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 The Brancatelli File

joe FOUR COLUMNS IN ONE

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

July 17, 2003 -- As a matter of complete and absolute disclosure between columnist and frequent-flying reader, I feel compelled to make this unfortunate disclosure: Every one of the following news items merits its own column, complete with my patented snarky remarks, my stupendously brilliant analysis and my never-ending cascade of obscure references to the Simpsons or Sondheim.

Unfortunately, I only write one column a week--Admit it, you couldn't stand any more of me than that anyway!--so I've got to squeeze these four column-worthy items into one little packet.

So let's not waste any more electrons and get right to the news...

VIRGIN TURNS IN-FLIGHT BEDS SIDEWAYS
When British Airways launched lie-flat beds in business class back in January of 2000, it caught the entire airline industry--and especially arch-rival Virgin Atlantic--by surprise. Other carriers are still rushing to catch up.

This week, in fact, Virgin Atlantic unveiled its second rendition of business-class beds. The airline's current "Upper Class" product, rushed into cabins to compete with BA, will be scrapped in favor of an $80 million remake that literally turns in-flight beds sideways.

The new Virgin Suite is actually a separate leather chair and a separate fold-down bed. To accommodate the duality, the "suite"--and the passenger in the suite--is angled at about 45 degrees to the cabin walls. The suites are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration and Virgin claims the bed is the longest in the sky (79.5 inches) and extremely wide (33 inches) across the shoulders. The suite also includes an ottoman, in-seat power supply, large tray table and 10.4-inch personal-video screen. Virgin's signature in-flight bar area will be moved to a less obtrusive section of the Upper Class cabin.

"We think this is better than the other guy's first-class product," says John Riordan, Virgin's vice president of marketing. "And, of course, that's the exact mantra we had 10, 11 years ago when we introduced Upper Class. Give passengers more for a business-class price than other carriers give" for a first-class price.

When do we get to see--and sit in and sleep in--the Virgin Suite? By late summer on some flights from London/Heathrow to New York/Kennedy and San Francisco, says Riordan. Remaining routes from Heathrow will be equipped by next spring and all Gatwick routes will be converted by next summer.

I don't know about you, but, especially in these downsized times, I can't wait to park my carcass in one of these...

DON'T MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS
American Airlines was first up with its second-quarter results this week and the standard miserable numbers (a $357 million loss) came with a ceremonial sacrifice: American is slashing its St. Louis hub in half. By November 1, the airline will be down to 207 daily flights and nonstop service to 68 cities. That means 27 cities and 210 daily flights will disappear from Lambert Airport.

American's claim that the cutbacks will maintain St. Louis as a "smaller hub that will primarily cater to the people who live, work or do business there" is absurd on its face. The job of a "hub" is to offer connecting flights. Without connecting passengers, there is no hub at all. And the reality is that the St. Louis metropolitan area probably can't support 207 daily flights all by itself.

The result? American will bleed more red ink at Lambert and then, a quarter or two from now, it will further reduce its St. Louis schedule. Finally, after more bloodletting and more bad local publicity, St. Louis will be busted down to a spoke. It would have been far wiser for both American and St. Louis if the airline had done what needed to be done all at once rather than drag out the pain.

One other note: American says its fleet next summer will have shrunk to roughly the same size it was in mid-2000. Or, put another way, the fleet will be the size it was just before American bought TWA in 2000. And St. Louis, of course, was TWA's hometown hub.

THE GHOSTS AT GROUND ZERO
The Millenium Hilton recently reopened, the last of the surviving hotels near Ground Zero to resume business. In the heart of New York's financial district, the hotel is across Church Street from the eastern edge of the former World Trade Center site.

The Millenium was one of my favorite Manhattan hotels before 9/11 and I was anxious to visit the property again, if for no other reason than to exorcise some of the ghosts of Ground Zero. Despite a snappy, top-to-bottom remake, however, this slender, black tower of a hotel is more closely bound to that horrible day than ever before.

"We expected tourists to come and ask us about what happened on 9/11," says the bartender at Church & Dey, the hotel's restaurant. "But what surprises me is that locals come up here, sit at the bar, look at 'the hole' and continue to talk about it. It makes us all feel better. We're the heart of the community now."

"The hole" is the Ground Zero site itself. Except for a few unmistakable symbols--the massive cross forged of girders, the glaring stadium lighting at night and the plaques of the victims hung on the temporary fencing--Ground Zero today looks like any other construction site in New York. But it's visible from the hotel bar and from the panoramic windows of most all the guestrooms and it's impossible to forget what you're really looking at. Even when it's hotel business as usual, you can't escape Ground Zero.

And maybe we shouldn't. Maybe it's good that while we wrap ourselves in the hotel's renewed luxury--all rooms now have high-speed Internet access and 42-inch, flat-screen televisions and the hotel has a great fitness center and indoor pool--we come face-to-face with Ground Zero.

Besides, the fact that the hotel has reopened with 90 percent of its pre-9/11 employees back at their posts is proof that we can take the best shot the bad guys can dish out and, somehow, struggle back to some kind of normal.

ANOTHER MISSTEP AT THE TSA
At about the same time the Millenium was reopening in May, the Transportation Security Administration was secretly changing the rules on shoes at airport security-screening checkpoints. Suddenly, many airport screeners were asking passengers to remove their shoes before passing through the checkpoint. Others were "suggesting" that passengers go unshod because screening would go faster that way.

Within a month, shoes were top of mind among frequent flyers and the TSA was offering only the vaguest answers about whether it was, in fact, requiring travelers to take off their shoes for separate screening. In a classic bit of bureaucratic misdirection, the TSA turned a simple rule--either we have to take our shoes off or not--into an annoying national mystery.

Embarrassed by the bad publicity, the TSA has finally posted an official shoe policy. As if inviting further ridicule, however, the policy does nothing more than codify the confusion. The TSA says you don't have to take off your shoes. But if you set off the alarm, you're in for the full pat-down treatment. And if you don't take off your shoes and you don't set off the alarm, you can still get patted down if the screener thinks you require "secondary screening."

Why is the TSA making this so difficult? It's obvious that they want travelers to take their shoes off. Why not just say it and be done with it?

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

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