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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE SUMMER
TRAVEL AGENDA


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

June 26, 2003 -- We're standing at the boarding gate of summer and that's when numerical realities force us business travelers to surrender control of the world's airports, airliners, hotels, highways and byways to the advancing army of leisure travelers.

Fueled by giveaway airfares we can't have and gargantuan hotel discounts we are rarely offered, American holidaymakers become kings of the road during the summer. We business travelers move--mostly graciously--aside and let them have at it, content in the knowledge that we may actually get a few blissful weeks at home and at leisure ourselves.

But this seasonal changing of the guard does not mean that there won't be a clutch of important travel news this summer. There's going to be lots of news--and a lot of it is totally predictable. In fact, this summer's travel agenda is largely knowable right now, so why wait until July or August to read about it? Here are the summer's top news items in advance.

THE BOTTLENECK AT AIRPORT SECURITY
Under pressure from a few grandstanding politicians, the Transportation Security Administration is reducing its 55,000-person workforce by about 6,000 bodies. In a fit of bureaucratic pique, the TSA has responded by abandoning its pledge to clear all travelers through security within 10 minutes. This is all sub-text for the realities of summer: a flood of unsophisticated leisure flyers who will attempt to bring too much metal, too many bags and too much contraband past the airport security checkpoints. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that's a recipe for chaos. In fact, we're already beginning to hear the complaints: Two-hour waits to clear security at peak periods in Seattle-Tacoma, long and unexpected delays in Denver, San Franciso, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and elsewhere. The lines could get especially long during rush hours at international gateways and at airports serving major cruise ports.

THE FINANCIAL MORASS AT THE AIRLINES
There's no off-season for bad airline management, so watch for continuing turmoil at the airlines. At Northwest, the issue is givebacks. Management wants them and airline rank-and-filers, still trying to recover from the massive concessions they granted in 1993, are unwilling to open their veins again. Add the fact that Northwest invokes a force majeure clause whenever an executive gets a hangnail and you have a recipe for a summer of strife. At bankrupt United, where chief executive Glenn Tilton has done little more than rearrange the executive deck chairs since his arrival last summer, the cash burn remains in the $10-million-a-day range. Does this week's management have a clue about how to save United? Your guess is apparently as good as theirs. Mean-while, Midwest Airlines (fka Midwest Express), which squandered a marvelous reputation and dismantled a superlative product after years of clueless marketing, will probably be forced to file for Chapter 11 protection. Bankrupt Hawaiian Airlines, where management was booted after looting the carrier, has already lost its first court-appointed trustee. And then there's Swiss, the misbegotten child of the shotgun wedding of bankrupt Swissair and over-reaching regional carrier Crossair. Swiss taxpayers have already been stuck with a $35-per-citizen bill for a bailout. Their patience may now be exhausted.

LOST IN AMERICA
Watch for a spate of media coverage of befuddled American vacationers stranded at the airport. Their stories will all be similar: They bought their tickets months ago, the airlines dropped their flights during this spring's SARS/Iraq cutbacks, but the carriers never informed them of the changes. Of course, the travelers will all have missed the replacement flights they were never informed about and now the airlines won't reaccommodate them. There'll be lots of pictures of overtired toddlers, indignant parents, confused senior citizens and local television reporters saying stuff like: "We called the airline, but they refused to talk on camera." The justifiable anger directed at the airlines will obscure an equally interesting angle: Why the hell didn't these bubble-headed travelers protect themselves by confirming their reservations before they loaded up the family car and drove to the airport?

BROKE IN EUROPE
This one will be the exclusive purview of the network's nightly newscasts, wire-service dispatches from "sleepy and bucolic" villages in Italy and Germany and bored London correspondents at the nation's major dailies who wanted an excuse to escape to the English countryside for a long weekend. Their breathless discovery: Americans lured across the Atlantic by low airfares are running out of cash on vacation because the dollar is so weak against the Euro and the British pound. Since the dollar has declined precipitously in the last 18 months--the greenback is worth about 30 percent less now than when the Euro debuted at street level on January 1, 2002--the story will be valid. But after watching and reading the sob stories of broke backpackers, Americans who got tossed from Madrid tapas bars when they couldn't pay and the starry-eyed couple whose dream vacation was ruined by sky-high prices on the Champs Elysee, you're gonna wonder why these folks didn't check the exchange rates before they crossed the pond.

THE LAST-MINUTE BARGAIN HUNT
Watch for this story to crop up after the Fourth of July and after local newspaper editors and TV/radio assignment editors have read about it in the Money section of USA Today and the Personal Journal section of The Wall Street Journal. The stories will all wonder where the $99 fares to London, Hawaii and Orlando have gone--the credulous reporters will be shocked to learn that the airlines aren't offering huge bargains if you want to fly to Maui on August 1--and then mutter that this is one of the toughest summers in years to find a good deal. The stories will conclude that you'll have to stay close to home (where the real value has been all the time, they will intimate) or book a cheap, last-minute vacation in Canada or Mexico. East Coast media outlets will discover a bargain or two in the Caribbean. West Coast papers will find remarkable deals in Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

OSAMA BIN LADEN, MASTER SPAMMER
Okay, I admit I'm out on the limb on this one. But it's plausible to think that, sometime this summer, Attorney General John Ashcroft will announce that the Justice Department has credible evidence to prove that the explosion of junk mail offering cheap Viagra, septic-tank treatments, breast- and penis-enlarging treatments and 80 percent off Norton software is all a plot concocted by Osama bin Laden. Ashcroft will explain that bin Laden's weakened al Qaida network has latched on to E-mail systems as a "target of opportunity" and only a strengthening of the Patriot Act will save average American in-boxes from a new flood of E-mails from the former treasurer of Nigeria's oil ministry.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

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