THE SATURDAY-NIGHT SPECIAL
By Joe Brancatelli
March 29, 2008 -- So I got up this morning and made a mistake: I went to my office to clean off my desk. And there I found sheaves of notes about stuff I needed to talk to you about on Thursday. And but for space and time (and my justifiable desire to occasionally have a hurried meal with my wife, watch a basketball game and sleep), I would have.
But I'm nothing if not a guilt-ridden, news-driven Catholic school boy, so here I am on Saturday, bashing out an extra edition of The Brancatelli File. Enjoy the fruits of guilt and obsession, fellow travelers…
SHORT-TERM CANCELLATIONS, LONG-TERM QUESTIONS
Some unalloyed good news: Delta Air Lines and American Airlines returned to whatever passes as normal yesterday after days of massive cancellations due to emergency reinspections of the carriers' fleets of MD-80 and MD-88 aircraft. According to FlightStats.com, Delta canceled just 15 of 1,619 mainline departures tracked by the service. American dumped just 24 of 2,165 mainline departures tracked by FlightStats on Friday.
Now that the short-term crisis has passed, we're left with some long-term questions: How many more reinspection-related cancellations are still to come? Why have the Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines been so lax in their paperwork-pushing? Perhaps most important, what does all of this say about the safety culture at the airlines?
It seems to me that something is wrong. Corners are being cut.
Airline executives can point to the incredible safety of the system and insist their commitment to safe operations is unwavering. But the inspection lapses, the alarming run-up in non-fatal aircraft incidents--a US Airways aircraft lost part of its wing while in-flight last week, for example--and a host of other red flags clearly indicate that safety isn't the overriding concern that it should be.
It is inevitable: Even in the best of all circumstances, planes will crash and passengers will die. When it happens, it is also inevitable that the soft underbelly of the system--safety is now in the shaky hands of the dollar-obsessed bean counters who run the nation's carriers--will be exposed.
THERE'LL ALWAYS BE AN ENGLAND--AND CHAOS AT HEATHROW
With the exception of its Los Angeles and San Francisco routes, British Airways flights between the United States and London/Heathrow aren't scheduled to shift to the airport's Terminal 5 until the end of April. So we've been largely shielded from the utter chaos that has marked the first few days of operations at the world's most important and shambolic international gateway.
Opening day on Thursday at T5, the $8.5 billion, 20-years-in-the-making facility that is completely dedicated to BA operations, was a nightmare. Flights were cancelled, baggage stacked up, travelers were told they could only fly with carry-on bags, hours-long lines formed--and British Airways seemed alternately clueless and incompetent as the situation went from bad to worse to worldwide public-relations disaster.
A apoplectic Irish woman was savvy enough to look into a BBC camera and say, "It's a disgrace and the whole world will see this." The Beeb made sure the world did. The wire services caught up with George Martin, the legendary producer of The Beatles, and he unloaded about his delay. Those words were reprinted around the world. And there was the low-key British passenger who quietly explained to news cameras that she'd just flown into Terminal 5 after departing from Shanghai's new terminal. Then she wondered why the Chinese could get it right, but her countrymen couldn't.
The chaos at T5 continued yesterday, and, at slightly less apocalyptic levels, dragged into today and will surely extend into tomorrow. It's anyone's guess if things will be "normal" by Monday, when traffic ramps up again. And I've already heard rumblings that BA may now delay its shift of U.S. routes to T5. (By the way, international operations at Heathrow's other terminals have been almost magically shielded from the T5 meltdown.)
What's most worrisome about the T5 disaster, however, is BA's actions--and reactions. I've been told by several BA insiders that they were convinced they had this opening nailed. Internally, there is shock and awe at the magnitude of the disaster and despair about how T5 became the aeronautic equivalent of a World War I offensive in Flanders. The chaos didn't come about because BA executives didn't plan; it happened even though BA did plan. And to add insult to worldwide injury, BA was paralyzed by its own over-confidence. Even as it was obvious that the opening was falling apart, BA dismissed the issues as "normal teething" problems. Without extending the World War I metaphor too far, BA did a General Haig: It kept on keeping on even as its service and its passengers were being wiped out.
(A 10:30 p.m. update: British Airways says flight cancellations will continue into next week and it now has a backlog of 15,000 bags strewn about Heathrow. And, oh, apparently this is all the media's fault: The airline has banned the BBC and SkyNews, a British all-news TV station, from filming in Terminal 5.)
ALOHA GOES BANKRUPT AGAIN--AND FOR THE SAME OLD REASONS
Aloha Airlines' bankruptcy filing earlier this month--its second since 9/11--may finally doom the once-respected carrier. Aloha seems not to have enough cash on hand to survive past April and no investors have leapt forward to bail it out. The airline has already said it is for sale, in whole or in parts.
