Airlines' Attack on Big Oil Can't Be Taken Seriously

An Ad Age Editorial

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When we first received word of airline CEOs asking their customers for help against those rapacious oil speculators, we couldn't help but think of Jack Nicholson's line in "As Good As It Gets": "Go sell crazy someplace else. We're all full up here."

Forgive us if we sound a bit irreverent, but it's hard to take the airlines seriously when they try to play the pity card with consumers, which is exactly what happened when the CEOs of 12 major airlines asked frequent fliers to help them in the fight to restrict oil speculation.

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, the average customer probably doesn't know what an oil speculation is, so the airlines can paint it as some shadowy world where bad guys jack up the price of fuel while laughing maniacally, with little care for the far-reaching havoc they cause. And oh, how bad it is. According to the e-mail signed by the CEOs, "ultra-expensive fuel means thousands of lost jobs and severe reductions in air service to both large and small communities. To the broader economy, oil prices mean slower activity and widespread pain." (Last week, Delta Air Lines showed off its deep concern about high fuel prices by offering select New York City customers free helicopter rides from Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport.)

The fact is, the average consumer has never met an oil speculator. And as bad as gas prices are, most people probably don't have a vivid story about the time Exxon got them stuck in Denver or the time Mobil lost all the luggage and ruined the family vacation.

To the average flier, this isn't a case of the boy who cried wolf; it's a case of the wolf who cried wolf.

Even putting aside the stories of customer abuse and high prices, the airline industry has a long history of being unable to climb into the black during the best of times. It has also had the added luxury of government subsidies and government bailouts. Maybe the oil companies would like to start a PR push reminding consumers about all of those tax dollars spent to prop up businesses that repeatedly fail.

Big Oil might not be anyone's idea of the good guy, but perhaps the airlines should try to figure out what exactly the oil industry does right when it comes to turning a profit. Or maybe the airlines can take a cue from the movie "Airplane" and realize this actually might be the right week to quit sniffing glue.
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