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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE LYING GAME

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

August 25, 2005 -- It is a measure of the contempt business travelers have for the travel industry that readers E-mailed me as soon as our 99-flight survey began to show an improvement in strike-bound Northwest Airlines' daily on-time performance.

"Change your methods immediately," one JoeSentMe member wrote. "They know that you're tracking flight numbers ending in 1 and they are making sure those flights run right."

"They're gaming you now," wrote another. "Start looking at flights ending in 6. Or 9. Just make sure Northwest doesn't know so they can't cheat anymore."

I'm a guy who has "Humpty Dumpty was pushed" emblazoned over my office doorway, but even I don't think that Northwest is fiddling with its flights to skew our informal survey. But I understand why you might. I understand because we business travelers know the truth: The travel industry lies. And it lies all the time.

In light of the endless revelations about Enron, WorldCom, Krispy Kreme and many other firms, that hardly seems like an earth-shattering revelation. And during a 30-year career as a business journalist, I've encountered some astounding bits of prevarication oozing from the hearts, minds and mouths of America's corporate elite.

But no industry lies quite like the travel industry. From the modestly misleading hotel practice of putting pictures of their nicest rooms in brochures and then making believe that it is the standard offering to the airline practice of scheduling flights they know cannot run on-time, travel is built on a foundation of lies. Lies about pricing, lies about service, lies about standards and even lies about lying.

In the weeks to come, we'll learn more about the extraordinary fibs that Northwest told in the early days of the strike. The constant official bleating that operations were "normal" when hundreds of flights were being cancelled and thousands more delayed. The terminal monitors that somehow miraculously displayed "on time" for virtually all flights when, in fact, dozens of flights were being delayed--and sometimes delayed for hours. The hundreds upon hundreds of flights since Saturday that the NWA.com flight tracker has reported as having arrived 14 minutes late, which, of course, means that they are "on-time" because the Transportation Department doesn't consider a flight late unless it arrives 15 minutes behind schedule.

But why should this surprise you? Richard Branson has been claiming for five years that Virgin America is going to start flying "this year." Lately, he's repeatedly claimed that he's just 60 days away from announcing the airline's funding arrangements. The respected trade newsletter Aviation Daily has gotten so frustrated with Branson's 60-days-away claims that it has taken to reporting on Day 61 that Branson has lied again about his funding.

In fact, Branson, the bombastic pitchman who created Virgin Atlantic, has elevated the travel industry's culture of lies to the level of performance art. He frequently uses it as a tactic to combat his arch-rival, British Airways.

Branson's most artistic lie began making the rounds in the spring of 1999, shortly after British Airways announced plans to equip its long-haul business-class flights with seats that fold into beds. Several years earlier, BA had trumped its competitors with first-class beds and Branson was clearly caught napping by BA's business-class plans.

So Branson announced he was putting double beds in Virgin's Upper Class business-class cabins. In a story that appeared in the London Daily Telegraph on June 10, 1999, Branson went so far as to announce a fare: $15,600 a couple for a double-bed roundtrip between New York and London.

By January of 2000, Branson's minions extended the double-bed lie even further: They created a computer-generated "photo" of the beds and convinced the ever-credulous New York Times to reproduce the image. This time, Branson said a double-bed passage would be about $18,000 per couple. "We're trying to put the romance back into flying," he snarked.

But the truth about Virgin's double beds is more prosaic. They don't exist. They never have.

(Apparently not everyone at Virgin Atlantic knew that Branson was lying. The airline's public relations people were so anxious for me to report on the double beds that they set up an interview with Virgin's design director. Then they flew me to London free, put me up in a fancy hotel free and sent a Virgin limo to drive me to the airline's design center in Crawley, a town near Gatwick Airport. When I arrived, the design director met me in the lobby and refused to let me above the ground floor. We sat in a café in the lobby--I bought the coffee--trying to calculate how much Virgin had just spent trying to get me to write about the phony double beds.)

Remember US Airways' self-described Christmas "meltdown" in Philadelphia last year, when tens of thousands of passengers, flights and bags went awry? Day after day, US Airways spokespeople and executives claimed that the problems were caused by a union job action. Of course, there never was a job action. When the government investigators issued their report several months later, US Airways management was specifically and completely blamed for the meltdown.

Or consider this run-of-the-mill slice of life on the road. A couple of years ago, I checked into a hotel that was part of a chain that promised that every guestroom had a work desk with ergonomic chairs, task lighting and desk-level electrical outlets. Of course, my room had none of those amenities. When I called the front desk to inquire about the missing workspace, I was curtly informed that no room in the hotel had the desks, chairs, task lights or desk-level outlets.

When I got back home, I called the marketing director for the chain and asked how he could claim these amenities in every room when I had just checked out of one of his hotels that had none of them in any of the rooms.

"I know that property," he said breezily. "They have an exception."

For frequent travelers unfamiliar with hotel-industry jargon, "an exception" is when a particular hotel is permitted to violate the chain's published standards. In plain English, an exception is a corporately approved lie that officially exempts a hotel from fulfilling its promise to its guests.

That's the way it is in travel. Lying is now so permanently ingrained, there are even corporate standards for how and when to do it.

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