The Brancatelli File
MY 1998 BUSINESS-
BY JOE BRANCATELLI
December 30, 1997 -- Ever since I got my two front teeth, all I've wanted for Christmas was hair and reasonable airfares.
Needless to say, I was disappointed again last week. Which leaves me formulating an important New Year's Resolution that all business travelers should add to their list of things to do in 1998.
To be fair to Santa, he actually delivered on the follicle front this year. Just before Christmas, the federal government approved a drug that does, indeed, grow hair. Unfortunately, using the drug requires a deal with the devil: Hair grows, but your sexual potency suffers. Since I already live the Faustian bargain that is business travel, I'm passing on the hair pill.
Besides, I can't afford the $50-a-month drug: Every dime I make now goes to the airlines.
On the eve of Christmas Eve, the American Express Business Airfare Index reported that the typical business fare in November was $445 one-way. For the 215 city pairs tracked by the Index, that's an eye-gouging 39 percent increase since February, 1996. For calendar 1997, typical business fares were expected to average 17 percent above Amex's 1996 levels. By comparison, the lowest discount one-way fare was just $125 in November, lower than the $133 Amex said the average leisure traveler paid last January.
All this leads me to two inescapable conclusions: I'm gonna be bald for another year and leisure travelers are smarter than us.
In no uncertain terms, leisure travelers have told airlines that the only thing that matters is the price of a ticket. They don't worry about schedules, frequent-flyer plans, convenience, comfort, or anything else. Without low fares, leisure travelers stay home.
On the other hand, we aren't nearly so clear with our message. Oh, sure, we tell carriers we want low prices. But we also tell them we want good schedules, convenience, comfort, preferred seats, and a long list of alleged perks and preferences. As a result, the airlines raise our fares like robber barons, then don't deliver on the comfort, convenience, and other perks, either.
If 1997 has proven anything, it is that the airlines think business travelers will put up with anything. In fact, the carriers now are so confident in our compliance and cowardice that American chief Robert Crandall was able to go to the National Press Club in Washington last month and belittle us.
Weren't business fares too high and hadn't he heard the complaints, Crandall was asked. Crandall's answer, as recorded by Aviation Daily: "Part A, no. Part B, yes."
In the face of that kind of unprecedented arrogance--what other industry leader would dare tell his best and most profitable customers that he has heard their complaints and had chosen to dismiss them?--frequent flyers must fight back.
So my 1998 resolution is to show Crandall and the equally smug bosses of the nation's other major carriers that I will not be ignored and dismissed.
First off, I'm going to cancel any business trip that is not absolutely essential. Crandall himself once postulated that every advance in communications invariably led to an increase in travel. Well, I'll use every advance in communications that's sitting on my desktop to stay off the road. I'm gonna phone and fax and E-mail and video-conference my brains out. When clients ask why I'm not visiting them, I'll tell them why I'm not flying, then urge them to join the cause.
Second, when I have to travel, I'm going to turn the frequent-flyer programs on their heads. In 1998, I am going to cash as many miles as possible to claim awards I can use for business trips. Whenever and wherever I can displace paid travel with a free business trip, I'm going to do it. Ask your company and your clients to cut a deal with you. If a paid flight would cost them $800, cash your miles for a free trip, then expense them for just $400. Or take 25 cents on the dollar. Then be a sport: Take the cash and donate it to a charity.
Third, when I have to buy a ticket, I'm going to deal with the smaller carriers. Want to break United's monopoly in Denver? Fly Frontier or Western Pacific. Want to get Delta's attention in Atlanta? Fly AirTran, which has just added a rudimentary business-class service. Want to teach United and American a lesson in Chicago? Move your business from O'Hare Airport to Midway and fly Kiwi or American Trans Air. Kiwi and Pan Am can help you break Continental and US Airways' hold on flights into and out of the New York area. Want to take on Northwest in Detroit? Call Pro Air. Vanguard is out there. Southwest is out there. Use 'em, even if you're inconvenienced.
Fourth, I'm challenging the majors on the trans-Atlantic routes, where they are racking up record profits. LOT Polish can connect you via Warsaw to many destinations in Europe. LOT's business-class service is good and the fares are substantially cheaper than the prices charged by the majors. Going to London? Use Virgin Atlantic. Headed to Western Europe? Try City Bird. For $699 one-way, you can fly business class to Brussels, then take the fast, efficient railroads to your final destination.
Bottom line: I know New Year's Resolutions are often as ephemeral as the hairs on my balding head. But these are our lives here. Crandall and his cohorts think we're too stupid to fight back.
I think we're better than that and I'm willing to dedicate 1998 to teaching the airlines a lesson. Then, in 1999, with the airlines humbled, we can dedicate our lives to curing my baldness.
This column originally appeared at thetrip.com.
Copyright © 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.