The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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Business Travel Right Now
Thursday, November 1, 2018 -- Some of you--more than I would have thought, honestly--got your notice this week.
A little white postcard from American Express rather bloodlessly announcing the death of Skyguide.
The rest of you don't even know what Skyguide is, of course. Why any of you still paid for printed airline schedule books is beyond me. And this from a guy who spent three tortured years in the 1990s working for (and railing at) the Official Airline Guides, the company that in 1970 created the market for pocket-sized schedule books.
The death of Skyguide is irrelevant in itself. But it is an unsubtle reminder that business travel always changes. Depending on how long you've been around, you've cycled through pocket flight guides and pagers, alligator clips and dial-up modems, Palm Pilots and upgrade stickers, blue Bic Cristal ballpoints and green Flair pens, Courtyard hot-water dispensers and Hyatt Faster Free Nights--and, of course, printed tickets with red "carbon" guaranteed to rub off on your white shirts. And do you want to tell me once again about the standing rib roasts on Pan Am 'cause I've got a couple tales of KIWI International that I haven't mentioned yet.
None of that stuff matters. Nostalgia in business travel only ensures that you are doing it wrong. Business travel is always, eternally, about the next flight, the next hotel, the next meeting. Sticking to the old ways is guaranteed to cost you money and time and it will destroy your peace and productivity.
So what's now in business travel? This ...
ALTERNATE BUYING STRATEGIES
The third-quarter airline earning calls went approximately like this: Coach revenue is in the tank, but we're really soaking business travelers for more revenue. As coach fares continue to fall internationally and stay flat or mostly flat domestically, business travelers are paying up to fly up front.
There really is a better way. When the gap between sitting in the back and sitting in the front reaches such ridiculous proportions, it's time to dust off the two-seat scenario and deploy it again. This is a strategy that comes and goes, but it matters--a lot--when airlines are making their economic bones on higher premium fares.
One example: A three-day-long trip next week on Delta Air Lines between Los Angeles and New York is a startling $3,851 roundtrip in first class. Coach is around $620. Is first class more than six times better than coach? Not to my mind. I'm okay with a pair of coach seats for $1,240 and $2,500+ in my pocket. The two-seat scenario will give you enough room, and, you know, there are no airline meals worth spending real dollars on. Doing the two-seat two-step is not that difficult. Just make sure the airline knows what you're doing so they won't give your seat to someone else because Ms. E. Seat was a no-show.
BREXIT REALLY IS SCARY
If you travel to Europe, mark March 29 on your schedule. That's Brexit Day, when the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union. Now we can talk about the whys, wherefores, how-comes and the WTFs forever. But as the chance of a "no-deal Brexit" grows, so too does the chance that there will be no aviation agreement, either.
I scratch my head over the reason for Brexit and for the apparent overconfidence of the British and European sides about who needs to or will blink first. But if the United Kingdom exits without a more amenable deal than the existing status quo, flights will be disrupted. Even British Transport Minister Chris Grayling, who once claimed aviation would not be affected, now admits it would.
What's it mean for us? Well, for starters, at least for a while, forget London as a European hub. If your ultimate goal is a European destination, fly nonstop or arrange for a transfer through a hub in the Schengen Area. Yes, that zone is a mystery to us and even the word "Schengen" seems bizarre. But get to know it because if the Brits bail without a deal, London will be off the map as a place to easily change planes for the continent.
That said, I am less worried about U.S.-U.K. travel in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Yes, a new bilateral aviation agreement would have to be negotiated and Anglo-American flight deals used to be devilishly difficult. (Anyone remember the various "Bermuda agreements" that frequently perplexed Democratic, Republican, Tory and Labour governments?) Today, though, there is too much at stake to muck things up for more than a day or two across the Pond.
If airline capacity is growing and fuel prices are rising--and they are--that raises the issue of who's gonna pay for all those seats. Business travelers want frequency, but airlines need coach passengers to act as ballast to soak up the excess capacity created when they give business flyers the frequency they desire. If coach passengers aren't paying--and airlines say they are not--routes and frequencies will have to be slashed. If the economy weakens dramatically and fuel prices continue to jump, there'll be too many seats chasing too few dollars and too few passengers. In other words, make sure your future business trips are flexible. You might find some flights and routes cancelled on very short notice next year.
ABOUT THAT BOEING 737MAX CRASH
Besides being a dreadful human tragedy, the Lion Air crash in Indonesia on Monday brought out all the worst strands of drive-by "aviation reporting:" rampant speculation, half-facts, bad data and we'll-say-anything-to-make-believe-we're-deep commentary. But brand new aircraft--this was a fresh-off-the-line Boeing 737MAX--don't crash. And they don't crash 13 minutes after takeoff on a fine morning with no bad weather. Unless, you know, they do.
We know the 737MAX in the United States mostly as those nasty new planes with disgustingly tight seating. But while the aircraft carries the moniker 737, the Boeing 737MAX is a substantially new aircraft. New aircraft do have teething issues. The Lion Air aircraft, in fact, had problems on the segment preceding the fatal flight.
If another 737MAX has an emergency landing or an in-flight incident or, heaven forbid, another fatality, be prepared for a Boeing 787 Dreamliner scenario. The Dreamliner's problems seem like ancient history, but it wasn't that long ago travelers were avoiding them and "experts" were contending they were a cursed aircraft.
This column is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2018 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.