Airline
Madness
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2021 -- Today is one of those days when I'm forced to decide if being a business travel journalist for approximately forever is good for my mental health.

I mean, who else in the world remembers Britt Airways or Independence Air--or Jeff Smisek, a lawyer who Peter Principled his way to the top of United Airlines and almost destroyed it? (He did destroy it, but it's still flying, unlike some other carriers I'll mention this week ...)

I think it's a sign of mental illness that I remember these dusty corners of business travel history. On the other hand, I swear to you these relics of our past really are relevant today.

In fact, we may all be descending into madness, cursed to live the same stupid travel scenarios over and over and over again because airline executives make the same stupid decisions over and over and over again.

AS GOD WAS HIS WITNESS ...
For example, just as I was pushing last week's Friday newsletter into your inbox, the Transportation Department announced it was fining United Airlines $1.9 million for violating tarmac-hold rules. You remember tarmac-hold rules, the regulations that the DOT promulgated a decade ago at the height of the "passenger rights" movement?

Airlines are not supposed to hold you hostage on a grounded aircraft for more than three hours (four hours internationally). The rules--and the fines that accompany them--were imposed after a Continental Airlines commuter carrier imprisoned passengers overnight on a regional jet in Rochester, Minnesota.

The aforementioned Smisek was running Continental Airlines at the time and he was infuriated that the DOT intervened on behalf of flyers. He called the new rules and the attendant fines--up to $27,500 per passenger--"stupid" and "inane." But Smisek, whose propensity for blowhard pronouncements was legendary, went further.

"The government, by God, says, 'We're going to fine you $27,500,' " he publicly thundered. "Here's what we're going to do. We're going to cancel the flight ... In the face of a fine like that, we're going to cancel a lot of flights."

Except Smisek didn't. As I explained several months later, Continental scrupulously obeyed DOT rules and did not cancel flights to do it.

Thanks to the woebegone United-Continental merger, Smisek found himself atop the new entity and proceeded to make an epic mess of things. He was unceremoniously ousted in a corruption scandal in September, 2015, and hastily replaced by Oscar Munoz, who came from a freight railroad.

For all his kinder, gentler rhetoric, Munoz was a Smisek-level disaster at United. He presided over the notorious David Dao incident and, at least initially, defended the passenger's beating and removal from the flight. And, unbeknownst to us, he apparently reversed whatever tarmac-hold-avoiding procedures that Smisek had installed.

According to the DOT filing and consent order supporting last week's $1.9 million fine, United began violating tarmac-hold regulations in December, 2015, just months after Smisek's departure. The agency tagged 25 specific instances up to February where flyers were held hostage on a tarmac for longer than allowed. It also dismissed United's claims that it really, truly, honestly, had passengers' best interests at heart.

Of course, DOT fines are in the eye of the beholder, so, practically, the $1.9 million fine is $950,000. The DOT credited United for $750,000 in compensation paid to the flyers held hostage. Another $200,000 was forgiven because United claims that's what it spent to improve its procedures to avoid long tarmac holds.

DUMB AND DUMBER TO
Meanwhile, in 2005 I dubbed Independence Air the dumbest airline in American history. And why not? Independence burned through appalling amounts of cash and stockholder equity in a doomed attempt to convert a regional carrier called Atlantic Coast into an independent airline.

But airline executives never learn, so behold the Frankenstein-like reanimation of recently deceased ExpressJet into Aha!, a goofy leisure carrier slated to launch in October from a hub in Reno, Nevada.

Before we can even explain Aha!, you must understand ExpressJet's wacky provenance. Created by a shotgun wedding of regional carriers--Britt of Indiana, Bar Harbor of Maine, Rocky Mountain Airways of Denver and Provincetown-Boston Airlines--ExpressJet began flying as Continental Express in 1987. A one-time Delta Air Lines regional carrier (Atlantic Southeast aka ASA) was added in 2011. ExpressJet also briefly and disastrously operated an independent branded airline--Anyone besides me remember XJet?--that flew in 2007 and 2008.

When its long relationship with Continental and United definitively ended last year, ExpressJet faced exactly the same dilemma faced by Atlantic Coast. It had a fleet of 50-seat regional jets, but no brand name, no customer equity--and no big-name carrier for which to fly. Rather than learn the lesson of the Independence fiasco, cut its losses and sell off its remaining assets, ExpressJet is repeating exactly the same mistake Atlantic Coast made back in 2005.

Hence Aha!, which is swiping its name and general color scheme from AHA, a flavored sparkling water launched last year by the Coca-Cola Company. ExpressJet says that the name stands for Airline-Hotel-Adventure but does not explain the exclamation point. Aha!, the airline, will launch October 24 from Reno and within three weeks have nonstops to Pasco/TriCities (PSC), Washington; Bakersfield (BFL), Eureka/Arcata (ACV), Ontario (ONT) and Fresno (FAT), California; and Medford (MFR), Eugene (EUG) and Redmond (RDM), Oregon.

The planes--50-seat Embraer ERJ145s--will be the same ones ExpressJet flew most recently under the United Express moniker. Its inspiration is Allegiant Air, which tries to sell you lodging and attractions as well as flights. The service concept--deceptively low base fares with fees for everything from bags to seat assignments--is in line with Avelo and Breeze, this year's other start-ups. And the claim is the same: We're flying passengers nonstop between underserved destinations.

Will it work? Economics say no--both Avelo and Breeze have already abandoned routes and/or slashed capacity--and history is not on the side of the Aha! reanimation strategy.

But since when have airlines listened to economics or history? That's the stuff of madmen columnists and business travelers.