, Air China and even Aeroflot. And why should anyone listen to Gordon Bethune, Continental's chief executive big mouth, when he claims he's running the best airline on the planet, yet he's busily slapping the Continental name on flights operated by carriers he says he's better than?

What all that tells me is this: Unlike Froot Loops and Cheerios, there isn't a dime's worth of difference between the airlines. By putting their name on each other's flights, the carriers are admitting that airline service is one big bowl of soggy cereal, so who cares whether the box says American or United or US Airways or Delta or Continental or Northwest?

This column is Copyright 2003 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2001-2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.