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 The Brancatelli File

joe AIRLINES IN LIELAND

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

March 3, 2005 -- You and I wake up most mornings of our working lives and head to an airport knowing that we're about to be lied to by whatever airline we happen to be flying that particular day.

Airlines lie about their schedules. (I called Air India on Monday afternoon during a howling East Coast snowstorm to inquire about its 9 p.m. departure to Paris. Despite the rapidly deteriorating weather, the voice on the other end of the phone huffily insisted that the flight would leave on time. It actually departed after midnight.)

Airlines lie about their fares. (A British court on Wednesday ruled that Ryanair misled customers by promoting fares without mentioning that the prices did not include taxes. The ever-pugnacious folks at Ryanair insisted that the repeated promotional gaffes were merely accidents.)

Airlines lie about their service. (I recently helped a friend book an itinerary to Hawaii. Continental insists that Flight 49 from Newark to Maui is a one-stop flight. But Flight 49 actually requires that you fly a Boeing 757 to its Houston/Intercontinental hub, disembark, walk the entire distance of the U-shaped Terminal E, then board a Boeing 767 that is also called Flight 49. This particular airline lie even has a name: a "change of gauge" flight.)

Airlines lie about everything, in fact. The salaries of their executives. Their tax burden. Their frequent-flyer programs. Their rules. And even their names. After all, code-sharing is nothing if it is not putting one airline's name on a flight that is actually operated by another carrier.

But what I want to discuss today is this: If you and I know that the airlines lie, and that they lie all the time, why don't my compatriots in the mainstream media know this?

I refer, of course, to Wednesday's report from the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation. He concluded that the inept management of US Airways was to blame for the Christmas-holiday meltdown that inconvenienced more than 500,000 travelers and caused about 400 flight cancellations, 3,900 flight delays and 70,000 lost bags.

If the IG's analysis comes as a surprise to you, it's only because you were watching or reading about the debacle during the holiday, when the general media were devoting round-the-clock attention to the situation until the Asian tsunami put everything into perspective. Day after day, US Airways spokespeople stepped up to the microphones and claimed that the problems were caused by an unexpected spike in sick calls from employees. They hinted darkly at an illegal job action. And US Airways chief executive officer Bruce Lakefield--who coined the term "operational meltdown"--blamed the fiasco on the "irresponsible actions of a few."

The reporters who served up these assertions from US Airways as gospel truth never once questioned the airline's claims. US Airways spokespeople presented phony numbers--deftly juxtaposing an average day's worth of sick calls with the always-higher holiday rate--as proof of their claims. Few reporters demanded clarification, even though US Airways' public-relations types have a proven track record of unreliability and egregious distortion. The media ran with Lakefield's canned comments and never mentioned that neither he nor chairman David Bronner were interviewed. They never mentioned that neither was even on the scene at US Airways during the holidays. And the media waited days before reporting the counterclaims of US Airways' labor unions that the airline's line employees were not engaged in a sick-out and were not absent in unexpected numbers.

As you can read in the IG's report, every assertion that US Airways made was a lie, a fabrication or a preventable error. The IG places the entire blame on US Airways management for bad planning, sloppiness, penury, stupidity and downright idiocy. And it shows that US Airways employees were neither absent in extraordinary numbers nor engaged in a job action over Christmas.

It was all a fog of lies and incompetence on the part of US Airways management--and the media breathlessly covering the story over Christmas blithely and credulously waded into the fog.

If this were a one-time failing on the part of my mass-media comrades, I'd be more forgiving. After all, I know better than most the pressure that my colleagues are under. Hell, I helped trained a goodly number of the people on the front line of business journalism today.

But Christmas in Airline LieLand was not an exception. It's the rule. Airlines have been lying to the mass media for years. And the media keeps getting fooled in crisis after crisis.

These are, after all, the very same media people who continue to report to you that Richard Branson says he'll launch Virgin America this year--without reminding you that he's been saying the same thing since at least 1999 or mentioning that Branson has no money, no planes, no routes and no government approval to fly.

These are the same people who report to you that United chief executive Glenn Tilton says he'll be buying other airlines after United exits bankruptcy later this year. But they report his comments without mentioning that United is more than two years into Chapter 11 and hasn't even presented a plan of reorganization to the court or that Tilton has a documented trail of delusional overstatement and outright falsehood about everything that has happened at United since he took over late in 2002.

These are the same media types who lionized Gordon Bethune when he departed Continental at the end of last year without mentioning that he was consistently, conspicuously, loudly and spectacularly wrong about everything that has occurred at Continental in specific and the airline business in general after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Nor did they bother to mention that Continental's new management filed a report with the Securities and Exchange Commission just days after Bethune officially departed and admitted that the airline was a financial basket case.

I can explain in excruciating detail a lot of the reasons why my media colleagues have lost the battle of self-evident truth with the airlines. Some reasons are cultural: We still live in a society where it's okay to say "the company offers but unions demand." Some are institutional: Most mass-media outlets are owned by huge conglomerates whose corporate goals are profits, not truth. And some are structural: It is nearly impossible for classically trained American business journalists to cope with an industry that is fundamentally dysfunctional, largely bankrupt and historically incoherent.

But some of the reasons are simply attitudinal. The underpaid, overworked men and women who write your daily newspapers, business magazines and television and radio programs assume that the airlines are telling the truth until proven otherwise.

Not me. As a business traveler as well as a business journalist, I know better. Like you, I assume the airlines are lying until they can prove otherwise.

A little more of a business traveler's incredulity on the part of my mass-media colleagues would go a long, long way in cutting through the fog of Airlines in LieLand.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.