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PLANES, TRAINS, AUTOS, STRIKES, STORMS
By Joe Brancatelli
Riddle me this, frequent flyers: When was the last time an airline shut itself down in a pique? Or there was a gigantic October snowstorm along the East Coast? Or a strike at Air France? (Okay, don't answer that last one.)

And when was the last weekend when all of these things happened on the same weekend?

October 29 and 30 will go down as one of the weirdest and unpredictable weekends in the history of business travel. This is how we covered it. And, as usual, this unfolds backward, with the latest items at the top, just like a Pinter play. Well, the whole weekend was like a Pinter play, come to think about it...

10/30/11, 11PM ET, SUNDAY
Picking Up the Pieces of a Wild Weekend

Here is tonight's update on what has been one of the strangest weekends in business-travel history.

THE QANTAS GROUNDING ENDS
An Australian labor commission ordered Qantas to resume flying and end its lockout and ordered the airline's labor unions to stop their industrial actions. If they can't agree on terms within 21 days, there'll be binding arbitration.

Given the far-flung Qantas network, it'll take several days to reaccommodate the estimated 70,000 flyers that the airline abandoned when management abruptly shut down the carrier without warning on Saturday. Some flights should already be up in the air on the airline's intra-Australian network. It may take until Wednesday before flights from the United States are back on schedule. And contrary to the carrier's promise to run code-share flights, it appears that most of its U.S. network (which is a code-share with Oneworld Alliance partner American Airlines) was cancelled during the global shutdown.

Along the way, the airline's decision to shut down without warning came in for heavy criticism from Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (she called the action "an extreme approach") and transport minister Anthony Albanese (he called it a "break of faith). And the head of one of Qantas' unions called Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce "mad." Mad as in crazy, not angry…

A majority of Australians apparently agree with him. An admittedly unscientific poll conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald reveals that 58 percent of Australians think Qantas "went too far." They also want Paul Hogan to become chief executive of the airline and put really long knives in the galley. (I made the Paul Hogan stuff up, but someone had to make at least one Crocodile Dundee joke during all this, so it fell to me.)

Despite the antipathy of the average Australian and leading Australian government figures, The Wall Street Journal made it clear that it was siding with Joyce and Qantas. Here's the lede of its incredibly biased story: "Qantas Airways Ltd. was cleared Monday to restore service after an Australian tribunal ruled to end a prolonged labor dispute that had forced the airline to ground its fleet world-wide over the weekend."

How much is wrong with that sentence? No one "cleared" the airline to restore service. The airline itself chose to shut down. An Australian tribunal did end the labor dispute, but it also was the agency that barred Qantas from enforcing its lockout and demanded Qantas resume flying. And, again, no labor dispute "forced the airline to ground its fleet." Qantas management did that by choice.

So maybe we should be thinking about occupying The Wall Street Journal until it stops doing typically Murdochian things like blatantly misinforming its readers and ignoring facts. These labor-management disputes are tough enough to understand without Murdoch's minions playing hide-the-shrimp-on-the-barbie with the facts.

OCTOBER ODDITY: THE AFTERMATH
Want to know exactly how brutal this weird October storm in the Northeast has been?

With the power out at our vast worldwide headquarters, the entire JoeSentMe staff and marching band has moved to one of the three hotels in a mixed-use complex about seven miles north. While shepherding the fife and bugle corps to the front desk, I ran into a state trooper who looked a LOT worse for the wear. She explained that she and her fellow officers responded to more than 100 calls from the hotels over Saturday night and Sunday morning. They were all from guests whose cars were trapped in the hotels' parking lot.

Elsewhere, an Amtrak train was stuck on the tracks for 13 hours in Massachusetts and 48 passengers were stranded overnight. And none of them got to share a drawing room with Roger Thornhill or Eve Kendall. And at least six JetBlue Airways flights were diverted to Bradley International in Hartford, Connecticut, and at least one spent more than seven hours stuck on the tarmac. The lavatories stopped working and food and beverages ran out. Basically, that's a grand slam of violations of the passenger-rights regulations imposed by the Department of Transportation earlier this year. It will be interesting to see if DOT fines JetBlue or any other airline.

