An open Letter to Jeffery A. Smisek, President United Airlines
If you were dictator of the world, or a village, or inside your house, the main perk is that you hold everyone else hostage, strapped to a post. They listen to you. You offer comfort in an uncertain, dangerous world. Still, the larger reality is people listen not because they want to; but because they have no real choice. Corporations are built on the dictator’s model of giving comfort. If you fly United Airlines in the United States, remember they’ve got you where they want you. They have your undivided attention.
I’ve been spoiled flying in Asia. The number and length of announcements are relatively limited and short. Even repeated in a couple of languages they are brief. In America, when you board your flight, you find that you’ve entered George Orwell’s Room 101. I speak from recent experience on a United Airlines flight. There were very long announcements about what you can and cannot do, the penalties involved, the commands of what you must do if you occupy an exit seat. It was like being in school. Reform school. With a little editing, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine their test audience had been passengers on rendition flights that American Intel agencies operate.
But the best form of torture was a slick corporate video starring Mr. Smisek, the President of United Airlines, who looked like the understudy host on a Reality TV show, giving comfort—yes, I choose that word carefully—to all of the passengers about the recent merger with Continental Airlines. He was worried about us. Thought we were confused and scared about the merger. He must have truly believed that every United Airline flight contained a planeload of passengers frightened about the meaning of clause 18 in the Confidentiality Agreement. His mission, in the video, was to list all of the benefits, hopes, and plans for such a transaction for shareholders, bankers, the board of directors and the President’s best friends. The funny thing, after the video, I didn’t feel any better knowing about how this merger was going to improve my life.
This is a plea from the heart, Mr. Smisek, most of us don’t really need your reassurance about the merger plans. We understand it was likely a highly frightening experience for you like waking up with your hair on fire. That video made us passengers a little sad. But, then as a Harvard law graduate, and highly paid executive who has worked his way up the ranks, we do understand only a fool would forgo the chance to go directly to his customers about the merger. Populism shouldn’t be restricted to politicians. You are clearly a visionary to see beyond the narrow confines of the boardroom. We salute you for thinking of us. And respect how important the merger has been in your life. We are happy for you. But we are just fine, in so far as we have no legroom or elbowroom, to stay inside our cone of total ignorance about the defining moment of your life.
Let us watch the video, listen to music, and wish that even a meager meal of prison food might have been served rather than robbing the food budget to make the video. But that’s probably just me whining. We are hungry strapped in small chairs like infants. And you, like big daddy, come to comfort us about a corporate video. Excuse me, sir, but in coach class no one around me looked like they were being kept awake at night worrying about the long-term implications of the merger. As I said, earlier, it could have just been me who wasn’t worried.
Believe me, we don’t have a dog in your corporate rat race. Most of the people on the flight were worried about keeping a job, paying their mortgage, the weather in Denver or given the chronic delays, making our connecting flight. In a perfect world, our priorities would be your priorities. But we don’t live in a perfect world.
I am glad that you had a chance for closure for the hellish months in merger hell. It took guts for you to stand in front of that camera and not to spill the beans over how you fought for days against overwhelming odds to secure the best the corporate perks clauses, gold parachute provisions, and stock options for senior executive sub-clauses. We can understand how these battles must have haunted you during your waking and sleeping hours for months. Shell shock isn’t limited to soldiers. Corporate executives also bleed. Sir, you have our sympathy. Everyone on my flight seemed to appreciate the real suffering you must have endured. There is no other explanation as to why you would have forced a captive audience to watch such a heart felt video about such an interesting, compelling and dramatic subject as a corporate merger.
No doubt there is a film to be made based on the anguish you experienced during the merger. With a film, you see, we have a choice whether to see it or not. But on your airline, sir, we have no choice, our seats are in the upright and locked position, we have our seat belts on, we can’t walk out of the cinema and scream: I don’t fucking care about your merger. Sir, please read George Orwell’s 1984 and ask yourself whether part of the merger was to recreate Room 101 on every bleeding United Airline flight in America. Try this: put your video on YouTube and let those who need comfort find it on their own. Of course, that would give passengers a choice. So I ask what is it that makes you wish to rob us of choice?
I have found an answer: acting.
You may have caught the acting bug in your Princeton or Harvard days. That’s okay, too. Some of my friends are actors. But, by and large, they have to earn their audience’s attention. They have no real ability to leap out at them around 35,000 feet and force them to watch their performance. Should you decide to make future in house videos, here are a few suggestions:
(1) Music. You really need to set the mood with an original score. I don’t have Lady Ga Ga’s phone number but I am certain one of your bankers must have it. Ask him.
(2) Set designer. Hollywood understands that people do look at the background of shot. Throw in a vase of flowers, a Van Gough reproduction (Sunflowers are nice and comforting), and a grand piano (Bach is nice, too). Anything but the interior of a fucking corporate office.
(3) Costume and makeup. You looked like a zombie from one of those vampire movies that are all the rage in your country. Maybe you wanted us to feel sorry for you. But makeup is needed. Ask your wife. Hire her as a consultant, if you haven’t already done so. Get a suit that doesn’t make you look like an undertaker.
(4) Script. Sir, was your script written by one of your lawyers who finished in the bottom half of his/her class? There was no dialogue. No plot. No character development. No hint of a story line. Just a lot of description, and that is no way to treat a captive audience. We deserved more.
(5) Director. I don’t mean board of directors. I mean someone who directs people in front of a camera. Not the cameraman, the guy on the boom, or the guy with the sound equipment. The director might have saved your performance. But then again probably not.
(6) Acting coach. Acting looks easy. But it is hard. And sir, I hope that this merger really works out for you because you should you lose your day job and that gold parachute fails to open, don’t make plans to go into acting. I know that is a tough thing to say, and you are still a little fragile at having been beaten up by a room full of lawyers for days on end, but someone needs to speak the truth.
If it isn’t possible to pay frequent flier points not to watch your in house video, I’d suggest as your post-merger plan, that you include this option (or slap it on YouTube). Many of your passengers would be grateful and off loading that liability would look good on your balance sheet. And when your balance sheet looks good, you look good. As a former captive, I harbor no grudge, no permanent mental pain, loss of vision or hearing that I can’t handle, and really hope that someone in your office will give you a big hug and tell you that everything will be okay.