The Brancatelli File for 2004
December 16: Travel Tidings of Comfort and Joy
Fifty weeks a year I am deliriously content to chronicle the realities of our lives on the road. It is my job, my passion, my duty and, I freely admit, a comforting crease in the fabric of my own life on the road. But this is the last column of the year and, just this once, I want to write about what I wish business travel was about. I hope you agree with what I'm thinking this holiday season.
December 9: High-Tech Travel Tools Right Now
With tech maven Phil Baker writing about the airlines this week, I can sneak back to one of my old beats and offer some recommendations and observations about what works and what doesn't when it comes to the technology we business travelers currently use. I've got some thoughts on a good, cheap notebook computer; a good, cheap desktop; and some opinions about the new portable and online options for satellite radio.
December 2: Good News (Up Front) About Business Travel
I just don't feel like writing up bad news this week. So how about some happy talk instead? Not mindless drivel, but honest-to-goodness good news about business travel. It's almost always in the pricier upper classes and usually on the pricier upper classes of international flights, but good news is out there. I know. I recently stumbled across it on flights operated by America West, bmi and Aer Lingus. I've got a full report that makes for good news and good reading.
November 18: Can Independence Air Make Low-Fare Lemonade?
Before we can even talk about what it's like to fly Independence Air, you have to remember that this six-month-old airline is essentially an attempt to make low-fare lemonade from a couple of crates of flying lemons. And as Independence Air management is learning the hard way, there's only so much low-fare lemonade even us thirsty frequent flyers can drink.
November 4: Holiday Travel Tales (and Deals)
Assuming that you don't want to veg out at home over the holidays after another exhausting year of life on the road, consider some of these interesting tidbits: Airlines have cut their business-travel fares to Europe and Asia. Hotels around the world are pulling together great shopping, dining and New Year's packages. Gee, it's not only beginning to look a lot like Christmas. It's beginning to look like a great time to travel, too. Here are details on the best deals so far.
October 28: If They Fix the Fares, We Will Fly
Since Aer Lingus became the first international carrier to adopt the aeronautic equivalent of "keep it simple, stupid," I thought it appropriate to get a 30-day update on the airline's progress. Well, "Surprise! Surprise!" as they used to say down in Mayberry. It seems that if airlines fix the fares, we will fly. Aer Lingus says its revenue is up, its costs are down and our demand for business-class travel has jumped dramatically.
October 21: Follow the Money
It's time to follow the money to see what we'll be facing on the road in the next few months. After announcing a $214 million quarterly loss, American Airlines has decided giving you less legroom, more middle seats and fewer point-to-point flights is the solution. After its $651 million quarterly loss, Delta writes you a scare letter. US Airways convinced a judge to cut employee salaries by 21 percent, but its cancellations and delays have immediately skyrocketed. And start-up Independence Air doesn't even report until next week, but some wags think it is headed into bankruptcy.
October 14: Let's FARC the Big Six
Six months from now, the entirety of the Big Six could be bankrupt. A simultaneous bankruptcy could mean $30 billion of pension liability shifted to taxpayers and perhaps $100 billion owed to a wide range of businesses wiped off the books. That would lead politicians to cry "crisis" and throw untold billions of taxpayer dollars at the "problem." I think it would be better and cheaper if we moved proactively. We could nationalize, rationalize and refloat the Big Six--an idea I suggested two years ago--or create something I call the Federal Airline Reconstruction Corp. (FARC) That independent agency's job would be simple: Bribe the Big Six into managing their businesses better.
October 7: Looking Backward to the Future of Travel
In the three years of the strange life of JoeSentMe.com, I've churned out about 140 Brancatelli Files and about the same number of Tactical Travelers. I look back at three specific columns and offer updates about the civil war of the airlines; the intersection of politics and airline security; and explain why all six of the Big Six will be in Chapter 11 six months from now.
September 30: Simple Fares, Simple Message
This is how the business-travel world has changed since Aer Lingus rewrote the transatlantic fare structure on Monday: As little as 40 minutes in Dublin can save you more than $2,100 on a walk-up flight to Europe. It's now up to the Big Six to embrace the logic of reasonable fares sold simply. They have to change because now we can fly almost everywhere without them. What part of that do you think the Big Six doesn't understand yet?
September 23: Travel Health and the Business Traveler
Want to reduce a globe-trotting executive to stuttering incoherence? Just ask about travel insurance and their preparations for on-the-road illnesses. Business travelers are smarter than the average bear, but we have this blind spot about our own travel health and medical coverage. But since I know a lot of you are headed off for a fall leisure trip in the next couple of weeks, let me offer some fresh and practical tips for keeping our travel-medical (and travel insurance) ducks in a row.
