Brancatelli on Business Travel – Desperate Times

Brancatelli on Business Travel – Desperate Times

So now that the Big Six have all reported dreadfully bad second-quarter results, isn’t it time to start thinking about really radical ways to save them?

I mean, how many more quarters can Delta Air Lines find $1.6 billion in paper losses? How many more quarters can bankrupt United Airlines lose almost $250 million in real cash and still claim progress? Even Continental Airlines chief Gordon Bethune, who has never seen a quarterly result he can’t blame on someone or something else, is running out of fall guys. And woe to poor US Airways if it ever reports another quarterly profit. US Airways actually made $34 million in the second quarter, but Bruce Lakefield, this week’s chief executive, made it sound like the carrier will probably be out of business before you finish reading this column.

But as John Edwards said in his acceptance speech–Did anyone else notice that he accepted the vice-presidential nomination before the convention actually nominated him?–hope is on the way. I think I have a few useful ideas that can restore the Big Six to profitability. You’ll have to be open to a few new concepts, of course, but all of these approaches have been winners in other businesses. There’s every reason to believe that they could pump up the revenue volume at the Big Six.

The Big Six have squandered untold millions to secure the naming rights of sports arenas–the American Airlines arenas in Dallas and Miami, the United Center in Chicago, the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, the Continental Arena at Exit 16 on the New Jersey Turnpike–but I think it’s time to turn the metaphoric tables. Why shouldn’t the airlines sell the naming rights to their operations?

After all, would Tastykake US Airlines be such a terrible thing? How about J.P. Morgan Chase Bank One United Airlines? The merged bank is into the carrier for billions in loans and credit-card revenue already, so I’m sure that august financial institution could be convinced to write a big naming-rights check as soon as it has a checkbook with its new corporate name printed up. And who wouldn’t want to fly Franco-American Airlines after Campbell’s ponies up to slap a picture of a can of Spaghetti-Os where the old “Luxury Liner” logos used to go?

Naming rights need not end at the corporate level, either. The airlines could sell naming rights to individual routes, too. For example, Northwest Airlines has announced it is going to be adding a lot of flights to Indianapolis soon. What would be wrong if we showed up at the airport and heard, “Welcome to Northwest Airlines Intel Inside Indianapolis Flight 227. We’ll begin the Celeron general boarding process soon, but we want to begin the Pentium pre-boarding with our first-class travelers, WorldPerks elite customers and families with young children.” Delta could sell the naming rights to its Rome, Venice and Milan flights to Barila pasta or even Sbarro, the fast-food chain.

Here’s another idea from the sports world: The Big Six should sell personal-seat licenses whenever they take delivery of a new aircraft. Just as sports teams require fans to buy the so-called PSLs whenever they build a new stadium, the Big Six could charge you, say, $1,000 a year just for the right to call them and buy tickets.

I think this idea could really generate revenue for the cash-strapped Big Six. No one actually buys seats in the first-class cabins anymore, especially on domestic flights. So why shouldn’t the airlines rework the cabins into what are euphemistically called “gentlemen’s clubs?” The specially trained hostesses could sell in-flight lap dances and push $200-a-bottle champagne. The airlines could install a dance pole at the front of the cabin and have the hostesses “dance” throughout the flight. And, just like pimps, the airlines could share the bucks that horny frequent flyers stuff into the thongs and G-strings of the dancers.

The Big Six airlines are timidly selling in-flight meals these days. That’s stinkin’ thinkin’ if you ask me. Airlines need to realize that the galleys are valuable real estate if placed in the hands of the right marketers. Starbucks is always looking for new outlets for their overpriced coffee drinks and related snacks and beverages. I think one smart Big Six carrier–if the term smart Big Six carrier isn’t too oxymoronic for an intelligent conversation like this one–should rent its galleys, lock, stock and rolling carts, to Starbucks. The airline could get a set rental fee per flight for use of the galley and a percentage of every in-flight latte sold. Another airline could sell its galleys to Dunkin’ Donuts. Air Canada, which is every bit as screwed up as any of the Big Six, should cut a deal with Tim Hortons.

Airlines once charged for in-flight movies. It was a mistake for them to get away from the concept. As seatback personal videos become more and more common–unless you fly Ted, of course, where United thinks its airline of the future should rely on the in-flight entertainment systems of the 1960s–the opportunity for pay-per-view expands dramatically. Think how much money the Big Six could generate if they serve up in-flight porno on a few pay-per-view stations. You could sell live pay-per-view concerts, sports matches and all sorts of special events like wrestling between airline chief executives. Wouldn’t you pay, say, $29.95 to see a Texas Death Match between United chief Glenn “The Rock” Tilton and Northwest boss Richard “The Minnesota Madman” Anderson?

A little investigative research could probably establish the fact that Wilbur and Orville Wright were actually members of a long-lost lowlands Carolina tribe whose treaties with the United States were repeatedly violated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That would clear the way to declare all Big Six planes Native American territory and that, of course, would mean you could turn flights into in-flight casinos. Wouldn’t you throw a buck into a loose slot machine as you boarded your aircraft? Can’t you see yourself playing a couple of hands of blackjack at the pit behind Row 17? In-flight craps would be an adventure whenever the plane hit a pocket of clear-air turbulence. And the Big Six could turn the upstairs cabins on the 747s back into what they were originally supposed to be: lounges. Think of the revenue the Big Six could generate on booze while you’re flying transcon and watching a mediocre lounge act doing a medley of old Motown tunes.

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