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Career Altitude

After earning his stripes in journalism, Stu Glauberman now pilots the communications department of Aloha Airlines.

Global alliances and consolidations, value-added services, air rage and consumer unhappiness, frequent-flier clubs, thousands of different schedules and fares and thousands of destinations dying for publicity, different cross identifications and code-sharing — and an estimated 637 million people traveling around the world. Has there ever been a greater need for excellence and clarity in airline and travel communications?

If anyone in Hawaii should have an astute answer to that question, you would expect it to be Stu Glauberman, newly appointed staff vice president of corporate communications of Aloha Airlines, and recently vice president of the travel and tourism division of McNeil Wilson Communications Inc., where he specialized in reputation management, marketing strategy and crisis communications, among other assignments, for Hawaiian Airlines, the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau and other leading visitor industry accounts.

Glauberman, a 20-year veteran of journalism who spent nine years with the Honolulu Advertiser and seven with the Star-Bulletin, speaks about travel from the point of view of the veteran traveler. His work in journalism and education has taken him to places as exotic and diverse as Anchorage, Alaska; Darwin, Australia; Nukualofa, Tonga; Jakarta, Indonesia; Vientiane, Laos (with the U.S. Information Agency); and Singapore before settling for good in Hawaii in 1976.

On Call: Aloha Airlines' new executive is a media spokesperson with 20 years of industry experience.

His move from agency to client was made to take on new challenges. Says Glauberman: “I can take everything I’ve learned over the years and now put it into one business, the airline business. After you’ve handled so many accounts, it’s nice to be able to focus on just one. It’s the next obvious step. I always wanted to be a newspaper reporter, so I’ve evolved.”

The airline business has always seemed to be one of the most underreported of all major industries. Why?

Very few journalists specialize in aviation affairs. When I was in the business of publicizing airlines, we looked for specialists but didn’t find very many. In the local market there are very few journalists who pay attention to aviation news, because it falls under the tourism beat, which is very general and very broad.

Geoff Tudor, international public relations director for Japan Air Lines, once told me that there are only a handful of people in the world, aside from the major aviation industry press, who can write well about the complex affairs of the aviation industry. He said: “Never underestimate the ignorance of a journalist.”

Most of the journalists we know are generalists. They can cover a fire one day, tourism and aviation the next. I don’t think there are a lot of people with detailed knowledge about the industry. The other thing is that the airline business is changing every day. The marketing of seats, the technology, the way things are done is so different than they were even a couple years ago. So if you don’t have someone watching this on a day-by-day basis, you don’t get the background or the depth. I agree, there are probably not a lot of journalists who do understand the airline business. And it’s a challenge finding them.

To many seasoned travelers, a perception has long existed that airlines feel that the less their customers know about the business, the better. In other words, good news is no news.

A lot of airlines don’t want reporters, or the public, knowing what they do. It’s a highly competitive field, more competitive every day, and airline people tend to think everything they’re doing is proprietary. Probably throughout the world you have airline people very happy that there aren’t a lot of specialists tracking them down and hoping to understand the business. In Hawaii, the media’s a lot smaller, and so are the airlines, so this is less of a problem. On the other hand, we don’t see as much in- depth coverage and investigation as we used to. Reporters don’t spend as much time on stories, and they especially don’t spend as much time educating themselves.

Does this situation place additional burdens on the airline communicator?

No, it probably makes the job less difficult, because our messages are pretty simple. We want to distinguish our service, and we want the public to regard the service as reliable and affordable and value for money. In Hawaii, everybody has a stake in air transportation, but I really don’t think we’re reaching out to have deeper coverage of aviation issues in the community. We’re not really interested in explaining all the details of the business to a reporter, and I don’t really think we really require a lot of journalists to tell our story.

Usually it’s thought that the role of corporate communications is to be a buffer between management and the media. Is this a way of taking the heat?

Corporate communications is also a process of involving the public with management. It’s also a way for thoughts and ideas to get back to management to be discussed. There is a buffer function, but there’s also a true communications function where we reach out to our different publics. I think the management of airline companies in this state are willing to engage in dialogue to discuss issues, and willing to do what they can to improve service without being forced to. In Hawaii we are fortunate to have a culture of service that is at the center of what makes our airlines better than mainland carriers. It’s what I call the “Can I help you, auntie?” sort of thing. It’s an attitude of caring, of aloha service, where our customers are treated with respect. I hear this from people all over the world. I can assure you that the people with the airline I work for now are committed to providing exceptional service, and exemplifying the name of the airline.

How much travel news is committed to a definitive and biased corporate point of view?

There’s certainly a lot of PR influence in what we read in our newspapers and on television. And it’s not necessarily bad because the corporate world has messages to share with the public. If it wasn’t for the PR function the public wouldn’t know many of the things they do know, and they do need to know certain things. Public relations people can’t expect reporters to come up with every message. There are not enough of them. It’s a 24-hour world. Public relations serve the goal of informing and educating the public and making this a better world. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it; it’s part of our system.

Are airlines’ problems today sometimes the result of unrealistic expectations created by exaggerated advertising?

Advertising does raise expectations for the perfect flight. Leisure travelers, who don’t fly as much as business travelers, have especially high expectations. They often expect to be treated as Pashas. Yet it’s getting more difficult for large airlines to deliver a wonderful adventure on every flight. Part of the reason is how fast the airlines have grown and how many people travel. Another part is there are not enough runways, boarding gates, traffic controllers, and airport improvements to service all the flights. Not to mention the radically changing economics of meeting these expectations. It’s now up to travelers to find niche alternatives where they can still expect to be treated with the highest standards. You’ve got to be a much smarter consumer to find the type of service you wanted in the first place. You’re simply not going to get it on every flight to every city on every airline.

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