September 16: Time for a Trustee at US Airways
It won't surprise you to learn that I think the men who crash-landed US Airways into bankruptcy court again are a passel of incompetent boobs. But it may surprise to you learn that the incompetent boobs who run US Airways agree with me. Their bankruptcy court filing is the single most damning critique of an airline management that I have ever read. And one thing is sure: They have to be shown the door if US Airways is to have any chance of survival.
September 9: 9/11 Plus Three
Saturday is the third anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I don't care what else is going on--airline bankruptcies, hurricanes, presidential elections--we should be stopping and reflecting. There are other things I could write about, but I'm going to stop and reflect. This is what I'm thinking about three years after 9/11. I urge you to sit down sometime in the next few days and write down what you're thinking about.
August 26: A Retaliatory Stick Upside Northwest's Skull
I know that you're shake-your-fist angry at Northwest Airlines' imposition of $5-$10 fees for tickets purchased anywhere but NWA.com. But before you're blinded by righteous rage, allow me to make two important points. First: Every time the travel industry has forced us to the Web in recent years our prices have gone down. Second: These fees are stark reminders that the Big Six always gets the wrong end of the carrot-and-stick equation and we always move our flying to airlines that incentivize us, not penalize us.
August 19: Surviving the Big Six Folly to Come
It's been another distressing week for the Big Six, but let's focus instead on ideas for traveling sanely through the upcoming chaos. Here are some strategies for managing your frequent-flyer programs and airline-club memberships; why you shouldn't book too far ahead for domestic and international fares; why you should be prepared for abrupt flight-schedule disruptions; and why you should run for the hills if your broker suggests a technical play on Big Six stock.
August 12: The Olympics of Big Six Folly
So what's more irrelevant? The Olympic Games or the Big Six? The Olympics are a disaster--millions of unsold tickets and empty rooms in Athens--and so are the Big Six. For example, did you know that Southwest Airlines is now worth more than three times the entire market capitalization of the Big Six? And why is it that US Airways can't even compete on routes where it has a monopoly? And don't you think that it's time for regime change at United Airlines? The gold, silver and bronze of this week's really bad news about the Big Six.
August 5: Making Delays Go Away at O'Hare
Here are two facts about O'Hare that the airlines would prefer you didn't know: Passenger traffic in Chicago is growing at a snail's pace and the actual number of travelers per flight is falling. So how come flight delays are skyrocketing? How come about one in three flights arrived late at O'Hare in June? How come O'Hare is a black hole for business travelers again? And why aren't the regulators regulating the explosive, wasteful, disruptive growth of flights at the nation's busiest airport?
July 29: Saving the Big Six
Now that the Big Six have reported dreadful second-quarter results, isn't it time to start thinking about really radical ways to save them? I think I have a few useful ideas that can restore them to profitability. How about strip clubs in first class? Airlines selling personal-seat licenses and naming rights? Or what if the airlines sell their galleys to Starbucks? Hey, it all works on the ground...
July 22: Nobody Asked Me, But...
The 9/11 Commission report is, sadly, dead on arrival. ... It's fascinating to watch US Airways go out of business. They're even doing that wrong. ... How low can transatlantic fares go? ... Booing Linda Ronstadt ... Paranoids and a "dry run" hijacking ... Is anyone at all going to Athens for the Olympics? Commentary on these topics and many more.
July 15: Four Columns in One
Summer should be the slow season for business-travel news. So how come I have not one, not two, but four columns worth of news? Please forgive the breathless pace as we proceed: CAPPS II is dead for now; Southwest's CEO can't channel Herb Kelleher, so he's gone; inflight Internet is here and inflight mobile phones are getting closer; and Northwest delays thousands and can barely bring itself to apologize.
July 8: How to Spend 18 Hours in Coach--and Love It
Only madmen and business travelers would consider the introduction of 18-hour nonstop flights an improvement in their lifestyles. And only masochists and frequent-flying maniacs would voluntarily do an 18-hour ride in coach. Which pretty much explains what I was doing in Singapore's Changi Airport last Friday morning. I was ready to check out the world's newest, longest coach haul: Singapore Airlines' 18-hour, 10,000-mile nonstop between Singapore and Newark. What I found was nothing short of the best coach service in the air anywhere.
