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THE TRAVEL STORMS OF AUGUST
By Joe Brancatelli
Forget the dog days of August. It's the summer storms of August that are causing grief for us business travelers. Last year it was Hurricane Irene that raked the Southeast and East Coast and caused a week of travel chaos. In 2008, it was Gustav, which reached as far north as Minneapolis and caused almost as much excitement at the Republican Convention as the then-unknown Sarah Palin. And in 2005, there was Katrina, which almost wiped away New Orleans.

And now we have Isaac, which started out threatening Florida and another Republican convention and then whacked the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. Throw in the computer meltdown at United and a end-of-month strike at Lufthansa and it's been stormy times indeed. Here's how we've been covering it. As always, like a Pinter play or a blog, read backward from the most recent item or from the bottom up for the story as it unfolded.


FRIDAY, AUGUST 31, 7:45AM ET
DOWN GOES FRANKFURT AS ISAAC HANGS AROUND

If you think Isaac was bad, it could be worse: You could be in Frankfurt trying to deal with the fallout from the first day of the flight attendants strike against Lufthansa.

Lufthansa cancelled hundreds of flights to and from Frankfurt today. That includes at least four flights scheduled to depart from the United States tonight: one each from New York/JFK, Boston, Atlanta and Philadelphia. At least one Frankfurt-JFK flight has been cancelled, too. Track cancellations here.

We have no word yet about this weekend. And next week, when business travelers get back on the road, is going to be rocky. If your destination is Europe, consider other hubs: Madrid, London or Berlin with Oneworld carriers or Paris or Amsterdam using SkyTeam. If you want to stick with the Star Alliance, you can try SAS (Copenhagen), Swiss (Zurich) or Austrian (Vienna).

As for Isaac, airports in the Gulf region, including New Orleans, have reopened. But there are plenty of cancellations, especially on early-morning departures since the airlines have to fly aircraft into those airports. Things should be back to mostly normal tomorrow.

And watch for this: If you have to fly this weekend, what's left of Isaac will be dumping lots of rain in the Midwest. That could affect the Chicago/O'Hare and Cleveland hubs. And there'll be delays as airlines reroute aircraft around the storm.

THURSDAY, AUGUST 30, 10:45AM ET
THE SOUTHEAST SHUT DOWN -- AND A LUFTHANSA STRIKE

A brief update on travel conditions in the Southeast and news about a strike at Lufthansa starting Friday.

If you switch over to The Weather Channel or head to Weather.com, you'll hear the difficult news: While Isaac has been downgraded to a tropical storm, this slow-moving behemoth continues to batter the region with heavy rains. That's causing lots of flooding and, now, tornadoes. Bottom line: This isn't an area you should be trying to reach.

Not that you really can. Here's a quick overview of airport conditions:
NEW ORLEANS: Closed
BATON ROUGE: Everything cancelled at least until 5pm local time
MOBILE: Everything cancelled until at least 11am local time
JACKSON (MS): About half the schedule already cancelled
SHREVEPORT: Heavy cancellations
BILOXI: Everything cancelled until at least 2pm local time
LAFAYETTE (LA): Everything cancelled until at least tomorrow

So far today, there have already been 400 cancellations nationwide, most of them to or from Atlanta, Houston/Intercontinental, Dallas/Fort Worth, Memphis and Charlotte, the major hubs that feed the region. All day yesterday, there were only 500 cancellations. In other words, things are getting worse, not better.

Good news: Florida airports, including Pensacola, the closest to the storm, are nearly normal.

The Lufthansa strike: The flight attendants union says it will begin job actions tomorrow (Friday) local time. It refuses to disclose details, but it will logically target Lufthansa's key hubs of Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin. Lufthansa has set up a page to chronicle cancellations, but it doesn't look like there'll be much advance notice.

In fairness, Lufthansa has excelled at keeping its transatlantic and other long-haul operations going in previous job actions over the last 18 months. However, it has faced chaos on intra-German and intra-Europe flights. If you are scheduled to be on Lufthansa in the next few days, consider other airline options or Deutsche Bahn, the excellent German railroad.

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 29, 9:45AM ET
THE BIG STORM--AND UNITED COMES UP SMALL

Now we get to ask the question: What's worse for business travelers, a hurricane or United Airlines? It's neck and neck, as far as I can tell.

Hurricane Isaac made landfall at about 6:45pm Central Time last night and, more than 12 hours later, it's still sitting there, dumping amazing amounts of rain on New Orleans and the coastal communities of Alabama and Mississippi. The weather geeks say it may sit there for another 12-18 hours. There are predictions of 18-24 inches of rain in some areas.

