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Airlines Say the Darndest Things
August 20, 2015 -- The boys in the C-suite at Delta want you to know that they hate SkyMiles, too. Jeff Smisek, chief executive of United, wants you to know he must run the carrier as a business. And Southwest Airlines says it moves "promptly" to address safety issues affecting its aircraft.

Airlines say the darndest things. Of course, most of what they say is a lie. Bald-faced, rage-inducing, mind-warping falsehood. It's the coin of their realm. Lie about fares and the real cost of flying. Lie about perks and promises. Lie about carry-on bags and fuel surcharges. Lie about the smallest and most inconsequential aspect of the day-to-day realities of air travel.

I've written so many columns about travel-industry prevarication that this won't surprise you. But I thought that the Delta, United and Southwest lies do demand some special treatment. Not because they are any more egregious than so many that have gone before, but because each sheds light on the current condition under which we business travelers toil.

The Delta lie is perhaps the most interesting. As Delta Air Lines generally has improved in recent years, the quality, value and essential fairness of SkyMiles specifically has plummeted. For many years, Delta would trot out the program's boss, Jeff Robertson, to defend SkyMiles.

Robertson was polite and smart--and not a word he said lined up with what Delta and SkyMiles were actually doing. Robertson lived in Bizarro World. SkyMiles members and fair-minded observers noticed a devaluation and Robertson would insist it was a program improvement. Folks would remind him that what he said one day was diametrically opposed to what he said another day and Robertson would explain that the contradictions all made sense in Bizarro SkyMiles World.

Delta doesn't even do that anymore. Just before the airline unleashed the first tranche of revenue-based devaluations last year, Robertson shuffled to another branch of the airline. Public defenses of Delta's persistent, endless and callous devaluations fell to one particular public relations flunky. He started his first conversation with me by admitting that, sotto voce, he didn't think much of SkyMiles, either. With each further Delta devaluation or nasty surprise, he offered more and more feeble explanations. I kind of feel sorry for him. It must be tough having to earn a living by being the designated SkyMiles defender and fantasist-in-chief.

Oddly, though, after I wrote two weeks ago about how Delta's SkyMiles antics were undermining the good work and stagecraft the carrier was accomplishing elsewhere, I heard from three different C-suiters. They didn't like SkyMiles much, either, they said under the cover of anonymity. They think things like hiding SkyMiles award charts, selling the upgrades promised to elites, curtailing perks and, most offensively, making it impossible to know the value of a SkyMile, are all wrong. They feel our pain.

Bullshit. To believe any one of these C-suiters, you'd have to believe that SkyMiles is a cyborg run amok. All those good folks down in Atlanta are fighting a gallant battle on our behalf, but SkyMiles, running without management control or corporate approval, was devaluing itself.

Only an idiot would believe that. Business travelers know the truth because Delta said it in front of the Supreme Court: The airline and its C-suiters believe they have no "duty of good faith and fair dealing" when it comes to SkyMiles. You'd be foolish to believe anything about SkyMiles that Delta didn't say in a court of law. And what it told the highest court in the land is what we see: a program bereft of real value, any sense of loyalty to customers or a care for good faith or fair dealing.

This we-believe-what-we-see attitude will serve you well as you try to understand and decipher the recent comments of United boss Jeff Smisek, who has presided over the worst-run merger in the history of modern aviation.

United isn't bad, he insisted in a recent speech, it's that travelers are "having difficulty recognizing that we're now a business."

That, of course, is a flat-out lie. People who travel on business understand that airlines are a business. We recognize that all of our suppliers--and that's all the airlines are, suppliers--are businesses.

The problem with United isn't that it's a business, it's that it is an incredibly badly run one.

It rates dead last in all consumer-satisfaction surveys. It is at or near the bottom of all operational measures tracked by the Transportation Department. Even in this time of record airline profits fueled by drastic declines in energy costs, United is at the bottom of the airline financial tables.

And Smisek is a lousy businessman. He's a rotten airline operator. He's a rotten boss and a disliked business partner. And, of course, he is loathed by customers because he made himself the public face of the United-Continental merger and then cocked-up the combination so badly that the airline still runs like trash seven years later.

Which brings us to our friends at Southwest Airlines. The airline has been repeatedly fined by the Federal Aviation Administration in recent years for subpar maintenance practices and shoddy bookkeeping. (And remember, bookkeeping is important because the FAA doesn't inspect planes as much as they inspect airline maintenance logs.) The FAA whacked Southwest again this week.

A $325,000 fine involved an FAA inspection last year of an 18-year-old Boeing 737-300. It turns out that Southwest in 2002 had made a temporary repair on the plane's rear cargo door. But Southwest wrote up the patch job as a permanent fix. Then it flew the plane for a dozen years and nearly 25,000 segments without correcting the bookkeeping error, inspecting the repair or completing the required permanent fix.

Do you know how Southwest responded to the FAA fine? They sent out a PR flunky to say "all issues were promptly addressed."

A 2002 patch that wasn't discovered until 2014 is, in Southwest's world, "promptly addressed."

As I said, airlines say the darndest things ...

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