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EIGHT MILES HIGH AND FALLING FAST
By Joe Brancatelli
June 2, 2011 -- A long, long time ago, I can still remember that I thought those of us who pushed nouns against verbs had a responsibility to try to tell the truth. I can still remember that I thought those of us who edited had a responsibility not to run their books helter skelter in a summer swelter.
But ethics in my business have taken the last train to the coast. In the last week, so much crap has been written about travel in important places that Satan must be laughing with delight. And it's a real problem for us business travelers when major publications publish garbage.
As a journalist, this desecration of my sacred store is not happy news. As a business traveler, I feel we've become a generation lost in space. Very little truth about business travel is being spoken in publications such as Forbes magazine, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Every paper they deliver now makes me shiver because I know full well they've given themselves over to facile polemics, self-promoting charlatans and an industry that continues to perpetuate myths that were long ago buried.
Stick with me as we slog through the bad news on our doorstep. If you do, I promise some music that will save your mortal soul.
A DIRGE IN THE DARK
The battle over the proper role of the federal government in our daily lives is as American as pie. That is because Americans invented the idea that the government only has the right to govern when and if we grant it the power to do so.
So you shouldn't fear a vigorous debate over the rights, authority and practices of the Transportation Security Administration. But you should reject the offensive lies and mindless political posturing that made its way into Forbes via this piece of trash masquerading as leading-edge commentary.
Regardless of your opinion of the TSA, you have to admit the incredibly obvious: We decided after 9/11 that airline security was a matter of national security because four of our commercial aircraft were used as weapons to attack us. We even made war against a sovereign nation, Afghanistan, because we claimed that the people who attacked us with our own planes were hiding there.
A decade later, if we want to change our collective national mind and decide that airline security is not a matter of national security after all, that's fine. It's a decision we can make. But that means the next time a plane is hijacked or used as a weapon, we can't raise the bloody flag. If securing commercial aircraft is not a matter of national security, then attacks on our airlines and airplanes can't be a matter of national security, either. We'll just have to suck it up and tell the airlines that they're on their own. That they're in a strictly commercial enterprise and their planes and customers (that would be us) are essentially collateral damage.
But the bigger lie in the Forbes piece is the writer's claim that "the markets" are ready, willing and able to "protect aviation." It's been proven that they can't. If they could, there wouldn't have been a 9/11 or any of the dozens of hijackings and terrorist attacks that preceded it. "The markets" were in control of security then.
Moreover, and most importantly, the airlines want no part of a private solution to security. They are happy to be rid of the responsibility. They know that a market-based approach to securing passengers and aircraft would be prohibitively expensive and leave them open to astronomical levels of liability. They'd be grounded in no time. Who'd insure the carriers if we as a nation say that airlines security is not a matter of national security?
The airlines like what we have now. We, the people, have declared airlines are a vital component of our national security. We, the people, pay for the TSA. They, the airlines, get a virtually free ride.
And you know why I know this? Because I've actually talked to airlines about this. I've interviewed dozens of C-suite level airline executives in the last decade and not one has ever expressed an interest in regaining control of security.
JACK FLASH ON A CANDLESTICK
If anything, airlines remind me of Tea Party types who hold up signs that say "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!" They love to rage at the government without admitting for a moment that they are not only biting the hand that feeds them, but also consuming the entire arm.
Consider this piece of hackery that appeared in The Wall Street Journal.
The spinner is new to those of us who live our lives on the road. Before he became the spokesliar for the ATA, the airline industry's trade group, Nicholas Calio was part of the supposed problem. He was the assistant to the president for legislative affairs under both Presidents Bush. He was also part of the White House Iraq Group, which was tasked with selling the Iraq war to the public. (He may also have personally searched for the weapons of mass destruction, but I have no information on that part of his resume.) When he wasn't slinging legislative horse manure for presidents, he was an influential lobbyist.
Calio knows zilch about airlines or business travelers, of course, which is why the gruel he peddles in The Journal seems so familiar. It's not just gruel, it's leftover gruel. Someone pulled a piece of flackery from a dusty old ATA file folder, gave it a taxed-enough-already veneer and stuck Calio's name on it. And the boobs at The Journal lapped it up.
And you know why I know this? The airlines trotted out the same tripe in 2002 during a Congressional hearing. Back then, the messengers were the then-chief executives of American and Delta airlines and I demolished their lies at the time. I also included a startling moment of clarity: Airlines admitting under oath that they don't pay a penny of taxes that aren't immediately reinvested to support the nation's air-transport infrastructure.
THE JESTER GROWS FAT ON A ROLLIN' STONE
Which brings us to the simply ridiculous: Another publication giving the shameless huckster Richard Branson another chance to divert our attention from real issues.
Of all the things going on in the hotel business, you'd have thought USA Today wouldn't have the room or the time to serve up more Branson baloney. But there it is, right in its hotel blog, another paean to another nonexistent Branson project: Virgin Hotels. According to the item, Branson is modeling his supposed chain of hotels on Virgin Atlantic's lounge at London/Heathrow.
Yet by the reporter's own admission, Branson is two years away from an unveiling. What the reporter fails to mention, however, is that Branson doesn't have a hotel. Not one. After a year of humping this particular fantasy, he hasn't announced a single development partner or a single location.
Sound familiar? It should. Branson pumped the PR machine for almost 10 years before he finally got Virgin America launched. Every couple of months for nearly a decade, Branson would convince some idiot reporter that his paper airplane was 60 days away from funding. By the time it finally launched, Virgin America had burned through so much cash that it is in constant financial crisis now. And who can forget Branson's best scam ever: His in-flight double bed lie.
Why would any reporter anywhere take Branson at his word? The franchise that uses the Virgin name in the Anzac market has been in constant managerial distress. Virgin Express, his European carrier, is long gone. Virgin Nigeria crashed and burned. Branson's flagship, Virgin Atlantic, is similarly stressed. He sold 49 percent of Virgin Atlantic to Singapore Airlines a dozen years ago and Singapore has been looking for an exit strategy ever since. And lately Branson has brought in the bankers to shop the other 51 percent of Virgin Atlantic because of his inability to compete effectively.
THE DAY THE MUSIC LIVED
I promised you a payoff for getting through these examples of "journalism" and here it is: What may be the greatest promotional travel video ever. Distressed by stories that depicted Grand Rapids as a dying city, thousands of Michigan residents banded together to make a video of American Pie, the epic Don McLean classic. You can read about the making of the video here and listen to an NPR report about it, too. But all you need to know is that the music is great and the video was filmed in a single take with a one camera in a continuous shot with no edits.
I don't own a Chevy, but I do have a Ford and Chrysler. I may go looking for a levee this weekend.
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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 © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.