About 500,000 people in the area are without power and at least one levee has been overtopped in the New Orleans area. Travel by air is a nonstarter, of course. The airports in New Orleans, Mobile and Gulfport/Biloxi remain effectively closed. Pensacola Airport has reopened and flight operations may resume at 10am. How many flights will actually operate is unknown.

There were about 540 cancellations and 3,500 delays yesterday systemwide, but the vast majority of those were caused by United Airlines and its commuter carriers, not Isaac.

The unknown troubles that shut down the hobbled SHARES computer system that powers United's passenger operations and its Web site yesterday knocked the airline down to the 60 percent on-time range. Things were worst in Newark (47 percent departures/55 percent arrivals), but Chicago/O'Hare and Houston/Intercontinental were also bad. San Francisco was also a nightmare. JoeSentMe.com members reported long delays, long lines and overwhelmed ticket agents writing boarding passes by hand.

Today, frankly, isn't starting out much better. FlightStats.com reports that United is running 56 percent for on-time arrivals so far. Boston, Washington/Dulles, Los Angeles and Newark are the worst of the worst so far today. However, things should improve as United gets its crews and aircraft back into position.

TUESDAY, AUGUST 28, 5PM ET
NOW IT'S HURRICANE ISAAC--AND THE SAME OLD UNITED

It doesn't just rain, it pours--and then there's United Airlines...

Hurricane Isaac, and it is now a hurricane with winds at 80 mph, is slowly and relentlessly heading toward land. It's so large that it'll impact Morgan City, Louisiana, to the West and Pensacola, Florida, in the East. And its outer bands have been lashing areas as far north as Charleston, South Carolina. The weather geeks are now talking 24-36 hours of storm-force winds and double-digit inches of rain as Isaac makes landfall this evening.

Meanwhile, United.com has been down since about 1 p.m. today and United Airlines is admitting to a "network outage." Delays on United Airlines--and especially on its United Express commuter carriers--are piling up. There are long lines of passengers waiting to check-in at its Newark and San Francisco hubs. In other words, exactly what we expect from dysfunctional United.

TUESDAY, AUGUST 28, 8:15AM ET
STORMS AND STRIKES AND WAIVERS, OH MY!

A quick update on what is still Tropical Storm Isaac as it heads slowly and ominously toward the Gulf Coast. I've also got an update on the strike situation at Lufthansa.

All service to/from four airports--New Orleans, Mobile, Gulfport/Biloxi and Pensacola--has been cancelled. Given the very slow movement of this storm, I wouldn't expect anything operating there tomorrow, either. And considering the massive amounts of rain the weather geeks say that Isaac will drop when it finally makes landfall, I wonder about flights for Thursday and Friday, too.

The major carriers have all expanded their travel waivers to add dozens more cities around the region. The problem, of course, is their offensive policy requiring you to rebook and fly in the next four or five days. Their schedules will be spotty at best. So my advice: Wait the idiots out. They'll cancel the vast majority of their flights in the area in the next few days. When they cancel, take the refund and start the booking process again. We'll delve deeper into this new wave of airline foolishness in coming weeks, but, for now, there's not a lot we can do.

Looking ahead, the path of the storm will take it up the heart of the country by the end of the week. That means potential trouble for weekend flights using the Chicago and Detroit hubs. We'll have more on that as the storm develops.

Now the Lufthansa situation: Talks between the airline and its cabin crews have failed. The unions say that they won't strike today (Tuesday), but will only give a few hours notice before they walk. As Lufthansa has grappled with its labor situation in the last year, it has actually done a fairly decent job keeping its transatlantic service running. But getting to its hubs in Frankfurt and Munich from other European cities will be a problem if you are booked on LH--or its Star Alliance code-share partners United and US Airways. I'll keep you informed as we hear from the unions about their plans.

A note on where we've been: There were about 5,500 delays and 440 cancellations on Monday, according to FlightStats.com. More of them were actually at Northeast hub airports because the weather turned ugly in the evening.

MONDAY, AUGUST 27, 3:30PM ET
ISAAC HEADS FOR THE GULF COAST

A quick update on Isaac, which is dumping enormous amounts of rain on South Florida and is now strengthening in the Gulf of Mexico and seems on target to hit the Gulf Coast.

First, what's coming: If the weather geeks are right--and they haven't been--Isaac will reach hurricane strength (at least 75 miles per hour) this evening and hit the Gulf Coast tomorrow with winds in the 90 mph range. A big storm surge may accompany the storm.

