Flying Cheap in the Unfriendly Skies

There is plenty of blame to go around in the wake of the raid and bloody take-down on United Airlines 3411. And so far, United brass seem determined not to accept any of it.

CEO Oscar Munoz was slow to show any empathy to the innocent fare-paying customer who was summarily dragged from the aircraft by thugs in police clothing. Before issuing an apology late Tuesday, he claimed in an internal email that employees followed established procedures and he tried to blame the victim, describing him as “disruptive and belligerent.”

In his first public statement, Munoz did himself and his company no favors by speaking like a soulless executive. What kind of person says “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers” after a horrific incident like this?

It’s interesting that Munoz is alone on point dealing with the public relations ramifications of this disaster. You see, United flight 3411 was not really a United flight. It is operated by Indianapolis-based Republic Airline.

Republic is a regional carrier that operates about a thousand flights a day under contract for American, Delta, and of course, United. The airplanes are painted in the livery of the legacy airline customer, but the ownership and operation of the aircraft is the responsibility of Republic.

So, the other CEO who should also be in the line of fire here is Bryan Bedford, the Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer at Republic Airways Holdings Inc. Bedford is laying low - apparently playing Sgt. Schultz (I see nothing!).

Bryan Bedford, head of Republic Airline. Credit: Youtube.

Bryan Bedford, head of Republic Airline. Credit: Youtube.

We once again have landed in the shadowy world of regional carriers.

You can’t blame passengers who assume when they book a “United” flight that they are getting a “United” aircraft and crew. But, just like your mother warned you, it’s important to read the fine print. The logo and the uniforms may look the same, but it’s really no deeper than marketing. The term of art in the industry is “code-share.”

The legacy airlines started using these regional players to do their shorter hauls as a way to sidestep their union contracts. Republic and its code-share ilk pay their pilots and flight attendants less and provide them less training. The legacy airlines are outsourcing to save money.

All of this came into play as a major factor in the crash of Continental flight 3407 on approach to Buffalo New York in 2009. That aircraft was operated by a regional carrier called Colgan Air (now defunct) but it carried the Continental colors.

Scene of the Colgan Air flight 3407 crash near Buffalo, NY. Credit NTSB.

Scene of the Colgan Air flight 3407 crash near Buffalo, NY. Credit NTSB.

The flight crew was overworked, overtired, underpaid and poorly trained. They failed the basics of airmanship, neglecting to maintain a safe airspeed, which caused the aircraft to stall and crash. All 49 onboard were killed.

In 2010, I worked with producer Rick Young on a FRONTLINE film on this subject called “Flying Cheap.” Unfortunately, it is still relevant today as it seems not much has changed in the past seven years. Continental and United merged so we’re really talking about the same legacy carrier today. It’s not a crash this time, but the airline’s reputation is a smoldering hole in the ground.

The code-share system is alive and kicking. And while pilot salaries have improved slightly, they are still woefully underpaid and so there is a shortage of them, which has bedeviled airlines like Republic.

In fact, that might actually have some bearing on what happened in Chicago on Sunday. The airline is just emerging from Chapter 11--the preferred choice for airlines seeking a taxpayer-funded bailout when the going gets tough. In fact, Republic’s time in the bankruptcy box was triggered by those pilot shortages. It forced the airline to ground several aircraft and cancel flights. Nothing worse for business than that.

The flight in Chicago was not “oversold.” It was, however, “sold-out.” The paying passengers were asked to scram so that a “deadheading” flight crew could to get to Louisville in time to prevent the cancellation of a flight the next morning. Taking revenue-generating asses out of seats to get your employees in the right place at the right time isn’t a very good strategy either.

They could’ve hopped in an Uber and gotten there for about $400. That would’ve been a good business strategy--a huge bargain compared to the litigation that surely lies ahead.

So why haven’t we heard from the CEO of Republic Airways Holdings? I did some hunting for Bryan Bedford on the interwebs this morning and found a video featuring him that was posted about the time Rick Young and I were doing that FRONTLINE. It was produced by the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer--whose aircraft Republic flies exclusively.

Bedford shares his customer service philosophy, but I suspect he means the airlines he serves, not the passengers.

“We’re actually seeing some of our partners move away from the ‘Express’ branding concept and simply allowing the airplane to operate as the network carrier brand,” he said in the interview, “and in this way they are telling the customer there is no difference whatsoever in the experience that you will receive. We find that very refreshing and very exciting.”

I wonder how refreshed and excited Oscar Munoz is about that today.

The original video is here.

We have updated it a little bit.



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Banner image credit: @JayseDavid