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CLEAN-UP ON COLUMN 150, PLEASE...
By Joe Brancatelli
December 18, 2008 -- This is the 49th Brancatelli File of the year and I've written at least as many Tactical Travelers. Throw in the 50 or so editions of Seat 2B over at Portfolio.com and you'd think that we've pretty much run out of things to discuss.

But just as this week's Seat 2B column is a mashup of news I didn't get to in 2008, I need to use this edition of the Brancatelli File to clean up some stuff before we can relax for the end-of-the-year holidays.

TOKENISM IN TRANSPORTATION
If the political pundits are right, President-Elect Obama has chosen retiring Illinois Congressman Ray LaHood as his Secretary of Transportation. LaHood is a Republican and will apparently be Obama's token bi-partisan cabinet appointment.

This is not good. When did the Transportation Department (DOT) become a playground for incoming presidents to play politically correct balancing acts? More importantly, this isn't change we can believe in. This isn't change at all.

It's hard to remember, but George Bush took office in 2001 vowing to be bi-partisan. He chose a Democrat, former California Congressman and Clinton Administration Commerce Secretary Norm Minetta, to be his Secretary of Transportation. Minetta was Bush's token Democrat.

Despite his impeccable transportation credentials--he even had an airport named after him--Minetta was a disaster as DOT Secretary. Except for setting the record as longest-serving Transportation Secretary, his tenure was an unbroken string of failures. His inability to advocate for policies that would improve the nation's transportation system was apparent from day one. Bush hardly listened to Republicans during his eight years in office, so he sure as hell wasn't going to listen to a Democrat.

Now we'll have LaHood as the token Republican in a Democratic Administration. LaHood doesn't know as much as Minetta about transportation issues, but, despite his party affiliation, he is supposedly part of Obama's Illinois inner circle. That, frankly, doesn't give me much hope. It looks like we're in for four more years of tokenism at Transportation.

BUYING BLIND AS A COST-CUTTING STRATEGY
My column on 2009 travel-buying strategies last week motivated a few of you to write about one of your favorite tricks: Booking hotels blind via Priceline or Hotwire.

If cost is your sole criteria, these opaque sites can often offer big savings. And they are likely to have an even wider range of properties and deeper discounts in 2009 as the hotel business sours.

But I have real issues with blindly buying hotel stays. Hotels are not domestic coach airline seats. Coach seats are a commodity. Hotels aren't. When you're booking a hotel, location matters. So do amenities and service concepts. Even if the price is exactly the same, a room at a Hampton Inn isn't a room at a Wingate or a Courtyard or a Holiday Inn Express. A Marriott isn't a Westin or a Hyatt even if the price is the same. And something else to consider: Unlike frequent flyer programs, frequent guest plans offer real, tangible and cost-effective benefits at the elite levels. The upgrades, added perks and extra benefits you get as an elite member of a hotel frequency program far outweigh a few dollars on the bottom-line rate.

Personally, I'm not comfortable buying hotels blind, so I can't in good conscience recommend that you do it. But if you don't mind, have at it. It's your travel budget and your head on the bed.

As for those of you who book car rentals via Priceline or Hotwire, I can see where that strategy works just fine, too. A lot of frequent travelers are addicted to the personalized service they get from Hertz #1 Club Gold or the choose-any-car-we've-got approach of the National Emerald Club. If you're one of them, stick with 'em. For the rest of us, a blind rental booking on Priceline or Hotwire might be fine.

ONE MORE VOICE ON OPENSKIES
Earlier this fall, when several JoeSentMe columnists independently reviewed OpenSkies, British Airways' boutique airline, I figured we covered all that needed to be said. My wife, herself a frequent flyer, disagreed, however. She sent me her notes from a recent OpenSkies roundtrip and here's some of what she noticed that no one else did:

"I found the plane's interior to be light, airy and peaceful … I also liked the playful blue and white checked floors in the lavatories, and the organic botanical soap, hand lotion and spray fragrance next to the sink … With a maximum of 64 passengers on board, the plane remained tranquil, relatively tidy and absolutely fresh for the entire flight.

"Menus in both biz and prem+ offered delicious fresh green salads … Desserts and second-service pastries were master-chef sinful … I found the cabin staff to be friendly, smart and personable. … I appreciated their wry humor and unobtrusive service, and the ability to actually remember my wine selections without asking when refreshing my glass.

"My only wish: Maybe OpenSkies' ironic 'this is not a… [menu, flight attendant, etc.]' copy will be in a smaller typeface because I think we get it. OpenSkies is different, and we're very glad. But you can use your indoor voice when you've got us buckled in."


THE AMAZING, SHRINKING EAST COAST SHUTTLE
A couple of months ago, I wrote about the amazing, shrinking East Coast Shuttles between New York, Boston and Washington. As if Delta and US Airways hadn't already done enough to downsize these power routes while simultaneously jacking up the walk-up fare, news now reaches us that the Delta Air Shuttle will get even smaller. Beginning next month, Delta will use EMB-175 regional jets on at least half of its flights between New York/LaGuardia and Washington/National. Busting the Shuttle down to an RJ route should probably be the last straw for anyone who still plies the Shuttle skies.

ARE YOU READY FOR THE FUEL-HEDGE SURCHARGE?
Aer Lingus last weekend announced that it had completely eliminated fuel surcharges. "Now that oil prices have fallen and stabilized over the past number of months, we believe the right thing to do is remove these surcharges altogether," explained chief executive Dermot Mannion.

Which leads me to ask the obvious question: What are the other airlines waiting for? As I write this, oil is selling for less than $37 a barrel, down more than $110 from its summer high and near its five-year low. There is simply no justification for maintaining any fee related to oil costs.

Of course, oil prices have fallen so fast that airlines are getting burned by their fuel hedges. Who'd have thought, for example, that Southwest's $55-a-barrel hedge position, a gigantic advantage over the Big Six earlier this year, would turn to a negative? And why do I think some wise guy at the Big Six, which have some disastrously high-priced hedges because of their own incompetence, will invent the fuel-hedge surcharge? You know, a special fee atop the fares designed to charge you for their mark-to-market losses on their hedges.

Don't put it past them. I only hope that I haven't given them the idea…
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.