Fly the Branded Skies

God is my co-pilot

Frontier Airlines tail (photo by P. Alejandro Diaz)

The chief executive and employees of Frontier Airlines are God-fearin’ people. That’s one of the main takeaways from this evening’s episode of “Undercover Boss,” which featured Republic Airways CEO Bryan Bedford praying, listening to employees, praying, having dinner with his family, praying, wearing a ridiculous wig, praying, talking to employees about their faith, and praying.

This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with being a person of faith. But it does suggest appearing on “Undercover Boss” isn’t really as risky as some people say. In fact, it’s probably one of the cushiest PR opportunities out there, letting CEOs be conspicuously magnanimous during a full hour of prime-time network television. Shortly after the episode ended, the Frontier Airlines Web site appeared to crash—perhaps brought down by thousands of travelers seeking out the airline’s “Undercover Fares” sale.

Naturally, as a reality show, “Undercover Boss” is actually heavily scripted and edited. There were a number of moments that stretched credibility, particularly when Bedford appeared ignorant about such matters as turnaround time and the existence of “cross-utilization agents” who do everything from loading baggage to marshaling aircraft to checking in passengers. For a low-cost carrier, turnaround time is one of the metrics executives obsess about. Bedford implies that cleanliness might require more than seven minutes for the cleaning crew. But by the end of the episode he has made no real move to increase that time and it seems unlikely the airline would: planes only make money in the air.

Bedford gets another opportunity for magnanimity when he announces,  at the end of the episode, that the airline will restore the 10 percent pay cut imposed during Frontier’s bankruptcy… in three years. Which means that three years from now, Frontier’s workforce will be back where they were two years ago. (Anyone who knows the history of such promises from airline management would be wary.)

Still, it’s a very entertaining story, and a public relations triumph for Frontier. As the distinguished commentator on popular culture Gawker observed, “[‘Undercover Boss’] is the best deal corporate America’s gotten on CBS since the network dropped that ’60 Minutes’ tobacco story.” In fact, it’s surprising that Frontier was the first airline featured on the show. But rest assured, the next one will get an equally smooth ride.