THE YEAR, IN A FEW EASY CHUNKS
By Joe Brancatelli
December 20, 2007 -- Let me say how honored I am that you are here today. I know how exhausted you are after another year on the road and I'm surprised that you even had enough energy in reserve to click a link to get to this column.
In return for your effort, allow me to sum up most of the year in a few easy chunks.
FLOP OF THE YEAR: REGISTERED-TRAVELER PROGRAMS
The idea of security bypass for trusted travelers who were specially vetted by the federal government is literally as old as the November, 2001, law that created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). But 2007 is the year we learned definitively that the TSA will never allow a real registered-traveler program. It has bureaucratically hobbled any attempt to offer any form of security bypass. That has all but doomed the private companies hoping to provide the services. One firm, Unisys, got out. Another, Steve Brill's Clear, is trying to remake itself as a concierge-like operation that offers pre-security line-cut service. But Brill is hampered by his own hubris and his lack of knowledge about business travelers. He doesn't understand that his best potential customers for line-cut services already get the perk as elite members of an airline's frequent flyer program. Which pretty much explains why Brill, who predicted his $99-a-year operation would have as many as 400,000 members by the end of the year, has only signed up about 80,000. Then there's the looming philosophical issue: Why should travelers submit to intrusive fingerprinting, iris-scanning and TSA vetting when they are receiving no security-bypass benefits in return?
WORST AIRLINE OF THE YEAR: US AIRWAYS
The year started with US Airways' snot-nosed executives making a run at Delta Air Lines. It ends with the merged carrier bleeding once-loyal elite frequent flyers, juggling a dispirited, fractious workforce and grappling with a stock trading at just $15.50, about 75 percent below its 2007 high of $62.50. US Airways' international service is a bad joke, its fleet is in tatters and its reputation is shot. Management continues to offend customers. Its latest trick: a $5 surcharge buried in its base fare when you book at USAirways.com. And its effort to bully airport authorities at its Philadelphia hub failed when its threats caught the eye of the Transportation Department. Management had to lamely reaffirm its commitment to launch Philadelphia-China service despite public threats to the contrary. A startling comedown for a cabal of fools who once fancied themselves as 2007's airline power players.
DUMBEST FREQUENCY MOVE OF THE YEAR: DELTA RESTRICTS ALL AWARDS
Effective December 1, all Delta SkyMiles awards, including those at the once-unfettered SkyChoice level, carry restrictions. Worse, the restrictions are a secret: Delta flyers never know when or on what routes they will be denied a seat. Worst of all, when they were rigging the cookie jar in October, Delta executives publicly promised program upgrades to offset the new restrictions. No upgrades have been forthcoming and even ultra-loyal SkyMiles members now realize that they've been hosed. In other words, Delta executives didn't just make the SkyMiles program an essentially worthless promotional tool, they also destroyed the value of SkyMiles as a currency and twice insulted their best customers with the changes.
WORST PUBLICITY STUNT OF THE YEAR: $10 FARES AT SKYBUS
One of this year's two start-up carriers, Skybus, has been scoring a publicity coup by promising to offer at least a few $10 one-way fares on all flights. For a while, the stunt also papered over a raft of distasteful Skybus policies and shaky service. But now there is evidence that the carrier is being hoist on its $10 petard. Skybus disclosed this week that it lost a larger-than-expected $16 million during the three months ended September 30. One logical conclusion: Travelers have decided that anything more than $10 is too much to pay for a ticket on Skybus. And woe to the airline that has created the $10 fare as its standard price in the world of $90-a-barrel oil.
IRRELEVANT START-UP OF THE YEAR: VIRGIN AMERICA
After eight years of blather from Virgin Group huckster-in-chief Richard Branson and 18 months of bureaucratic and financial wrangling with the Transportation Department (DOT), Virgin Atlantic finally launched in August. And after a rush of publicity generated by sycophantic media types, Virgin Atlantic has settled into near irrelevancy. Travelers do like its reasonably priced first-class cabin, but with just eight seats on a plane, there isn't much profitability or future there. The airline said this week that it lost $35 million in its first quarter and a Virgin spokeswoman said that the airline doesn't even have a date in mind when it might turn a profit. In fairness, the $35 million loss includes 92 days of cost and just 53 days of revenue. But the pattern is disturbing: There is no route where Virgin America can dominate and none where it can operate without stiff competition. As demanded by the DOT, Virgin America has replaced its original chief executive. The new boss, a former American Airlines sales executive, is going to have one hell of a time finding a purpose and a place for Virgin America.
BEST NEWS OF THE YEAR: 2007 IS ALMOST OVER
Hey, here's the best news I've heard all year: We're done. I hope you've made it home for the year and are doing regular-people things. I hope you had a wonderful Chanukah or Diwali. If you observe the Eid, remember the poor and hungry and I hope that you are blessed with prosperity. I celebrate Christmas and I wish you tidings of comfort and joy. Happiest of New Years and, most important, peace to us all.
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.