The airlines have extended their travel waivers to Gulf Coast cities and several carriers, including United and Southwest, are ending all flights into and out of New Orleans (MSY) tomorrow around noon. Flights are suspended, weather permitting, until late Thursday at the earliest. Carriers are also beginning to cancel flights to other Gulf Coast destinations.

Four states--Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida--have declared states of emergency and there are some mandatory evacuations in effect. There are some power outages and flooding in Florida.

A worrisome note: New Orleans officials say that they will not allow the Superdome, the Convention Center or the airport to be used as a shelter. How'd that work out for them seven years ago this week when Katrina hit? Worse, the weather geeks say this wide, slow-moving storm could dump four times the amount of rain on New Orleans than Katrina did. And we're all reminded that New Orleans is in a geographic bowl: There's not a lot of places for the water from rain or storm surge to go.

What's just passed: The airlines cancelled about 825 flights yesterday, most of them to/from Florida airports, but also in the Baltimore-Washington Corridor, where the weather was dreadful. Today's cancellations are much lower so far--about 300--and many of those are in Chicago and at Newark, where the weather is also bad. Delays are piling up around the system, however. According to FlightStats.com, nearly 2,800 flights have already been delayed today.

A follow-up on the travel-waiver issue: Most carriers are insisting that you must choose alternate flights that operate by the end of the week. The insanity of that is self-evident, but who ever said airlines worked logically? A notable exception: United. Yes, United. It has adopted a traditional approach to waivers: You can rebook for about a year with no change fee.

What can you say when the only carrier acting sanely right now is dysfunctional United? Shame on the other guys for a) treating customers shabbily; b) raising their own costs by trying to force passengers to rebook into a travel period when flights might still end up being cancelled; and c) being shown up by United, which hasn't done anything else right in months.

Is there any good news? Well, the compressed schedule of the Republican Convention in Tampa has forced organizers to nix the cameo appearance of Donald Trump. That means we won't have to listen to that idiot lecture us on China, the economy, the birther nonsense or anything else. It's a big win for Romney: Now he doesn't have to pay attention to Mr. Big Hair for the rest of the campaign.

SUNDAY, AUGUST 26, 11AM ET
TRAVEL WAIVERS AND UNHELPFUL CUSTOMER HELP

Here are the airline travel-waiver links:
UNITED AIRLINES
www.united.com/CMS/en-US/travel/news/Pages/travelnotices.aspx
DELTA AIRLINES
www.delta.com/traveling_checkin/flight_status_updates/advisories/Isaac/index.jsp
AMERICAN AIRLINES
www.aa.com/i18n/travelInformation/travelAlerts.jsp
US AIRWAYS
www.usairways.com/TravelCenter/Advisories.aspx
SOUTHWEST AIRLINES
www.southwest.com/html/travel_center/swa_travel_advisory_20127241345829011474.html
AIRTRAN AIRWAYS
www.airtran.com/weather/default.aspx
JETBLUE AIRWAYS
www.jetblue.com/JetblueAlerts/WeatherUpdate.aspx?intcmp=global_travelalert
FRONTIER AIRLINES
www.frontierairlines.com/flight-info/weather
VIRGIN AMERICA
www.virginamerica.com/news.do?int=news_0000_ab

An odd and quite annoying note. When airlines issue travel waivers, they traditionally allow you to change your flights and travel anytime within the one-year validity period of your ticket. But several airlines--including American, Delta, US Airways and JetBlue--this time are allowing you to change for travel only until the end of August.

That not only stinks as a matter of customer service, it's insane for carriers to think schedules will even be back to normal in the next few days. My guess: The airlines have many travelers headed to Tampa for the convention and they are hoping for a lot of use-it-or-lose-it revenue from people walking away from their flights. No matter what the reason, though, it stinks.

SUNDAY, AUGUST 26, 8:45AM ET
TODAY'S PROBLEMS--AND THE PROBLEMS TO COME

How is the storm named Isaac affecting travel right now? How serious an impact will it have on travel around the country during the next week?

First, the immediate concerns: There have been 560 cancellations around the system today, virtually all of them at Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Tampa and Key West. (In fact, the airports in Key West and Marathon are closed). Two groups of carriers--American Airlines and American Eagle and Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways--have registered the vast majority of cancellations. There are now tornado watches up in South Florida, too. Power outages are beginning to pile up and there are already reports of trees down on roads even in Miami.

Isaac, still officially a tropical storm, may make landfall near the Keys late tonight or early tomorrow. But its track actually has shifted west and it may not actually make mainland landfall until Tuesday evening. Predictions now are for it to hit as a Category 2 somewhere between the Florida panhandle and New Orleans. Cat 2 means winds in the 100 mph range.

