A Blog – In My Personal Opinion……
Flying The Friendly Lies
Several years ago (before he became a US senator and was still a comedian) Al Franken authored a book called Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. It is a book about politics, news coverage and lots of things that have nothing at all to do with travel or communications, but it is all I could think about this weekend when I saw United Airlines new ad campaign – a revival of the “Friendly Skies” theme of years past. If you don’t recall the original campaign, here’s just one example of a commercial of the era – where a fictitious flight attendant practiced helping United passengers enjoy their experience.
Now I hope you don’t believe that flying in the 1980’s and 1990’s was really like the experience portrayed on TV. For as long as I can recall air travel has been an overly stressful necessary evil of business. But I must admit, the United experience of those years was leaps and bounds better than it is today.
Newark Liberty International is my home airport. In the last 20 or so years it went from “New York’s best kept secret” to…well…just a freaking mess if you want me to be honest. It is the home of the surliest agents, the worst clubs, the longest lines, the most delays – basically, if you can think of something bad about flying then we have it here at EWR. A large part of the terrible experience was due to Continental Airlines.
In his book, “From Worst to First”, their former CEO, Gordon Bethune detailed how bad the place was and how he turned it around into a great airline to work at and fly on. What his book didn’t go into is what happened after it was published – Continental (and Mr. Bethune) got a swelled-head. They started believing all the hype about how great they were, and that conceit – deemed ‘Contin-attitude’ by many frequent flyers at the time – meant that they could do no wrong in their own eyes. Any customers who felt otherwise just had to be wrong because “just look at all the awards we won…” Continental began using a kind of creative doublespeak that its elite flyers learned to recognize. If Continental announced it was making an “enhancement” that meant that some feature or benefit that its passengers enjoyed was being taken away. If they said “we’ve listened to our customers” that meant that they had imposed an unpopular change that no customer would ever want. If they said they “improved” something that meant it was definitely getting worse. And if they guaranteed that they would not make any changes you could rest assured that something would be changing very soon.
Many of us “Newark hub captives” were forced into a choice between direct flights on Continental (along with putting-up with the doublespeak and takeaways) or having to make connections on other airlines. Personally, I chose the connections. I became a United Airlines 1K. Wow, what a difference – and in every conceivable way. If something caused my first flight of a day to be late I was rerouted on a new connection before I even landed. If something caused me to miss the last flight of the day they’d be arranging an overnight hotel for me without having to ask. If I was afraid I might miss a flight I could ask to “be protected” on a later one – have it added to my itinerary – with a confirmed seat – at no extra charge – just in case I needed it. Granted, no large group of people are all the same – there are always bad apples and the old United had their share– but by-in-large their front-line people tried their darnedest to do the right thing for the passenger no matter what the circumstance. They knew that keeping their best customers happy was the way to keep them coming back. I believed those skies really were friendly.
Then, a couple of years ago, the bottom fell out with the merger of United and Continental. “Merger” of course being one of those terms spoken in that now infamous Continental doublespeak. In reality Continental just bought the United name and began systematically dismantling everything that made those skies friendly. They managed to preserve the worst of both airlines, piss-off customers of both, and become - in the inimitable and poetic words of Joe Brancatelli- the “Worst Airline Ever…Again” .
This airline’s issues are mind boggling. It has a management team that is clueless about the airline industry, including a CEO that told everyone we would like the changes he would make (more Continental doublespeak) as he gutted the frequent flyer benefits, the promised lifetime benefits, the airport clubs, the advance elite upgrades, the promised “meals at mealtimes” and so much more. The legacy United CIO either quit in frustration or was forced out when he told the new CEO that the outdated Continental computer system would be the wrong choice for the merged airline. With his advice ignored United passengers experienced some of the worst back-end computer crashes and airport meltdowns in the history of airline travel. At the same time, the United customer facing employees were marginalized - and in fact often chastised for the same “doing the right thing” that was so appreciated by customers. If I had a dollar for every employee that told me “I used to be able to help in those situations but there’s nothing I can do now” I’d be a very rich man. The pilots began calling their CEO FLIBS (Frank Lorenzo In a Better Suit.) More recently, he began to outsource United jobs to third party firms – which has his employees even angrier as you might assume (remembering that the very same CEO testified before the US congress when the merger was being considered that he specifically wouldn’t do just that. More Continental doublespeak of course.) Oh, and by the way, the merged airline has driven away so many passengers with the poor service and poor treatment that it now is far behind all its competitors in all financial measures.
So with this clear, obvious backdrop of a decimated and failing airline (that is United in name only), and a clueless and out of touch management, these guys have decided to revert to what will be the most blatant doublespeak yet – resurrecting the “Friendly Skies of United” ad campaign. Instead of actually doing something friendly (like restoring elite and lifetime benefits, increasing the seat-room on flights, re-empowering agents to do the right thing for customers, clearing elite upgrades in advance as promised, etc.) they instead say that they are friendly while they continue to cut benefits. The most recent cuts include making the seats on regional jets smaller and now charging for many drinks at United clubs that used to be free. Someone needs to tell them that they are not fooling anyone. In fact, in the Facebook group dedicated to getting the current United CEO fired, one poster said it best. “If UAL thinks they can repair all the problems [the CEO] caused by reintroducing some slogan from the past then now you know why this airline is in the toilet, because management is SO clueless to what makes an airline work.”
Let me predict how this will all end. Sometime in the future the current United CEO and his core management team will be replaced. Their legacy will be a devastated airline that has lost their best customers, demoralized their employees and continually loses money. They personally however will have racked-up huge bonuses payments in the process. We can only hope that the next management team will have some understanding of how to honestly run an airline and that it will not be too late to restore some of the good parts of both former firms. Speaking for the passengers I can assure you we would much rather they actually be friendly then just say they are.
Just take a look at this nearly two year old parody of the United CEO’s safety video presentation. Isn’t it amazing how dead-on the captions turned-out to be?
This article was written by David Danto and contains solely his own, personal opinions.
All image and links provided above as reference under prevailing fair use statutes.