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'Twas Not the Night Before Christmas
December 17, 2015 -- In case you're really busy with the holidays and don't have time to read this column, let me give you the executive summary: Airlines can't wait to fly you to Cuba. No one wants to fly to Paris and Air France isn't doing anything about it. And Delta Air Lines continues to think we're the dumbest people on the planet.
If you're now about to rush off, happy holidays. See you in the New Year. But if you're still with me, read the backstories below. They're not 'Twas the Night Before Christmas or anything, but they may help you understand our lives on the road a little better.
THE CUBAN CONNECTION
Let's be honest: Other than the fact that Cuba has been off-limits for U.S. travelers for more than 50 years, what's the appeal of going there? Some good music? The chimera of picking up a '57 Chevy cheap?
Cuba's travel infrastructure is decrepit and it will be years before it meets even the minimum standards of some other Caribbean beach destinations. You can't even claim you expect to get there before the "tourist rush" because the rest of the world never stopped going to Cuba. Besides, Airbnb is already there. That's a sure sign that "unspoiled Cuba" has already been spoiled.
Still, the future is bright and I'm sure there'll be plenty of demand for commercial flights between the United States and Cuba when they finally arrive. And now we have a solid time frame: about six months. Thanks to an agreement announced yesterday, the path is clear for scheduled air service to resume. But don't book your flights yet. It'll take months to get the details worked out.
It looks as if 110 daily flights between the United States and Cuba will be part of the first tranche of commercial service. But only 20 will be to and from Havana. Service to nine other Cuban destinations will each get ten flights. It's hard to see a lot of profitable demand to most of those places.
And, oh, yeah, even with commercial airline service, only a very few U.S. travelers will legally be allowed to visit Cuba. Until and unless the embargo is lifted by Congress, it'll still be tough to visit Cuba.
Unless, of course, we ignore the law and the embargo--and won't that be an interesting and inflammatory political row in the middle of the 2016 presidential election?
PARIS WHEN IT FLATLINES
For all the supportive talk and the impassioned singing of La Marseillaise, business to Paris has plummeted since last month's terrorist attacks.
The numbers are ugly. Air France said its November revenue plunged $54 million. Le Bristol, one of Paris' iconic hotels, says cancellations exceeded $530,000 in the first 72 hours after the attacks. Hotel revenue overall in Paris is down 30-40 percent compared to last year. Restaurant revenue is off a similar amount. And ever-skittish Japanese travelers are so fearful of the City of Light that Japan Airlines is cancelling Paris flights from Tokyo/Narita between mid-January and the end of February.
None of this is surprising, of course. For months after the 9/11 terrorists attacks, visitors avoided New York. What is surprising is the mute reaction from Air France, the national flag carrier.
Search Air France's coach deals page. See what's missing? Any mention of Paris or price promotions to visit the French capital. Looking for a bargain on a flight to Paris in premium economy? None there, either. In fact, the cheapest fare I could find for a premium economy roundtrip from New York to Paris next month was $1,860 roundtrip--and that was with a 30-day advance purchase and a one-week stay. Business class, with a 60-day advance purchase and a Saturday stay, was more than $6,700 roundtrip.
WTF? Where are the price come-ons to encourage travelers to come on back to Paris?
The answer, I'm told, is intransigence on the part of Delta Air Lines, Air France's joint-venture and code-share partner. Delta has demanded Air France hold the line on price and ride out the decline. And since Air France can't price transatlantic seats without the agreement of its joint-venture partner, the prices stay high. So high, in fact, that it costs more to fly to Paris now, during a crisis and the traditionally slow winter travel season, than last spring, when transatlantic travel was booming.
If Delta's actions in Paris seem venal, it's only because you haven't kept up with the soap opera involving the major U.S. airlines and the three major Gulf carriers, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways.
As you surely recall, Delta has whipped up nationalist crap, claiming that the Gulf carriers are "illegally" subsidized and demanding the United States abandon our "open skies" agreement with the Gulf states. As if we don't subsidize Delta and its partners in crony capitalism, American and United. In recent years, Delta and American bailed on flights to India, insisting that unreasonably low fares from the Gulf carriers make service to the subcontinent untenable. Delta last month also dumped flights to Dubai using the same excuse.
Last week United Airlines jumped in. It continues to fly to India from its Newark hub, but it'll end Washington/Dulles-Dubai flights. The reason? Code-share partners JetBlue Airways and Emirates outbid United for the government contract on the Dulles-Dubai route. United bitched that the award to JetBlue and Emirates violates the Fly America Act and, actually, it does. The law requires U.S. government employees to fly U.S. carriers and does not make an exception for a JetBlue-Emirates code-share.
But see the irony? The Fly America Act is a form of subsidy. Worse, it's blatant crony capitalism, too, since there are specific exceptions for open skies arrangements favored by U.S. airlines.
And it gets better. Jet Airways, the struggling Indian carrier, finally decided this week to close its hub in Brussels. Jet has been carrying travelers nonstop from Newark and Toronto to Brussels and then flying them onward to India. What will Jet do without Brussels? It's moving to Amsterdam and launching a Toronto-Amsterdam route as well as connecting flights to Delhi and Mumbai. What about Newark? Oh, no. To serve U.S. travelers, Jet has cut a code-share deal with Delta Air Lines and KLM, Delta's Amsterdam-based code-share and joint-venture partner.
What's this got to do with Delta's feud with the Gulf carriers? Jet Airways is 24 percent owned by Etihad, which props up Jet with massive infusions of cash. Oh, it gets better. After the Jet-Delta code-share was announced on Monday, Jet's chief executive, Cramer Bell, quit. Well, more accurately, he was named the new CEO of Alitalia, which is 49 percent owned by Etihad. Alitalia is also a code-share partner of Delta.
Strange bedfellows, huh? Just remember: Those nasty Gulf airlines are subsidized and stealing business from all-American, squeaky clean and unsubsidized U.S. airlines like Delta.
This column is Copyright © 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. 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.