Aloha's current problems largely stem from the 2006 arrival of go!, the low-fare progeny of Mesa, the regional airline that flies commuter service for several Big Six carriers. But go! isn't just low fare: It is low rent. Mesa has already been hit with an $80 million judgment after a judge ruled that it illegally used proprietary information obtained from Hawaiian Airlines. A similar complaint launched by Aloha is pending, but court action isn't due until September.
Still, Aloha exacerbated its own problems. Several years ago, it eliminated first-class service on inter-island flights. Local frequent flyers don't necessarily need the space on the very short inter-island runs, but they do prefer the quiet of first class, which is blessedly free from the hordes of vacationers who populate the coach cabins. Aloha's decision to dump first class sent the state's most frequent (and highest-fare) flyers into the waiting arms of Hawaiian and left Aloha bereft of higher-yield customers when go! arrived with 50-seat RJs and $39 one-way fares.
Then Aloha made the classic mistake incumbent carriers make when facing a low-fare interloper: It ramped up its own capacity and dropped its own fares. Aloha publicly said it couldn't make money at less than $55 one-way, yet it slashed prices and added seats at the unprofitable fare levels. In its bankruptcy filing, Aloha blamed the need to match the go! fares.
Think of the logic: You lower fares to match a competitor--then blame the competitor when you can't compete. If price- and capacity-matching is a sure route to bankruptcy--and Aloha publicly said that it was when go! launched--then why do it? Why not provide better service, restore perks like first class and try to win flyers willing to pay more? You may still fail, but at least the failure isn't preordained.
(An update on March 30, 7 p.m.: Aloha Airlines has announced it will shut down passenger operations at the close of business tomorrow, March 31.)
ALITALIA NOW, THE BIG SIX LATER
It's useless to try to recount Alitalia's troubles. They defy both logic and English-language explanation. Suffice it to say that after decades of only-in-Italy chaos, the outgoing government recently agreed to dump its 50 percent share in Alitalia and sell for pennies on the euro to the Air France-KLM combine. The deal Air France has offered is financially and politically humiliating, including all but closing Milan as a hub because that better serves Air France's pan-European intentions. But the sclerotic Italian bureaucracy feels powerless to object.
Along comes Silvio Berlusconi, the right-wing former Prime Minister who is already poised to win next month's elections. He has denounced the Air France offer and claims an unidentified Italian consortium is ready to save Alitalia, salvage the country's pride and (coincidentally) shore up Berlusconi's support in Northern Italy, which would suffer most if Milan is permanently downsized.
There's no Italian consortium waiting to rescue Alitalia, of course. Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, is a con artist. He also did nothing to help Alitalia when he was prime minister for five years earlier this decade. His Italian rescue plan is a fiction that will disappear the day after the April 12-13 elections.
Berlusconi's gambit will probably lead to Air France's withdrawal and Alitalia's bankruptcy--and that is a good thing. If the airline goes bankrupt, there will be marginally larger job losses than under the Air France plan and Alitalia will shrink a little more. But it will also allow other competitors to come in and create new service. That won't happen if Italy's entire aviation infrastructure is turned over lock, stock, hubs and espresso machines to Air France.
Let's be honest: None of us care about Alitalia. But it won't be long before we are once again faced with another bailout demand from the Big Six. Either through hasty mergers or another direct financial infusion, they'll demand we save them again. In 2001, in the midst of the smoke and death of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we bailed them out and we've been paying for that mistake ever since.
Alitalia eventually needs to die so that 21st-century carriers can bloom in Italy. And we need to let the Big Six die when they come demanding their next bailout.
THE REALLY ANNOYING PEOPLE WATCH
Gordon Ramsay, the superchef turned TV star, and Gloria Allred, the lawyer, are two of the most annoying people in the celebrity firmament. Celebrities aren't my beat, but both invaded the business-travel world this week.
Ramsay is a talented chef, no one argues that. But he's foul-mouthed, arrogant and seems to revel in humiliating other chefs and the poor commis who work for them. So I took perverse pleasure in the scathing review given to Ramsey's newest venture, Plane Food, at Heathrow's aforementioned T5. Jan Moir, the talented British restaurant writer, excoriated it in a blog entry this week: "The main problem with Plane Food is that it is a little too close to plane food for comfort."
Allred is a talented lawyer, no one argues that. But she's screechy, nasty and accuses everyone who doesn't agree with her of bias and bigotry. So when she popped up this week as the lawyer for a 37-year-old woman who claimed that male Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners at Lubbock Airport made her remove her nipple rings, I was concerned. I was gearing up for weeks of all Allred all the time. But the TSA moved with uncharacteristic speed and changed its procedures for examining body piercings. Thanks, Gloria. Now, please, go away. I'd rather we take on the TSA without you.
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.