Location: Kailua, Hawaii, United States

Peter Forman is the author of Wings of Paradise, Hawaii's Incomparable Airlines, a 400 page hardcover available online at .

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Go! vs. H.E.R.O.

If there’s one lesson to learn from the interaction between go! airlines and a Hawaii airline employee group known as HERO, it is that hatred is a bad ingredient in most any enterprise.

HERO came on the scene with legitimate concerns. Evidence strongly suggests that MESA Air Group (Mesa:Nasdaq) created their go! airlines unit with the specific purpose of putting Aloha Airlines out of business and replacing them. Because of the seniority system used in so many airline jobs, the loss of an employee’s airline is pretty much the end of his or her dream career. Evidence also indicates that MESA is using unethical and illegal tactics to achieve its goal. Any wonder why these employees feel strong negative emotions toward the architects of this invasion?

With such inspiration, HERO managed to become a major thorn in the side of CEO Ornstein, because so much of HERO’s efforts were directed specifically at the man. Ornstein cooperated by contradicting himself constantly, and HERO’s website listed these contradictions with embarrassing regularity.

What really irks HERO members, though, is that the story Ornstein is selling to Hawaii’s traveling public, the reason for go!’s existence, is basically untrue. “They'd rather continue to gouge Hawaii,” said Ornstein of go!’s competitors recently in Pacific Business News, “but they'll have to get used to us providing affordable fares." The problem here is that by lowering prices from around $80 to $39 and sometimes even $29, go! is reinforcing in the consumer’s mind that the original interisland fares must have been gouging. Yet what go! is not telling consumers is that it is losing a considerable amount of money with every $29 and $39 fare it sells. Ornstein’s argument appears convincing if you just look at past and present fares, but if one examines the cost of providing interisland flying, the myth becomes apparent. Many travelers want to believe that myth, though, and go! capitalizes on this phenomenon.

HERO’s efforts culminated in a rally beside the state capital. Over a hundred employees showed up during the event, waving their banners and calling out “Don’t Fly Go!” and other slogans. Judging from the response by motorists, many passersby supported the group’s actions. Then someone began passing around a T-shirt and many attendees signed it. Unfortunately, one of the signers used the adjective “Jewish” in his comment. An even bigger mistake, though, came when organizers of the event failed to properly scrutinize the T-shirt for over-the-top comments before it was sent to Ornstein. The hatred many of these people feel towards the recipient of the shirt likely clouded their judgment. Those ill feelings certainly weren’t based on anti-Semitism, though, because a large portion of HERO’s leaders are Jewish themselves.

Nonetheless, HERO made a mistake, they gave Ornstein a tool to use, and he ran with the opportunity. His lawyers managed to intimidate the new www.dontflygo.comwebsite operator to shut the site down at a critical time. The future of HERO is now questionable, which is a shame because they have an important perspective to deliver. If this employee group is to pull itself back together, it must control its negative emotions and reinvent itself with a more positive emphasis.

Hatred is a two-edged sword, though. Those who inspire hatred are seldom successful for long. Frank Lorenzo wins the prize as the most hated airline executive of the past fifty years, and he left behind a financial crater to the tune of billions when he finally went down in flames. Richard Ferris and Stephen Wolf also generated feelings of hatred among their employee groups later in their careers, and both leaders fell short of achieving commendable results during these periods. Powerful negative feelings toward Mesa’s CEO largely stem from the perception that he uses unethical means to achieve his goals and that his goals are brutally self-serving.

Unfortunately for Ornstein, the negative feelings aren’t restricted to employees of his competitors. He is dealing with a revolution at home as 90% of Mesa’s pilots recently gave a vote of “No Confidence” to his management team. The Mesa pilots cited poor operational performance, but the problem is wider than that. These pilots see that the promises made to them are unlikely to be realized. They agreed to work for less because of promises of growth and future prosperity, but growth is slowing and prosperity looks questionable as the airline fails to provide the pilots with the resources they need to take pride in their work and keep the customers satisfied. Moreover, the dreams of many pilots to use a regional airline such as Mesa as a stepping stone to reach a a major airline job have become hollow, as price competition from regionals chip away at both the quantity and quality of jobs with the majors. Most airlines begin with a honeymoon period in which employees are optimistic and hope can be substituted for larger paychecks. Once that hope diminishes, the employees want more pay if they are to be enticed to stick around. Mesa’s honeymoon is over, and rising labor costs will become a significant issue before long.

A most disturbing event took place on November 20, as one of go!’s most outspoken critics lost the front wheel to his truck due to the loosening/removal of that wheel’s lug nuts. If the failure took place 5 minutes later, he would have been on Oahu’s H-3 freeway, cruising at highway speeds, and the truck sat so high on its enormous wheels that it would almost certainly have rolled. That critic of go! is lucky to be alive tonight. I traveled to the scene of the accident and spent an hour speaking with the individual. He convinced me that he had recently tested the lug nut security. We discussed the possibility that a wheel theft was interrupted, and it is not as plausible an explanation as a sabotage theory for a variety of reasons. There is no way that such a single occurrence can be pinned upon go! or one of its sympathizers, but let’s hope this is not the beginning of a series of “accidents” which befall those who speak poorly of go!. That would be a form of hatred far worse than the mailing of a T-shirt with disagreeable names upon it.


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