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Frontier Airs Its Issues on Prime-Time TV. Smart Idea

I've always thought of CBS' Undercover Boss as a "guilty pleasure" kind of show that makes you feel warm and fuzzy even though no serious issues are addressed. This week was Republic Airways CEO Bryan Bedford's turn to try working on the front line at Republic's Frontier subsidiary and I was eagerly awaiting our favorite industry's turn in the spotlight. For once, to my surprise, I actually thought that some of the big issues like branding and pay cuts were addressed. (Note: BNET is owned by CBS, the network which airs Undercover Boss)

Ever since Frontier was purchased by Republic, the question about how to keep the brand strong has hung over the airline. Frontier always had a very loyal group of workers that kept the airline beloved as Denver's hometown carrier. When Indianapolis-based Republic took over with its highly religious culture and some of the previous management team left (including well-liked president Sean Menke), a lot of people became very nervous.

Once Republic made the decision to standardize around the Frontier name and brand, I think it was a relief to many, but not everything was rosy. Employees had taken a 10 percent paycut and the future was still unclear. With that background, it made perfect sense for Bryan Bedford to go undercover. It was an opportunity to hammer home some of the most important things in his mind and also to just get to know more about Frontier, which is still a relatively new acquisition.

The biggest issue for Bryan seemed to revolve around the brand promise. Was Frontier living up to its brand? Some of the jobs he did seemed clearly for their TV value. (Who doesn't want to see a CEO emptying crap from an airplane lav?) But he did get into what seems to have been a good discussion about the Frontier brand with Tui, a flight attendant who demonstrated more patience with Bryan delaying a flight than anyone I could ever imagine.

In the end, Bryan's decision to establish a brand committee with Tui at the head seems like a good idea to help shepherd the brand vision. The idea of having a brand evangelist in the airline to help employees better understand and support the brand is a good idea. Whether or not it actually gets any traction is a whole different question.

Another issue that came up more than once was the issue of the 10 percent pay cut. Bryan seemed surprised when he encountered so many employees struggling to make ends meet, but I can't imagine he actually was. Everyone knows that airline employees have taken massive cuts over the years and working at a low cost carrier like Frontier means wages are going to be even lower. That shouldn't surprise anyone, least of all the big boss.

But the level of unhappiness that seemed directly tied to the 10 percent cut really stuck with Bryan. In the end, he made a pledge to restore that 10 percent over the next three years. That shocked me more than anything, because while it's common to see individual employees rewarded on every episode of Undercover Boss, it's rare to actually see something that impacts the whole company like this.

Of course, it's hard to know how much of this is real and how much is just Hollywood magic. We don't know how much Frontier was involved with the planning of this. Had the airline already planned to restore the 10 percent cut and thought this would be the perfect vehicle to make that happen? It wouldn't surprise me at all. After all, Frontier and Bryan come out of this looking really good, as do all the companies that take part in this show. But while I have no doubt that there's a high level of orchestration here, I do think that the end result is still a good one for the airline. It makes employees feel better about their company and it does give Bryan an opportunity to really see more about his newest acquisition.

I think about what other airlines might be able to do this and I come up with blanks. At an airline like Southwest or JetBlue, the front line knows the CEOs way too well. They would never be able to go undercover. At a place like United with Chairman Glenn Tilton, there's no way in hell you could convince him to leave his cushy office to mingle down below. With Bryan, it was a more unique opportunity since he could embed himself at Frontier, where a lot of people probably still don't know him by face yet.

I'm always suspicious about how much of this is real versus staged, but it does make for interesting television, every once in awhile. Hopefully it's more than just a good fictional show in this case and there actually are some greater issues addressed in the long run. Regardless, this was one long positive commercial for Frontier, so it can't come out worse no matter what. That's the one thing we know for sure.


Photo via Flickr user randomduck/CC 2.0
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