The Brancatelli File



July 27, 2000 -- When did we become sheep? When did business travelers make the tragic transformation from stoic warriors to mindless robo-flyers? Did I miss the memo that ordered us to pay what the major airlines charge and fly without thinking? Was I out of town the week we had the big meeting and we all agreed to do what we were told even if we knew it was wrong?

I ask because I am deeply concerned about the response to a column ("You Buy and You Fly? Then You're Happy") I wrote earlier this month. I suggested then that business travelers who fly in record numbers in the face of record-high fares plausibly allow the major airlines to claim that we are content with the rapacious prices they charge and the repugnant service they offer.

Hundreds of you promptly sent me E-mail claiming you had no choice. We hate the fares and we hate the service, you claimed, but what can we do? We have to fly. There are no options. Our clients make us do it. Our corporate-travel departments make us do it. The major airlines own us. We're beaten. We're prisoners. We've got no alternative but to pay too much and get too little.

Baloney, I say. Not exactly a Churchillian rhetorical retort, I admit, but you get the point. I say we do have options. We're only prisoners of high fares and bad service if we want to be. We can fight back. For our own collective sense of self-respect--if not our own comfort--we can't allow the major carriers to charge what they charge and treat us like they treat us and then claim that we're happy with our lot.

You want choices? Here are four, just for starters. Are they perfect? No. Are they foolproof? No. Do they require some creative thinking and some sacrifice? Yes. But I'm not suggesting you do anything that hasn't been road tested by me and a lot of our fellow travelers. I'm not proposing you do anything outlandish.

The coach service offered by the major carriers is now so degraded that there's no discernible difference between them and the discount carriers. If we must fly in cattle class, at least let's do it at a discount. Low-fare carriers compete in literally hundreds of major markets. Southwest Airlines alone offers a network of 57 cities and 2,600 daily flights. AirTran is flying to 31 cities. American Trans Air, Vanguard, Spirit and a half-dozen others are out there.

And the price differential is astonishing. Here are just three examples. United charges a walk-up, one-way fare of $592 between Denver and Kansas City. Vanguard charges $184. Northwest charges $511 to fly between its Minneapolis and Detroit hubs. Sun Country charges $199. USAirways wants $294 to fly between New York/LaGuardia and Buffalo. JetBlue flies to Buffalo from New York/Kennedy and charges $99.

We should never forget that some airlines actually do offer a better in-flight product. Midwest Express, in its little Midwestern niche, is clearly the nation's best airline. National Airlines, which initially sprung up to shuttle gamblers to Las Vegas, is winning raves from business travelers. And who would dispute that Denver-based Frontier is a better, more reliable option than United, the inept mega-carrier that operates a creaky hub in the Mile High City?

Want to fly from Dallas/Fort Worth to Milwaukee? Why pay American a one-way walk-up fare of $424 to fly an American Eagle commuter flight. For the same price, Midwest Express offers a DC-9 configured 2x2 with leather seats, gracious in-flight service and a meal you can actually enjoy. Need to fly between Los Angeles and Newark? You can pay Continental $1,146. Or you can fly National, make a quick stop in Las Vegas, and pay just $464. You can even fly first class on National for less money ($814) than Continental charges to sit in the back of the bus.

There's no rule that says you must fly to O'Hare when you go to or through Chicago. Across town, at Midway, a flock of discount carriers can fly you to hundreds of places. Distressed by the fares and the frenzy of Logan Airport in Boston? Drive an hour to Providence and you'll be shocked by how much you save. One example: A Boston-Baltimore walk-up fare is $218 on US Airways. But pressured by Southwest's presence at Providence, US Airways charges just $68 to fly Providence-Baltimore. Southwest shadows the full-fare majors at second-tier airports all over the country now and the majors price accordingly. And look at a map before you fly: I saved $600 last week by flying to Greenville-Spartanburg, South Carolina, then driving 75 minutes to Asheville, North Carolina, instead of flying directly into Asheville.

Frequent-flyer programs have changed drastically since their inception, but their primary thrust remains: Airlines expect you'll cash your awards for cheap vacation seats rather than costly business flights. One example: If you have to fly to Los Angeles from Atlanta tomorrow, you'll pay a roundtrip walk-up fare of $2,182. But plan ahead for that family vacation to Disneyland and you'll pay just $338 for a ticket. So why burn miles on inexpensive vacation seats? Buy your vacation seats and use your mileage awards for costly, last-minute business trips. Don't pay for your own business travel? Then make your company or your client a mileage offer it can't refuse. Use your miles for that Atlanta-Los Angeles business trip if the company agrees to reimburse you, say, $1,091. The company saves 50 percent on your trip and you get enough cash to buy three seats to Los Angeles for your next vacation.

This column originally appeared at

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