June 24: Two Brutal Truths About Frequent-Flyer Plans
What part of "restricted" award did you think the airlines were kidding about? The brutal truth is that frequent-flyer programs are unregulated lotteries and anyone who plans a holiday expecting to cash restricted awards is a fool. But I've got two tips that will help you manage your programs better: Earn your miles wisely and then pay double to get the unrestricted rewards. And, this summer especially, consider buying tickets rather than cashing any miles at all.
June 17: How to Fly First and Pay Less. Maybe.
Premium-class prices are now all over the metaphoric map. The chaos and irrationality that has long afflicted coach-cabin pricing has reached the front of the bus. And it goes without saying that now you should never book a coach trip without first checking whether there is a competitively priced business- or first-class seat available. You may be shocked to find a seat up front for just a few bucks more than cattle class. Here what's happening up front--and how you can profit from the pricing confusion.
June 10: Where to Go Next This Summer
No business travel this week because I've noticed an alarming upswing in messages from friends and readers saying the equivalent of, "If I don't get a holiday soon, I'm going to scream." So here are some places you should go because they're fun, interesting and the confluence of cost, flight availability and exchange rate makes them a compelling choice this particular summer. My choices: Scotland, Dubai, Mexico, Buenos Aires, Philadelphia and Kansas City.
June 3: How to Handle 'Mishandled' Luggage
Contrary to popular belief, the airlines don't lose very much of our checked luggage. In fact, there are only five reports of "mishandled" luggage for every 1,000 passengers. And 98 percent of those lost bags are returned to their owners within 24 hours. But those statistics are cold comfort if you are one of the unlucky five in a thousand. I've got ten tips on which carriers handle bags best--and which do the worst job--how to minimize your chance of losing bags and hope to cope when it does happen.
May 27: A Generation of Useful Travel Tips
Here's a modestly depressing thought: I turned 51 last weekend and that means I've been on the road for 33 years, which is one entire human generation. But business travel changes too fast to live in the past. What worked a generation ago doesn't work today. Hell, what worked on the road yesterday afternoon doesn't work today. What does? Here are some tips--and I guarantee these strategies are valid until at least Memorial Day.
May 20: Handicapping a Summer of Horror at the Airport
All the recent punditry suggests that we're headed for the worst summer travel season since the now-legendary summer of 2000. I have my doubts about the conventional wisdom, but it's wise to prepare for the worst. Here's my admittedly arbitrary look at some airports that may be black holes this summer and what, if anything, you can do about it.
May 6: Flying Song is a Dickensian Experience
Flying with Song, Delta's low-fare "service," is Dickensian. By that I mean it is the best and worst of low-fare carriers. The best of times: Song is so good that if you have to fly a Big Six airline in coach, try to find one of Song's 140 daily flights. The worst of times? Song is a pastel parody of JetBlue. It is ugly to look at--and even worse to watch operate. Worst of all, it is hemorrhaging cash, a costly failure that may become the textbook example of how to get it wrong when you're trying to rip off a hot competitor that almost always gets it right.
April 29: How to Sue the Airlines and Win
Do you ever get so angry at your airline that you feel like suing? Business travelers sometimes do. And if you want to do it, there's a way to drag the airlines to the bar of justice at minimum cost to you and with maximum inconvenience to the airline. Skip the state and federal courts and focus on a small-claims court. Here's how to do it.
April 22: The Five New Rules of the Road
The rules of the road have been written in the sand since 9/11, but the pace of change has been breathtaking. What's important right now? There are new rules about buying first class fares and getting upgrades; about the security issues surrounding one-way tickets; about the best sites to book hotel rooms; about when to fly nonstop and when to connect; and even about in-flight food.
April 8: Sit Down. Shut Up. Buckle Up.
You'll forgive me if I'm angrier than usual this week. The news that at least a dozen fellow travelers were injured last weekend when a United Airlines jet hit vicious turbulence over the Pacific Ocean makes me crazy. The thought that three of them were shaken up enough to be hospitalized infuriates me. What part of "Sit down and buckle your seat belt" don't you people understand?
April 1: Across the Financial Pond to Europe
The Major League Baseball season started in Tokyo this week and everyone I know is going to Europe next week. Both of those tidbits seem like really bad April Fool's jokes to me. Since this is not ESPN.com, we shall dispense with the sports talk. But as for this Europe thing, I gotta say: Are you people nuts? Have you seen the exchange rate for the euro and the British pound? At least let me give you some financial tips to protect your wallet over there.
