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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE WORST WEEK
IN THE HISTORY OF BUSINESS TRAVEL


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

September 4, 1998 -- So I am sitting here in the early hours of Thursday morning with one eye on my computer monitor and the other eye on a television screen spewing crash images from Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia.

There is nothing to say.

This has been the worst week in the history of business travel and I have nothing to say. I just want to go home, grab a beer, watch Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit home runs and forget that I know anything about business travel.

In the week since we last met in this space, two airlines have gone on strike. In the week since we last met in this space, two airplanes have crashed. In the week since we last met in this space, two carriers have broken the law and federal regulators have made impossibly silly proposals.

Hundreds of our fellow travelers are dead. Tens of thousands of people are out of work. Hundreds of thousands of flyers have been inconvenienced. We’ve all been lied to and betrayed.

I don’t have any answers. I don’t even want to hear the questions. There is nothing to say.

And I’m thinking that all you want to do is go home, deny you’re a frequent flyer, and go watch the start of the football season, or have a nice Labor Day barbecue, or play with your kids, or spend the weekend in bed with someone special.

Tell ya what. History demands I chronicle this horrendous week that was. But I can do it in about a minute. Stick with me that long, then we can both shut down our computers and think about something else. Anything else.

At 12:01 a.m. Saturday, Northwest Airlines pilots went on strike. Northwest is closed at least through Labor Day and probably through all of next week. As of Wednesday, it had laid off about half its 55,000 employees and was preparing for a long shutdown.

Hours after the Northwest strike began, a Cubana flight departing from Quito, Equador, burst into flames and slammed into a soccer field. At least 79 people died, including five children playing in the field.

Just after 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, Air Canada’s pilots went on strike. The airline shut down and no negotiations are scheduled.

On Wednesday, it was revealed that the U.S. Department of Transportation wants airline to create "no-peanut" zones to protect travelers who are allergic to peanuts. I don’t make light of peanut allergies. I know people with the affliction and their life is hell. But with 12 percent of U.S. air capacity grounded by the Northwest strike and Canada’s leading airline closed, should peanuts really be top of mind at DOT?

Later on Wednesday, DOT belatedly acted to stop an outrageous abuse of the public trust and the public trough.

On August 18, ten days before the Northwest strike deadline, two Northwest Airlink commuter carriers announced they would shut down if Northwest was struck. The carriers, Express I (a Northwest subsidiary) and Mesaba, were not affected by the labor dispute. They just decided not to fly if Northwest went down.

However, U.S. taxpayer dollars underwrite 17 Express I and Mesaba routes in the Midwest and South. In exchange for lavish subsidies under the Essential Air Service program, the carriers promise not to stop or substantially reduce service on the routes without 90 days advance notice. In a clear violation of federal law, Mesaba and Express I abandoned their Essential Air Service routes when Northwest was struck.

DOT should have responded immediately when the commuters announced their intentions on August 18, but it finally got around to acting on Wednesday. It ordered the carriers to resume flying. But more than 12 hours after the DOT order was made public, neither Express I nor Mesaba had even bothered to reply.

Then, on Wednesday night, Swissair Flight 111 crashed into the sea near Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia. The MD-11, which departed from Kennedy Airport in New York, was en route to Geneva. There were no survivors. The death toll as of 6 a.m. on Thursday: 229 passengers and crew.

So here I sit, watching Nova Scotia fishermen pull bodies out of the ocean, and I know there is nothing to say.

This has been the worst week in the history of business travel. Shut your computer off. Go home. Have a restful, peaceful, joyous Labor Day weekend.

Forget the strikes and the idiot regulators and the law-breaking airlines. They’ll all be here when we come back from Labor Day.

If only we could say the same thing for 300 of our fellow travelers who died during the worst week in the history of business travel.

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

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