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OLD REPORTER YELLS AT CLOUD
By Joe Brancatelli
May 22, 2008 -- Today is my 55th birthday. This is also the 25th year that I have been writing about business travel and the 35th year that I've been traveling on business.

If nothing else, all those chronological and geographical miles have given me perspective. Unfortunately, business-travel perspective makes me feel a lot like Grampa Simpson. You know, Old Man Yells at Cloud.

What truly astonishes me today is how little things have changed while I've been on the road. I've gone from the boy wonder of the newsroom to the cranky old boss in the corner office and the issues are the same. I've gone from hirsute novice traveler to bald old road warrior and the underlying truth and lies about business travel remain the same.

Think I'm kidding? Consider the following.

EVERYONE IS WRONG EXCEPT SOUTHWEST AIRLINES
I am, first and foremost, a business journalist who travels. Business journalists are trained to look at the bottom line. The bottom line says this: Southwest Airlines has been profitable for 37 consecutive years. It has paid its shareholders a dividend for 127 consecutive quarters.

In other words, Southwest is right and the Big Six is wrong. There is no debate, spin or qualification. The service model that Southwest espouses--frequent, affordable, one-class flights with limited, but deliverable, options--is the only one that is provably successful. Its operational model--point-to-point flying; rational, one-way pricing; a single fleet type; no commuter service; no code-shares; and fanatical devotion to cost-control and market discipline--is the only one that is provably successful.

Everyone and everything else in the airline business is wrong. They can't deliver service to customers or profits to shareholders. Yet my friends in the mainstream media--and my enemies among the Big Six--continue to live in an alternate reality. They keep finding reasons to explain away Southwest's success and alibi for the Big Six and their provably unsuccessful business and service models.

Someone please pay attention: Anyone running an airline that is not doing it Southwest's way is wrong.

THE BIG SIX CORPORATE CULTURES NEVER CHANGE
I've lost track of the boobs who've cycled through the C-suites of the Big Six carriers. And, frankly, it doesn't matter. The indigenous corporate cultures never seem to change.

American Airlines was arrogant and haughty 35 years ago and it remains so now. And the arrogance is never so obvious as when it is wrong. United Airlines was big and slovenly and run by pompous jerks 35 years ago and it remains so today. And the pomposity is never so obvious as when it is careening toward another precipice. Delta Air Lines was defensive and in-bred and convinced it was better than it was 35 years ago. The same is true today. And it is never so obvious as when it minces onto the national stage trying to convince the world otherwise. Thirty-five years ago, Northwest Airlines was nasty and contemptuous of its customer base in fly-over country and nothing is different today. And it is never so obvious as when it publicly insults the intelligence of its heartland base. US Airways (nee Allegheny and US Air) was a grab bag of crap masquerading as a nationwide carrier 35 years ago and today it is the same. And it is never so obvious as when one of its minor-league bosses tries to position himself as an industry sage. Continental's corporate constant? Endless change. Every few years it tries something new and insists it has found the secret of long-term success. Then a new boss marches in and changes everything again.

HOTELS INNOVATE UNDER THE RADAR
My bad metaphor for 35 years has been that the airlines drive the bus. For whatever the reason, we spend most of our time obsessing over the angst of the airlines. Hotels largely labor under the radar, yet continually innovate and change to meet our needs. When I started traveling on business and writing about business travel, there were essentially two kinds of lodging: big-city hotels of varying quality and side-of-the-road motels of suspect quality. Over the years, however, lodging has adapted. There's a concept for every few bucks along the pricing scale. Hotels haven't done everything right, of course, but they have done what we've asked: Give us what we need and give us choice. Maybe that's why we pay so little attention to hotels. They don't annoy us. They're just there for us.

TECHNOLOGY GUARANTEES THERE'S NO ESCAPE
Let's not wallow in what has gone before--Remember telexes or 5.25-inch discs or Visicalc?--but remind ourselves of what mobile technology has wrought. A generation ago, the road was an escape. We left our day-to-day business lives behind. We controlled our points of contact with our office, our bosses and our employees. Basically, if we didn't call in from the road, we were out of touch. And calling in more than once a day was either gauche or obsessive. But throughout my time on the road, technology has been reversing that blissful isolation. Every new development--E-mail, smaller portable computers, nearly universal and increasingly wireless high-speed internet, mobile phones and now mobile "convergence" devices--guarantees that there is no escape from the office. In fact, one of the reasons that life on the road has become so difficult is that we now carry our offices and our office-based problems with us. Back in the day, the office was the office and the road was the road. Now there is no difference and we're on emotional, intellectual and psychic overload.

I'm pretty sure that I won't be writing about business travel on my 60th birthday. To be honest, 25 years of the same-old, same-old gets pretty old.

On the other hand, on my 40th birthday, I dragged my boss, Martin Deutsch, down to the coffee shop in our building and informed him that I was really, honestly, finally, quitting as the executive editor of Frequent Flyer magazine. "I'm 40 years old and I can't stand writing about this stuff anymore," I said.

Then I said something like: I'm tired of another generation of smarter-than-the-room fools at the airlines making the same old mistakes over and over again and telling business travelers they should be grateful for the opportunity to be their customers. I want to go back to writing about businesses that make sense.

That's when Martin, who invented the concept of business-travel journalism, asked a waiter for the dessert menu. Who asks for the dessert menu in a coffee shop?
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 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.