The Brancatelli File



November 18, 1997 -- Hear ye! Hear ye! Gather 'round and watch the Great and Powerful Brancatelli--Pay no attention to the man behind the glasses!--prostrate himself before the gods of contrition and issue a heartfelt apology to the nation's airlines.

For all the years that I have called the airlines the most rapacious companies in America, I apologize. For all the decades that I have suggested that the airlines offer the worst customer service in the nation, I am sorry. And for all the times that I trained young journalists by telling them that they would never go wrong by assuming that the airlines would always do the dumb thing, I pledge to mend the error of my ways.

The airlines are not the nation's worst purveyors of customer service. They are not the country's poster child for how to alienate frequent buyers. And they are not the sleaziest, lyingest, crookedest bunch of highway robbers that American consumers have ever faced.

May my hair fall out (too late) and my waist grow wide (well, too late there, too, but you get the idea) if I ever criticize the airlines in such broad and categorical terms so long as the managers who currently run Apple computer stride this planet.

Fellow flyers and computer users, allow me to introduce you to Apple, a company so devoid of ethics that they have stooped to measures even the nation's airlines would never consider.

Apple has taken away something some of its customers already purchased. It hasn't just raised prices or imposed new charges or slashed the quality of its service. No, no, that's minor league. That's just airline stuff. Apple did the airline business one better: It actually revoked a service some customers have already purchased!

Here's what you may have missed while you were trying to make your own PowerBook function in the Windows World. In a sweeping change of customer service programs imposed shortly after Steve Jobs returned to the helm of the listing Apple ship of state, Apple began hacking away at its once-exemplary customer relations. A whole new series of fees and charges began to appear for items that were once free of charge.

But one category of Apple customer, computer users who purchased Performa machines, purchased their Macintosh with the explicit written assurance of free, live, lifetime technical support. Or, to quote the "user assistance" portion of the Apple Resource Guide from one Performa: "Apple Assurance includes 'up-and-running' support for as long as you own your Apple...Trained staff members are ready to help you..."

Pretty clear and straight-forward, don't you think? For as long as these customers owned Performas, an Apple employee would be available by telephone to help.

But now Apple has unilaterally revoked the free, live support program for Performa owners. Without advance warning or negotiation, Performa customers who called their support line for the benefit they had already purchased were one day confronted with a demand for an additional payment of $35 per "incident."

In case this bit of computerized chicanery is too complicated for you to comprehend, let me put it in airline terms: You buy a roundtrip ticket to Dallas. You fly to Dallas and check into your hotel room. Then, in the middle of the night, there's a knock on your door. Groggily, you open the door and you see American chairman Bob Crandall with his hand out.

"If you wanna fly home you gotta pay me $35 more," says Crandall.

"But I already bought my return ticket," you say.

"Too bad," says Crandall. "We changed the rules. If you wanna fly home on that ticket you already bought, you gotta give me $35."

I am happy to say that, to my knowledge, Bob Crandall has never appeared at the hotel door of an American Airlines customer trying to extract an extra $35 for a return trip. And, to my knowledge, neither has Gordon Bethune of Continental, John Dasburg of Northwest, Leo Mullin of Delta, Gerry Gitner of TWA or any executive of any airline. Even in the airline world, where ethics are situational and customer service oxymoronic, this has never happened.

Yet Steve Jobs thinks it is perfectly fine to demand more money from Performa customers who paid Apple for their live tech support when they purchased their machine.

I don't. So I E-mailed Apple's publicity machine and asked for an explanation. I didn't get one. But I did get promised an interview with an Apple vice president. We even made an appointment to talk. Then, when he learned I was going to ask why Apple was demanding additional payments from Performa users, his secretary called and canceled the interview.

So, as I have always urged you to do when confronted by an airline policy you abhor, I am talking with my feet--and my keyboard, RAM and operating system.

After years of loyalty to Apple, I'm moving in with Bill Gates and Windows. Out go my three desktop Macs. And out goes my Duo laptop. More importantly, I've promised the hundred or so friends and journalists I've convinced to buy Macintosh over the years that I will personally shop with them and offer them moral and technical support when they switch to Windows machines.

You and I, as frequent travelers, are often at the mercy of airlines and computer companies. But we need not be prisoners. I won't deal with an airline that treats me like cattle. And I won't deal with a computer company that doesn't respect its customers.

And to all those airline executives out there: Again, my heartfelt apology. And look at the bright side: Now when you are confronted by an irate passenger whose luggage you've lost and whose seat you've oversold, you can say, "Well, we're bad, but at least we're not Apple."

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.