Frontier Airline's Skies Get a Lot Friendlier on 'Undercover Boss'

Frontier CEO Bryan Bedford
Frontier CEO Bryan Bedford

Last night's episode of Undercover Boss had all the elements that fans of the hit CBS (CBS) show have come to expect: a clueless boss, heroic employees and poop. It also had an unexpectedly happy ending that would have made Oprah proud -- every employee got a raise.

Frontier Airlines' (RJET) Bryan Bedford, the latest CEO star of the program, seems like a nice enough guy. He's deeply religious because of the tragic death of his younger sister when he was a boy. Ever the trooper, Bedford gamely models a ridiculous looking toupee for his wife and eight children that made him look like a game-show host from the 1970s. The cover story used on the unsuspecting low-level workers -- that they're helping judge a reality show -- is wearing thin. Some of these people are bound to get wise to this ruse from watching previous episodes.

Not Enough Time, Too Much Heat

Bedford, like his predecessors, just can't walk and chew gum at the same time. Sue on the Aircraft Appearance Team cleans circles around him and chides him -- or rather his alter ego Richard Jacobs -- for moving too slowly in getting aircraft ready in the seven minutes allotted. "It's been a long time since I have had anybody yell at me the way that Sue has yelled at me," he says. Suddenly, a eureka moment hits him when he realizes that seven minutes is not enough time to clean a plane.

After working with Valerie in Oklahoma City, Bedford realizes that it's hard to labor outside in the triple-digit heat Oklahoma heat loading baggage and directing planes, and then be able to adequately serve customers at the terminal inside. Body odor is bound to be an issue. Neither of these insights is particularly earth-shattering.

Flight attendant Tui chastises the boss for being too chatty with customers and taking too long to bring passengers their drinks. The levity in the episode came from Hector, who tried to teach the CEO the finer points of emptying aircraft lavatories. He was the most amusing employee featured on the program yet, pointing out that the airline would get fined for any "mistake" that Bedford let hit the ground.

The CEO as Genie

Of course, some of these employees had heartbreaking stories. Sue's son was murdered at the age of 21. Valerie is a single mom who worked with underprivileged through her church. Tui, a father of seven, said he's "barely making ends meet." Hector complained about the pay cuts as well.

When Bedford revealed his identity at the end of the show, he turned into a CEO genie, granting wishes to his underlings. Sue's late son had a plane named in his honor. Bedford also sent her on a cruise with her granddaughter. Valerie got $10,000 for the charity of her choice. Hector got a free week's vacation, while Tui got a $20,000 college scholarship for his children. He also was named to head a new employee morale committee. The topper was when Bedford announced he was restoring the workforce's pay cuts over the next three years.

One of my biggest complaints with the show is that the "lessons" CEOs learn during their missions are either things that they should have known or probably already knew. Don't you think that passengers would have complained about dirty planes or sweaty gate agents? Moreover, though Bedford seemed moved by the plight of his employees, their anxiety is hardly shocking.

Having a Hard Time

As my colleague Bruce Watson pointed out last week , the recent history of Frontier Airlines has been turbulent. In May 2008, Frontier's 5,500 workers accepted voluntary pay cuts to help the company recover from bankruptcy. As it emerged from bankruptcy, Frontier negotiated further employee concessions. Workers are probably further unnerved by the decision to merger Frontier's parent Republic Airways Holdings and corporate sibling Midwest under the Frontier name.

Sponsored Links

Bedford, who has more than 22 years experience in the regional airline industry, seems shocked that many of his employees are having a hard time. At one point he says -- with the utmost sincerity -- that "it is just amazing how many people we have who are the primary wage earner."

Does Bedford, whose 2009 compensation was $1.35 million, not watch TV, read a newspaper or get out much?

Then there's the restored pay. Frontier made a similar move after the 9/11 terrorist attacks decimated the industry. But what would happen if oil prices rise and airlines get squeezed again? What about the impact of the proposed Southwest (LUV)-AirTran (AAI) merger? If profits go south at Frontier, odds are good that the employees may see their pay cut again because it's happened before.