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 Power Failure

Jeff Smisek’s power trip comes to an end

Sept. 16,2015


United Airlines’ CEO, Jeff Smisek’s forced ouster last week was only shocking considering how long it took, and that it didn’t come from employees or passengers.

His tenure was all about pushing the envelope in ways that reflected a power trip – that is, if he could get away with it, he did it. 

Things have not gone well for United in recent years – once known for its white-glove service back in the 1990s, even in coach. Today, the news is all about the carrier’s Summer From Hell, the protests over its severe cost cutting, the farming out of flights to second-rate regional airlines, or its outsourcing aircraft maintenance and repairs to unlicensed “mechanics” in China, Singapore, Mexico, and El Salvador. 
caricature by Aren Elliott
But the writing was on the wall when consumer advocate Ralph Nader published an open letter accusing the airline of being disloyal to its workers and giving $320 million in profits to its shareholders. 

“Squeezing appears to be your corporate policy tool for your passengers as well — for example, squeezing their leg room, squeezing them by innumerable fees and penalties, and squeezing their time by delays on the phone in responding to their questions,” wrote Nader.

United contracted out 2,000 union jobs at twenty-eight airport stations last year, including closing its Cleveland hub, with the idea of saving $2.7 million from long-time UA employees (many made $15 per hour plus benefits).

Meanwhile, Delta Airlines shared its $1.1 billion profit with its employees and American Airlines announced pay raises for its pilots and flight attendants.
Besides deciding to dispense entirely with the respect of his customers, Jeff Smisek tried to balance things out with the larger theme of political corruption

Taking a page out the handbook of corrupt countries and time-honored American payola, Mr. Smisek based an airline route on where an influential public official wants to fly, and when he wants to fly there.

Now the Feds are looking into United’s relationship with a former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, regarding the unprofitable two-day-a-week flight United launched from Newark to Columbia, S.C., not far from where the chairman had a weekend home.
The message? While United may treat economy-class passengers like sardines, and smaller cities seeking air service like pariahs, they’re more than able to find wiggle room to deliver a half-empty, non-stop to a town where a big shot weekends.

Just a few months ago, we saw how both political parties and all branches of government placed corporate interests above the interests of passengers, airline employees, the nation’s economy. 
Death By A Thousand Cuts

Isn’t it a nice message to the 82,000 United employees when the CEO steps down over an ethics breach? As if the $12M pay-package wasn’t enough incentive to conduct business legally.

Add to that a $4.9M severance package, plus free first class flights for life. All contingent on Mr. Smisek not being convicted of a federal crime – which appears possible at this point.

Your Letters:

(In response to last weeks newsletter, Buy The Seat Of Our Pants)

Dear FlyersRights:

Generally, I am opposed to excessive government regulation in business and industry.  I have always believed that the supply and demand of the market place will sufficiently regulate.  Thus, I have somewhat mixed emotions relative to government regulation of airline seating. I do feel, however, that there should be some way of determining the seating space in the coach section, now better referred to as the steerage section, of the various airlines.

On my most recent flight — on American Airlines from Los Angeles to Honolulu —  I sat in the steerage section and felt claustrophobic.  I wondered if that is what it felt like to be buried alive.  Although I am of average height and build (5-11, 180 pounds), my legs did not fit in the space between seats.  I had to keep them stretched out under the seat in front of me.  Since I am 78 and have a blood-clotting condition, I have been advised by my doctor to get up and walk every 30 minutes or so.  But the one aisle on the planes was so narrow that I had to walk sideways.   Moreover, since one toilet in the back of the plane was out of order, people were lined up in the aisle about five rows from the rear of the plane, making it next to impossible to get by them or in anyway walk when the food cart was not blocking the aisle.   
I did fly economy-plus from Honolulu to Los Angeles, but there were no economy-plus seats available on the return flight.  
I mentioned the claustrophobic conditions on the return flight to one of the flight attendants and she fully agreed with me, but could offer nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders as to a solution.  To maintain sanity, I spent about an hour standing in the rear of the plane, where the flight attendants spend most of their time and they did not seem to appreciate that. 
The response from the airline might very well be that I need to upgrade every time I fly.  Caveat Emptor before government regulation makes some sense. But here is the problem.  Not all airlines are the same.   I gather that United and American now have pure steerage, but I don’t think Hawaiian Airlines or USAir does.  In fact, I flew USAir from Los Angeles to Philadelphia and paid for what I thought was extra leg room. It did not appear to have the same space as on my flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles, and when I asked the flight attendant about it he confirmed that it had no more space than in the economy seats behind me.  I asked what I was paying extra for and was informed that it was for the benefit of getting off the plane faster, i.e., being nearer the front of the plane.  I would never have paid $85 extra for such a benefit as I was not in that much of a hurry to get off the plane.
The bottom line here is that I will never again fly pure steerage, but since planes differ relative to seat spacing there should be some way to figure out what each airline has to offer.  Some airlines do not offer economy-plus; therefore, there is no way of knowing if it is steerage spacing or the old standard economy spacing.  I suggested to my local paper that they show the seat spacing in the travel section of the Sunday paper, but I doubt that anything will be done.  I don’t think government regulation is the answer, but I don’t know what is.


Kailua, Hawaii
I agree that regulation is a last but necessary resort when competition breaks down and corporate greed and executive corruption take over.  Hopefully Michael Huerta, FAA Administrator, Anthony Foxx, DOT Secretary and President Obama have not drunk the airline corporate Kool-Aid or been paid off.
The test will be how they respond to the Rulemaking petition submitted 8/26/15, yet to be docketed, re. setting minimum seat and passenger space standards and order a moratorium on any further shrinkage while rulemaking is pending.
If you care about this issue I would urge passengers to attend the 9/17/15 meeting of the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee at FAA HEadquarters in Washington DC and contact their Congressman and US senators.
Paul Hudson
Member, FAA Aviation Rulemaking
Advisory Committee

Dear FlyersRights:

I think that making our Representatives fly in coach for about 4 hours would be enough to influence their decision. No one can do that and not see the safety and health problems. Same for upper management at the airlines.


Dear FlyersRights:

Thank goodness you’re doing this. I am just under 5’4″ and even I have trouble fitting into some planes. Several of my tall colleagues are forced to pay extra for “premium” seats. This is surely discriminatory against the taller people!
Keep going–and let’s get to where they need to refit each airplane within a certain period of time. The money they are saving with the significantly lower fuel costs can be used for this, rather than profit.

Pics Of The Week:

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