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WHERE WE STAND RIGHT NOW
By Joe Brancatelli
January 3, 2008 -- Happy New Year and answer me quickly: What were we thinking about on the road during the first week of 2007?

Can't remember, can you?

It's okay. Neither can I. A year on the road is very rough on the memory. Besides, one year tends to blend into another, doesn't it? What's another price hike, another humiliation at the hands of the airline, another broken promise from the hotel chain that broke your heart? What's another slashed frequent flyer program benefit or disappearing perk?

But as I begin to have more memory lapses than hair--okay, I've had more memory lapses than hair for a long, long time--I find that I need to leave markers for myself. Little touchstones so we can judge where we are in comparison to where we've been.

So consider this column a trail of business-travel breadcrumbs. We can revisit this stuff next year and see where we've been as we try to figure out where we're going.

OILY REALITIES
The price of a barrel of crude oil hit $100 today before retreating at the close of the markets. This time last year it was selling for "just" $51 a barrel.

A MARKET FOR FOOLS
When I first started The Brancatelli File on the Web in 1997, many business travelers used to double their pain by investing in airlines as well as flying them. Most learned hard lessons in the intervening years, but a big run-up in airline stocks in 2006 once again clouded some judgments. A look at the market for Big Six securities today should bring those folks back to reality. AMR, the parent of American Airlines and American Eagle, closed at $13.35 today, down from its 52-week high of $41. United closed at $31.75, down from its 52-week high of $51.60. Continental closed at $20.46, down from its 52-week high of $52.40. And US Airways, the other Big Six carrier to trade for all of 2007, closed at $12.72. That's a stunning 80 percent drop from its 52-week high of $62.50.

THE STATE OF THE DOLLAR
When the euro became a "street currency" in January, 2002, it was selling at about 90 cents to the U.S. dollar. It dropped even further that winter before beginning its amazing five-year run against the beleaguered greenback. Only a late rally during the last week of December allowed the dollar to close the year at $1.46. On New Year's Day, the Euro Zone swelled to 15 countries when Cyprus and Malta joined. Today the dollar closed at $1.47. The dollar stood at $1.98 today against the British pound after jumping well past the $2 mark during 2007. The greenback was at 109 Japanese yen and 7.27 Chinese yuan. And the U.S. dollar stood at 99 cents against the Canadian dollar, the result of another years-long reversal of relative values. It wasn't that long ago that the loony commanded just 65 U.S. cents.

SECURITY EYEWASH
So what do we think about the quality of airport security as we begin 2008? That hardly seems like a question worth asking. But it is worth noting that the researchers now agree with our belief that airport security procedures are just eyewash. A team at the Harvard School of Public Health released its finding just before Christmas and their conclusion: There is no evidence that x-raying carry-on luggage makes us safer and no evidence to suggest that requiring us to take off our shoes and making us forfeit liquids improves airline security. Read the report for yourself at the British Medical Journal.

THE QUALITY OF BIG SIX HONESTY
It could have been any Big Six airline any month, but last month it was United Airlines, which cancelled nearly 5 percent of its scheduled flights. A disproportionate amount of those cancellations came after a mid-month snowstorm at its Chicago O'Hare hub. As the cancellations piled up, United never warned customers about its ongoing problems, just as United didn't warn them to stay away when a computer meltdown grounded its fleet earlier last year. And it never apologized for disrupting the holiday travel plans of hundreds of thousands of flyers, just as it didn't apologize after a 2006 holiday meltdown.

Worst of all, United's chief operating officer wrote a bizarre letter to the Chicago Tribune today and denied everything. That despite a mountain of evidence that United cancelled four times more flights than American Airlines, its major competitor at O'Hare, or Frontier Airlines, its major competitor in Denver. The facts are irrefutable: The problem at United is management's inability to staff properly, manage foreseeable problems and deal honestly with customers. But United disputes the irrefutable anyway because its bosses, like the SkyGods of most of the Big Six, think you are so stupid that you will believe anything.

That never seems to change from year to year, does it?
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 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.