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THE LATE 2008 RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
By Joe Brancatelli
May 29, 2008 -- We have all been here before, of course. You know, the big airlines in crisis and a long period of chaos, phony restructurings, calls for bailouts, mergers and reregulation and endless media-driven fantasies about everything from wingtips to wingnuts.

My best advice? Focus on yourself. Business travel, after all, is essentially selfish. It's always about your flights, your status and your convenience.

I've reviewed the way of the travel world during most recent periods of this type of instability--think about how it was during the first Gulf War and the subsequent recession and then the horrific period after 9/11--and come up with this year's rules of engagement. I think they'll serve us well in the months to come.

It's not our fault. The Big Six have already started the blame game and the first people they want to scapegoat is us, their most loyal and profitable customers. We haven't been paying enough, they say. We've gotten too many perks, they claim. We have unrealistic expectations. We dare to fly Southwest or JetBlue or some other competitor. We carry on too much. We check too much. We're too fat, too skinny, too white, too black, too male, too female. The crap that'll be coming out of their collective mouth will be astonishingly inane.

My advice? Remember that airlines are suppliers. They don't exist for their own purpose, but to sell us a service we may or may not want to buy to do our own business. We're the customer. We are not always right, but don't let them scapegoat you or treat you like they're doing you a favor. You're the buyer. And it's not our fault that they are screwed up.

It's not their fault. Please, please, please remember: It's not the airline employees' fault, either. Don't take it out on the line folks who man the ticket counters or the gates. Don't abuse the flight attendants or the baggage handlers. They've been brutalized by an endless string of martinet managers for almost two decades and many of them don't even earn what they earned 20 years ago. They shouldn't be rude or nasty or officious, of course, but cut them some slack. How would you feel if you bet your career on a United or a Northwest? How would you feel if you had your pension plan demolished, your salary slashed and your workload trebled?

And I urge you to show special patience with the ones who parrot the company line. You know them. They're the ones who are convinced that their lives would have been great if only you personally paid more for your ticket or didn't qualify for that upgrade. They're the ones who are going to make a point by depriving you of something. They don't understand; they're lashing out because they are frustrated, ineptly trained, overworked and under-appreciated by their own bosses. There's no benefit if you argue the finer points of business travel with them. Just smile and be extra-polite.

It's never THEIR fault. No one knows exactly how this is going to play out, of course, but one thing I can guarantee you: The current generation of Sky Gods who've run their carriers into the ditch won't pay for their ineptitude. They never do. They have written themselves iron-clad contracts and they have compliant, see-no-evil boards of directors. When their particular handbasket reaches the gates of hell, their golden parachutes will have deployed and they won't even get singed. Then The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times will let them write an op-ed piece explaining away all their sins. All you can do is remember never to invest in an airline--or any other company that subsequently hires these boobs.

Fares will make less sense than ever. Remember the wild $300-roundtrip-to-Hawaii fare I tipped you to on Monday evening? It was gone by Wednesday morning. And that's how it's going to be for at least the rest of the year. An unbroken string of structural fare increases, fuel surcharge jumps and fee hikes balanced by inexplicable price breaks and unbelievable short-term bargains. Since the Big Six have once again committed themselves to the socialistic approach to fares--from each the most that the yield-management gurus think you should pay--the inequities will be gigantic. Shopping around will be imperative and you should start with the "flexible dates" function of the big booking engines to see the widest spread of fares.

Prepare for abrupt cutbacks. The ill-conceived strategies of the Big Six will come crashing down during the next few months. Routes, perks, services and standards will fluctuate wildly. Don't assume you know which airline flies where--and prepare for sudden cuts everywhere. Domestically, expect the Big Six to retreat to their strongest hubs, eliminating most of their non-hub, point-to-point flying. And pay particular attention if you fly a route serviced by 37- and 50-seat regional jets. The Big Six is shocked--shocked!--to learn that these sardine cans are incredibly inefficient to operate. Hundreds of these aircraft will be grounded in the coming months. Also targets for cutbacks: very long hauls, where the airlines pay a brutal penalty because the aircraft burns jet fuel just to carry fuel. A lot of East Coast to Asia nonstops may disappear and a good chunk of West Coast to Europe flights may end.

And watch for the small perks--racks of in-flight magazines and newspapers, flowers, hot meals, even personal-sized bottles of drinking water--to disappear. Anything that adds weight (thus increasing fuel burn) or cost is a candidate for the chopping block. Don't be surprised if airlines eliminate meals on domestic first-class flights, for example. Expect less of everything--and charges for perks and services that were once bundled into the cost of your tickets.

Get familiar with Southwest Airlines. One airline is always structurally and managerially positioned to profit from the woes of The Big Six: Southwest Airlines. It's got money, planes, a strategy and well-hedged fuel to expand while the others contract. That's what happened after Gulf War I and 9/11. It'll happen this year and next. The other big alternate players--JetBlue and AirTran--will survive, but they don't have the wherewithal to expand. I'm less sanguine about Frontier, Midwest, SilverJet, L'Avion and the others. Several of them will not survive.

There IS a silver lining. The big cuts at the Big Six--expect their combined route systems to be about 10 percent smaller by the end of the year--will do wonders for flight delays. Those of us who'll still be flying in the weeks and months ahead will find flights running more reliably than at any time in the last five years.
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.