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WATCHING THE WHEELS GO ROUND
By Joe Brancatelli
October 10, 2014 -- John Lennon would have been 74 years old this week and, as I was racing home late from the airport the other day, the oldies radio station aired Watching the Wheels.
And it struck me instantly: If you live your life on the road, you spend a lot of time "just watching the wheels go round and round." We all find ourselves "just sitting here doing time" from time to time.
For what it's worth, here's how the wheels went round and round for me this week.
THE UNBEARABLE WEIRDNESS OF AIRPORT SECURITY
I was at Frankfurt Airport on Wednesday morning. Like a good business traveler, I was ready for my security check. Nothing in my pockets, sport jacket off, no belt, laptop out. But as I passed through the magnetometer, I dinged. That led to a full-body wanding by a determined screener. Up and down my legs, beeping all the time, because it seems that my inseam was a threat. Up and down my arms. Even the soles of my loafers. When that was completed, I went to the X-ray station to retrieve my belongings from the bin. I was met by another screener. She escorted me to a private room, swabbed my laptop, swabbed my smartphone and swabbed my hands. She fed the results into a computer. She almost seemed disappointed that I was clean.
About 12 hours later, at Washington/Dulles, there I was at another security checkpoint, wearing the same attire and toting the same carry-on. TSA PreCheck was functioning as it should. There was only one flyer ahead of me. When it was my turn, I fed my carry-on into the x-ray machine. Five seconds later, fully attired, I went through the magnetometer. I picked up my bag from the X-ray belt and off I went.
WATCHING THE POINTS GO ROUND AND ROUND
Delta Air Lines will soon limit the number of American Express Membership Rewards points you can transfer to SkyMiles and I suggested last week that we consider Amex's international frequent flyer partners. The inherent problem? The time-consuming work of sifting through nearly two dozen mostly unfamiliar frequency plans searching for sweet spots on their award charts.
To the rescue comes influential blogger Gary Leff. (He also operates a paid award-booking service.) Gary pays careful attention to international programs and he does know where the sweet spots are.
Everyone should read his carefully detailed post on which Amex-affiliated programs to use when you are looking for an award ticket to specific destinations. You'll find several surprises in Gary's briefing.
STRANGERS ON AN AIRPORT TRAIN
There I was in one of the United Clubs on Concourse C at Dulles on Wednesday evening and I needed to get to Gate B70 for my JetBlue Airways flight to New York/Kennedy Airport. So I got onto the Aerotrain and ran smack into one of those folks who must occasionally get lost in their own home.
"I'm trying get to the B gates," he says. "Happy to help," I respond. "Just get off with me."
As the train makes its way from Concourse C to its first stop, the A Gates, I can tell Mr. Deer-in-the-Headlights is worried. "It's okay," I say. "The system here is a little strange."
By the next stop, the main terminal, he's freaking out.
"This can't be right," he says. "I'm going to miss my train. I have to get off." Virtually restraining him, I say: "Trust me, we're on the right train."
As we reach the next and last stop, the B Gates, Mr. Deer-in-the-Headlights is even more perplexed.
"I don't understand," he says as I tug at his sleeve and guide him off the train. "Just take the escalator up to your gate," I tell him. He looks at me glassy-eyed: "But I ..."
"Look," I say, "do you want to get to your flight? Or do you really want me to explain that Dulles' gates are called A, B, C, D, H and Z and explain why they aren't laid out logically?"
"I want to get to my flight."
"Fine," I reply. "Come up the escalator with me."
At the top of the escalator, I point him to the right, the direction of his gate. I turn left toward my gate. For all I know, he may still be standing in front of Vino Volo, riding the merry-go-round, unable to let it go.
MEANWHILE, IN BRANSONLAND ...
While I was in Germany, word filtered out that Little Red, Richard Branson's domestic British carrier, would fold next year after about a year in operation.
It's another crash-and-burn in a long line of big travel failures from Branson, who never makes money for his partners, only himself. This time, Branson is blaming British Airways and British regulators for the end of Little Red. That part of Branson's MO, of course. It's never his fault.
Virgin Express, a European start-up, disappeared in a merger with Brussels Airlines after some dodgy Branson moves. Short-lived Virgin Nigeria tanked after Branson underestimated what it took to do business in Africa. The history and machinations of the carrier now called Virgin Australia are so convoluted I've given up trying to figure out how those wheels rolled. Virgin Trains in Britain is despised by customers for its miserable on-time performance and failure to deliver on the amenities Branson once promised.
He missed his chance to invest in the start-up of JetBlue Airways, then spent seven years trying to get a competitor, Virgin America, off the ground. Along the way, he buried Virgin America in debt, some of it payable at 17 percent interest, and currently skims a licensing fee right off the top. Response to Virgin America's IPO plans has been tepid. And Singapore Airlines was so thrilled to get out from under its investment in Virgin Atlantic that it sold the 49 percent stake to Delta Airlines in 2012 for $600 million less than the 1999 purchase price.
Meanwhile, four years after Branson first announced Virgin Hotels, promising 25 properties in 10 years, the first branch is due to open this winter. The supposedly imminent debut has sent the lapdog media into overdrive. The hopeless Hotel Chatter has its panties in a knot. And The New York Times, which should know better but rarely does, has given Virgin Hotels fawning coverage already.
Because, you know, Branson is a genius. What could possibly go wrong?
AND YOU'RE WORRIED ABOUT EBOLA?
As I sat in the Dulles club, a Los Angeles radio station called me to do a few minutes on the air. The topic? Why isn't LAX one of the airports where the CDC will screen for Ebola? I suggested that since LAX had no nonstop flights from Africa, logic dictated focusing elsewhere. Besides, I mentioned, I'm sitting in Dulles, where the late Thomas Eric Duncan first landed in the United States. No one here seemed particularly concerned about Ebola.
And just as I was finishing this column, an old friend, perhaps not coincidentally a former TV writer with a penchant for conspiracy theories, called me. He and his wife are scheduled to fly to Europe next week and they were thinking maybe they should cancel.
"Hey," I said, "I just got in from Frankfurt and there was no one panicking about Ebola.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "You know that they're not telling us everything."
And that's when it struck me again: What in heaven, hell or medical labs do I know? I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round ...
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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 © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.