By Joe Brancatelli
December 27, 2007 -- So you thought you were in for a quiet, uneventful, end-of-the-year holiday week. Some downtime, perhaps, when nothing of note would occur on the road.

Sure, right…

Here's what's been happening while you've been doing holiday-type things, and having, I hope, a good time.

December 28, 2007 -- It's Friday afternoon on the week between Christmas and New Year. What better time for the Department of Transportation (DOT) to drop a change in carry-on and checked-baggage rules on us?

These changes become effective on Tuesday, January 1--and they are weird and confusing. As you can see by the DOT statement below, we now must handle our lithium batteries in a special way. As best as I can read the new regulations, we can only have two lithium batteries in our CARRY-ON bags and only if they are stored in a plastic bag. Approved electronic devices such as laptops can still be carried in carry-on bags even though they may house lithium batteries.

Lithium batteries will only be allowed in CHECKED bags if they are installed in electronic devices, which, of course, we probably shouldn't check in the first place.

This change is supposedly in response to the fact that lithium batteries are a potential fire hazard.

Passengers will no longer be able to pack loose lithium batteries in checked luggage beginning January 1, 2008 once new federal safety rules take effect. The new regulation, designed to reduce the risk of lithium battery fires, will continue to allow lithium batteries in checked baggage if they are installed in electronic devices, or in carry-on baggage if stored in plastic bags.

Common consumer electronics such as travel cameras, cell phones, and most laptop computers are still allowed in carry-on and checked luggage. However, the rule limits individuals to bringing only two extended-life spare rechargeable lithium batteries, such as laptop and professional audio/video/camera equipment lithium batteries in carry-on baggage.

"Doing something as simple as keeping a spare battery in its original retail packaging or a plastic zip-lock bag will prevent unintentional short-circuiting and fires," said Krista Edwards, Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Lithium batteries are considered hazardous materials because they can overheat and ignite in certain conditions. Safety testing conducted by the FAA found that current aircraft cargo fire suppression system would not be capable of suppressing a fire if a shipment of non-rechargeable lithium batteries were ignited in flight.

"This rule protects the passenger," said Lynne Osmus, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) assistant administrator for security and hazardous materials. "It's one more step for safety. It's the right thing to do and the right time to do it."

In addition to the new rule, PHMSA is working with the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the battery and airline industries, airline employee organizations, testing laboratories, and the emergency response communities to increase public awareness about battery-related risks and developments. These useful safety tips are highlighted at the public website: http://safetravel.dot.gov.

December 26, 2007 -- United Airlines is sliding into operational chaos as the week continues.

Stormy weather has pounded the Midwest throughout December, of course, and Chicago/O'Hare has been particularly hard hit. That said, however, it is clear that Chicago-based United has handled the situation poorly and its systemwide operations are much worse than weather conditions can explain. Moreover, American Airlines is having noticeably fewer problems than United at O'Hare in specific or systemwide and Southwest Airlines is operating without any extraordinary problems at Chicago's Midway Airport.

After long delays and high cancellations last weekend, United yesterday cancelled 324 of its 1,398 systemwide departures--or more than 23 percent of its operations. It cancelled 312 of its 1,277 systemwide arrivals--or more than 24 percent of its service. It ran about 55 percent on-time for the flights it did operate yesterday; about a quarter of its flights were delayed 45 minutes or more.

Today, December 26, is hardly better. Of the 990 arrivals scheduled by 6 p.m. Eastern Time, United had cancelled 174, a rate of 17.5 percent. Just 61 percent of the flights that have landed were on-time and 133 were delayed by at least 45 minutes.

By comparison, American Airlines has cancelled just 18 arrivals systemwide by 6 p.m. Eastern Time today.

United's hub in Denver is also being hard hit and its systemwide operations are stupendously off-schedule and confused.

(As always, these statistics are being posted at FlightStats.com, which is as close as definitive and real-time as anyone can get.)

Tomorrow is not likely to be any better. In fact, there's no reason to assume that United's schedule will return to anything like normal until after the New Year.

What's going on? Bad weather is certainly a factor. Planes out of position are certainly a factor. But it is clear that, once again, United is running into an end-of-the-month shortage of pilots who have reached their federally mandated monthly maximum operating times. Pilots who do have flight time remaining may also be turning down overtime assignments.

All of this comes against the larger background of management incompetence and financial cupidity at United. Since its 2002 bankruptcy, United's pilots have taken brutal pay cuts and had their pensions decimated. By comparison, however, United chief executive Glenn Tilton earned an estimated $39 million in total compensation in 2006, at least twice as much as any other U.S. airline CEO. Earlier this month, United's top executives announced a special payout of $250 million to United shareholders. And United executives have gleefully reported huge increases in earnings throughout 2007.

It's clear, however, that United executives have taken no steps to keep its workforce of pilots staffed to necessary winter levels and done nothing to keep its existing flight crews happy. And, naturally, United management has decided that end-of-the-year flyers will be required to put up with its now nearly annual holiday meltdown. United hasn't even bothered to post any information about its operational problems on its Web site.

I hope you're not scheduled to fly United before the New Year. If you are, try to make alternate arrangements. I'd also be very wary of flying United during the first week of 2008. Disruptions of this nature often take an extended period of time to rectify. And United has shown that it has neither the ability nor the inclination to ease the way for its paying customers.

December 24, 2007 -- Sorry to interrupt your holiday, but Maxjet Airways has folded. It declared bankruptcy today and ceased operations on all routes. It says it will be forced to liquidate its assets.

As we warned you two weeks ago in Tactical Traveler, the airline's protestations of "business as usual" without financial transparency were worthless.

If you are booked on Maxjet for a future flight, the Maxjet Web site says that you'll have to contact your credit card company for a refund. No reaccommodations are being offered. If you are currently in transit, Maxjet claims that it is contacting you. Or you can contact them.

Maxjet says that Eos Airlines says it will be carrying some of its customers stranded in New York or London. Continental Airlines has announced that it will accept Maxjet tickets on a standby basis. Until December 31, Silverjet says it will offer a limited amount of tickets to former Maxjet customers at the price that they had paid to Maxjet.
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.