Something Specious On the Air

Something Specious On the Air

This was almost five years ago, nearing nine on a spring evening at an airport club in the middle of America, gutting out still another canceled flight.

Too tired to keep working while they waited, a small coterie of business travelers slumped in the corner of the club, munched stale cookies and stared blankly at the television screen.

Then the mellifluous voice of Mandy Patinkin floated out of the box and grainy, jerky, phony images of Kitty Hawk flickered onto the screen. It was one of those annoying 1997 United ads that thought they were clever because they told us what we already knew: Flying stinks.

“But we’re going in a different direction,” intoned the fellow who should always be singing Sondheim, not flacking for airlines. “We’re United. Rising!”

Out of nowhere, a cookie smashed into the television screen, fired by a bedraggled blonde in a rumpled, red business suit.

“How can they run that crap?” she said, turning to address her fellow travelers. “I was at O’Hare yesterday rushing to make a connecting flight and I got lectured by a bitchy United agent who told me that next time I’d lose my assigned seat because you have to be at the gate 20 minutes before the flight. It never even occurred to her that I was late to the gate because the United flight I just got off had arrived a half-hour late…”

Her voice trailed off as she and everyone else suddenly looked back at the screen.

Creepy music seeped out of the television and bizarre images of pampered business flyers in an eerie, white cabin filled the screen. Then a small fusillade of Goldfish crackers, launched in spontaneous unison by the club crowd, obliterated the remaining seconds of a Delta commercial promoting the 1997 remake of its business class.

“They’ve just got to be kidding,” said a saggy-eyed fellow in a too-shiny navy blazer. “Worst business-class ever!” added a woman, who may or may not have been invoking the catchphrase of the Comic-Book Guy from The Simpsons.

Now I’ve been a business traveler for more than half my 48 years. And I’ve been writing about the business of business travel since the early years of deregulation. But it took that cruise missile of a cookie and that cannonade of crackers to bring it on home: Airlines are never so puerile and never so despised by business travelers as when they make their pitiful attempts to tell us they understand our pain.

You don’t need me to tell you that nothing has changed since 1997 and certainly very little good has happened to business travel since September 11. Flying still stinks and airline ads are still unctuous tripe.

United eventually dumped its ad agency and finally killed that “Rising” campaign because I suspect even United executives eventually got embarrassed by the yawning gap between what the ads promised and what the airline actually delivered. Coincidentally, United went into a nose-dive after that “Rising” campaign and now ranks as the most loathed, most loss-ridden airline of modern times.

Delta has changed ad agencies and campaigns since 1997, too. Several times, in fact. Subsequent Delta ads portrayed business travelers as worker bees returning to the hive. Last year, before September 11, its ads slapped luggage tags on travelers as if we were baggage waiting to be containerized and shipped off to our destinations. Delta has even changed business classes and repainted their planes. Again. But as one flyer wrote in an E-mail recently: “I don’t care how many times they change the stuff on the outside. They’re still unkind on the inside.”

Lately, there’s been Continental and its holier-than-thou advertising. To be fair, Continental engineered the travel miracle of the 1990s. It went from the airline that business travelers loved to hate to an airline frequent flyers don’t actively detest. But all that success has gone to its corporate head. Nowadays, the airline actually believes its own hype.

A Continental ad on a telephone kiosk on the streets of New York last year read something like: “Everyone who flies us, raise your hands. The rest of you, raise your standards.” I stopped dead in my tracks in front of that ad and all I could think of was those folks at the airport lounge on that spring night in 1997. I couldn’t help but wonder what they’d chuck at that ad.

The recently concluded Olympics brought us a totally new series of detestable airline ads. Delta was back at it, making a ham-fisted attempt to convince us they know something about the cultures of the nations they service. This from the airline that offers Australian wine on its flights to France and Italy and last year substituted shrimp for prosciutto in business class and then explained to an inquiring customer that the switch was due to mad-cow disease. And if you can figure out what the hell those pompous, cloying, melodramatic, nonsensical American Airlines spots are about, please send me an E-mail.

Meanwhile, a memo to the boys in the band at the mainline airlines. We hate you because you charge us too much, lie to us all the time, run your flights late or not at all and have shamelessly used September 11 as a crutch to explain away all your structural deficiencies.

We don’t need you to tell us you know about our problems. We don’t want you to show us pictures of a business class that doesn’t exist. We don’t believe you when you tell us that you’re better than the other guys.

Just shut up and give us fair fares, decent seats and reliable schedules. We’re trying to work here and you’re not helping.