Airlines: Economical With the Truth

Airlines: Economical With the Truth

A distressing, but absolutely predictable, story about airline duplicity appeared in last Friday’s USA Today. As reporter Jayne O’Donnell wrote, “nearly all the endorsements” of the proposed American Airlines-British Airways code-share pact “were solicited from people who were working for the airlines.”

In stomach-turning detail, O’Donnell explained how the talking-head “experts” American has put forward to support its BA deal were on the payroll of American, its lobbyist, its public-relations agency or one of its consulting firms. O’Donnell also showed how some “independent” opponents of the AA-BA code-share pact are actually on the payroll of American and BA’s competitors.

What’s most intriguing about this tacky affair is American’s reaction. It denounced the USA Today expose as “tabloidish” and “unfair,” but never denied or disputed a single fact. Moreover, American insisted, “this happens in Corporate America across a broad range of industries and issues.”

In other words, stripped of the careful jargon and indignant posturing, American is suggesting that Corporate America routinely lies.

In light of the ever-widening Enron scandal, that hardly seems like an earth-shattering revelation. And during a 30-year career as a business journalist, I’ve encountered some astounding bits of prevarication oozing from the hearts, minds and mouths of America’s corporate elite.

But no industry lies quite like the travel industry. From the modestly misleading hotel practice of putting pictures of their nicest rooms in brochures and then making believe that it is the standard offering to the airline practice of scheduling flights they know cannot run on time, travel is built on a foundation of lies. Lies about pricing, lies about service, lies about standards and even lies about lying.

Travel is the industry that can’t talk straight. It is so enmeshed in its own deceptions that it doesn’t even know when it is lying anymore. It doesn’t seem to understand why customers now simply assume the worst about the state of travel. And it is unable to see how badly the culture of lying has eroded its credibility.

Consider, for example, the contretemps at Continental, which unfolded this week against the growing mistrust between travel providers and their customers.

In the January issue of Continental’s in-flight magazine and on its Web site, Continental chief executive Gordon Bethune makes a simple, unequivocal statement about the state of the airline’s much-admired frequent-flyer program. “We will not cut benefits from OnePass,” Bethune said.

So what did Continental do, even as Bethune’s message continues to appear on the Web site and still rides in the pockets of every seat in its fleet? It cut the benefits of OnePass. That has created a firestorm among OnePass members, who are probably overreacting to the exceedingly modest program changes, but who are justifiably incensed that Bethune is saying one thing while his airline has done something else.

The culture of lies is so inbred in the travel industry that it has risen to the level of performance art. Consider, for example, Richard Branson, the bombastic pitchman who created Virgin Atlantic. He now lies with impunity and frequently uses it as a tactic to combat his arch-rival, British Airways.

Branson’s most artistic recent lie began making the rounds in the spring of 1999, shortly after British Airways announced plans to equip its long-haul business-class flights with seats that fold into beds. Several years earlier, BA had trumped its competitors with first-class beds and Branson was apparently caught napping by BA’s business-class plans.

So Branson announced he was putting double beds in Virgin’s Upper Class business-class cabins. In a story that appeared in the London Daily Telegraph on June 10, 1999, Branson went so far as to announce a fare: $15,600 a couple for a double-bed roundtrip between New York and London.

By January of 2000, Branson’s minions extended the double-bed lie even further: They created a computer-generated “photo” of the beds and convinced the credulous New York Times to reproduce the image. This time, Branson said a double-bed passage would be about $18,000 per couple. “We’re trying to put the romance back into flying,” he snarked.

But the truth about Virgin’s double beds is more prosaic. They don’t exist. They never have.

Want more? How about this from Gerry McGowan, who was chief executive of Australia’s Impulse Airlines when he was interviewed by the Bloomberg News Service early last year.

“We have good backers,” he said in an interview that moved on the Bloomberg wire on March 1, 2001. “We’re here to stay and we have strong growth prospects. Our investors are happy and we are planning to inject another 30 million.”

Sixty days later, Impulse was gone, sold off to Qantas.

Or consider this run-of-the-mill slice of life on the road. I checked into a hotel last month that is part of a chain that promises that every room has a work desk with ergonomic chairs, task lighting and desk-level electrical outlets. Of course, my room had none of those amenities. When I called the front desk to inquire about the missing workspace, I was curtly informed that no room in the hotel had desks, chairs, task lights or desk-level outlets.

I called the marketing director for the chain the other day and asked how he could claim these amenities in every room when I had recently checked out of one of his hotels that had none of them in any of the rooms.

“I know that property,” he said breezily. “They have an exception.”

For frequent travelers unfamiliar with hotel-industry jargon, “an exception” is when a particular hotel is permitted to violate the chain’s published standards. In plain English, an exception is a corporately approved lie that officially exempts a hotel from fulfilling its promise to its guests.

That’s the way it is in travel. Lies are now so permanently ingrained, there are even corporate standards for how and when to do it.

This edition of Brancatelli originally appeared as a part of a regular series at All rights reserved. This column was printed with permission.

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