There have been 485 cancellations and about 4,500 delays nationwide today--almost all departing from or heading to Northeastern airports. That's dramatically better than Saturday's cancellations (1,277), but not even as good as yesterday's delay number (about 4,250). Needless to say, it's going to take a few days to work out the kinks and get the system back to what we call normal these days. Approach all travel to, from and around the Northeast with extreme caution this week.

And I think I've just about shaken off my 8-hour driving ordeal from yesterday. I mean, no one should be forced to listen to that much of an oldies radio station in one endless stream. When you hear Donna Summer, Vicki Sue Robinson and KC and the Sunshine Band in heavy rotation 35 years later, you really do begin to wonder what we were thinking…

WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE THE AIR FRANCE STRIKE
The Air France strike begins its third day on Monday and the airline is declaring victory because it says it hasn't cancelled as many flights (about 20 percent of its system) as it predicted. That's like me saying my diet is going well because I haven't gained any weight this week.

But there actually is some good news. According to the Air France Web site, the airline is canceling fewer transatlantic runs Monday and Tuesday than it did on Saturday and Sunday. Which is like me eating less leftover Halloween candy than last year. But you get the idea…

10/30/11, 1:30AM ET, SUNDAY
The View From The Driver's Seat: Ugly, Ugly, Ugly

We're once again working by lamp light as the vast JoeSentMe world headquarters is again without power thanks to the bizarre Nor'easter that has paralyzed many parts of the Northeast.

How many parts? I dunno, because I spent eight hours in a car driving 65 miles last evening. The snow/sleet/ice/rain winds closed roads all over two states in the area I was in.

But according to FlightStats.com, that invaluable resource, approximately 1,300 flights were cancelled yesterday (Saturday), almost all of them originating or destined for airports between Washington and Boston. Another 4,000+ were delayed. That's about quadruple the normal number of both, which we know because the folks at FlightStats were kind enough to send me several previous years of statistics for October 29 before the storm hit.

My fear for Sunday is the roads and your ability to get to a Northeastern airport. There are downed power lines and mangled trees everywhere. Worse than this past summer's hurricane and worse than any traditional winter storm I can recall. In the light of day, I think we'll find a massive number of impassable roads.

Check with your carrier and your airport before flying today. And even if they say the flight is going, check to see if you can get to the airport. Meanwhile, the worldwide Qantas management lockout of staff and shutdown of the carrier's network continues. The Australian government is attempting to force Qantas management to resume operations and hoping to arbitrate the dispute. I'll update you on that later this weekend.

The Air France strike continues, too. Cancellations (about 20 percent systemwide) are surprisingly high on the Atlantic routes. It sounds like a good a reason as any to avoid France for now if you possibly can. Besides, I defy you to find a song called Halloween in Paris…

I'll get back to you as soon as possible in the next 24 hours with updates. Man, these October storms are murder…and forgive the brevity because you just don't get a lot of bandwidth with a BlackBerry tethered to your laptop for internet access...

10/29/11, 10:30AM ET, SATURDAY
Global Chaos: Strikes, Shutdowns and Snowfalls

We're literally talking about global chaos this morning. If you're an international traveler or hoping to travel in the Northeast this weekend, there are real weird and cosmic disturbances.

QANTAS GROUNDS FLIGHTS WORLDWIDE
In a stunning and totally unanticipated move, the management of Qantas grounded all of its flights worldwide effective at 5pm Saturday Australia time. The only exception are code-share flights it operates with partners like American Airlines and British Airways and its Jetstar subsidiary.

The airline's management claims the shutdown is in response to ongoing labor actions by three of its unions. But don't blame this on the unions, folks. Their actions were annoying and inconvenient, but this global shutdown with no advance notice is a management choice and Qantas' bosses admit as much. "I have no choice but to force the issue," Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce told a news conference in Sydney.

Well, he did have a choice. And he chose a nuclear option. We don't like it when labor unions use their power to inconvenience us. Similar scorn--and double the scorn--can be heaped on Qantas management, especially since its international network is long and thin and this is going to cause massive disruptions for days. I can't recall a situation where, as a bargaining tactic, management shut down a global carrier with no notice to passengers, employees or governments. It's frankly astonishing and despicable as a negotiating tactic.

