The Brancatelli File



November 3, 1993 -- To schlep or not to schlep? That is the question many business travelers now face when they need to use a personal computer on the road.

As laptop computers got smaller, lighter, cheaper and more powerful, the question seemed moot. Business travelers by the hundreds of thousands bought laptops, carried them on countless business trips and enjoyed around-the-clock computing power.

Earlier this year, however, the nation's airlines began to limit the use of laptops and other electronic devices during a flight. The airlines claimed using laptops in certain in-flight circumstances was a safety risk.

Some carriers banned the devices during takeoffs and landings. Other went further, restricting the use of laptops at altitudes below 10,000 feet. There also have been sporadic reports of flight crews making their own determinations of when and how business travelers can use a laptop computer during a specific flight.

Although there is some anecdotal evidence that electromagnetic emissions from laptops may interfere with aircraft navigational equipment, there is little proof. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates commercial aviation, has repeatedly declined to restrict the use of laptop computers.

The resulting confusion--each airline issuing its own guidelines for laptop use and flight crews sometimes enforcing their own rules--has led many business travelers to question the value of carrying their computer on a trip.

"I was asked to stop using my laptop on three consecutive flights this summer on three different airlines," says Susan Jacobson, a Phoenix real estate executive.

"Each time a flight attendant asked me to stop, I was given a different explanation. I got so confused I started leaving the machine at home. Why tote around ten extra pounds of gear and another bag if you don't know when you'll be allowed to use the computer?"

Of course, leaving the laptop in the closet all but defeats the original intent of portable computing. And business travelers who choose to leave their machines at home learn some hard lessons whenever they need access to a computer on a business trip.

Renting a computer on the road isn't easy, it isn't cheap and it is terribly inconvenient from the technological standpoint.

"If a business traveler has a laptop, I advice them to carry it with them" no matter how onerous the airline rules may seem, says Jim Clark, director of marketing for PCR Personal Computer Rentals, a nationwide computer rental service.

The first lesson a laptop-less business traveler learns is that computing on the road isn't a matter of instant gratification. Although there are exceptions, renting a computer generally requires at least 24 hours advance notice.

"We do a lot of same-day service," says Clark, "but generally it's a matter of 24-hour turnaround."

Concierges at some of the nation's best hotels confirm Clark's comments.

Then there's the matter of cost. Clark says the average price for a daily rental from one of his 80 nationwide franchises is about $100.

At the Hyatt Hotel chain, rental of a computer through the hotel concierge varies from property to property, but a company spokesman says "the trend is about $100 a day with 24 hours notice." The Hyatt Regency Scottsdale, for example, charges $85 a day. At the Hyatt Regency Chicago, the price is $100 a day. It's $125 a day at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta.

The last, perhaps hardest, lesson is the technological inconvenience. Computers are sometimes rented with a modem and printer bundled into the price, but rentals rarely include any application software. A business traveler who needs a computer on the road might successfully locate a machine on short notice only to be stymied by the lack of a crucial piece of software.

There are a few other options for business travelers in need of a computer while traveling, but they are also risky propositions.

On-site business centers generally have been a costly failure for hotels, but some hotels still have them and many are equipped with personal computers. And luxury properties like The Biltmore in downtown Los Angeles have installed personal computers in the lounges reserved for the use of club-level guests.

But business travelers who need computer power while traveling had better be prepared to schlep their laptop regardless of the in-flight restrictions imposed by the airlines.

"I swore I'd never carry a computer again," says Richard Espina, a Detroit advertising executive. "That vow lasted three trips and three horrendous rentals. I'd rather carry my laptop, even if I never use it in-flight, than go back to renting when I get to my destination."

TWA is offering additional frequent flyer program awards for fall and winter travel. Business travelers who fly 2,500 miles on TWA before January 15 earn a one-class domestic upgrade. Travelers who fly 10,000 miles earn a domestic coach seat. A free international coach seat is awarded after 20,000 miles. ... The 400-room Holiday Inn Union Square in San Francisco has completed an extensive renovation. Room rates are $109 through September 30. ... American Airlines and British Midland, a regional European carrier, have formed a "code-sharing" alliance. American Airlines passengers flying to London's Heathrow Airport can now immediately connect to British Midland flights serving Amsterdam, Brussels and Glasgow. Aloha Airlines has introduced "drive-thru check-in" at its new terminal at Honolulu International Airport. Passengers flying Aloha to Hawaii's neighbor islands can check bags and receive boarding passes for their flight before parking their car. Guests of the Hotel Macklowe, the slick hotel/theatre/conference center located in Midtown Manhattan, now receive an amenity rare for New York: complimentary transportation to the Wall Street financial district.

This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times business section.

Copyright 1993-2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.