At the moment, carrier travel waivers continue to focus on the Caribbean and Florida. But I expect that to change in the next 12-24 hours because this storm could bring gigantic amounts of rain, wind and disruption to Atlanta and other airports in the Southeast. In fact, if you're expecting to use Atlanta later in the week, you should figure on problems. Worse still, Isaac is pushing other weather systems ahead of it and that could mean some serious rain in Dallas/Fort Worth and Chicago this week, too.

In other words, this will not be a fun week to fly. Several major hubs are going to be under heavy pressure. Start planning now to avoid the worst impact. And don't forget that fast, heavy rains bring road flooding and you might not be able to get to your airport even if it's open.

As you've probably already heard, the Republicans have effectively cancelled Day 1 of their national convention. I've seen some criticism of the GOP for its decision to plan a convention in the middle of hurricane season in Florida. And I guess, in hindsight, that is an odd decision. But, you know, in 2008, the Republican convention was in Minneapolis and the first day was washed out by Hurricane Gustav.

Stan Stein, who runs the North Dakota Republican Party, admitted he was at a loss as to how to prepare for the hurricane since his delegation is housed in a Tampa-area beachfront hotel. "We do blizzards. We can handle them, but we're just going to go on the advice we're getting from hotel management on how to prepare for this," he said.

Less funny: Amtrak's Silver Service, which operates in Florida, is all but totally shut down in the Sunshine State.

SATURDAY, AUGUST 25, 10:30AM ET
AND HERE WE GO...

Most airlines have now issued travel reaccommodation policies. However, they are literally all over the map. Virtually all include the Caribbean, where Isaac is currently lashing Hispaniola after raking Puerto Rico. Some include airports on both the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast as far north as Tampa and Fort Lauderdale. Some, notably American Airlines, are more conservative. And I've yet to find a JetBlue policy.

What concerns me now is the rather mysterious nature of Isaac. The weather geeks love to make bold statements about where a system is "likely" headed and its possible intensity. Not so this storm. No one seems to have a clue about how strong it will become or what path it'll take. About the only thing they do know is that it is a gigantic rainmaker. It's dropping record amounts on land masses as it passes.

That meteorological uncertainly seems to be freezing the airlines in place. Normally, they'd already be canceling lots of flights and moving aircraft out of South Florida. But not this time: Since no one knows where or how strong the storm will be, the carriers seem reluctant to pull any triggers. There have been surprisingly few advance cancellations so far. See the current flight conditions at the FlightStats.com status page.

This slow-off-the-mark response mirrors what the airlines tried in the face of Hurricane Irene this time last year. Unable to figure out where the worst impact would be, they acted conservatively and tried to outguess the storm. As you recall, they were punished later and we suffered through days of massive, last-minute cancellations and monstrous delays.

Bottom line: It could be a difficult and uncertain travel week for those of us needing to be (or starting from) anywhere from the Gulf Coast of Texas up to the Carolinas. The only reasonable advice I can give is 1) Try to rearrange your travel if it's not necessary. The time you save is your own and, really, do you want to spend the week before Labor Day Weekend cooling your heels at some miserable airport hotel? 2) If you can't switch, pay attention on a granular level to developments. It doesn't look like you're going to get much of a heads-up from your airline.

It goes without saying that the Weather Channel is already in its breathless, a-potential-Armageddon-is-coming coverage. And a note: Its marquee meteorologist, Jim Cantore, is headed to Tampa as I write, so I infer that they are still thinking this storm could play havoc with the Republican Convention starting Monday.

THURSDAY, AUGUST 23, 8PM ET
THEY'LL HUFF AND PUFF AND BLOW THE TRUTH DOWN...

Assuming that the big blow named Isaac doesn't wipe it out, the Republican Convention in Tampa next week designates Tuesday as "We Built It" day. That's when Republicans will take shots at President Obama's remarks that small businesses didn't build their enterprises alone. Just like the legacy airlines, however, Republicans seem oblivious to optics. The GOP convention will be held at the Tampa Bay Tribune Forum, a county-owned facility built in 1996 with more than 60 percent public funds. To make the area around the arena cute for the Republicans, the city of Tampa also used $2.7 million in public funding for a "beautification" project. And lest you think it's just Republicans and legacy airlines that miss the bloody obvious, consider the Democratic Convention next month in Charlotte. It'll take place at the Time Warner Cable Arena and Bank of America Stadium. You know, facilities named after fat-cat banks and monopolistic corporations that President Obama regularly bashes in speeches.

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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 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.