The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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The Airlines Are Always Right ... Until They're Not
Thursday, January 25, 2018 -- There are actually three things to be sure of in life--and life on the road.

Death. Taxes. And the insufferable conviction of airline executives that they are always right. Until, you know, they are wrong. Then you are commanded to pay no attention to that man behind the C-Suite curtain.

We business travelers--tin men and scarecrows, cowardly lions and Dorothys all--are usually too busy to laugh in the face of the airline SkyGods who are always right until they are wrong. But this week, given some epic airline asshattery, it is worth stopping for a moment and laughing heartily in their smug, fat faces.

After all, there is no laughing-in-their-smug-fat-faces fee (at least for now), so let's enjoy it while we can.

Skygodly asshattery starts, as it always does these days, with Delta Air Lines. Its executives not only insist that they are never wrong, but they are also convinced that anyone who questions them simply does not understand how really SkyGodly the Delta C-Suite truly is. Delta has the best SkyGods. Ever. Bigly.

Until, you know, you see these flustered little men behind the C-Suite curtain trying to bully all us tin men, scarecrows, cowardly lions and Dorothys.

Delta SkyGods decided more than two years ago that their operation was running better than the operations of the other legacy SkyGods in America. So Delta proclaimed that the "interline" agreement that bound the legacy SkyGods to help each other during irregular operations should no longer apply to them.

Why, Delta SkyGods wondered, should they pay United and American the same amount for emergency seats when United and American were inferior operations that were buying so many more emergency seats from Delta? That was unfair to Delta's SkyGodly superiority. At the time, United meekly paid Delta a premium to keep their "interline" arrangement. But American's SkyGods refused this ransom demand from Delta's SkyGods. Delta then unsheathed its mighty SkyGod sword and severed the American "interline" agreement.

"Delta customers enjoy an industry-leading experience," the Delta SkyGods thundered from Oz, just down the yellow brick Interstate from Atlanta/Hartsfield. "Unfortunately, we couldn't reach an agreement with American that adequately addressed the number of IROPs customers that American transferred to us."

We've gotten quite a peek behind Delta's curtain in the intervening 28 months. Even while a Delta SkyGod said last month that "weather is the only major driver of cancellations for us," the truth about Delta has been nowhere near godly.

Since it dumped the American "interline" deal, Delta has had several serious computer glitches and an epic power failure that it tried to blame on someone else. It was woefully unprepared for last month's airport-wide blackout at its Atlanta hub. Besides, Delta hiding behind the weather is a curtain-clutching cower. Its atrocious multi-day meltdown in the rain last year was revelatory. Delta didn't cover itself in SkyGodly glory during this week's snow at its Minneapolis-St. Paul hub, either.

So Delta has gone SkyGod Scepter in hand and begged American for a new "interline" deal. Because SkyGods must stick together, American has forgiven Delta. American and Delta SkyGods are "interlining" again. Please pay no attention to that SkyGod behind the curtain who told us that Delta was above such mundane concerns as irregular operations.

Then we come to the place where SkyGods go to die. You know, SkyGod hell. Dante's Tenth Circle. United Airlines.

For years after the really bad, no-good, horrible merger with Continental Airlines, SkyGod Jeff Smisek explained to all us scarecrows and Dorothys that the way to make United great was to slash capacity. So he pulled down routes, shrunk its hubs and scrapped its Cleveland flight nexus. SkyGod Smisek insisted he was shrinking United into a lean, mean flying machine using a trash heap of crappy regional jets.

SkyGod Smisek is gone now, of course, but his shrink-to-profitability mantra remained the law of Munchkinland until the arrival of SkyGod Scott Kirby, who'd been cast out of American. As SkyGod Kirby explained Tuesday during his fourth-quarter earnings call and in his deck of truth, United had shrunk something like 8 percent in recent years.

And, Kirby lectured Tuesday from on high, his predecessor SkyGods were wrong to shrink United. Pay no attention to those men who used to be behind United's curtain.

The correct yellow brick road is expansion, SkyGod Kirby tells us now. He wants to grow United's capacity 6-8 percent in 2018 and do it with a phalanx of additional regional jets operated by the Lollipop Guild. Dozens more tinny, tiny winged bugs that Kirby tells us will carry eagerly waiting straw men, tin men, cowardly lions and Dorothys to United's supposedly underutilized hubs in Denver, Houston and Chicago. United, explained SkyGod Kirby, will regain its "natural share" of the U.S. market. Regaining share will drive profit.

Now, remember, the airlines are always right. Do not question SkyGod Kirby when he suggests that there is a vast market of Dorothys desperate to pay premium prices to fly a Lollipop Guild micro-flight from Kansas (or Kentucky or Carolina) through one of United's hubs.

Do not question SkyGod Kirby when he tells you that United can add all this capacity without driving fares lower and thus obliterating any profit he expects to make from the notoriously unpopular and costly-to-operate regional jets.

And do not question SkyGod Kirby or bother him with the trivial fact that many of us flying monkeys avoid United because it sucks and especially avoid flying United's uniquely awful version of regional jets.

The airlines are always right. Don't look behind the curtain. Don't remind him that United has been tanking for decades. And don't remind him that his plan for fleets of RJs blotting out the sun is notoriously similar to the Munchkinland once suggested by the Wicked Witch of the West, Steve Wolf, just before US Airways was hit by a flying house.

Airline executives are always right. Until, you know, they're not.

We're just scarecrows and tin men and cowardly lions and Dorothys. What we say doesn't matter. But sometimes what the markets say matters. And the markets, while never perfect, have an annoying habit of looking behind the curtain no matter what the SkyGods command.

United's sky-full-of-RJs prediction came after markets closed Tuesday. Yesterday, however, the market let SkyGod Kirby know that it thinks he is a lousy wizard. Shares of UAL, United's parent, plunged 11.4 percent. UAL dropped another 4.3 percent today. The two-day plummet left UAL at $66.08 per share compared to $77.97 at Tuesday's close. UAL's plunge has led NASDAQ to two days of losses even while the irrationally exuberant Dow continued to hit record highs.

But remember: Death. Taxes. And the insufferable conviction of airline executives that they are always right. Until, you know, they're wrong.

This column is Copyright 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. 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.