The Brancatelli File



March 9, 2006 -- When things are rotten in the airline business--and when aren't they?--the skygods who run the big carriers can't wait to get out of their corner offices and pontificate at investment conferences sponsored by the likes of JP Morgan, Citibank, Raymond James and Morgan Stanley.

There has been a spate of gabathons in recent weeks and the skygods all offered the same, sorry mantra: We need to raise fares. We need to get more revenue per seat. Flyers need to pay higher prices.

How dull. How unimaginative. How impractical. How boring.

If the skygods are serious about saving their airlines, they need to have a little imagination. Fare increases just won't cut it. They need to think outside the airline box and adapt some good ideas from beyond the air-travel industry.

But let's be honest. Skygods aren't known for their creativity or imagination. So I thought I'd help out a little. In fact, I think I have ten great new ideas to save the airlines. Give them a read and let me know what you think.

When your local house of worship or high school needs funding, it sets up a poster-waving roadblock at a key intersection and does car washes. There's no reason why the airlines can't adapt the practice at airports. As we drive on the service roads to the parking lots, roving bands of airline employees can offer us second-rate car washes for $5 or $10. The proceeds can go right to the airline's bottom line, minus the cost of soap, water and poster paint, of course.

Ever noticed how many National Basketball Association stadia carry the name of a major airline? Carriers have paid big for naming rights to the United Center (home of the Chicago Bulls), Delta Center (Utah Jazz), US Airways Center (Phoenix Suns) and the Continental Arena (New Jersey Nets). American Airlines' name appears on the arenas that host the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks. I think that cash-starved carriers need to get more than just naming rights from the fat and happy NBA. They should demand that the league make some of their stars available for pop-a-shot competitions. You could pay $1,000 to US Airways to go one-on-one against Steve Nash in Phoenix, for example. Want to play H-O-R-S-E against Vince Carter? For a fee, Continental Airlines should be able to arrange it in Jersey. And I know that I shoot free throws better than Miami's Shaquille O'Neal. I'd pay American for the privilege of schooling Shaq at the foul line.

Now that the airlines have stopped serving food in coach, there's an opening to sell us stuff that we really want to eat during a flight. Like Girl Scout Cookies. Why don't the airlines cut a deal with the Girl Scouts national organization to have Girl Scouts come through the aisles and sell us cookies? A box of Thin Mints costs $4 on the ground. Wouldn't you pay, say, $6 for a box during a flight? Who knows how much the airlines could mark up the Peanut Butter Sandwiches or Shortbread. This is a win-win-win proposition: We get stuff we want as a snack, the Girl Scouts sell more cookies and the airlines get some off-the-top profit.

As the airlines have downsized in recent years, they have generated mounds of stuff they no longer use: excess aircraft; logo-embossed cutlery, china and glasses; obsolete route maps and posters; stationery from airlines they have absorbed; old stock certificates from their earlier, bankrupt selves; furniture from shuttered city ticket offices; and lots more. So what if the airlines hold gigantic yard sales at or near the airports? Don't you want a row of airline seats to put on your front porch or in your media room? Many of us have kids headed off to college and they'll need dishes, so how about a collection of United Connoisseur Class china? Wouldn't you like an old Pan Am route map to hang on your wall? Think how many worthless stock certificates there are from the two separate bankruptcies that US Airways has endured. And what about all that stock scrip from Piedmont and PSA? Wouldn't it all make great wallpaper? I know that I always need scrap paper. What has American done with all that AirCal, TWA and Reno Air stationery? They should sell it by the pound at the first American Airlines yAArd sAAle.

Airport clubs are much-needed oases in the midst of chaotic airports, but they are boring. Why shouldn't the airlines run back-room crap games in the clubs? This is technically illegal, of course, so the games would have to float. But that would be part of the fun. You show up at, say, a Northwest WorldClub in Minneapolis and learn that a crap game is about to start. You could buy a red carnation at the front desk, then an attendant could lead you to the appropriate "conference room" where fellow flyers are rolling the bones.

One of the dirty little secrets of the Big Six is the amount of money that they are still paying to their former chief executives, the same guys who helped ruin the airlines in the first place. I'm not exactly sure, but Steve Wolf may still be on the payroll of three of the Big Six all by himself. Only the bankruptcy court knows for sure how many former CEOs that Delta is still paying. My idea is simple. Make former CEOs earn their post-employment "consulting fees." Put 'em to work in carnival-style dunking booths. They could be placed at strategic points at major hubs and irate passengers could pay, say, $10 for the opportunity to hit the target and dunk an Armani-suited ex-CEO. This idea also has a secondary revenue stream: Do you know how many furloughed airline employees would show up at the airport to pay for some small measure of revenge against buccaneers like Leo Mullin, John Dasburg, Al Cheechi, Dave Siegel and Bill Franke?

When I was a kid in Catholic school, the Holy Name and Altar Rosary societies would sell raffles for a "basket of cheer" full of liquor. The booze baskets were pretty popular and lots of money was raised. I think this idea has some practical application for the airlines. They could gather up a selection of airline-sized bottles of booze, put them in custom-designed mini-baskets and raffle one off on each flight. Airlines could raise hundreds of new dollars per segment without cutting into the revenue flow from existing in-flight liquor sales. After all, only one person on each flight would win a mini-basket. The rest of us will still need to buy drinks to survive.

How about in-flight bootblacks? We all need shoeshines, often for the shoes we're wearing on the plane and sometimes for the shoes we've packed for a business trip. Airlines could charge $5 for at-your-seat service (aisle seats only, of course). And they could even adopt the shoe-bag method that hotels use. There could be a plastic shoe bag in every seatback pocket. After you've settled in, you can remove your shoes, place them in the shine bag and hang the bag off the latch for your tray table. Before takeoff, a shine person could collect the bag. Sometime before the end of the flight, the bag would be returned with your shoes shined. Wouldn't you pay for that service?

Like every other organized-crime syndicate, the airlines could fall back on extortion in the form of in an-flight protection racket. Here's how it would work: Shortly after your flight departs to, say, Denver, an airline employee would approach you and suggest that a crisp $10 bill would guarantee that your flight didn't inadvertently land in, say, Phoenix. Or, in an even more subtle form of extortion, an "in-flight location coordinator" could suggest that a well-placed $20 bill would ensure that the pilot didn't accidentally land your San Francisco-bound plane in, say, Oakland or San Jose. Protection could be a rich vein of new in-flight revenue and, as far as I can tell, it's perfectly legal. After all, an airline contract of carriage doesn't guarantee that your chosen flight will operate, that it will depart or arrive on-time--or even that it will arrive at the originally scheduled destination.

Ever notice how coach rows bear an eerie resemblance to church pews? So why don't the airlines just pass the collection plate during flights? The collection could be just before the beverage cart comes down the aisle. And the flight attendant/ushers could make it very clear that they're watching our generosity. Make a paper-money donation and they'll leave the entire can of Diet Coke when they come down the aisle with beverages. Toss in a coin and lots of luck getting your four-ounce plastic cup refilled. Stiff the airline and be prepared for a flight attendant to "accidentally" spill an entire serving of Dr. Pepper on your slacks.

Copyright 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.