February 9, 1998 -- My, what a busy few days we've all had.
Did you ever think Clinton would threaten Iraq just because Monica Lewinsky was an intern in one of Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces? And how about Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr subpoenaing British Prime Minister Tony Blair right in the middle of that press conference! Weren't you surprised to see that video of attorney William Ginsberg hitting Bill Gates in the face with a cream pie? What do you make of the right-wing conspiracy suing Oprah Winfrey in Texas over Dolly, the cloned sheep? And didja see Kobe Bryant land that triple lutz over Michael Jordan at the ice rink in Nagano, Japan?
Okay, so I admit it: The rush of recent events has left me dazed and confused. I mean, I thought I heard last week that a Hollywood studio actually let Dan Ackroyd make another Blues Brothers movie. Surely, that can't be right.
Luckily, I'm very good at keeping my facts straight when it comes to business travel. And while the rest of you were following last week's incredibly odd convergence of sex, guns and rhythm and blues, I was keeping watch on the business-travel beat. Everything you are about to read is true. Only the name of the airport in Washington has been changed.
GO SOUTH, YOUNG AIRLINE
The demise of another small carrier is always worrisome, but it's hard to grieve for Western Pacific. When a start-up folds, it's usually because a mega-carrier was out there greasing its runway to oblivion. Not this time. Western Pacific tanked last week all by itself.
After three years of reckless expansion, hub jumping, erratic service, wacky pricing and obscenely profligate spending, Western Pacific collapsed of its own weight. And it's not like we haven't seen this script before. Ed Beauvais, who founded WestPac, made exactly the same mistakes after launching America West. That airline turned itself around after showing Beauvais the door. WestPac also ushered Beauvais to the exits, but not soon enough.
NAMING ONE FOR THE GIPPER
Within a matter of days last week, both the House and the Senate passed a bill naming Washington National Airport after Ronald Reagan. Clinton signed the bill into law on Friday.
Does any business traveler in America care what they call Washington's airport? I mean, can you tell me which one of the Dulles boys was honored by naming the Virginia airport Dulles International? Do you think of John F. Kennedy, the man or the president, when you fly into Kennedy in New York? And who out there has ever called Houston's facility George Bush Intercontinental? Call the damn place whatever you want. An airport by any other name still has the same three-letter code.
After years of negotiating, name calling and brinkmanship, the United States and Japan finally agreed on a new bilateral aviation treaty. According to the treaty, Japan Airlines and All Nippon receive new rights in the U.S. market; Northwest and United get additional privileges; and airlines such as Continental and American get expanded access to Tokyo's Narita airport.
In the real world, however, the treaty is almost meaningless. The transpacific market is deteriorating so rapidly that economic realities all but guarantee there will soon be fewer flights between the United States and Japan. Besides, while the treaty grants U.S. carriers more access to Narita, there are no slots available to launch new flights. Federal Express has unused slots to sell, but slot sales are specifically prohibited. And anyone who thinks Japanese aviation officials will turn a blind eye toward under-the-table sales just isn't paying attention to the way the world works in Tokyo.
BY THE NUMBERS
The Department of Transportation last week released its Air Travel Consumer Report for December and for the entire year of 1997. There are some ugly trends worth noting.
Remember how TWA promised 1,000 frequent-flyer miles to any traveler who arrived late during June? Remember how TWA trumpeted its rise to the top of the on-time ratings in the months that followed? Remember how senior vice president Rod Brandt boasted "many airlines pay lip service to on-time performance [but] TWA is going to guarantee it." Hey, Rod, check the latest on-time numbers: In November, TWA slipped to fourth among the ten major carriers. In December, it dropped to ninth--and about one of three TWA flights arrived late. Got any miles or guarantees for us now, Rod?
Remember Northwest executive vice president Mike Levine's insistence in this space last September that "the worst is past" at Northwest? Remember me suggesting that he was blowing Cybersmoke up your modem? The numbers now prove it. Northwest ranked seventh in on-time performance in both November and December. It was dead last in baggage-handling efficiency in November and next to last in December. It racked up more complaints than any other carrier in November and was the second-worst airline in December.
The least dependable major hub in the nation? Atlanta. About one of three flights arrived there late in November and December, about where Atlanta has hovered all year. Over the course of 1997, it also ranked near the bottom of the on-time departures lists. More on Atlanta's woes in a future column.
GOING, GOING, GONE
British Airways announced last week that it is closing all 17 of its city ticket offices (CTOs) in the United States. BA may be the first, but it won't be the last. Expect more and more CTOs to close. Why? Technology (electronic tickets and Web-based booking systems, for example) obviates the need for storefronts. Besides, with so many airlines joining alliances, expect the partners to combine offices.
THE CANDY MAN
I offer this last item without comment. Finnair announced last week that Keijo Suila will join the carrier in August and become chairman next year. Suila is currently in the candy business.