From the Editor’s Desk: An Important Message from the Continental United CEO

United Continental Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek precedes the airline safety video

October, 2011

The airlines have trained me well:  I pull out the safety card on every flight and follow along with the demonstration or video.

I know that puts me in serious nerd territory, but I want to be prepared for that one-in-a-million chance of an accident. I also know most of my fellow passengers probably won’t be prepared, so someone has to be the adult onboard – especially if there are children nearby.

Imagine my surprise when, instead of the promised safety video, United Airlines and Continental Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek pops up on the screen during my latest flight out of Honolulu to tell his passengers how hard his company is working to integrate the two airlines. It’s a difficult transition but we’re doing a great job, Smisek says.

He’s got a captive audience for more than five hours and chooses to postpone the most important video of the flight for his talk. Needless to say, the few passengers who were prepared to watch the safety video now tune out. As I look around, the number of people who eventually watch the safety demonstration goes from about 1 in 10 to 1 in 50.

Good job, Jeff. If this plane crashes, I bet a lawyer could double the normal damages you’d be paying for injuries or deaths because your message was more important than the video designed to save lives.

For what it’s worth, here’s some free advice from someone who has spent zero years in the airline industry: Skip the acting career and solve some of those integration problems you mentioned. For instance, in San Francisco, I stood in a United check-in line with a woman who had already spent 20 minutes in a Continental line only to be told that her Continental-branded ticket was actually for a United flight and, no, you can’t check in at Continental, so please go to the back of another line. This woman was no idiot, so if your co-branding misled her, you’ve got a problem.

Full disclosure: I have usually gotten good service from United personnel. In fact, on my latest flight out of Honolulu, I screwed up my booking, but an United employee made it right for the lowest possible cost to me. Thank you. I’ve been a United frequent flyer for three decades and commiserate with the airline industry’s difficulties. But, Jeff, don’t make things worse by playing bait and switch with your customers on safety. Next time, play your PR video after the episode of “30 Rock.” It will work even better, because more people will be paying attention to the screen then.

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