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JUST AN OLD-FASHIONED SCREED COLUMN
By Joe Brancatelli
March 12, 2009 -- So you're mad as hell and you won't take it anymore? And you're mad at me for not being mad as hell, too. That's the takeaway from some recent E-mails complaining that I haven't written a good, old-fashioned screed in the Brancatelli File for a while.

I plead guilty. But that's because I don't feel in a death-to-the-infidels mood when it comes to business travel.

I think life on the road is going quite well for the moment. Airlines are desperate and discounting like crazy on most routes. It's $600 roundtrip in coach to India and under two grand to Europe in business class, for gosh sake. Last week we even had a $99 coast-to-coast sale. Hotel rates are falling through the floor and even the more-arrogant-than-thou luxury chains like Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons are begging for customers and pricing appropriately. Now's a fabulous time to take a holiday, something I discuss in this week's Seat 2B column over at Portfolio.com. With fewer folks on planes, at airports and in hotels, life on the road is fairly calm and less horrific. And the upgrades are flowing like water.

This comparatively copacetic state of affairs will not last, of course. It's just the luscious calm before the economic tidal wave that will remake life on the road as we know it. I'll discuss that next week in both the Brancatelli File and Seat 2B. Meantime, enjoy the $150-a-night luxury hotels, the relatively beneficent availability of free seats from your frequent flyer program and that once nearly extinct beast: an empty seat next to you in coach.

None of this soothe your savage breast? Still looking for a little Brancatelli File brimstone? Okay, if you force me…

THE BOOBS IN THE BATHROOM…
Two weeks ago, Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary, the master of the public relations stunt and the unbundled, not-what-it-seems airfare, said that he would like to charge passengers for the right to use in-flight restrooms. I ignored the comment and didn't waste your time by reporting it for two reasons: 1) It was a transparent PR stunt and I don't let airlines do PR here; and 2) Charging for in-flight lavs is illegal because Ryanair sells booze on board and, like most civilized places in the world, the European Community requires places that serve alcohol to maintain free restrooms.

But the boobs on the bus in the general media, and even some business-travel reporters who should have known better, immediately gave O'Leary the free PR hit he wanted. A couple of days later, they gave O'Leary even more publicity when he sent his PR people out to suggest that he was just shooting from the hip. At a press conference last week, O'Leary then insisted he was serious about launching a charge for in-flight loos. The media went nuts again and gave still more free PR to Ryanair. The media didn't realize it had been had until last weekend. That's when O'Leary gleefully told a tourism group that it was all a cheap publicity gimmick.

Not one of the idiots who repeatedly reported the story--many of whom claimed they had no choice but to be O'Leary's stenographer because Ryanair is an important airline and O'Leary loves to find once-free "amenities" for which to charge--bothered to check the applicable laws about booze and bathrooms. Not one of them made a single call to a regulatory body to check if O'Leary had the legal right to do what he was suggesting. Not one of them did any reporting at all. They just quoted O'Leary lying over and over and over.

And not one of them realized the real endgame. Just a few days before the loo lunacy began, O'Leary announced that he was going to remove check-in desks at the airport. That controversial move--which should be opposed vigorously--generated virtually no negative publicity because poo-brained fools were mindlessly regurgitating every word O'Leary was dishing up on the phony bathroom story.

MEANWHILE, BACK AT SPIRIT AIRLINES…
The closest thing we have to Ryanair in the states is Spirit Airlines. It's an awful carrier run by the Killer Bs (Ben Baldanza and Barry Biffle), who almost killed an earlier iteration of US Airways, and largely owned by William Franke, a creepy financier who almost destroyed America West.

After running afoul of Department of Transportation (DOT) rules when it previously tried to charge customers for the right to make a reservation, Spirit Airlines has worked out the kinks and successfully navigated DOT regulations. If you surf to the Spirit Airlines Web site--I refuse to link to it--you will now pay $9.80 roundtrip for a "passenger usage fee." This latest fee is atop Spirit's fees for checked baggage; advance seat selection (any seat you select in advance); and in-flight soft drinks. Last year it even tried to charge a "natural occurrence fee," which was an add-on you paid to cover the cost of refunds Spirit had to give if it cancelled flights due to weather.

I have a rule: I don't pay an airline--or any supplier--for the "privilege" of simply doing business with them. Neither should you. And no one in their right mind should fly this dogpile of an airline.

IT ACTUALLY MAKES SENSE IN THE ORIGINAL KLINGONESE…
For reasons known only to The Blackstone Group, the floundering investment firm that paid a bajillion dollars to buy Hilton just as the economy began to tank, it recently hired a fellow named Ross Klein away from Starwood Hotels. Klein created the W brand at Starwood and then rolled out a line of even more incomprehensible hotels named aloft and Element.

Klein is one of those psycho-babble types who talks about everything but the product when he creates a new hotel chain. Now given the state of the global economy in general and travel in particular, you wouldn't think that Blackstone would really be interested in creating any new hotel brands, but Klein this week nevertheless unveiled plans for a new Hilton chain called Denizen.

Denizen Hotels, you say? Sounds kinda weird, you say. Well, you ain't heard nothing yet. Here's some of what Klein and Hilton said in the press release announcing Denizen: "Denizen Hotels will target corporate and leisure guests and creates an international intersection between business and pleasure with an environment that redefines how guests stay and how they play. Each hotel will offer both substance and style, creating a technology-rich, smart-in-design living environment, focusing on connecting emotionally with guests."

Didn't get any of that? Let Hilton and Klein explain a little more: "Denizen Hotels will offer a global voice with a local accent--cultivating a community for guests to connect within each unique location. … Denizen Hotels will range from unique, select experiences to larger destination resorts, creating a unified yet eclectic brand with the assurance of the Hilton brand reputation."

And then there's direct quote attributed to Klein: "The term denizen literally means 'citizen of the world.' "

Uh, no, Ross, it doesn't. You could look it up, as Casey Stengel, baseball's master of the linguistic bamboozle, used to say.

By the way, even though there are no Denizen Hotels, there's already a Denizen Hotels Web site. Lots of luck making sense of that.

PAGING TIM GEITHNER! MR. GEITHNER TO THE WHITE COURTESY PHONE…
We've shoveled something like $45 billion of taxpayer money into Citigroup in an attempt to prop up the zombie bank. Yet it took a call from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to convince Vikram Pandit, the terminally clueless Citi chief executive, to cancel an unseemly order for a new corporate jet.

It looks like Geithner may have to pick up the phone again. Like a good TARP-assisted bank, Citi cancelled a whole bunch of fancy incentive trips for employees of its Primerica Financial Services and Smith Barney units. But did Citi take all that money saved and funnel it into shoring up its balance sheet? Of course not. It paid out $13 million in cash and debit cards to the employees whose lavish junkets were cancelled. Citi's excuse? (As if you didn't already know?) "We need to reward, retain and develop the best employees," said one spokesperson.

That silly line has even less resonance than usual since Citi has already announced it hopes to sell Primerica and has agreed to merge Smith Barney with the brokerage business of Morgan Stanley. In other words, Citi has no interest and no hope of retaining the people it just rewarded with cash and debit cards in lieu of the now-taboo travel perks.

NOTED…
Finally, this nugget from the recently filed 10-K of the newly merged Delta and Northwest airlines. The combined carriers have inherited 71 DC-9 aircraft. The average age of the planes: 35.2 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.

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 © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.