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 The Brancatelli File

joe SHORT DISPATCHES
FROM THE FRONT


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

February 25, 1999 -- I've been on one of those road trips from hell. You know the kind: ten or twelve cities, two or three continents, a mind-numbing string of flights and hotels and just enough time at home to change clothes and explain to the bank why your mortgage payment is late.

Very little good comes from these road trips. Your body hurts, your brain hurts, you've been gone for two months and you missed the Super Bowl, a couple of national holidays and an Impeachment. Your toiletries bag is out of aspirin, but your pocket is bulging with coins from 37 nations. Your life, as currently constituted, is an envelope full of expense-account receipts, an empty refrigerator, three dead houseplants and 262 voice-mail messages.

On the other hand, I've also got a several notebooks crammed with observations. This is just a little of what's been happening on the road lately.

THE TYRANNY OF THE TEMPLATES
In the end, as the airlines knew we would, we've adjusted to those despicable carry-on templates. We've learned how to punch down our bags or beg plaintively or just walk on down to another X-ray machine in another terminal where the teensy, tiny metallic dictators don't rule.

But one thing we haven't adjusted to is watching airline flight crews sweep by us, cut the line, throw their rolling bags on the X-ray machines, and have the security guard obligingly raise the template.

"Why is it that crew are exempt from the baggage rules the airlines want passengers to follow?" wonders frequent flyer Alan Borgida. "I watched four crew members lift up the baggage template and slide their 'oversized' bags through the X-ray machine." Fumes L. M. Feeley: "Pilots and stewardesses are allowed to simply lift up the hideous enforcers and go on their way to freedom from the size restrictions."

NO STATUS, NO SERVICE
United Airlines has quietly instituted a new policy that pays slavish attention to your status in Mileage Plus, the carrier's frequent-flyer program. In a nutshell, the policy is this: All men may be created equal, but only the most frequent flyers get any service at all.

Want an upgrade? What's your status? Want a choice of meals in first class? What's your status? Want to get protected after a canceled flight? Mileage Plus Premier Executive members first. The rest of you go wait in the corner. Plane about to crash? We'll be handing out life vests to our Mileage Plus 1K members first. We're sure our Mileage Plus Premier members will understand if there aren't enough to go around.

This is no joke. (Well, the life vest crack is...at least I think it is). In all matters great and small, United now ranks you by Mileage Plus status, even in first class.

"I hadn't flown United in a while, but then I flew them three times in three weeks in first class on transcontinental flights," explains Susan Holtman. "No matter where I was seated in the cabin, I was the last one served. And every time, there was no choice of food when they got around to me. Once there was only a smelly piece of fish. Once I got an awful soup with one dried-up shrimp. The third time it happened, I asked the flight attendant about it. She told me that I was the only passenger in the first-class cabin who wasn't a premier Mileage Plus member. She explained passengers now get served by status."

Jim Fuhrman, who is Mileage Plus Premier, learned he was the least valuable of United's elite flyers after a late flight caused him and dozens of other United passengers to miss a San Francisco connection. "What was totally unfair was the way United determined who had priority to go on the next flight out," he complains. "They were allowing Premier Executive members to go first, then Premier members. Other flyers had no priority at all."

THE HOTEL RIP-OFF DU JOUR
Hotels have largely abandoned the heinous practice of charging rapacious fees for faxes. As any of you who traveled as recently as the late 1980s remember, hotels once charged upwards of $5 a page whenever you sent or received a fax.

What has replaced faxes as the hotel rip-off du jour? Internet access. Expect to pay up to $25 an hour at a hotel business center for the privilege of sitting in front of an outdated computer with a wheezing old browser and connecting at the blazing speed of 28.8. This abusive practice isn't unique to a particular hotel chain or a specific continent. During the last two months, I've run across fees from $15-$25 an hour at more than a dozen major business hotels on three continents. And complaints to the hotel general manager about the pricing generally elicit a disinterested shrug of the shoulders.

I could go on, about this and other matters, but, believe it or not, I've got another plane to catch.

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

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