WHEN TURKEYS FLY
By Joe Brancatelli
November 15, 2007 -- Sometimes the god of columnists is good. After all, here it is, the column before Thanksgiving, I've got turkey metaphors buzzing around my brain and the airline industry serves up a cornucopia of goodies to consider.
So, let's talk about turkeys, er, airlines.
BUSH SAYS NOTHING--AND THE TURKEYS APPLAUD
Before I even had a chance to read today's Presidential statement on aviation congestion, the usual suspects weighed in with their approval. The ATA, the airline industry's lobbying and apologist group, was ecstatic. So were all the other turkeys, including David Stempler, who claims to be a passenger advocate and runs the Air Travelers Association, which, of course, has no travelers as members.
Given all the gobbles from the turkeys, I wasn't surprised to find out that President Bush and his minions at the Department of Transportation (DOT) had absolutely nothing to say. And no real solutions. A DOT fact sheet distributed with the President's statement announced three "short-term steps to reduce air-travel problems over the holidays." What is Presidential step three? "Encouraging airlines to take their own measures to prevent delays." The so-called fact sheet then announced "new proposed DOT regulations." The first? Doubling denied-boarding compensation, which, of course, does not stop or reduce delays. The second new regulation? "Require airlines to collect and provide DOT with better data on the sources of flight delays." And the third? "Evaluate a number of other requirements for the airlines."
MEANWHILE, A CHIEF EXECUTIVE TURKEY MAKES IT CLEAR
A few hours before the President did nothing today, Delta Air Lines chief executive Richard Anderson went before a Congressional committee to rail against the DOT's proposal to reduce the number of flights at New York/Kennedy, the nation's most delay-plagued airport and a facility that Delta has flooded with international service and regional-jet feeder flights.
"The restrictions would…impede the execution of a crucial component of Delta's business plan," Anderson thundered.
Let me translate for you: Passengers using the nation's most important international gateway must continue to deal with 60 percent on-time performance because getting the airport back on schedule would run counter to Delta's post-bankruptcy business affairs.
A HEAPING HELPING OF BS FROM SOUTHWEST
We've all watched Southwest Airlines agonize during the last few years over its policy of not offering assigned seats. Assigned seats go against its corporate culture and its efficiency studies. Moreover, its existing base of customers doesn't seem to be demanding it. But a huge and profitable segment of the business-travel market won't fly Southwest without being able to secure a seat assignment. Just two months ago, the airline changed its boarding procedure and took inventive steps to eliminate the cattle call at the gate. It wasn't an assigned seat, of course, but at least it addressed another thing business travelers disliked about Southwest.
But Southwest couldn't leave well enough alone--or walk away from the business-travel dollar. Last week it once again rejected an assigned-seat solution and then offered up an incredibly lame option that business travelers never asked for and don't need. Southwest has created a new premium-priced fare that costs as much as $30 more than its full-fare, walk-up coach prices. What do you get for the extra money? A free drink, some extra frequent flyer credits and an "A" boarding card, which is already free for the asking if you go to the Southwest Web site 24 hours before departure. Worst of all, Southwest is skewing its Web site fare displays. Gone is the simple matrix that showed all available fares. Now the airline only displays its super-premium fare, the full coach price and one discount fare.
What does Southwest call this new program? Business Select, which quickly got shortened to BS on the frequent flyer bulletin boards and in industry jargon. And you know what they say: BS by any other name…
Skybus Airlines has done a wonderful job generating free publicity by hitting on a simple scam: Say you'll have $10 seats on every flight and the news media will have to report it. More importantly, you'll generate reams of publicity with the claim and people will think you actually can fly for $10.
The truth is much different, of course. Skybus has precious few $10 seats and it has a raft of extra charges (checked luggage, priority boarding, beverages, even getting flight info pushed to your mobile phone) that make flying the airline no bargain. And in just a few months of operation, Skybus has generated mounds of passenger complaints. Skybus claims you can't call them with a complaint, only send an E-mail to a general address. But there is persuasive evidence that Skybus doesn't answer its E-mail and doesn't even respond to billing inquiries from the major credit card companies.
That kind of arrogance piqued the curiosity of Chris Elliott, who writes a syndicated, ombudsman-type column. This week, Elliott's blog outed Skybus' top executives and published their telephone numbers and personal E-mail addresses. The top Skybus turkeys reacted quickly and changed their phone numbers. Elliott responded just as quickly and has now posted their cell-phone numbers, too.
WHEN TURKEYS ATTACK
Pay attention to what's going on between Hawaiian Airlines and Mesa Air, the commuter carrier that launched go!, a low-fare intra-Hawaii service. Hawaiian sued Mesa and claimed that Mesa misused proprietary information it received when the commuter carrier looked at buying the Hawaii-based airline. In a trial before Hawaiian's bankruptcy-court judge, Mesa admitted that its chief financial officer had destroyed information pertaining to the lawsuit. Mesa's explanation? The now-fired CFO had been trying to erase pornography from three separate computers.
That excuse, and Mesa's defense, did not impress the federal judge. Earlier this month, he ordered Mesa to pay $80 million in damages to Hawaiian. Mesa promptly demanded a new trial and the judge says that Mesa will probably have to post a bond of as much as $98 million before he'll consider a motion for a new trial.
The response of Mesa and Jonathan Ornstein, its pugnacious chief executive? They are suing Holly Hegeman, a noted airline financial analyst who also writes the PlaneBuzz blog. It's the second time Mesa and Ornstein have sued Hegeman, whose major crime seems to be calling it as she sees it about the litigious Mesa boss. Earlier this year, Ornstein sued an Aloha Airlines pilot over a Web site that Mesa claimed had defamed it. A federal judge in Phoenix, Mesa's hometown, threw that case out of court because he said Mesa never established that the pilot had a substantial connection to the site.
THE AIRLINES ARE TALKING TURKEY AGAIN
The year 2007 started with a flurry of merger mania and it erupted again this week. A hedge fund with a position in both Delta Air Lines and United Airlines wants the two carriers to merge. That led to a feeding frenzy in the press this week and more idiotic speculation than you could shake a turkey leg at. I won't waste your time here. If you want to know the whys and how-comes about the urge to merge among the legacy carriers, consult my January column. Only the names of the turkeys running some of the airlines have changed.
Meanwhile, I wish you a restful, peaceful Thanksgiving with no flights. And remember, we've got plenty to be thankful for. After all, if business-travel annoyances are the worst things that we have to deal with, we sure are blessed.
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.
THE FINE PRINT 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.
This column is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.