The Brancatelli File



January 4, 2007 -- Now that you're back on the road to start the new year, I already have bad news for you: Things got worse while you were gone. Worst of all, the icky stuff that happened while you were celebrating the holidays may presage a dark and dangerous life on the road in 2007.

Oh, geez, you're thinking, who needs the negative vibes this early in the year? Hey, I'm with ya. Traditionally, the end-of-the-year holidays have been one of the few times during the year when business travelers could kick back, relax and not worry about what was going on out there.

But not this recent holiday season. What went on was not just past, but prologue, for what we may find on the road this year. So buckle up and let me bring you up-to-date.

In the early hours of the Saturday before New Year's, while the news networks were mindlessly repeating what little they knew about the execution of Saddam Hussein, a car bomb exploded in the parking garage near the ultra-modern Terminal Four at Madrid's Barajas Airport. The blast killed at least one person, injured dozens more, flattened the five-story structure and ended the shaky nine-month truce between the Spanish government and ETA, the military arm of the Basque separatist movement. But ETA claims that it is not responsible. If we needed a top-of-the-year reminder that we travelers are easy targets for terrorists of any stripe, the development in Madrid is a jarring wake-up call. But there is something else worth considering: How do we know our governments are telling us the truth about the terrorists? When Madrid's commuter trains were bombed and hundreds died in 2004, the Spanish government immediately blamed ETA, too. But it turned out the train bombing was the work of al-Qaeda groups. It's one thing to live our lives on the road with targets on our back. It's something else again to not even know with certainty who's after us--and whether our governments are telling us the truth.

It was a very weird Boxing Day in Houston. More than 150 pieces of checked luggage were found in trash dumpsters and other locations around the city. The bags, stolen from Houston/Intercontinental Airport and rifled for valuables, belonged to travelers flying to destinations around the world on Continental, Lufthansa, British Airways and US Airways. Five men working for a third-party baggage-transfer firm have subsequently been arrested. This bizarre incident is a harbinger of all that's wrong with how the big carriers handle our checked bags these days: They often farm it out to third-party contractors; do little, if any, oversight; and lose and "mishandle" our luggage in record numbers. In November, 2006, according to government statistics, mishandled bag reports at the 20 largest carriers were 25 percent higher than they were in November, 2005. And, oh yes, all this sloppiness comes at the very moment when the big airlines are reducing their luggage allowances and charging us more than ever before for bags classified as "overweight" or "excess."

Go! has roiled the intra-Hawaii travel market and on New Year's Eve the six-month-old carrier unleashed still another fare war. This time, one-way prices were set as low as $20.07 for flights between Hawaii's major airports. Operated by Mesa Airlines, go! is no normal start-up, however. It and Mesa are being sued by Hawaiian and Aloha airlines, Hawaii's incumbent carriers. Both charge that Mesa helped launch go! with trade secrets appropriated from Hawaiian and Aloha when Mesa examined the carriers' books during their respective bankruptcy filings. At the time, Mesa said it was considering buying or investing in the carriers. Aloha also claims that the low fares offered by go! are part of Mesa's campaign to drive it out of business. Hawaiian's case against Mesa has already yielded some interesting comments from the judge, who wrote recently that "the evidence raises real doubts about the propriety of Mesa's conduct." And you do have to wonder about the go! fares in light of the prices that Mesa announced just before Christmas for its new flights between Chicago/Midway and three Illinois airports. One example: Mesa will charge $139 for an unrestricted, one-way ticket on the Midway-Quincy run, a 221-mile flight. By contrast, go! charges a maximum of just $79 walk-up between Honolulu and Hilo, a 216-mile flight.

When Northwest Airlines stranded thousands of fliers in the snow at Detroit/Metro Airport in 1999, the big airlines headed off Congressional "passenger rights" legislation with their voluntary Customer First initiatives. It took seven years for the Transportation Department's Inspector General to get around to auditing the airlines' compliance with their promises. Not surprisingly, the Transportation Department concluded that the airlines never did what they promised. But one thing you can count on the airlines doing is repeating their own heinous conduct. On the Friday before New Year, planes full of passengers were left sitting on the tarmac at Austin-Bergstrom Airport for seven or eight hours. Many of the flights had been diverted to Austin due to storms elsewhere in the country. One diverted flight, American 1348, spent more than eight hours in limbo in Austin. Passengers had no food, the toilets overflowed and travelers received no useful information about what was happening to them. The aircraft wasn't taken to a gate nor was a mobile staircase brought to the plane. Finally, almost 12 hours after the flight departed from San Francisco, the pilot took it upon himself to bring the aircraft to the terminal.

On New Year's Day, an Adam Air flight carrying 102 passengers disappeared somewhere in Indonesia. The Boeing 737 has still not been found. How do you make a tragedy worse? Adam Air executives and top Indonesian military and police officials incorrectly announced to the world that the wreckage of the plane had been found and that there were at least 12 survivors. And, sadly, it gets even worse. Adam Air is a one of a slew of start-up, low-fare airlines in Asia. Their safety record has been about as good as the old-line Asian carriers. Yet immediately after the Boeing 737 disappeared, the talking-head "experts" fired up the same tired rhetoric: The safety of low-fare airlines was suspect. The airline's 17-year-old Boeing 737 was "aging" and intrinsically unsafe. Regulators aren't doing their jobs. Needless to say, facts and the statistics tell quite a different story. And consider this: If a 17-year-old Boeing 737 is too old to fly in Indonesia, then why do we allow the geriatric planes in the Big Six fleets to continue to ply our skies? United's fleet of Boeing 737-300s average 17 years old. And the average age of the DC-9s in Northwest's fleet is twice that of the Adam Air Boeing 737.

Copyright © 1993-2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.