Read the New Column.
Same as the Old Column.
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 5, 2019 -- When you have written about business travel as long as I have--inadvertently in 1976 and with malice aforethought since the mid-1980s--you should always question if you have anything new to contribute. There's no value pushing nouns against verbs repeatedly without offering a new insight or a new solution.

Then there's a week like this and you realize you don't need to say anything new because airlines never do anything new. They do the same thing over and over, so I can write (okay, crib from Pete Townshend) the same thing over and over.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Won't get fooled again.

In case you've been diverted by the lousy weather and a week of delays, cancellations and unseasonably early snows and rains, allow me to bring you up to speed:
      United Airlines said today that president Scott Kirby will take over as chief executive officer in May, kicking current CEO Oscar Munoz up to the board room as executive chairman.
      Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson this week abruptly called off his deal to sell a 31 percent stake to Air France/KLM and claims he'll retain control of the carrier.

Um, okay. Sure. Whatever. Smile and grin at the change all around. Pete Townshend warned us in 1971. New boss. Old boss. Don't get fooled again.

The Virgin matter is much less important, but much more compelling and revelatory, so let's do that one first.

Branson has always talked a big game in travel and delivered precious little. Save for Virgin Australia, which is out of his control, his international airlines all folded. His hotel chain has never amounted to much. His British trains were often reviled and literally will be run off the rails forever this weekend. Branson passed on funding JetBlue, then spent years trying to launch a competitor. Virgin America eventually got into the skies. But he sold it off to Alaska Airlines, then whined publicly when Alaska didn't pay him to continue to license the Virgin name.

For all the sound and fury signifying hubris, Branson's commercial aviation influence has centered on Virgin Atlantic, a mostly transatlantic carrier originally conceived by someone else. Virgin Atlantic's track record has been decidedly mixed--premium class passengers liked it, investors not so much--and it was fading into irrelevance by 2012. That's when Delta Air Lines scooped up Singapore Airlines' 49 percent share for a fraction of what the Asian carrier has foolishly paid.

Delta saved Virgin Atlantic by installing its own managers, cleaning up the balance sheet, reorganizing operations and essentially turning Virgin into Delta's vassal. Virgin filled a hole in Delta's operations at London/Heathrow, but Branson himself became a carbuncle.

Branson tacitly admitted as much in 2017 when he agreed to sell a further 31 percent of Virgin Atlantic to Air France/KLM, Delta's joint-venture, code-share and SkyTeam Alliance partner. That would have left Branson with just 20 percent of Virgin Atlantic and official irrelevance to go with his operational irrelevance.

The dissolution of the deal this week would seem to change the game. But it doesn't. Delta, the new/old boss, remains firmly in command, not Branson. In confirming the end of the $284 million purchase, Air France/KLM pointed out that Delta's governance and management changes at Virgin made buying in unnecessary. In other words, why buy what your partner already controls? As for Branson remaining majority owner with his 51 percent stake, meet the new/old boss. Branson hasn't mattered at Virgin Atlantic for years. He won't matter now, either. Virgin Atlantic is Delta. Branson is a sock puppet they roll out for a photo op when a new destination is launched.

Over at United, the best word we could apply to the Munoz-to-Kirby transition is "expected." It was pre-ordained from the summer day in 2016 that Kirby, ignominiously fired by American Airlines after years of playing Tonto to American chief executive Doug Parker, was immediately scooped up by United.

Kirby is a bean-counter, a numbers guy who cut his teeth at America West and US Airways when those airlines excelled at making offensive product cuts while chasing pennies. United hasn't improved with Kirby as president while Parker has continued to dismantle and destroy American.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. Same as the old boss over at the other place. Don't get fooled again.

Munoz's dispatch to the executive chairmanship is meaningless. He was hired in haste in 2015 after the dreadful Smisek era crashed and burned in a bribery scandal. He knew nothing of airlines. He promptly fell ill and returned in 2016 to botch the launch of Polaris, an idea hatched in the Smisek era. Even now, more than three years later, little more than half of United's fleet has the "new" Polaris seat. Only five of nine planned Polaris Lounges have opened. Along the way, Polaris service has been repeatedly slashed. And United is still the airline living down its egregious service failures and the era-defining David Dao incident.

Kirby, the new boss, is Smisek in a slightly more accessible and likeable package. But he's driven by numbers--and only the numbers. He has no interest in being great--and won't even allow United to be good unless he can prove being good enough moves the numbers more than being bad.

Meet the new bosses. Same as the old bosses. We know what's coming because we know what they've served up before. The names change, the deck chairs and C-suite corner offices are rearranged, but the contempt for customers remains.

Flash? Branson has plenty of it. Substance? It's not his call anymore. Empathy? Munoz claimed to have it. Substance? Well, if you consider the occasional stroopwafel and Illy coffee substance, meet the old boss. Minimum standards? Kirby, the newest new boss, says the numbers prove it's not worth it.

Damn that Pete Townshend. I'm too old for new boss/old boss/won't get fooled again. And again. And again. And again.

I really want to get to the redemption and Let My Love Open the Door.

When do we get the good stuff? The release from misery. And the four-leaf clovers?