By Joe Brancatelli
September 25, 2013 --The disconnect between U.S. airlines and the fliers they purport to serve was never so evident as it was last Friday, when delusional corporate hubris came face to face with the reality of the nation's unfriendly skies.

From global headquarters in Chicago, United Airlines, the world's largest carrier, triumphantly announced the revival of its hoary, if memorable and iconic, advertising tag line: "Fly the friendly skies." "Our new brand campaign expresses the customer focus of all of United's investments," crowed United senior vice president Tom O'Toole.

Reality struck back just a few hours later when the Associated Press posted a story explaining that United Express, the largest carrier in Durango, Colorado, was forced to apologize to the community for awful commuter service and its inability to run flights on-time or at all. "We know we hurt you in 2013," admitted senior manager Alicia Gabriel.

Few of us who fly need to be reminded about how poorly run United Airlines and its United Express commuter operation have been both before and after their 2010 merger with Continental Airlines. So far this year, United (NYSE: UAL) has finished dead last or tied for worst among the nation's largest carriers in the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, the J.D. Power study, and the Annual Quality Rating, a mash-up of government statistics compiled by researchers at Purdue University and Wichita State University.

Given the realities of the carrier's unfriendly skies, what could have possibly motivated United and its advertising agency, McGarryBowen, to dredge up the "friendly skies" line, a catchphrase first created by Leo Burnett in the 1960s and used for more than 30 years, long after the airline stopped being friendly or even civil?

"United marketing executives believed the line best reflected the genuine progress the carrier has made the past couple of years in introducing a lot of flier-friendly amenities," wrote my colleague Lewis Lazare in Monday's Chicago Business Journal. Lazare went on to quote Mark Krolick, United's managing director for brand and advertising, explaining that the carrier's executives consider it to be "the world's leading airline."

Even granting the poetic license we assume all advertising takes, United's new campaign is clueless and ridiculous. "Orchestra" is perplexing given that United mangled a musician's instrument several years ago and he turned the experience into a music video that has been viewed more than 13 million times. "Built Around You" is ineffectual because United is hardly a leader in the in-flight amenities it highlights. And while "Taxi" cleverly reminds you of United's global reach, it's not as if other carriers can't get you to the same destinations.

In fact, the only thing a friendly skies campaign does for United now is reinforce the airline's increasing detachment from its own shortcomings. Whenever a new survey of customer attitudes appears and United finishes last, the carrier's spokespeople dismiss it because they claim it doesn't reflect the airline's current improvement. As the Chicago Business Journal story points out, United actually believe it's a better airline than the provable facts and statistics show.

You also run into that attitude whenever you speak to United's C-suite executives. Tell them about the airline's operational problems and they blame the exigencies of a difficult merger. Talk about the decidedly unfriendly attitude of some of United's customer-facing personnel and you are told that they are being retrained. Detail United's failure to satisfy its most loyal, most profitable fliers and you are told that too many elite United MileagePlus customers were "over-entitled." United chief executive Jeff Smisek boasts about saving a few dollars by serving split cashews rather than whole nuts. And I was dismissed by a top United executive as I was explaining the airline's weaknesses from the business traveler's point of view with a curt, "I can't listen to any more of this. It's depressing."

United's current case of delusional hubris might be extreme, but it is not unique or even new. I've railed about the disconnect between airlines' opinions of themselves and how business travelers view them for decades. Just a few weeks ago, the respected travel blogger Gary Leff dissected airline advertising. And is JetBlue Airways' clever new advertising, depicting business travelers as pigeons, really any better than last decade's Delta Air Lines spots that cast us as worker bees?

In the day-to-day battle of life on the road, United's friendly skies campaign is already dead on arrival. Within minutes of the spots' appearance on-line, unhappy United fliers were dissing them on bulletin boards. Frequent-flying bloggers like David Danto have expressed their outrage. And top-tier United elites have already absorbed the insults and shrugged them off. "If I didn't have so much invested in my relationship with United, coupled with a dearth of viable alternatives, I would be looking for another horse to ride," one told me yesterday my via email.

But watch what happens around United ticket counters and airport gates in the next couple of weeks. Infrequent fliers swayed by "Rhapsody in Blue"--the Gershwin tune that United has used in advertising since 1987--and cosseted by the Matt Damon voiceovers won't be happy when the reality of United's unfriendly skies hits them with an unexpected delay, an untimely cancellation, a lost bag or a surly flight attendant.

"Only bad things happen when a consumer-products company promises something in a national ad buy and then doesn't deliver," one top advertising executive told me after screening the United spots at my request. "No airline delivers on friendly skies today. The smart ones wouldn't even promise it."

ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.