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 The Brancatelli File

joe FRESH AND PITHY

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

January 16, 2003 -- Life, family and business has intervened in what is normally a downtime for me and I've flown about 25,000 miles since Christmas Day. I've had to mix and match airlines, routes and hubs, crisscross the nation on very short notice and fly without the time to think strategically.

That's the down side. The up side: Some fresh perspective on life on the road. Reinforcement of long-held views. And a few pithy observations about where we are right now when it comes to airlines and airports.

Here's what I've scribbled down lately on little sheets of paper filched from various hotel nightstands:

I have great admiration for the line employees of the Transportation Security Administration. Every single one that I have come in contact with at a security station has been polite and professional. Each has done his or her job cheerfully, efficiently and with a surprising sense of humor and irony. They all have an unfailing sense of mission and a remarkable esprit de corps. But I can live without those red-jacketed TSA supervisors, who all seem to enjoy bullying passengers and humiliating the screeners who work for them.

Now that random, at-the-gate security checks have largely disappeared, isn't it also time for the TSA to allow airport lockers to reopen? Since the primary checkpoints are now all federalized, aren't we sure no bombs are getting through? Allowing lockers inside the sterile areas to reopen would go a long way to humanizing the airport experience again.

Want to know exactly how much of a cult has grown around JetBlue Airways? On the city-to-airport bus to New York/Kennedy last week, the motorcoach was en route to Terminal Seven (United Airlines) and Terminals Eight/Nine (American Airlines). As the bus passed Terminal Six, the home of JetBlue, all of the bus riders stood up to look into the terminal, as if they were missing something.

Why does Congress sometimes make rotten decisions when it comes to the airlines? Look at where deposed and disgraced former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has landed: chairman of the Senate Aviation Subcommittee.

Speaking of Congress and the carriers, does it really surprise you that the boys in the airline band are already back in Washington banging their tin cups in search of another bailout? The good news: While there is some sentiment for incidental aid, most Congresspeople have finally figured out that the Big Six are disingenuous welfare junkies with neither the financial acumen nor the operational skills to survive on their own.

As the Big Six have contracted their schedules since 9/11, the egregious nature of their schedule padding has become laughably apparent. I was on a transcon flight last week that reached the gate 34 minutes earlier than the scheduled arrival time.

Steve Case took the high road this week when he resigned as chairman of AOL Time Warner Everything. Too bad the Wolfman of US Airways doesn't have that kind of class. He'd rather hide out at his French chateau and cash his check as chairman while US Airways rank-and-filers continue to be hammered for givebacks. I guess bleeding the company for hundreds of millions in salary and bonuses while destroying the airline hasn't been enough for him. By the way, US Airways is quietly scrapping its three-class international service, the last of Wolf's woebegone "innovations."

Cash in your miles now. I'm not worried that any particular airline is going out of business or even that some massive restructuring of award charts is imminent. It's as simple as this: As the Big Six slash destinations and routes, your chance of cashing in for the award you want goes down. Banking your miles for the day when you finally get around to taking your sabbatical to France or Italy or Timbuktu won't mean much if your airline no longer flies to France or Italy or Timbuktu.

Two transcon and two trans-Pacific flights in the last week on United Airlines was a scary exercise in deja vu. It all reminded me of Eastern Airlines in its dying days. Planes so empty that the gate agents didn't even bother boarding the coach class by row. Cabins that are literally being held together with duct tape. And employees who are desperate to please, but desperately frightened for their own futures.

Diners Club is once again in one of its down cycles in the United States, thanks to less-than-benign neglect by Citigroup, its corporate parent. The dining-discount program has been dropped, the card continues to be nearly impossible to use at retail and Diners Club's once-impressive lead in frequent-flyer affinity plans has been frittered away because it now charges a fee for mileage transfers and demands up to two weeks to make the deposit.

I've actually had a few edible meals in first and BusinessFirst class on Continental recently. But who cares? All this attention to whether airlines will serve meals or whether they will run programs to charge for food simply eludes me. As David Brenner once said, I don't walk into a diner expecting a flight to LA, so why should I step on a plane expecting an omelet? If you want to eat on a plane, buy a meal and carry it aboard. Even smaller airports now seem to have a decent food court with fresh, healthy items that can be packaged to go.

Every time I pass a cattle-car boarding call at Southwest Airlines, I wonder why they can't see the forest for the trees. Half of those people are business travelers who would happily pony up ten or even 20 bucks for an optional advance seat assignment.

If I never see Matthew Perry, Elizabeth Hurley, Jackie Chan or Jennifer Love Hewitt in a movie again, that would be cool with me. I mean, Serving Sara and The Tuxedo may be the two dumbest flicks ever shown inflight. (And that's saying a lot considering how many Jim Belushi movies there are...) Sweet Home Alabama is awful, too. But at least that film had the saving grace of Jean Smart and Candace Bergen in supporting roles.

More than a few of you approached me at the airport, in airline clubs or inflight to talk. I was honored to meet each and every one of you and swap notes and gripes and share strategies and tactics.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.