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 The Brancatelli File

joe SAME WEEK,
DIFFERENT TRAGEDIES


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

September 2, 1999 -- In the end, exactly one year removed from the worst week in the history of business travel, it turns out that we haven't come very far at all.

Once again we are careening toward a Labor Day weekend and once again we are exhausted by the road and desperate to forget about plane crashes and strikes and airline venality and everything that makes our business-travel lives a special little hell.

Last year, we were staggering into a Labor Day weekend after being pummeled by a horrendous and unprecedented series of events. Remember that horrific week? Two fatal plane crashes, two strikes, a craven move by two airlines and a pitiful response from our spineless "defenders" at the Department of Transportation. It was the worst week in the history of business travel.

And now a year has slipped away, we're at the crest of another Labor Day weekend and we can't see how anything has gotten so very much better.

Planes are still crashing. You can't look at the smoking wreckage of that Boeing 737 lying on a golf course in Buenos Aires and not think about last year and Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia. Then it was Swissair 111 and 229 dead, lost forever in chilly waters of the North Atlantic. Now, on Tuesday night, it is Argentina and LAPA Flight 3142 and 64 dead on takeoff.

We enter this Labor Day weekend without any strikes, but that may soon change. The clock is ticking at US Airways and a work stoppage by its mechanics may come before the end of this month. Even if it does not, we are still suffering the miserable after-effects of last year's strikes.

The Air Canada strike on the Tuesday before last Labor Day is one of the reasons why Canadian travelers may soon be confronted by the near-monopolistic combination of Air Canada and Canadian Airlines International. Canadian has always been a weak sister in a nation that may not have enough customers to support two major carriers, but last year's pilot strike wounded Air Canada. A Canada with only one major carrier is no longer unthinkable. It's a depressing thought, to be sure, but you have to think it now.

And what can you say about Northwest? It was already the worst airline in the nation before last year's pilot strike, which began just before the Labor Day weekend. This year, it is the flight attendants who may strike. They rejected a tentative contract last week by an overwhelming margin and, after three years of negotiations, seem further from a deal than ever before. Northwest's management, a cadre of mean-spirited disciples of Frank Lorenzo, seems not to care about the airline's reputation, its stock price, its employees or its customers.

And then there's the simple venality left over from the worst week in the history of business travel. When Northwest shut down last year, two of its commuter carriers, Mesaba and Express I, shut down, too. They weren't hit by the strike, they just chose to close without notice. It didn't matter to them that they were flying routes under the federally-subsidized Essential Air Service (EAS) program, which was created to ensure that isolated cities received flight service.

Faced with this egregious violation of federal law--90 days advance notice is required before stopping any EAS route--the Transportation Department did almost nothing. No executive at Mesaba or Express I lost his job for breaking the law and the airlines were never penalized for breaking the EAS covenant.

So it should not have surprised you when, in the week before Labor Day, 1999, another airline chose to break the EAS law. Aware that the DOT let last year's offenders off the hook, Great Lakes Aviation, which flies as United Express, abruptly stopped operating subsidized Essential Air Service routes.

The DOT raged this week and ordered flights to the five affected Midwestern cities resumed "immediately," the same tact it adopted last year. Great Lakes/United Express responded this week the same way Mesaba and Express I reacted last year. It has ignored the Transportation Department and its obligations under federal law.

So, in the end, a year after the worst week in the history of business travel, we again stagger into a Labor Day weekend. And I tell you now what I told you then.

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 64 of our fellow travelers who will never return from that golf course in Buenos Aires.

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com

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