have seen the future, and it does not include American or United. It's not because I've been flying JetBlue, Southwest or Virgin Atlantic. The future of American and United can be foretold by flying exclusively (and frequently) on them alone.

Over the past few months, when problems arose during trips I took on each of these carriers (both involving missed connections due to weather), I was told by their employees that they couldn't help me because their companies were in financial trouble. A United employee went so far as to say, "My hands are tied. We're in bankruptcy."

The American employee was a bit more subtle but essentially gave the same message. When I asked to speak to his supervisor to help resolve the problem, he said, "I am a supervisor. And I no longer have the authority to help you. Before, yes, in this situation I could have done something. But now -- you know our financial situation -- I've got to stick to the rules. No exceptions."

"The rules." There's no question that world events severely injured the major carriers, but it is the decision to stick to their own rules that will ultimately be their undoing.

When you stop to think about it, the major airlines' rules and notoriously bad customer service are inherent in their marketing structure -- there has to be numerous restrictions and bad service for the masses in order to offer contrasting good service and flexibility to their best customers as an inducement for loyalty. The long lines, the poorly trained customer service employees, the rigidity in interpreting rules -- those were meant for everyone else. If you attained status with an airline, it would treat you like a valued customer. And when times were better, the structure worked.

The shorter lines are nice, but as an Executive Platinum on American and Premier Executive on United, what I have valued most are those special phone numbers I can call to resolve midtrip problems. Once upon a time, before their disdain for travel agents surfaced, status wasn't necessary -- my agent could obtain satisfaction on my behalf. What has kept me flying these particular airlines was the belief that I could speak to a human being if

I needed some help, and that I would, in turn, be treated like a human being.

Apparently, American and United have decided that the best way to reverse their financial problems is for all their customers, loyal and occasional, to share their pain. But if loyalty is not rewarded, what's the point of being loyal?

To be fair, when I reported what his employee told me ("My hands are tied. We're in bankruptcy)" to a United executive I know, he looked exasperated. "They should never say the 'B' word. Our mantra is, 'Business as usual.' "

Well, I'm not sure that's really the direction they want to go, either. Given the status quo, business as usual sounds like a death wish.

• • •

Further on the topic of professional suicide, a couple of readers have written to ask me if I feel as if I'm among those who were burned in the self-immolation process of former American Airlines president Don Carty.

The week before it was revealed that he was protecting executive perks while asking rank-and-file employees to make sacrifices, I had written a column entitled "The measure of a man" that, in part, praised Carty for giving up his bonuses to retain credibility with his workforce.

Given the benefit of hindsight, I clearly would not have chosen Carty as an example, but on the other hand, his subsequently revealed behavior -- and its consequences -- speak to the larger point of the column.

I held him up as an example of how personal ethics can play a part in professional success. He ultimately demonstrated that the flip side of the proposition also is true: Bad behavior can just as dramatically lead to one's downfall.

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