By Joe Brancatelli
February 21, 2008 -- So here's a great idea: Let's not talk about mergers. After all, there aren't any to talk about yet. There may never be any to talk about. Or all six of the Big Six may merge into one gigantic slag heap of mediocrity.

The stuff below, at least, is real. Some of it may even impact your life on the road.

When AirTran Airways tried an unfriendly merger with Milwaukee-based Midwest Airlines last year, the battle seemed to end when an investment group and its not-so-silent partner, Northwest Airlines, came to Midwest's rescue. As soon as the $450 million deal officially closed last month, however, AirTran renewed the war on a new front. Starting in May, AirTran will begin flying from Milwaukee to New York/LaGuardia, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston and San Diego. AirTran is also boasting that it was right about Midwest's so-called renewal plan, announced in the middle of the merger battle. "They missed their numbers by a mile," crows AirTran chief executive Bob Fornaro. "We think Midwest has got a lot of issues."

I admit it's hard for business travelers to care much about Skybus, the phony $10-a-seat airline that charges for everything and specializes in new ways to add surcharges to its announced fares. But give the wacky airline, based in Columbus, Ohio, its due. It has driven more established carriers off the only two routes where they compete from Columbus. Delta Air Lines will end its Fort Lauderdale flights next month and Midwest will drop its Kansas City route in April. Of course, not everything is coming up roses for Skybus. With virtually no notice, Skybus has dumped virtually all of its flights to the West Coast. After launching routes to Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego and Bellingham, an airport near Seattle, Skybus has bailed on them all except Los Angeles.

When he launched the Clear "registered traveler" program in June, 2005, Steve Brill boasted that hundreds of thousands of travelers would use his kiosks at dozens of airports around the country. In exchange for a $99 annual fee, Brill promised that frequent flyers would be able to bypass the most annoying parts of the security-checkpoint experience. We wouldn't have to remove shoes, take off coats or take laptops out of carry-on bags. Almost three years later, however, none of that has come to pass. Only 14 airports have Clear lanes and almost half of them are unimportant spokes. Fewer than 100,000 travelers have signed up and some of them were comped. And thanks to Transportation Security Administration stonewalling, Clear members get no security-bypass benefits whatever. In fact, if you are a Clear cardholder, you have to show more ID at security checkpoints than the average traveler. How has the combative Brill responded to the fact that Clear has devolved into a line-cut program? He's raised the price of membership to $128, a cool 29 percent price bump. Maybe he's auditioning for a job at a major airline …

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says that it is investigating why a go! airlines flight from Honolulu on February 13 overshot Hilo Airport by 15 miles. Air traffic controllers were unable to raise the flight for 25 minutes, which is about half the flying time on the 214-mile inter-island Hawaii route. The FAA's suspicion: Both the pilot and the co-pilot fell asleep en route. Now I get to Hilo fairly often and I must protest: Hilo is not that sleepy. In fact, the second-largest city in Hawaii has a couple of good restaurants, a lovely seafront, a charming old Main Street and a damned fine Wal-Mart. And Hilo Airport boasts what no other American airport offers: a 24-hour station right outside the front gate that has the cheapest gasoline in town.

When the "open skies" regimen between the United States and the European community kicks in at the end of next month, there is going to be a spurt of new service to London, especially Heathrow. But British Airways, which is opening a new terminal at Heathrow next month, has made has a surprising announcement: Beginning next year, it will also fly nonstop between New York and London's City Airport, a vest-pocket facility just three miles from Canary Wharf, London's trendy new financial center. BA says it'll fly Airbus A318s outfitted with just 32 business-class beds and it is promising 15-minute check-in on both the New York and London ends. Sounds too good to be true? It is. The runways are short at London City Airport and even the narrow-body A318 can't take off with a full load of fuel. So while the New York-London City run can be a nonstop, the London City-New York flight will have to make an interim refueling stop. I don't know about you, but I don't make a stop when I can fly nonstop. BA insists the refueling stop can be as fast as 40 minutes, but that skirts the point: Why would any time-pressed traveler, who'd logically be using London City to save time, risk making a stop when there are dozens of nonstops available from Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted? You make a stop en route, you double the chance of a long and time-consuming ground delay.

The Big Six never get this one: Business travelers expect consistent in-flight offerings, especially in the premium classes. It's the minimum standard when we're paying $6,000 or $8,000 or $10,000 or more for an international seat. So what is Delta Air Lines doing as it frenetically retrofits its cobbled-together fleet of international aircraft? Outfitting the planes with a confusing array of inconsistent products, all under the moniker of the so-called BusinessElite experience. Earlier this month, for example, Delta announced it would be offering a 77-inch "fully flat" seat on its Boeing 767-400s starting next spring. But its new 777LRs aircraft will have the angled, Virgin Atlantic-like, 75-inch bed in its business-class cabins. Delta's international 757s will also get a new seat this summer: cradle-style recliners with 55 inches of seat pitch. What about the 767-300s and the 777-200s? Delta says these planes will have a "full-flat seat … eventually." Naturally, Delta doesn't seem to know what kind of seat, so it may offer five distinctly different business-class cabins--and that's before any merger with Northwest Airlines.

One of the most distinctive features in the airport world--the 300-foot-long, 23-foot-high, stained-glass façade on American Airlines' old terminal at New York/Kennedy Airport--is apparently headed for the scrap heap. Despite earlier promises to save the display, American began dismantling the 900-piece work this week. "That was American's visual identity at Kennedy for 50 years. To just throw it in a trash heap is incredibly disrespectful," says Kenneth vanRoenn, an architect who studied with Robert Sowers, who created the window. "To intentionally destroy it because it is more cost-effective [than saving it] is regrettable." American says no museum wanted to pay for the handling and removal of the work, still believed to be the world's largest stained-glass window. An attempt to salvage the window, mounted by a 29-year American flight attendant, also failed.
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.

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This column is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.