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
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
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
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
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
• • •
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
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.