The Brancatelli File



May 8, 1998 -- Like a lot of other business travelers, I am physically and mentally exhausted by the long airport lines, the rotten airline service and the high fares. But since I can't stop traveling, I've tried to cope by converting some of my airline flights into train and bus rides.

If absolutely nothing else, riding the rails and galloping through America on the bus affords you the space to spread out and the time to think. It also gives you the opportunity to reconsider some items that would have otherwise slipped away in the rush of daily events or been ignored while frantically rifling through papers at an airport club.

Check these out.

The voluminous monthly Air Travel Consumer Report issued by the Department of Transportation is hard to read and not always enlightening, but Tuesday's edition had several eye-popping statistics.

For the month of March, the DOT reported, the ten largest U.S. carriers posted an on-time arrival record of 75.9 percent. In other words, about one in four flights now arrives late, a startling statistic considering the airlines already pad their scheduled flight times to account for delays. But even with the inflated schedules, and even given the fact that the airlines can claim an on-time arrival when a plane lands as much as 15 minutes late, we're still notably delayed on one in four flights. Worst of all, March's 75.9 percent performance represents a substantial slip from the 78.1 percent on-time rating the airlines managed in March, 1997.

Want some more bad news? Complaints about airline service soared in March. The Department of Transportation says the level of passenger complaints was 30 percent higher than in March, 1997.

You can't talk about bad airline service without mentioning the callous and oblivious fools who run Northwest, the nation's worst carrier. On top of its routinely awful service and blatant disregard for customers, Northwest's management is now fighting an internecine war with its employees. The result: massive delays and flight cancellations in Detroit and Minneapolis, Northwest's two largest hubs.

I stopped flying Northwest and surrendered my WorldPerks Gold credentials last year. And despite specific assurances from Northwest officials that they were working on the carrier's service problems, the airline has continued to deteriorate. Things are so bad that the Big Three carmakers, Northwest's largest customers in Detroit, publicly castigated the airline in Detroit papers.

Now Northwest employees--many of them working without contracts and without substantial raises for almost a decade--have had enough. By-the-book slowdowns and other work-rule gambits have led to hours-long delays and abrupt flight cancellations since mid-April. The chaos is particularly bad in Detroit, where police have been called in several times to quiet masses of irate, inconvenienced passengers.

It is impossible to ignore the signs of summer: discount stores are running sales on outdoor grills, companies are issuing use-it-or-lose-it vacation memos and newspapers all over the country are running stories about how tough it's gonna be to claim frequent-flyer award tickets this summer.

I leave it to you to hash out the grill and vacation issues, but I think I can help with the frequent-flyer issue. My best advice: Think strategically and go to Asia.

Free seats to Europe, especially in business- and first-class, will be hard to find. In fairness to the airlines, they're not holding out so much as selling out. Transatlantic business is so good that it's difficult to buy a premium-class ticket on many European routes. Without enough seats to go around for paying customers, the airlines aren't likely to have much in the way of free inventory.

If you must go to Europe this summer and want to lock in your itinerary early, claim any free seat you can get in coach, then waitlist yourself for the premium-class upgrade. Alternately, wait for the last minute before attempting to book a free seat. In the week or so before a flight's departure, the airline will release unsold premium-class seats to frequent flyers hoping to cash miles for award travel.

Better yet, go to Asia. Traffic to many Asian destinations has collapsed along with the economies there and the airlines have a surplus of premium-class seats, many of which are being made available for reward travel. It will also be easier than in recent years to claim seats to Australia and Hawaii, two markets where tourism has been hurt by the decline in Asian economies.

Whoops, they're calling my train. And how about that: They still say "All Aboard!" See what you learn when you get out of the airport.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.