The Brancatelli File



June 20, 2002 -- Gordon Bethune, the Chatty-Cathy chief executive of Continental Airlines, recently delivered this unvarnished opinion of the major mainline carriers: "We're a stupid industry led by stupid people."

Of course, Bethune's comment was in the context of his chiding his fellow pooh-bahs for not raising fares, so it's fair to say that old Gordo isn't exactly a Mensa member, either. But in or out of context, Bethune has hit upon a basic and largely irrefutable truth: The men who run the major mainline carriers are, generally speaking, idiots.

But I'll go further than Bethune: The stupid airline industry is dominated by nasty and officious martinets who don't give a damn about their customers. You annoy them. And, bottom line, they hate you because you won't do what they tell you to do, you won't pay what they tell you to pay and you have the unmitigated gall to question their pronouncements about the state of life on the road.

Want proof? I have it right here, in a string of astonishing E-mail messages that still leaves me marveling at the unbelievable arrogance that drives the men who are driving the major mainline carriers into the metaphoric and financial ground.

Last Thursday, a frequent flyer named Mike shipped me what I thought was a fairly insightful E-mail. Here it is for your inspection. (I have omitted the names of the airline and the chief executive he mentions because I don't believe it is relevant. You're free to insert the name of any airline and any top executive and Mike's points will still be valid).

[Airline chief executive] continues to rant and rave about the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and how he feels security is hurting the travel industry these days.
Maybe we should pose this to him: Yesterday, I traveled back from [one of the airline's hubs] to White Plains. Arrived at the hub around 2:40 p.m.--and it took me 40 minutes of standing on one serpentine line to get my boarding pass. Why? There were at least 18 available [check-in] positions, but only half were staffed. On the other hand, it took me a mere six minutes to clear security, from the moment I got in line 'til I was through--including the time it took to remove my laptop for inspection and get every body cavity wanded.
Now then, who gave me the most unpleasant part of my "travel experience?" It sure wasn't the TSA!
Disclaimer: Yes, the TSA could make some improvements--but instead of spending so much time and energy blaming it for all the industry's ills, shouldn't [the airline CEO] focus a little closer to home? Second disclaimer: I like [the airline]...But the employees I talk to aren't very happy people, given all of [the CEO's] cutbacks and their impact on service. Surely he doesn't think that's irrelevant...or does he?

I thought the E-mail merited consideration because it made a telling point about what frequent travelers actually experience and how they weigh that day-to-day reality against an airline's image of itself. So I forwarded Mike's comments to some people I know at the airline. Included on my CC: list was the airline's top corporate communications executive, the man whose job it is to defend and define the carrier's public image, and the man with a direct pipeline to the chief executive who has been recently blaming the TSA for his airline's egregious financial state.

Mike "sure poses a good question," I said in my cover note.

I didn't think about Mike's E-mail again, but early on Friday morning I was pleasantly surprised to find a reply from the airline's top communications guy. (By the way, I would normally consider these communications private, but this executive has already copied them to another journalist.)

Feel free to advise [Mike] that we have entire banks of self-service machines and that he can check in for his flight, check bags and obtain a boarding pass there without going through a serpentine line. Also, advise him that weather was pounding [the hub] yesterday, and off-schedule operations often result in long delays for those who choose to stand in line. And, last time I noticed, we were not in charge of the weather.

The content of the E-mail confused me because it engaged in the blame game--it blamed the customer for waiting in line and blamed the weather for creating the line!--even though Mike hadn't written a letter of complaint. Worse, the E-mail was sent only to me, not the airline's customer. "Why don't you advise [Mike] yourself," I said in my E-mail reply. "I attached his E-mail. Or has [the airline] stopped talking to its customers?"

Less than an hour went by before I heard from the executive again.

Yes, absolutely the last thing we would want to do is communicate with our customers. We avoid it several hundred times a day. He didn't write us...he wrote you. We're easy to reach. Why are you such a jerk sometimes?

This response saddened me. Not because I was called a jerk--I dish it out pretty good in this column and it's only fair that the airlines get to respond in kind--but because the guardian of the carrier's public image appeared to be consciously avoiding talking to one of his customers. My E-mail response again urged the executive to communicate with his own customer.

Let me understand this: I send you an E-mail from a customer and I'M the jerk for suggesting that you communicate with him?
The better question, I think, is this: Rather than huff and puff at ME, why not compose an answer to the guy? Why won't you do that? Why hasn't that come into your mind?
In all seriousness, while I understand you guys are under immense pressure, I think you need to examine how you've reacted here. All I did was send along an E-mail from a customer. How was I to know that your reaction was to blame the weather and not communicate with him, then call me a jerk for suggesting that you contact him with your point of view? Think about it...There's something terribly wrong with your reaction here.

On Saturday, I heard from the communications honcho again.

What's wrong--and the source of the jerk comment--is that you'd think for a moment that we wouldn't respond directly to this guy. Of course we will--and possibly already have. Duh. We're not the totally bumbling idiots you make us out to be.

This E-mail perplexed me. Why did it imply that I had missed the airline's intention to communicate directly with its customer? I replied: "You are the one who said, and I quote, 'Advise [Mike]...' And when I wrote back suggesting YOU contact him, you demurred and said, 'He didn't write us.' "

A reply arrived Sunday. "You need a sense of humor transplant, my fine friend," said the airline executive in charge of the carrier's public image. "Sarcasm is a delicate form of humor, I realize, but even you should have gotten it."

This E-mail absolutely infuriated me and I responded with some less-than-delicate sarcasm of my own. But I still tried to grasp why yours truly, the lowly messenger, was getting this much time and attention, yet this top executive hadn't spared a moment to acknowledge his customer.

While we're on things that go over my head, add this: Your reasoning for sending ME six or seven delicately sarcastic E-mails when you haven't ONCE written to the customer, who wasn't even complaining...just making a pithy observation about some statements from your boss that didn't jibe with his own recent experience. Silly me, I woulda thunk a quick, one-line E-mail from you to him would have gone far toward making him feel better about [the airline]--and would have taken only a fraction of the time it's taken you to send me your brilliant, delicate, sarcastic E-mails.

On Monday, I got a huffy note from this executive that again ignored Mike's observation and never addressed my query about why he hadn't devoted his attention to his customer instead of me. I responded by noting that he had sent me another E-mail without talking to his customer. That E-mail elicited this nearly unfathomable reply from the airline executive whose job it is to burnish his carrier's public image.

I promptly forwarded your E-mail and the attachment to Customer Relations, which deals with responding to customers. That's not my area of responsibility and I can't tell you when or if they will get back to this person.

I didn't bother responding to this E-mail because it finally hit home: Like most top executives, this guy simply doesn't give a damn about his airline's customers, even though he is the man in charge of the carrier's public image.

Like so many of Bethune's stupid people in the stupid airline industry, this executive will gleefully spend minutes--maybe hours--blaming, accusing, attacking, denying, contradicting, obstructing, weaseling, obscuring, diverting and complaining. But communicate with a customer? No way, man. It ain't his job. He doesn't have--and won't deign to divert--21 seconds (I timed it!) to write, "Dear Mike: Thanks for your E-mail. We're appreciative of your input and thanks for flying us!"

A week has now passed and, as of this morning, Mike, the customer who wrote the E-mail with the insightful observation, still has not heard a word from the airline.

Serves him right for thinking the airlines give a damn about him, his input or his business.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.