March 25: Death by Video at US Airways
The hollow men who run US Airways have been calculating enough (and clueless enough) to post the video feed of Wednesday's death-be-not-proud meeting between chief executive David Siegel and a group of stone-faced employees. Since the play-by-play is on the Web, consider this column color commentary packed with pithy observations and much-needed doses of truth and reality. Fire up your computer's media player and let's you and I watch Siegel walk his carrier down the aisle to oblivion.
March 18: Stranger on a Train
I spent 23 hours on Amtrak last weekend and came to several inescapable conclusions. In its best moments, a ride on Amtrak beats the dickens out of another flight. In its worst moments, a ride on Amtrak is at least as bad as any Big Six flight you've ever had. At all times, Amtrak exists in a bizarre fantasy world that bears almost no relation to the product and service actually on the tracks.
March 11: Seven Days in May (and Eight in June)
Almost two years ago, I wrote a column called the "Civil War of the Airlines." We know how that war turned out: America West, JetBlue--and all the airlines that offer a simplified fare structure and affordable walk-up fares--beat the tar out of the attacking Big Six. But now the little guys are the aggressors and they are preparing an astonishing 15-day assault on the remaining strongholds of the Big Six.
March 4: Second Thoughts About First Class
The mainstream media has decided that frequent flyers are just about to enter a golden age of first-class flying. Yeah, right. It's time for some second thoughts about this purported Second Coming of domestic first class. The facts and figures will give you pause.
February 26: What's Good on the Web Right Now
We live our lives on the road, but we also live our lives on the Internet. The holy trinity of business travel--airlines, hotels and car rentals--may control our physical environment. Credit cards and telephones may be the lifeblood of our day-to-day operations. But it's the Internet that binds them all together now. Okay, enough philosophy. My point: I've got some interesting new Web sites and Web tools you may want to know about.
February 12: Two More Bricks Fall From the Fare Wall
Did you hear those two loud thumps at either end of the continent? They were the sounds of two more bricks falling out of the Byzantine fare wall built by the Big Six carriers. Seattle-based Alaska Air is slashing walk-up coach and first-class fares nationwide and dropping the hated Saturday-night stay restriction. That's important for the future of domestic business travel. The release of the fares for Southwest Airlines' new Philadelphia service is another signal that US Airways may not be long for its Philadelphia hub or the planet at large.
February 5: Real Routes. Real Fares. Real Decisions.
Here's the thing about talking theoretically about the decline of the Big Six and the rise of the alternate airlines: It's all theory. So let's compare real routes, real fares, real planes and real service. It shouldn't surprise you to learn that the alternate guys are cheaper--often insanely cheaper--on five of six randomly chosen routes. What may surprise you is how often the alternate guys are cheaper and better.
January 29: The Big Six and the Lesson of the Big Stores
Only half of the flights offered by the Big Six still have a first-class cabin. They have withdrawn from dozens of international markets. And they are rapidly dropping service to small cities and smaller airports. It seems that the Big Six airlines are following the old department store playbook: cutting, slashing, burning, trimming, deferring and degrading until they're not noticeably different from the discount airlines they are trying to fight. And just as the great department stores destroyed themselves, the Big Six are unraveling what made them great--and provided the justification for charging more.
January 22: The Value of Miles and Points Right Now
Now that we've all figured out whether we've made elite status in our preferred airline and hotel programs for 2004, we can turn our attention to the really important question of the moment: What the hell is the value of our miles and points right now? I've got some thoughts on how US Airways' financial distress will impact Dividend Miles; the relative value of American Express Rewards and Diners Club ClubRewards; whether you should be cashing points for miles or merchandise; and how the decline of the U.S. dollar should influence the use of your frequent-stay points.
January 15: Tin Stars in the Skies
As we learned at Dulles Airport this week, trying to keep the skies safe by proactively pre-screening passengers before they board a flight doesn't work. Isn't time to get rid of all the X-ray machines, the security screeners and all the other stuff? Instead, let's put a couple of armed, uniformed marshals on every flight and let them police a plane like they police a city street.
January 8: The Airline World Turned Upside Down
They say that British General Cornwallis ordered the band to play "The World Turned Upside Down" when he surrendered to George Washington after the Battle of Yorktown. I'm thinking it's time to strike up the band again after what happened this week in the airline business: contraction at Delta and Northwest, chaos at US Airways, a panicky promotion from American--and lots and lots of growth from the alternate carriers. Why do I think the revolution is essentially over now and we'll all soon be free of the Big Six?
Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.