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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE TOP TEN TILTONS
FOR A BETTER LIFE ON THE ROAD


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

March 17, 2005 -- We must discuss some steps you need to take to protect yourself emotionally and financially on the road at this moment in time. But, first, you need to fully understand the environment in which we currently live and work.

Glenn Tilton, the chief executive of United Airlines, earned a bonus of more than $366,000 last year. Glenn Tilton officially took a pay cut last year, but his take-home rose to $1.1 million from about $745,000 in 2003.

United's chief financial officer, Frederic Brace, got an 11 percent raise last year while chief operating office Peter McDonald got a 19 percent increase. United's executive vice president of marketing, John Tague, earned $445,000 in bonuses in 2004. Brace, McDonald and Doug Hacker, executive vice president for strategy, received combined bonus payments of about $500,000 last year.

Of course, you know what I know: United is now more than 27 months into bankruptcy. It's losing $5 million a day on operations and burning through almost $4 million a day on reorganization costs. It has dumped most of its under-funded pension plans on the American people and has yet to file its first plan of reorganization in bankruptcy court. Its route network has contracted, its rank-and-file morale is crumbling and the airline is an inexplicable mishmash of fleet types and service concepts.

But when a CEO can get himself a bonus with that kind of performance record and protect and enrich his top management team, too, well, those are survival skills I can admire as a road warrior. In fact, you and I need to adopt some of those survival skills.

So rather than just call these hard-won bits of contemporary road wisdom "tips," I'm gonna call them "Tiltons." Glenn deserves the honor. He's showing us all how to survive and prosper in tough times. In fact, let's call these the Top Ten Tiltons for a Better Life on the Road Now.

TILTON NO. 1: THERE'S NO 'RIGHT' FARE
Airfares were insane before Delta Air Lines adopted SimpliFares in January. Now fares are more rationally priced, but the system itself is more insane than ever. After years of moving in lockstep, the Big Six aren't routinely matching every fare on every route anymore. Add the pricing impact of the alternate airlines and you have chaos on the pricing front. For the time being, forget what you think a flight should cost. Come to each itinerary with an open mind.

TILTON NO. 2: THERE'S NO 'BEST' SOURCE OF LOW FARES
United and American airlines have both issued "lowest-fare guarantees" for their respective Web sites. Forget them. With fares in chaos, there's no "best" source for low fares. I have routinely found lower fares on United and American on Orbitz.com than on United.com and AA.com. So check as many online and bricks-and-mortar sources as you can before booking a flight.

TILTON NO. 3: DON'T ASSUME YOU CAN'T AFFORD A PREMIUM CLASS
It was once verboten for the Big Six to publicly discount their domestic first-class and international first- and business-class cabins. No more. The airlines are discounting like crazy up front. The problem? Only two of the Big Six (Delta and Continental) are smart enough to offer you the option of looking for a premium-class fare right on their respective home page search boxes. The alternate carriers are smarter, though. Alaska Airlines and America West offer you a choice of class from the home page. AirTran and Spirit show you both coach and business-class fares whenever you check on a route.

TILTON NO. 4: ALL COACH IS SOMETIMES BETTER THAN 'FULL SERVICE'
The Big Lie of the Big Six is that they are better than Southwest, Frontier, JetBlue and Midwest because they offer first class and the all-coach guys do not. Hogwash. Huge chunks of the Big Six domestic schedule is operated with those detestable 35-to-50-seat regional jets now. They are not only bereft of first-class cabins, their coach seats are hideous compared to what is offered on Southwest's Boeing B737s and JetBlue's Airbus A320s.

TILTON NO. 5: FORGET THE FOOD, REMEMBER THE WATER
There aren't three people on the planet--not even our hero, Glenn Tilton--who can tell you which airlines are serving or selling food on what routes at which times. Just assume that there won't be anything. Bring your own. And watch the water situation: In their brilliance, some carriers are cutting back on bottled water, forcing flight attendants to dole it out by the cupful. It doesn't matter what class you're in, assume there won't be enough bottled water. Bring several bottles of your favorite brand.

TILTON NO. 6: SERVICE SUCKS. DEAL WITH IT.
I've lost count of the number of workers who've been laid off or bought out by the Big Six since 9/11. The cuts have gone far beyond fat and are now hitting bone. Airlines have reduced the number of flight attendants per flight, slashed the number of baggage handlers at the airports, shrunk the size of their phone banks and all but obliterated their armies of gate agents and customer-service personnel. React accordingly. The attendant deterioration of service is pathetically obvious. Do almost everything you can via the Web--book tickets and print boarding passes, especially--and try not to check luggage.

TILTON NO. 7: FLY EARLY IN THE DAY
Passenger loads are back to pre-9/11 levels and airport runways are clogged with squadrons of RJs. So flight delays are rising again. Which means it's back to the old strategy of flying early in the day to avoid the delays. Early-morning flights are least likely to be affected by the cascade effect caused by the hub-and-spoke operation of the Big Six.

TILTON N0. 8: FLY THE INTERNATIONAL PARTNERS INSTEAD
With the notable exception of Continental, where the BusinessFirst cabin still stacks up favorably against any two-class airline in the world, the U.S. carriers have fallen far behind their international partners in premium classes. That includes service standards and physical cabin amenities. Flying British Airways or any other Oneworld carrier's up-front cabin is better than flying American Airlines internationally. Lufthansa, SAS or any Star Alliance carrier is better internationally than United or US Airways. Ditto Air France and the rest of SkyTeam when compared to Delta or Northwest. And it goes without saying that most international carriers offer a better coach-class cabin than any U.S. carrier.

TILTON N0. 9: ASSUME NOTHING
Fuel prices are rising even faster than the Big Six can pile up losses. You can never assume what was on the schedule today will be there tomorrow. Northwest announced yesterday that it was grounding a huge portion of its gas-guzzling DC-9s. US Airways is apparently preparing to shutter its month-old Fort Lauderdale "focus city." Independence Air is returning a gigantic percentage of its RJ fleet. Don't leave for the airport until you check to make sure your flight is still operating and your airline is still flying.

TILTON NO. 10: THERE IS NO NUMBER 10
Hey, I'm no fool. If Glenn Tilton can get a bonus for the colossally half-assed job he's done running United, why should I worry about actually writing ten tips? By the way, I'm also raising the price of JoeSentMe membership.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.