Running an Airline or Building Cars: The Perils of Legacy


This weekend my family and I toured the factory in Fremont, Calif., where Tesla Motors produces its electric cars. I was enthralled.

Through it all, I couldn’t help but make the airline comparison. Tesla certainly blows away the automotive competition, but they couldn’t have done it without starting from the ground up. Airline upstarts like Virgin America have also blown away their legacy competitors in almost every metric, in large part because they had the luxury of starting from scratch.

Some examples of what sets Tesla apart:

  • We saw a seven-story stamping press Tesla bought in Germany. The manufacturer said it would take one year to dismantle the behemoth machine and move it to California. The Tesla folks said, “Too slow, we’ll figure that out internally.” And it took them just four months.
  • We saw the tour leader balance an entire side-panel of aluminum (the whole length of a car!) on one finger—it’s that lightweight. Yet the Model S is the safest vehicle ever tested by the U.S. government, in several cases breaking testing machines when trying to reach the limits of the car’s chassis.
  • We saw workers hand-polishing metal pieces with care, as the tour guide shared the company narrative about how the cars are works of art that require real craftsmanship. Those polishing seemed to actually believe the narrative.

But more than specifics, there was an air of pride and excellence that something special was going on there—that as a collective, they were achieving the unachievable because they were willing to think outside the box and give it their all.

Here’s where I got a little sad for the traditional auto manufacturers. And the legacy airlines.

We were witnessing all this in a building that had been sold to Tesla in 2010 by NUMMI, a joint venture of Toyota and General Motors that failed.

NUMMI employees hated working in that building, so the first thing Tesla did was paint the place with white, gray and red epoxy, top to bottom. They added beautiful rest areas and showers, because they found many workers rode their bikes to work. They offered free and healthy snacks and drinks. They’re planning a huge vegetable garden where workers can take home what they grow.

Tesla’s focus on employees, technology, and capitalization/investment has allowed them to build a product that is universally agreed upon to be extraordinary. And which means they are able to grow despite no traditional marketing, just word of mouth. As you can tell, it works—I’m already an evangelist.

Yesterday, just as I was contemplating the sad correlation between the auto and airline industries, I read this remarkable story about a former United Global Services flier and how Virgin America stole his heart and loyalty.

Perhaps the ultimate challenge is not to create a groundbreaking product. The ultimate challenge is to create this within the confines of a legacy infrastructure, culture and workforce.

Photo: Flickr/Maurizio Pesce

Santa’s 747

IMG_12752014 threw some major personal challenges my way, and by the time I got to the finish line this December, I was just plain beat. I gave myself a rest, and, right on cue, an experience came my way that was pretty magical and a reminder of the wonder of travel and how lucky I am to do the work I do. The big surprise was that it was wrapped in United Airlines packaging.

Here’s my account of the best flight of the year, an article that appeared earlier this month on

Warm wishes for very a happy holiday.

Photo: Nancy Branka

Chengdu and Chicago?

8720092834_d440bbc958_zHuh? you may wonder from the headline. Well, I’m catching up on posts about my trip on United’s inaugural flight from SFO to Chengdu, China:

My piece on Chengdu and whether it compares to Chicago went up on SFGate yesterday. You can check it out here to learn about my impressions of the Sichuan province’s capital. (Spoiler alert: Chicago and Chengdu don’t compare!)

Also, a post about my love for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is on TravelSkills, here.

Photo: Flickr/Paul Wolneykien

Why I Bought Melatonin Today

IMG_0349Today I bought a bottle of melatonin. It’s a grape-flavored bottle of hope. Getting a good night’s sleep has become increasingly elusive for me, despite observing best practices. Add travel to the mix—including crossing the dateline a few times—and my trip to The Vitamin Shoppe to talk with a sales clerk about melatonin dosage was long overdue.

Earlier this month, I flew on a United 787 from San Francisco to Chengdu, China, and the BusinessFirst seat could not have been more comfortable, perfectly conducive to getting a good deal of sleep. (I’m a hardy traveler and pride myself on having flown in economy from SFO to Delhi, curled up against the wall, with nary a complaint. Lie-flat is a luxury to be savored.)

There’s more to sleep on planes than the seat, though. There’s strategy: When and for how long? Aided by wine, Ambien or au natural? On this flight from SFO to Chengdu, I took my cues from Olivier, my seatmate. We’d had a long conversation, so I knew he flies to Chengdu (and Asia) frequently—a jet lag master. When I saw it was lights out for him, I put on my eye mask and pulled up the duvet. I only slept a couple of hours at most (as he did), but I wanted to make sure I was tired when we landed that evening, so I could get to sleep the first night in the hotel. I noticed others waited until later in the flight and slept longer, and I wondered if that was a better or worse strategy.

On the way back, I slept a good six hours and arrived feeling refreshed at 8 a.m. in San Francisco. It helps to be exhausted from a trip, and I find I usually sleep better on the way home. I experienced no jet lag, despite staying up into the wee hours that night on return.

What got me thinking about melatonin was when Olivier suggested I begin taking it two days before leaving Chengdu to prevent the west-to-east jet lag. Of course I had not brought any with me to Chengdu, and to purchase it there would have been a major project. But the conversation reminded me that melatonin may help with my nonplane sleep issues—at home and in hotels. While in Chengdu, I did not sleep well, despite staying in one of the most lovely and comfortable rooms ever. And I notice I toss and turn in most hotels, even without a time zone change, as well as in my own bed.

I’m pinning a lot of hope on my little purple bottle, but suspect it will not work major miracles, just minor. Do you use a sleep aid when you travel? And if you have sleep strategies for flights or jet lag advice, please share in the comments.

(Photo: Nancy Branka)

The Stranger in the Next Seat: Rock-Star or Bore?

80531426_4f2b17ed88_oLast week I sat in the San Francisco Chinese consulate office amid a large crowd, and I did something unusual. I asked the man next to me a question. Serendipity struck: He was a United Airlines flight attendant and I was there on United business, too, for an upcoming trip. For the next hour we chatted, and I learned more interesting information in that hour about a flight attendant’s life and his airline than I had in the previous year. Before I knew it, my number was called and I headed to Window #8 to apply for my visa.

This led me to wonder how many opportunities I may have missed with extraordinary strangers sitting right next to me. Nowhere could that be more true than in travel.

As an introvert, I tend to keep to myself. My conversation is often with a book, not the person in the aisle seat. But I’m surprised at how often a random conversation can turn into something extremely useful. On a recent trip, I met the most interesting seatmate ever, and he gave me invaluable tips on how my son could craft an engineering degree that would jumpstart a career. Didn’t expect that when I boarded.

My seatmate strategy is to notice clues that we may have something in common (e.g. reading material), signs the person may be open to conversation (body language), and that he/she has some social acumen (will be able to pick up signals when it’s time to stop talking). It’s good to have a couple of openers at the ready (the classic: Are you starting a trip or coming home?), as well as a closer (Well, I need to get some work done). The key is to maximize the chance of talking with a rock-star, and minimize the risk of talking with a total bore.

So I’m interested in being a little more social on the road. How about you? Do you talk to seatmates when you travel? And if so, what strategies do you use to keep it “safe”?

Photo Credit: Flickr/Doug