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 The Brancatelli File

joe WHAT'S NEXT ON THE ROAD

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

July 1, 2005 -- As we break for the Fourth of July weekend, the big airlines are fighting over fares again, this week's storms caused a near-record amount of flight delays, hotel and car-rental rates are skyrocketing, the planes are packed and pundits are suggesting that our current inflated gasoline prices are bargains compared to what's next.

In other words, you need some good news. Well, uh, see, here's the thing about the good news: I ain't got any. I mean, other than the fact that you may not have to work on Monday, I'm fresh out of happy talk.

Much as I would like to deliver unto you a happy thought to take to your Independence Day barbecue and drop as a bon mot when someone asks you about how life on the road is going, I must report the horrific truth: I have seen the immediate future of business travel and things do not look peachy.

Since this is the metaphoric and literal halfway point in the year, it's only natural I turn to my navel and gaze. In years past, I could usually muster up some bits of joy to deliver along with the bad tidings. But this year, looking ahead to see what will dominate the discussion in 2005, Part II, I see only gloom and gloom.

So, please, forgive me. I'm not trying to bring you down, just reporting on what I see coming.

HIDE-AND-SEEK FARES WILL BECOME THE NORM
Nothing will be more annoying during the rest of 2005 than the fare games that the airlines will be playing. I'm not talking about the stupid sales and the concurrent price hikes. Those are old hat. What's coming next is truly epochal. The old pricing networks, based on the computer-reservation systems (CRS) that the airlines created a generation ago and sold off in recent years, are losing their hegemony. Why? Now that the airlines don't own the systems and have to pay cash money to use them, they are complaining about cost and inefficiency. And since airlines are no longer legally required to give their fares and inventory to every CRS, they are going to be working with some and exiting others. There is also a new wave of distribution systems leaping up to provide competition. And, naturally, the airlines are obsessed with forcing you to their proprietary Web sites. Throw all these developments into a hat and what you'll see is chaos. You'll never know what airlines work with which Web sites or which travel agencies. You'll never know whether you can find the best fares at the airline sites or at third-party sites or through some other outlet. Bottom line: Trying to find a fair fare--or even a representative selection of fares that accurately reflects all the airlines flying on any particular route--will become more of a computerized game of hide-and-seek than ever before.

FINDING A RATIONALE FOR 'FULL-SERVICE' HOTELS
The big hotel chains are swimming in cash and creating hotel segments faster than the Big Six can lose billions of dollars. But this happy state of affairs is hollow at its heart: While they have been brilliant in defining new market segments and creating new "focused-service" brands, they have lost the definition of a "full-service" hotel. The bedrock brands that once literally defined the term hotel--Hilton, Sheraton, Marriott, Hyatt, Westin--seem old and tired and unnecessary. So what will be coming is a blizzard of new products--even fancier beds and hipper bathrooms, more trendy bars and restaurants, goofy renovations, loopy promotions and heaven knows what else--that will attempt to convince you that the hotel wizards know what they are doing. But they don't, really. They're casting around for answers and throwing out products as a substitute for a strategy to explain why we should stay in a full-service hotel when a better-targeted, better-value property is just a few doors away.

THE CRASH AND THE RECRIMINATIONS
This, sadly, is inevitable: A plane will crash and travelers will die. And three issues that have been getting only low-level attention--the big airlines' outsourcing of their maintenance to third-party firms; the regulatory agencies' inability to keep track of the outsourcing; and the massive replacement of full-size jets with regional jets flown by underpaid, overworked, less-experienced young pilots--will suddenly burst into the headlines. And most everything you'll hear from the talking heads feeding the 24/7 cable news cycle will be egregious speculation and useless bombast. Publicity-seeking demagogues who thought nothing of standing on the floor of the House and Senate and telling us they "knew the truth" about Terry Schiavo will stand on the floor of the House and Senate and say the most outrageous things about a crash they'll know nothing about. It will be ugly. It will be shameful. And we will learn nothing about maintenance outsourcing, the regulation of that outsourcing or the state of the aviation system.

THE SPIN ON PASSENGER'S RIGHTS
Everything points to a miserable summer: nearly full planes, a season of bad storms and a woeful lack of airline employees to ameliorate even the smallest problems. That will inevitably lead to a revival of the hollow "passenger's rights" movement. We'll hear a lot of phony passenger advocates and self-serving "experts" expounding on solutions. You'll hear the odd politician--watch for House Aviation Subcommittee chairman John Mica (R-FL), who's got a mad on for the Big Six right now--claiming it's time to act. Nothing of substance will happen. It'll be another round of sound and fury signifying nothing at all.

THE ENDLESS AMTRAK DANCE
For one brief moment last week, it looked like Congress was going to give President Bush what he wants and force a showdown over the management of and strategy for Amtrak, which we continue to laughingly call the "national passenger railroad." But then the normal ragbag of interests guaranteed that Amtrak will get the usual $1 billion in funding, which will allow it to limp along in limbo for another year. But we will hear endless bleating from Amtrak about why the Acela train won't get back on the tracks this summer after all. Yet no one will actually question why Amtrak bought high-speed trains without the modern, high-speed tracks on which to run them.

But, hey, I just thought of some good news. This column is over. Have a great Fourth! See you again on July 14.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

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