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THE AIRLINES VERSUS THE BIBLE
By Joe Brancatelli
March 8, 2012 -- It has come to this: The big airlines have made me turn against the Bible.

I am not a particularly religious guy, mind you, but who could argue with the wisdom of Luke 6:31, which enjoins us to do unto others as you would have them do unto you?

I'll tell you who: business travelers. Airlines screw us all of the time and then demand we ignore their screw-ups because, well, you know, we really should understand their problems.

As United's lost weekend once again proved, doing unto airlines only ends up with business travelers getting the shaft. The airlines never cut us a break and I'm tired of making believe their shortcomings should be overlooked because we are Biblically enjoined to do so.

When it comes to the airlines, I propose a new commandant: Do unto them exactly as they do unto us. When they stop screwing us at every turn, penalizing us for every change we need to make or every problem we have, I will stop complaining about their botched computer transitions, late flights and appalling operational foul-ups.

But before we discuss United's ongoing mess, let's back up a bit. Let's talk about how United, or any airline, expects us to perform. How United or any airline does unto us.

Ever waited on a long line at check-in, finally make it to the agent and been told the flight is "closed" and you've missed it, even though the plane is sitting at the gate? The airline doesn't care that you had a data-conversion issue back at the office or your kid needed a last-minute ride to the soccer game. You missed your check-in time, the flight is closed and to hell with do unto others.

Ever gotten hung up in a security line, which forced you to get to the gate a little late? Guess what? The airline has taken away your hard-won seat assignment. Now your aisle seat in the premium economy section is gone and you've been banished to Seat 31E. You failed to perform to your promise to be at the gate when the airline demanded. Too bad, say the airlines and to hell with do unto others.

Ever tried to change a ticket because maybe your spouse is sick or you've got a crisis in the office? Too bad, say the airlines, you're not performing to our satisfaction, so if you want to change, you can shell out $150 or $250 or $400 to change. And, yeah, you'll have to pay the inflated fare difference, too. But, really, you plead, the family dog died and my kid was devastated. Tough break, say the airlines, but do unto others is not in the contract of carriage.

Fill in the blanks here, folks. You're a business traveler. You know. The airlines never cut you a break. They never do unto others. And if you doubt that, read the contracts of carriage. United's is here. You will find a long list of rules and regulations and penalties that we must accept for the privilege of flying United. Nowhere will you find United suggesting anything like they'd do unto business travelers as they would have us do unto them.

Now we come to last weekend's massive data conversion, where legacy United Airlines systems and processes on the Apollo software shifted to the SHARES programs operated by legacy Continental Airlines. These kinds of conversions are fraught with problems. They are incredibly complex. Even if everything goes well electronically, there are massive training issues to overcome. After all, thousands of employees of legacy United, having worked for decades on Apollo, were overnight required to be conversant with SHARES.

Things were bound to go wrong. And given that United rather annoyingly refused to acknowledge that anything could go wrong, the chances of a disaster were heightened. United offered no one the chance to change their plans away from conversion weekend without penalty. United didn't even warn flyers that they might want to come to the airport early, print out all of their details or carry on bags. They weren't just arrogant about their ability to pull off this conversion. They were stupid in not managing expectations of their customers during such a convulsive operational shift.

And short of a total collapse, things did go wrong. Terribly. Legacy United's hubs at Chicago/O'Hare and Washington/Dulles were a mess. At one point on Saturday, for example, only eight of 50 flights from O'Hare went out on-time. Even on Sunday, by the end of the second day of the switch, United's O'Hare departures were running at just 53 percent.

It looks like United has conquered its on-time problem this week. But the related software issues remain severe.

Uncounted thousands of travelers still cannot access their reservations online and waits on the phone consume hours. That's if United's phone system doesn't hang up on you. If you purchased Economy Plus access or have earned it via your elite MileagePlus status, your payments and status may not be recognized and you won't get any extra space until you pay again. Didn't get your elite credentials and need to prove your status for entrance to a Star Alliance lounge? Too bad, because you can't print out a duplicate of your card online.

There are documented security breaches, too. United travelers innocently surfing to United.com or to mobile.United.com are randomly being dropped into the middle of other flyers' MileagePlus accounts. I know because I duplicated some of the errors myself. There I was, with one click of a URL, inside the account of any number of travelers. I saw their addresses, phone numbers and E-mail contacts. I saw their balances and recent activity and future travel plans.

Officially, of course, United is claiming the data conversion went off with nary a hitch. It's spinning the facts furiously and, when the facts don't bear out United's narrative, United makes up new facts. Did you know, for example, that United considered a flight on-time last weekend if it arrived 30 minutes late? No matter that the government doesn't recognize a 30-minute standard and that a 30-minute delay at a hub is often tantamount to missing a flight.

And when United can't spin or invent the facts, it asks you to be Biblical, to do unto others. Face a five-hour hold to reach an agent to fix a ticket problem? Do unto others. Can't get your MileagePlus credentials so you can access a club? Do unto others. Can't reach United to check on the checked luggage that went awry last weekend? Hey, as United said in an unctuous press release on Monday, this "was the single largest technology conversion in aviation history." You really should be more understanding of the unavoidable glitches. You know, do unto others. It's the Biblical thing to do.

I say no. United, and every airline, makes it clear that they will not do unto others when we need an extra minute to make a "closed" flight. They will not do unto others when we get stuck in a security line and lose our seat assignment. Nothing stops them from charging us an obscene amount when we need to change a ticket. Airlines will not do unto others, but they demand we do unto them and cut them outrageous amounts of slack for any of their problems.

Why should we? How many times must we be kicked in the head before we realize our forbearance with airline glitches will never be returned in kind? The poor fellows at The Economist actually think United should apologize for it failings. There will be no apology from United. It's stupid to think there will be.

And, frankly, I don't want an apology. I want United to perform. They expect us to perform to their rules when we fly them and they do not let Biblical entreaties stop them from penalizing us when we don't. We should hold them to the same standard: Perform or be penalized.

This will not be hard to do. I got an E-mail from a JoeSentMe member yesterday who is also a United Million Miler and a MileagePlus 1K flyer. He can't log into United.com because his password doesn't work and United.com is demanding a PIN that was never issued or chosen. His 1K credentials have yet to arrive. He spent six hours on the phone before he could get to a United agent and get help with a boarding pass for a flight today.

He's got five roundtrips he needs to fly in coming weeks. He hasn't booked them with United yet because he wanted to see how it performed. Given United's failures, he's thinking of taking those roundtrips to Delta now.

That, to me, is how every business traveler should act. We should do to United, or any airline, what they do to us. They penalize us when we don't perform. We should penalize them when they don't perform.

It's not Biblical. I know that. But doing unto the airlines exactly as they do unto us seems to be the only thing they understand.

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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 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.