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WANT A HEADLINE, TOO? THAT'S $5 MORE.
By Joe Brancatelli
April 26, 2007 -- I'm halfway through a two-week, six-flight, four-hotel, five-city, almost-all-business trip.

You want brilliant insight and sharp analysis from me? Now? In the middle of this? Yeah, well, I guess I can do it, but it's gonna cost you more. And I might not deliver even after I hit you with the surcharge.

Seems unfair? Maybe so, but adding surcharges and not delivering is a trick I've picked up on the first week of this trip.

It actually all started before I left last week. For reasons I couldn't possibly explain, I needed 1GB of extra memory for a new Vista computer that was in situ at one of my destinations.

I bought the memory from an online retailer recommended by the memory's manufacturer. I had to pay a $2.95 surcharge for "same-day processing" and $16.55 more for FedEx Second Day delivery.

Then I flew. Between the second and third flights, I fired up my BlackBerry. Nothing. So I went to an airport club and started my laptop. The WiFi provider wanted $4.95 for two hours of access. I paid and got a user name and password.

It cut out after eight minutes. The agent at the club tried rebooting the club's computer, but that didn't work. And she couldn't find a number to call the WiFi provider.

So I ran down the corridor to another concourse where I knew there were public Internet terminals. They were serviced by the same WiFi vendor. I entered my new user name and password. Nothing save an error message claiming that the company didn't recognize my user name or password.

Cut to my next destination and the new Vista computer. It was in desperate need of the memory that was due to arrive the next day. But I got through some work, read about the BlackBerry outage and sent an E-mail to the WiFi company wondering why my two hours of access lasted eight minutes.

I also surfed to the tracking number the online retailer provided just to make sure the package was en route. Nothing. I mean it. Literally. FedEx claimed to have no information on the package.

So I surfed to the retailer's site to find the customer service number. Too late. They were closed. Try the click-to-talk link, the site suggested. It wasn't really a click-to-talk link, but was actually a click-to-IM gimmick.

Still, I clicked. Twenty minutes later, someone responded. "Instant" apparently being a relative term.

I explained the mystery. She typed, "Just a moment." A few moments later, she typed back: "The package is lost. Would you like me to reorder the item for you?"

I explained that I'd be gone before a replacement package could be shipped. I also asked how she knew the package was lost if there was no information with the tracking number.

She typed back: "It's either lost or it's on the way. Sometimes the packages go out so fast that they don't get swiped."

I know when I'm beat, so I told her thanks and said I'd call if the package didn't arrive as scheduled the next day.

It didn't. I called. The customer-service agent wondered why I was concerned. "The package shipped today," she explained.

But I paid for same-day processing and two-day shipping three days ago, I reminded her. I received a tracking number that said it had shipped two days before, I added.

"FedEx didn't pick it up until today," she responded. And she was serious.

I'll spare you the rest of the insanity of that conversation. Needless to say, 10 days after I ordered, I have neither package nor refund for the item, the rush-service surcharge or two-day shipping fee.

I left the wheezing new computer and drove to a resort to meet some folks. I checked into a $675-a-night room (I paid less) and fired up my laptop. Sixteen bucks for 24 hours of Net access, said the browser. Whattya gonna do. I clicked to pay and up popped a window counting down the remaining access time.

About 23 hours later, one of the less-techy folks in my traveling party told me that her BlackBerry's keyboard wouldn't generate the character needed to allow her to join a conference call. So she picked up the guest-room phone--wait for it--and spoke for 20 minutes. The bill: $65.

Meanwhile, I had one more E-mail to write and the timer showed that I had 15 minutes on my Internet access. I typed three lines, punched send and waited. Nothing. The $16-for-24-hours of Internet in my $675 a night room had shut down 15 minutes early. Obviously, they don't make 24-hour days like they used to.

I flew to my next destination, checked into another hotel ($695 for oceanfront king) and fired up the laptop. Fifteen bucks a day for Internet access, said the browser. I shrugged, clicked and paid.

The first E-mail in my inbox? A press release from Skybus, a supposedly low-fare carrier due to launch from Columbus, Ohio, on May 22.

Scary stuff, actually. Skybus will be jamming more than 150 seats onto its Airbus A319s. That's pretty tight quarters when you consider that all-coach Frontier Airlines configures its A319s with just 132 seats. There won't be any type of in-flight information or entertainment system, either. No seatback monitors. No TV. No movies. No music. No nothing.

But Skybus' point of product differentiation will apparently be surcharges.

You'll pay more if you want to check a bag. You'll pay more if you want a snack or even a soft drink. You'll pay more if you want a blanket. You'll pay more for "priority boarding," which is Skybus speak for the opportunity to be first on the open-seating planes. You'll even pay more if you want "E-mail, pager or cell phone notification" about your flight's status.

Given the bad luck I've had with ups and extras lately, you'll forgive me if I have my doubts about Skybus' surcharges. What happens if Skybus doesn't deliver on any of the products or services they charge extra for?

"Don't call us," the Skybus Web site claims. "We don't have a phone number."

However, if you really want to know, send me $10. It's my new check-the-phone-book-after-writing-my-column surcharge.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.