The Brancatelli File



November 5, 1998 -- Sift through the statistical debris of Election Day all you want, but there is just one conclusion: As the highest-ranking Reform Party candidate ever elected, Minnesota Governor-elect Jesse "The Body" Ventura is now the front-runner for his party's presidential nomination in the year 2000.

While you bend your mind around the concept of a primary contest between the hulking ex-wrestler and Reform Party founder Ross Perot, let me switch gears and throw some business-travel statistics at you. Just like the elevation of Ventura to the governor's office in a state that has brought us political dynasties like the Humphreys, Mondales and Freemans, these numbers will either make you angry or make you laugh.

During the final frantic hours before Election Day, the Department of Transportation released its Air Travel Consumer Report for September. This month's highlight comes from the Consumer Complaints category. In September, the DOT received 1.69 passenger complaints about airline service for every 100,000 enplanements. That's more than double the ratio of complaints DOT received in September, 1997.

I consider this the frequent-flying equivalent of exit polling. Twinned with DOT's 9-month summary, which shows that complaints about airline service have risen more than 20 percent this year, I think we see the trend here: Passengers think airline service stinks.

The same DOT report also offers some revealing statistics in its on-time category. For the second consecutive month, TWA posted the best on-time performance (87.7 percent in September) of the ten major carriers.

You may remember TWA bubbled to the top of the on-time heap for several months last year, too. In fact, TWA got so cocky about its performance that it began offering on-time guarantees backed by bonus frequent-flyer miles. Then its on-time ratings cratered. That TWA has gotten its groove back is a good sign--and another reason to root for this airline, which always seems to be trying to keep the financial wolf from the doors.

Speaking of good signs, Delta Air Lines has improved its on-time performance in recent months. It cruised in at No. 2 in September with an 85.8 percent rating. After expanding its Atlanta hub beyond 600 daily flights last year, Delta's performance plummeted and Hartsfield became the airport business travelers loved to hate. Now, at least, you can fly through Atlanta again with a reasonable expectation of getting to your final destination sometime before the millennium.

Which brings us to United, which has the dubious distinction of being dead last in aggregate on-time performance during the 11-year reporting history of the Air Travel Consumer Report. That United still can't straighten up and fly right--it finished seventh in September--is hardly news. What is news is that United continues to stumble even though it has been throwing people and resources at the problem. A much-ballyhooed program (STAR, for Start the Airline Right) is aimed at getting early-morning flights out on time, but it hasn't even met its own modest goals. United's earliest flights still leave late, thus causing a ripple of infuriating delays throughout the day.

If you listen to the bleating apologists at the Air Transportation Association, the lobbying group for the major airlines, commercial aviation is a wonderland of value. "Consumers continue to benefit from the low fares available in the vigorously competitive marketplace," says ATA president Carol B. Hallett.

Besides wondering what color the sky is in the world where Hallett lives, you have to wonder how this sunshine, lollipops and rainbows scenario squares with two recent fare developments.

Low-fare specialist AirTran stopped serving Mobile, Alabama, in June, essentially leaving the market to Delta. At the time it stopped flying to Mobile, AirTran charged $174 for a seven-day advance-purchase roundtrip to Chicago. AirTran also offered a 3-day advance purchase fare of $194. Delta matched both rates. But with AirTran gone, Delta's lowest fare in the Mobile-Chicago market is now $234, and it requires a 14-day advance purchase. Delta's lowest 7-day advance fare is $278, a 60 percent increase. Three-day advance purchase fares are gone altogether.

And then there's the matter of the Newark-Minneapolis route. When Minneapolis-based Northwest went on strike in August, Newark-based Kiwi International jumped into the market with one daily flight. It offered capacity-controlled seats at a walk-up price of $139 one way. After the strike ended, Northwest not only matched Kiwi's fare, it priced some seats as low as $69. Tiny Kiwi was quickly driven off the route. Now Northwest's one-way, walk-up fare is $583.

Maybe the first thing Jesse Ventura should do when he becomes Governor of Minnesota is to march over to Northwest headquarters and put all their executives into a gubernatorial headlock.

This column originally appeared at

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