By Joe Brancatelli
September 6, 2007 -- So most of us have survived the bulk of the summer of our discontent. We're a little, perhaps a lot, worse for the wear, but we are still here.

What's the reward for surviving? More craziness, of course. After all, you didn't think things were going to get any easier, didja? C'mon, you know better than that...

Smack in the middle of the saturated Boston-Washington air-space corridor, New York/Kennedy Airport is also home to three carriers' hubs: JetBlue, American and Delta. So it's no wonder that JFK is in atrocious shape for on-time operations. According to July's on-time ratings, released this week by the Transportation Department, JetBlue was at 63.8 percent, American was at 53.9 percent and Delta was at a mind-boggling 40 percent. American, which believes it can't survive as a global player without a strong presence in New York, has been privately whispering that the only solution to JFK's misery is a cutback in flight operation--by JetBlue and Delta. Meanwhile, American continues to pour flights into JFK. This month it launches flights to Las Vegas; it starts flights to St. Lucia and St. Kitts in November and service to Pittsburgh in December. American also plans to launch flights next spring to London's Stansted Airport, Barcelona and Milan. JetBlue and Delta are also expanding from JFK, of course, but neither of them is privately suggesting that the other guys should cut back service.

Besides its buildup at JFK, American is also expanding from New York/LaGuardia, another black hole for on-time operations. One of the routes it started this week, LaGuardia-Minneapolis, infuriated Northwest Airlines. Back in June, when American announced the Minneapolis flight, Northwest struck back and claimed it would launch flights from LaGuardia to Dallas/Fort Worth, American's hometown and largest hub. Northwest has now had a change of heart and has come to what passes for its senses. Instead of three daily LGA-DFW flights, it will launch one daily flight from LaGuardia to three new destinations: Des Moines, Iowa; Flint, Michigan; and Madison, Wisconsin.

The fantasy that there will be a stable Iraq any time soon has been dealt another major blow: Austrian Airlines has suspended flights to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. After several delays last year, Austrian began Vienna-Erbil service in December in the belief that Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq was safe enough and stable enough to support regular service. In the giddy weeks immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, several Western carriers planned flights to Baghdad. The service never materialized.

Airline apologists heaped buckets of fawning praise on Delta Air Lines earlier this year when caretaker chief executive Gerry Grinstein decided that he wouldn't take a big payout after the carrier's exit from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. But never let it be said that no good airline deal is ever repeated. Richard Anderson, who took over as CEO on September 1, got a compensation package that could be worth $15 million in the first year. Meanwhile, one of the losing internal CEO candidates, chief operating officer Jim Whitehurst, has departed the carrier in a huff. But in exchange for signing a non-compete clause, he left with some lovely parting gifts: the right to exercise his Delta stock options for two years; and "severance" equal to his annual base salary of $382,000, 100 percent of his target annual incentive compensation and health and life insurance benefits for a year.

Virgin America's honeymoon lasted less than a month. Launched August 8, the airline has already dabbled in fare cuts. A three-day sale this week cut transcontinental prices as low as $119 each way, $20 below its introductory fares. Prices on its California Corridor flights dropped to $39 compared to the $44 introductory fare. And more trouble is on the way. Southwest Airlines, which returned to San Francisco Airport late last month, dropped the other shoe last week: It will launch eight daily LAX-SFO flights on November 4, the same day that Virgin America plans to add its fourth and fifth flights on the Corridor's most important route. Before Virgin and Southwest entered the fray, United had a 61 percent share of the LAX-SFO market. American had 24 percent and Alaska Airlines had 4 percent. Frontier, which has withdrawn from the route, had been carrying 10 percent of the traffic.

Almost six years after we created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to protect us from terrorists, we now have to ask: Who will protect us from the TSA? In direct contravention of law, the TSA is once again trying to assign a secret "risk assessment" rating to every American citizen who flies. TSA officials also say that the agency will try to circumvent a new law that requires it to screen every piece of cargo loaded onto passenger jets. And we continue to learn about new screening rules that the TSA secretly imposed on August 4. The TSA's decision to require separate screening of larger CD players, DVD players and video-game units leaked out only because Seattle-Tacoma airport officials, fearing checkpoint chaos, asked local media to publicize the new procedure. It took almost a week before we learned that flyers who travel with sleep-apnea masks were also being required to have the devices screened. And it is only in the last few days that the public has been made aware of another new secret rule: TSA screeners may demand invasive secondary screening of Sikhs because they wear turbans. Even if the person successfully clears the metal detectors, TSA screeners can require time-consuming secondary pat-downs for no reason except for the fact that the traveler wears a religious symbol.

Forget the clunky name. OrbitzTLC Traveler Update (http://updates.orbitz.com) is a terrific new service for business travelers. It covers almost four dozen airports and offers a fantastic spread of information all in one place: arrival/departure details and flight status; ground traffic updates; weather; parking, Wi-Fi availability; and real-time input from travelers about everything from the length of check-in lines to the quality of the burgers at the food court. This service will take some time to settle in, of course, but it is already an invaluable new tool for managing our lives on the road.
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.