Qantas has posted a page of information, but essentially it says that you're stuck and you have to live with it until Qantas management decides otherwise.

AIR FRANCE STRIKE CAUSES TRANSATLANTIC CANCELLATIONS
As I warned you on Thursday, Air France was playing coy with its schedules in the face of a five-day strike starting today by some of its employees. Well, it has now released some of its cancellations and they directly affect many U.S.-France nonstops. If you were expecting to travel to or from France and the United States today and in the next few days, check this page.

As we're learned whenever there is a flight disruption, Air France is one of the least cooperative or even communicative in helping arrange passenger reaccommodations. I wish you luck. And, by the way, if you're booked on Air France via Delta or other SkyTeam carriers, don't expect them to help too much. They often dump you back on Air France if Air France is the actual operating carrier.

NORTHEAST WEATHER TAKES A BIZARRE TURN
Although this may not have too much impact on flight operations at big East Coast airports like Philadelphia, New York and Boston, the weather geeks are predicting upwards of a foot of snow today into tomorrow for some areas in the Northeast.

A statement from the National Weather Service this morning all but specified that this storm will dump tons on snow directly on the vast, worldwide JoeSentMe headquarters in the Hudson Valley. The airports in the region, not so much and maybe mostly rain. I urge you to follow forecasts carefully and check your flights before you go to the airport today and tomorrow if your itinerary includes areas from the Mid-Atlantic to New England. This looks like an odd and confusing mid-fall "snow event."

10/27/11, 11PM ET, THURSDAY
Here We Go Again: Air France Faces a Strike This Weekend

Air France staffers have called a strike that is expected to last from October 29 (Saturday) through November 2 (Wednesday). Don't expect much advance warning from Air France. Although the airline says it is "compelled to reduce our flight schedule," it hasn't listed the cancellations. The carrier also conveniently warns that it does "not exclude 'on the spot' cancellations as well as delays." If you are interested in these vague, Gallic updates, surf here.

10/20/11, 11PM ET, THURSDAY
Service Down Under Goes Down: Qantas, Unions Squabble

Qantas grounded four Boeing 737s and a Boeing 767 due to maintenance delays that the airline is blaming on an ongoing squabble between the carrier and its unions. The grounding will lead to the loss of 60,000 domestic seats in the next few months and the cancellation of 400 flights. The cuts are atop periodic work stoppages by Qantas unions outraged because the carrier wants to create new airlines based outside Australia, but lay off about 1,000 Australian workers and cut international flights that originate in Australia. For his part, Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce says the unions are "continuing to cause real damage." Of course, Joyce doesn't mention that he's moved aircraft to its low-cost Jetstar division and dumped the acquisition costs and other losses on the international division of Qantas. He then complains about the poor results of the international service, slashes its route network and lays off employees. These are not fun times Down Under regardless of which side of the dispute you're on.

9/22/11, 11PM ET, THURSDAY
The First Strikes Start at Qantas

While Air Canada avoided a strike this week, Qantas hasn't been so lucky. Ongoing job actions by various unions led to about 30 cancellations on domestic routes on Tuesday (September 20). More strikes may occur as early as next week. The airline's workers are upset with Qantas management's plans to lay off 1,000 Australia-based employees and create new airlines with non-union staffs.

8/12/11, 11PM ET, THURSDAY
Qantas Shifts Emphasis to Asia, Downgrades Australia

It won't affect U.S.-based frequent flyers, but Australia is abuzz after Qantas announced this week that it will lay off about 1,000 local workers, cut some key international routes and start two airlines based in Asia. The carriers will surely be staffed by lower-paid, non-Australian employees. Most shocking is Qantas' decision to turn some key Australia-to-London runs (locals call them "kangaroo routes") over to its Oneworld partner British Airways. Qantas staffers are already talking strike. One of Qantas' planned new lines is a low-cost carrier based in Japan and created in partnership with Oneworld ally Japan Airlines. The other airline that Qantas says it will create is a premium-service carrier based in an as-yet unknown country. Qantas management says the transformation will take place over the next five years.

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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 © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.