The Brancatelli File



April 22, 2004 -- How fast are the rules of the road changing? Faster than a tulip opening after a few days of unseasonably warm spring weather. Faster than Charles Barkley can say something fugazy on an NBA post-game show.

Or, more to the point, life on the road is changing faster than a Big Six airline executive can pull the cord on his golden parachute after demanding more concessions from his rank-and-file employees.

In other words, really, really fast.

We've talked about how the rules of the road have been written in the sand since 9/11. But the pace of change has escalated dramatically in recent months. We need to take a few metaphorical cleansing breaths and rethink how we buy travel and re-imagine how we approach the process of life on the road. There are dozens of issues we can discuss, but let me raise these five crucial matters.

Let's start with some good news: There are first- and business-class sales everywhere. A business-class ticket to Europe that cost $7,000 last summer can now be scored for as little as $1,400 this summer. The rapid expansion of America West on transcontinental routes has made the $1,000 first-class roundtrip a standard feature of the coast-to-coast landscape. That's remarkable considering that Big Six walk-up transcon coach fares cost more than $2,000 last April. On shorter hauls, up-front fares have dropped dramatically wherever America West, Alaska Airlines and AirTran are flying.

Now the bad news: Lots of luck getting a first-class upgrade. As airlines lower fares for first-class seats, tickets are selling. That naturally means fewer seats left for upgrading. And then there is the old scam being perpetrated by the Big Six: the phony elite-level upgrade. All you elite flyers who were thrilled when your airline switched to free status upgrades earlier this year have learned a lesson that Continental OnePass elites learned years ago: When a Big Six carrier says you can call for an upgrade before departure that doesn't mean the airline will give you one. American AAdvantage Executive Platinum flyers have gotten a particularly graphic comeuppance. After calling 100 hours out and being told there are no seats in first, they go to's real-time "check available seats" function and see plenty of gold-colored empty seats on their particular flight. Just none that American feels like giving to their best customers.

Rational-fare carriers like Southwest, JetBlue and AirTran sell almost all of their tickets on a one-way basis. Almost anywhere they compete, the Big Six have been forced to match the simplified structure. Which means the dreaded Saturday-night stay rule is disappearing and we're able to mix and match one-way tickets in ways that make financial and scheduling sense to us.

But leave it to the increasingly sclerotic Transportation Security Administration to snatch defeat from the jaws of our victory. One of TSA's trip wires for targeting travelers for extra-onerous screening is a one-way ticket. That made a scintilla of sense back when only terrorists and spendthrifts flew on one-way tickets. But now that normal folks are using them, the stricture is meaningless. Since the TSA never seems to adjust, however, more and more travelers are being fingered for additional pat down and searches. How many? Often one in four passengers on flights plying routes where many one-way tickets are sold.

The rise of Internet booking several years ago caught the big lodging chains by surprise. And that led to corporate and financial embarrassment: Their proprietary Web sites rarely had the best rates for the properties flying their flags because the hotel owners were giving excess inventory and the cheapest rates to reliable consolidators like Quikbook and shrill hucksters like

It's taken some thuggish behavior aimed at us--withholding frequent-guest points or elite perks if we booked away from the proprietary sites--and a lot of strong-arming of property owners, but the major chains have largely regained control of their distribution. And in a way that's good news: You can now book at a major chain's Web site and be confident that you're probably getting the lowest available rate. Don't want to stay at a chain hotel one more night? Looking for a unique experience at an independent, boutique or luxury property? Then keep reliable national consolidators like Quikbook or notable regional players like San Francisco Reservations in mind. They are still dishing up great deals on non-chain hotels.

In their desperation to make it look like they know what they are doing, the Big Six carriers are inflating their nonstop schedules with regional-jet flights. RJs, which were designed to replace turbo-props, are now being flown on routes as long as 1,500 miles. It's a unique kind of frequent-flying hell to be squeezed into a cramped, cold, noisy RJ on a route like Austin-Washington/Dulles or, worse, Denver-Raleigh/Durham. It used to be a Business Travel Commandment that flying nonstop was always better than making a connection. No more. An RJ for 500 or 600 miles is just fine. Beyond that, find an alternative, even if it means making a connection.

I admit to having very little empathy for this. I have never judged domestic airlines based on the quality or the quantity of the food they serve. Regardless of the class I'm in, I don't eat food on domestic flights. But if you feel it's your right to eat while flying (or if you need to munch every few hours), then allow me to offer these updated guidelines. First, assume there's no free food and what may be offered gratis is garbage or loaded with fat. Second, don't assume there's food available for purchase. The in-flight supply is unpredictable, even if you order in advance. It shouldn't surprise you that the Big Six are as inept at catering as they are at flying.

If your schedule or your body demands in-flight food, take matters into your own hands. Make sure that you've stocked your carry-on bag with healthy, portable, shelf-stable snacks and bottled water. If you want or need something more substantial, check your airport's Web site and examine the in-terminal food options. There are decent pre-packed salads and sandwiches available at most airport dining outlets now. Or have your hotel pack something for you before you go.

This column originally appeared at

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