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ONLY ONE THING HERE MATTERS
By Joe Brancatelli
August 22, 2008 -- More than 150 of our fellow travelers died this week on a runway in Madrid. Despite several days of speculation, no one really knows what caused the crash of the Spanair MD-80 series aircraft.

As is always the case with these horrific tragedies, the randomness is brutal. Stunning. Crushing. Why that plane? Why that flight to the Canary Islands? Why Madrid? Why Wednesday? Why those 153 people?

A wire service report carried an interview with a couple who survived because they arrived at Barajas Airport a few minutes late and missed the flight. But TVE, the Spanish broadcaster, trained its cameras on a grieving father. My Spanish isn't too good, but I got the gist of it: I put my son on the plane this morning. It was his birthday tomorrow. He would have been 23. Now he is gone.

What could I say here, what could we discuss, that really matters compared to that?

Life on the road stinks and what follows is simply this week's specific examples of that generality. But none of it matters compared to death on the road. There but for the grace of god we all go. In case we've ever forgotten that cosmic truth, Madrid reminded us. It is the only remotely good thing that could possibly come from the brutal, random, incalculable loss of another 153 of our fellow travelers.

UNITED MAKES MORE IN-FLIGHT SERVICE CUTS
Effective September 2, United will eliminate free snacks for coach passengers on more of its domestic flights. Effective October 1, it will stop serving meals in coach on flights from its Washington/Dulles hub to Europe. Instead, United will sell snacks, salads and sandwiches. And the price of those "meals" will increase. Shelf-stable items will rise to $6 from $5; fresh buy-on-board (BOB) choices will increase to $9 from $7. If you're sitting in business class on a domestic flight, you'll still get a free meal, but you'll have to choose from among the BOB options United is peddling to coach passengers. And there'll be fewer flight attendants to do all this since United is cutting back to Federal Aviation Administration staffing minimums. One other cut: Travelers who fly on United p.s. flights between New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles will lose their pre-arrival snack.

CLEAR CHANNEL REMOVES ADVOCACY ADS AT MSP AND DEN
With Democrats streaming into Denver this weekend for their party's national convention next week and Republicans headed to Minneapolis next weekend for their presidential conclave in September, the Union of Concerned Scientists had an idea: Let's put anti-nuclear-weapon ads on billboards at Denver and Minneapolis airports. But Northwest Airlines, the major carrier at MSP, has veto power over advertising in the terminals it uses. It demanded the advertising be removed. The company that owns the billboards, the media giant Clear Channel, complied. And even though no one complained in Denver, it pulled the billboards there, too.

BRITISH AIRWAYS AND AMERICAN WANT ANTI-TRUST IMMUNITY (AGAIN)
For at least the third time in the last 15 years, American Airlines and British Airways are seeking anti-trust immunity to collaborate on fares, scheduling and other matters that otherwise would be illegal. This time, BA and AA are adding Oneworld partners Iberia, Finnair and Royal Jordanian, to the request. The last AA-BA quest for anti-trust immunity failed when British Airways refused to give up take-off and landing slots at London/Heathrow, the world's most important international airport. The Oneworld alliance currently controls almost half the slots at Heathrow. BA chief executive Willie Walsh says BA won't give up slots this time, either. If you want to see what the airlines claim will be the passenger benefits of still another big, anti-trust-vaccinated alliance, surf here.

RYANAIR CANCELS VALID PASSENGER TICKETS
Ryanair, the uber-stripped-down European carrier, and so-called "screen-scrapper" travel agencies are having a fight. Ryanair gets much of its revenue by selling travelers ancillary services at its own Web site. Screen-scraper services allow flyers to book tickets without ever going to the Ryanair site. To foil the screen-scrapers, Ryanair is now canceling the tickets sold to travelers through the screen-scrapers. Ryanair says it's not responsible for alerting travelers that the tickets they purchased in good conscience--and which Ryanair sold--are no longer valid.

GOVERNMENT REASSERTS THE RIGHT TO SEIZE LAPTOPS AT THE BORDER
As promised, the U.S. Customs Service has published its rules about laptop seizures at the border. In short, the Customs Service considers laptops luggage and a long-standing court rule permits border agents to examine baggage at our international frontiers without cause or suspicion of illegal activity. Moreover, Customs reserves the right to do virtually anything it wants with any data it might take off your laptop or storage devices like thumb drives. The simple solution: Don't keep anything sensitive on your laptop.
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.