By Joe Brancatelli
May 17, 2007 -- This we have long believed: The Big Six carriers 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, you're responsible. Every time you're shoehorned into a 50-seat econobox where there used to be a real jet, it's your fault. Airline strand you on the runway for six hours? Your fault. Insanely high walk-up fares on the same routes where airlines are selling $29 seats? 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 a 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. (And me, me, me, since I am one of 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 Big Six profit and traffic figures for the last few months. Walk-up fares are edging back to historic highs and service is at an all-time low, but virtually all of the major carriers are racking up record gains in traffic and load factors. 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.

US Airways, for example, is in the tank. In March, its worst month ever, it ran almost half of its flights late. In fact, it ran more than 10 percent of its daily schedule late at least 70 percent of the time. Its baggage-handling efficiency is 40 percent worse than the industry average. Yet it registered a $66 million profit in the first quarter and, even after the management-created computer problems in March, it filled more than eight of every 10 seats it could get in the air in April.

You keep buying and flying US Airways, so why blame the airline and its delusional management for the atrocious on-time performance and operational deficiencies?

By any objective measure, United Airlines remains a basket case sixteen months after it emerged from its endless bankruptcy. It's below the industry's atrocious average for on-time performance and more than one in three flights runs late at its Chicago/O'Hare hub. A respected "consumer satisfaction" poll released on Tuesday says that United Airlines is the nation's most-hated carrier. Yet United filled a record-high 84.1 percent of its seats in April and last week it successfully raised some walk-up and premium-class fares by as much as $100 roundtrip.

You continue to buy and fly United, so why blame the airline if it continues to raise your fares?

It's no different with the other Big Six carriers. They keep slashing services, imposing new fees and treating you like trash. It's so bad that even defiantly no-frills Southwest Airlines is running TV spots mocking their service policies. But their load factors continue to grow and their business fares continue to rise.

In other words, you continue to buy and fly them, so don't blame them when they screw up.

Don't think that the airlines aren't thinking exactly along these lines. As an industry, they run only 72.5 percent of their flights on-time. They have off-loaded huge chunks of their domestic flying to regional carriers that routinely lose your bags and cancel your flights. They have taken away your coach meals and your stand-by privileges and cut nearly 200,000 front-line jobs, but they look at their 80+ percent load factors and say, We're doing a great job. They raise business-travel fares and cheapen the travel experience, then they see their traffic rising, and they think, We're doing just fine.

Or as one Big Six executive I spoke to on Tuesday afternoon said as he dismissed the findings of the new consumer-satisfaction study: "Joe, what part of 'The market has spoken' don't you or they fully understand?"

Back in the summer of 2000, when the system was operating about as poorly as it is running now, I had lunch with a senior executive at a Big Six carrier. I handed him a folder full of hundreds of E-mails detailing business travelers' complaints about his airline.

He shoved the folder back at me without opening it. "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 that people are happy with the prices we charge and the service we offer."

In other words, you're buying and flying, so they can justly assume that 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.

That's what they thought during the horrific summer of 2000 and that's what they'll tell you now, as we stand at the precipice of what will be a horrific summer of 2007.

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

I cannot argue with that. There's no fact--or extrapolation of fact--to prove otherwise. And until you start staying home, you can't argue with it, either.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

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This column is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.