DO THE RIGHT THING? NOT THE BIG SIX
By Joe Brancatelli
June 28, 2007 -- A little perspective on some of what's happened during the past few months.
EVENT: During a late December thunderstorm at its Dallas/Fort Worth hub, American Airlines warehouses its diverted passengers for hours at secondary Texas airports. Instead of apologizing for holding customers hostage, American tries to hide the scope of the problem, then gets into picayune disputes about whether toilets overflowed on the marooned jets. American then announces that it has amended its flight-diversion policy and that multi-hour stranding of passengers won't happen again. Days later, it happens again and American claims that its previously announced fixes were just guidelines, not policy.
AFTERMATH: An energetic, photogenic real estate broker stranded by American becomes an instant expert on "passenger's rights." She becomes the Al Sharpton of travel, a reliable go-to cable-TV guest whenever anything goes wrong in the air. And she never misses an opportunity to bash American Airlines, whose reputation as the best-managed of the Big Six is now destroyed.
EVENT: An ice storm in New York causes a Valentine's Day meltdown at several carriers. JetBlue Airways has the most trouble rebounding and cancels hundreds of flights over the President's Day weekend. JetBlue chief executive David Neeleman promptly goes on every media outlet except Al-Jazeera and apologizes for the airline's failures. He also announces an impressive sounding, if largely symbolic, passenger's bill of rights for the airline's customers.
AFTERMATH: Media outlets and ratings organizations that were about to crown JetBlue as the nation's best airline pull back their surveys and canvas their participants again. But JetBlue has done such a thorough job of apologizing that the post-meltdown polls still choose it as the nation's best carrier. Travelers who receive financial tokens of apology for subsequently delayed or cancelled JetBlue flights gleefully share their tales via E-mails, blog posts and other viral media.
EVENT: US Airways doesn't warn flyers in advance of a tricky computer conversion planned for a relatively slow travel weekend in early March. The computer work is a disaster and the US Airways system is fouled up for days. In the early hours, US Airways publicly denied there was a problem. It then blames the long lines of frustrated travelers on heavy passenger volume. It even initially refuses to waive change fees and other charges for passengers who missed flights due to the computer collapse. The airline eventually issues a whiny, niggling apology.
AFTERMATH: Many elite members of US Airways' Dividend Miles program are defecting to other carriers. US Airways stock (LCC), selling just north of $50 a share on the last market day before the computer merger, now trades in the $30 range. The US Airways brain trust, once touted as movers and shakers in an upcoming Big Six consolidation, has been exposed as operationally incompetent.
EVENT: United Airlines grinds to a halt for two hours last week. After offending computers are repaired, United refuses to warn customers that long delays and cancellations are ahead. It makes no offer to allow travelers to rebook their travel for other days. Instead, it posts a statement on its Web site that claims "operations recovering after outage." In fact, just the opposite happens. Seventy percent of the airline's flights ran late and almost half of its schedule was delayed by 45 minutes or more. About 5 percent of the schedule was dumped.
AFTERMATH: Just 17 months out of bankruptcy, desperately seeking a merger and facing widening losses, United Airlines is floundering and the management's all-too-obvious shortcomings are finally being publicly discussed. "United Can't Get Off the Ground" reads one headline. "United Has Merger Delusions" says another. "United Undone" goes a third.
There is an obvious and inescapable conclusion here: Tell the truth, say you are sorry and do the right thing by your customers and they will give you the benefit of the doubt. JetBlue may not be the child star of the skies anymore, but it has put its publicity problems behind it and its customers are generally happy and know a "good" airline when they see one.
On the other hand, if you lie, distort, duck the truth, deny the obvious and evade responsibility, the Big Six are learning that their reputations will be wounded, their stock prices will tank and their very best customers will defect. And, as the bosses at United and US Airways are learning, you will even turn the largely compliant, endlessly credulous and blindly loyal aviation press corps against you.
Well, check that. Northwest Airlines this week is proving that the Big Six are incapable of learning anything.
A week into its crisis of cancellations, Northwest Airlines continues to lie, distort and misdirect. As its cancellations top the 1,100 mark, it whispers about phantom job actions, makes absurd claims about the weather and surreptitiously slimes the messengers who print the objective, statistical proof about the number of flights it has dumped and the pilots it has laid off. Worst of all, it continues to do the wrong thing by refusing to allow customers to change flights without penalty to avoid management's self-created end-of-month crisis.
There are a million questions you could ask here, but I have just one: Why don't the Big Six ever learn that telling the truth and doing the right thing is the only way to win in the long run?
" 'Honesty is the best policy' is not just something your Mama made up to make you 'fess up," says Cynthia Fontayne, who has worked at a major international carrier and represented several others as president of the Fontayne Group. "In business, it's the only smart way to approach every situation, especially when it comes to customers. The Vatican has the infallibility market cornered, so why some companies choose to always pretend there is nothing wrong is beyond me."
Weirdly, the infallibility angle may have something to do with the Big Six' inability to come clean when things go wrong. A long-time communications pro who recently spent a few years working with a Big Six airline on its image brings it up, too.
"The notion of infallibility is important to them," he says. "They have your lives in their hands and they can't afford to look like anything but Skygods. That attitude really does filter down to everything else."
Maybe so, but every public relations, marketing, branding and image expert I've ever talked to says that the best policy is to get the bad news out fast, admit your errors, say you are sorry and make amends immediately.
"If you hear about a problem, you own it. That is the approach you have to take," explains Karon Cullen, communications consultant for the Leading Hotels of the World. "But as far as I can see as a customer of the airlines, [top executives] hear about the problems, but they refuse to take ownership."
Unfortunately, the bosses of the Big Six just don't care. Have you heard a single word from American chief executive Gerard Arpey about his airline's propensity for warehousing customers? You haven't. In fact, as far as I've been able to deduce, it is Arpey himself who ordered American to cover up its actions in December and then stonewall.
Have you heard from Glenn Tilton, the chief executive of United, about the airline's computer problem last week or the resulting cascade of bad publicity and customer ire? You haven't. You haven't heard from Doug Steenland, Northwest's chief executive, either.
There's one other chilling angle worth considering. At least one expert I contacted thinks that the Big Six have consciously adopted the hide-and-deny approach because they believe it will work this summer, when one travel outrage is likely to quickly follow another.
"You're going to hear a lot of, 'No, that was not an iceberg. All is well,' types of comments from the arlines this summer," he says. "They think that all they have to do is wait until the next guy hits an iceberg and they'll be off the hook."
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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