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EN ROUTE TO CHICAGO — So, here I am aboard United Airlines flight 1141 en route to Chicago for a meeting.  I am using this time to write my Wednesday blog because today’s schedule is a hectic one.  After the meeting, I catch a return flight to Dallas.  I better type fast because the electrical outlet at my upgraded First Class seat does not have power, all the advertising notwithstanding.

It seems as though First Class on United, and a lot of other airlines that use Boeing aircraft, is less than First Class.  Apparently the design gurus at Boeing could not create an electrical system in which all seats which have power access ports get power all the time.  It moves around from row to row, section to section using some strange mysterious formula known only to Boeing engineers, according to the flight attendant.  So the advertisement and flight check in promotions about power in First and Economy Plus classes are apparently bogus.

How classy is that?  OK, I will admit I can be picky, but when you fly as much as I do — and there are a lot of people who fly a whole lot more than me — you would like First Class to be significantly better than a much less expensive coach ticket, especially when I, not my client, am paying the difference.

Which brings me to another advertising/PR fast one by United: media reports that they are upgrading First Class service to re-attract the thousands upon thousands of business travelers who fled to other carriers during the less than smooth merger of flight operations between Continental and United.  Where was my upgraded service when I was given no lemon for my hot tea?  Ah, but the scone was warm, the orange juice was served in a glass and the hot tea was served in a mug.  What more could I ask for?  To be fair, United’s big competitor, the soon-to-be-merged US Air and American Airlines, see First Class as a target to cut costs.  On many of the US Air, now American, flights First Class passengers have to make do with styrofoam and plastic cups and certainly no lemon.  And forget the warm scone.

Former Continental Airlines Chairman and CEO Gordon Bethune who restored that airline to fiscal health in the 1990s, was adamant that First Class should offer those passengers clear value, from the quality of the food, to the friendliness and competence of the service.  Comparing his approach to American, Delta and other airlines that were focused on cutting costs, Bethune quipped, “You can make a pizza so cheap that no one will eat it.”

For the legacy airline executives, I say congratulations.  You have mastered an important lesson from the playbook of political advertising — if you say something enough times, no matter how bogus the claim, people will eventually believe you and come to accept the new, albeit lower, standard of service and reliability in the increasingly unfriendly skies.

Southwest Airlines, by comparison, has never touted their exceptional cabin service, just low fares with friendly people and the ability to help you move around the country for less money than the legacy carriers.  Although today Southwest has moved away from its earlier business model of avoiding flying to the congested, flight-delay prone major airports which allowed it to offer reliable, every day low fares, it is very consistent with its advertising: it does not promise a level of service that it cannot, or chooses not, to deliver.  Even though their on-time performance metrics have declined in recent years, people, business executives and regular travelers alike are still lining up at their gate lobby polls ready to get what they paid for — primarily safe transportation.

So what does this rant have to do with healthcare?  Plenty.  Chief Executives and their Chief Marketing Officers need to carefully think through their advertising and promotional messaging.  Is what you say, or more importantly, what you promise, consistent with what actually happens?

In healthcare, mainly in hospitals, we have all sorts of ethical conflicts and lack of transparency with our pricing and quality of care that can trip up even the best of the advertising copywriters.  So beware that your marketing campaigns do not serve as a trigger for alienating physician and patient confidence.  Do not dumb down your message because you want patients to expect less that you are capable of delivering.

I am returning to Dallas tonight.  I did not get an upgrade to First Class which probably means the electric outlet in my EconomyPlus seat will work.