The Brancatelli File



January 25, 2007 -- Like any scribe who has ever pushed a noun against a verb, I have wanted to be mentioned in the same sentence as Mark Twain. And since no one else was likely to write that sentence, I figured I had better do it myself.

So now that I have been mentioned in the same sentence as Twain, I feel comfortable corrupting his comment about there being lies, damned lies and statistics. This week I have all of that--and politicians, too.

And you know that when we have lies, damned lies, statistics and politicians it has been a very bad week on the road. So, without further ado…

LIES US Airways dropped another of its "lower fares" announcements on an unsuspecting public and a mostly credulous mainstream media this week. This time the target market was Charlottesville, Virginia. Besides mumbo-jumbo about advance-purchase price reductions, there was this outright lie: "Customers will see walkup fares reduced by up to 65 percent." The airline then went on to produce the new "sample walkup fare" in 37 markets. But here's the lie: The supposed walk-up fares US Airways announced were "based on a one-way purchase. A round trip purchase may be required." By definition, of course, a walk-up fare is just that: You walk up to the ticket counter, pay for a ticket and fly. Except in the fantasy world of Big Six publicity, there is no such thing as a walk-up fare that requires a roundtrip purchase. What's the cost of such deceit? Well, US Airways claimed its new walk-up fare from Charlottesville to Cleveland was $234. In fact, when I looked for a flight tomorrow, the real walk-up fare--one-way with no other purchase requirements--is actually $324. US Airways claimed its new walk-up fare to Orlando was $282. It's actually $382 for a flight tomorrow. Charlottesville-Memphis, which was listed at $322, is actually $421 tomorrow. Or how about Charlottesville-Philadelphia? US Airways claimed the walk-up fare was $375. It's actually $644 tomorrow, or a startling $3.05 a mile for the 211-mile flight on a regional jet.

DAMNED LIES United Airlines announced last Friday that it was slashing the validity date of miles in its Mileage Plus frequent flyer program. Now miles are only good for 18 months instead of the former 36 months if there is no activity in a traveler's Mileage Plus account. US Airways recently slashed its Dividend Miles validity date to 18 months, too. Delta went to 24 months for SkyMiles. But as hateful and ultimately counter-productive as these restrictions are, they pale by comparison to the damned lie perpetrated by Continental Airlines on members of its OnePass program. The OnePass Terms and Conditions claim "miles currently have no expiry date." Sounds pretty straight-forward, doesn't it? Except later on in the T&C there's this little gem: "If no mileage is deposited in your account for 18 consecutive months, your membership may be cancelled, and your miles may be forfeited." In other words, OnePass miles never expire, but your account will self-destruct without activity in 18 months. Yet Continental blithely advertises that its miles never expire and it even convinces media outlets like The Washington Post to repeat the damned lie.

STATISTICS In the last ten days, Spirit Airlines announced four overseas destinations from its Fort Lauderdale hub: San Jose, Costa Rica; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; St. Maarten, Netherland Antillies; and Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. It's the latest tranche of Spirit's breakneck expansion south of the border, which is aimed at competing with American Airlines down the road in Miami. The problem with that? Fort Lauderdale is a terrible place for a hub. Its runways are problematic, there aren't enough gates and the airport's on-time performance is poorer than Miami's. In November, according to the latest statistics from the Department of Transportation, only 79.5 percent of Fort Lauderdale's flights departed on-time. Miami managed 82.5 percent. Fort Lauderdale's on-time arrival rate was just 76.6 percent. Miami did 79 percent. And the more flights Spirit tries to wedge into Fort Lauderdale, the wider the timeliness gap will become. No one loves American's hub in Miami. It's just amazing to think that there's actually a worse place to catch a flight to Latin America.

MORE STATISTICS We've frequently talked about the rapid decline of the Big Six carriers, but the statistics are actually startling. In September, 2001, the carriers that now comprise the Big Six (American, United, Delta, Continental, Northwest, US Airways and America West) accounted for 83.7 percent of the market. Last year, however, the Big Six accounted for just 72.3 percent of the market, according to statistics published this week in Aviation Daily. That's an eye-popping drop of 11.4 market-share points in five years--or 2.28 points per year. At that rate, the Big Six will be gone in just 32 years. I'm 53. The race is on…

POLITICIANS The Senate Commerce Committee hauled US Airways chief Doug Parker and Delta Air Lines boss Gerald Grinstein to Washington this week to talk about US Air's hostile attempt to merge with Delta. Parker promised a merger wouldn't increase fares and further assured the Senators that he wouldn't eliminate any Delta jobs. None of the senators hit Parker with his airline's phony fare calculations as detailed above, but at least one was sharp enough to point out that former American Airlines chief executive Don Carty made the same promise about TWA jobs when American gobbled up TWA in 2001. (The vast majority of TWA workers have actually lost their gigs.) For his part, Grinstein suggested the world would end if Delta were to fall into Parker's hands. His end-of-the-world scenario: Small communities would lose their air service. That was enough to get several senators talking about re-regulation. "I hear from very conservative people in my state, they're asking for re-regulation," said Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska. "I don't think it's come down to that, but I think it is something in that order," added Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. The Democrat from North Dakota, Byron Dorgan, thought airlines needed a "referee."

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