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 The Brancatelli File

joe FOUR COLUMNS IN ONE

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

July 15, 2004 -- Summer is supposed to be the slow season for business-travel news. We're all supposed to be on vacation and the planes and the airports and hotels are supposed to be filled with what the British so charmingly call "holidaymakers."

So how come I'm sitting here with not one, not two, but four columns I should be writing today? I don't see any evidence of a slowdown in the news that affects our lives on the road. In fact, to get all this news in, I'm going to have to squash all four columns together into one.

So please forgive the breathless pace. And let's not even talk about next week, when most of the Big Six report what are rumored to be horrendously bad second-quarter losses. But maybe I won't even bother writing about that. After all, the Big Six burning through cash and claiming they know better than anyone else how to run their companies into the ground isn't really news, is it?

Anyway, on to this week's four-in-one...

IS CAPPS II REALLY DEAD?
At least for the moment, U.S. citizens can breathe easy knowing that our government won't be officially spying on us in the skies and deciding if we even have the right to fly. CAPPS II, the hideously intrusive passenger-screening system that the Bush Administration was trying to ram down our throats, is temporarily dead. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge admitted as much this week, just a day after the acting administrator of the Transportation Security Administration told Congress that the system was being retooled and rethought.

In case you've been trying to ignore during the last three years or so, CAPPS II is a computerized system being developed in secret by the TSA. It was due to begin testing this summer and would have assigned all passengers a color-coded rating based on a secret series of parameters that the government never fully explained. Get a green rating and you could clear security as usual. Get a yellow rating and you'd be shaken down and subject to additional screening. Get a red rating and you'd be barred from flying altogether. This color-coding and screening would be repeated each time that you tried to fly.

Since the beginning, CAPPS II has been plagued by financial woes, technical glitches and a culture of lying and subterfuge at the TSA. Worse, it assumed that all passengers--including U.S. citizens trying to fly within the United States--were guilty until proven innocent. The government refused to discuss where CAPPS II would get its information (everything from our credit ratings to our driving records were apparently candidates); how long the TSA would keep the information; and what other agencies would be able to tap into the passenger database. CAPPS II was so invasive and so sloppily designed that the investigative arm of Congress recently said that the program failed to remedy eight of nine basic security concerns. Worst of all, there seemed to be no system for appealing an unfavorable rating, no method for passengers to correct erroneous information and no right for citizens to examine their CAPPS-generated profile.

But if you think CAPPS II is definitively dead, forget it. The Bush-appointed zealots who designed the program are still in office. If they remain in power past the November elections, they will try again and it is clear from their comments that they'll build a CAPPS III passenger-screening system that looks and acts--and presumes you're guilty--just like CAPPS II.

APRES HERB, LE DELUGE
Southwest Airlines chief executive James F. Parker resigned abruptly today, effective immediately. The 57-year-old Parker had been at Southwest for almost 20 year and spent the last three as CEO. He succeeded the legendary Herb Kelleher, who is credited with creating and nurturing the culture that has kept Southwest profitable for 30 consecutive years.

He was replaced by the airline's chief financial officer, 49-year-old Gary Kelley. Kelleher remains as chairman.

Therein lies the problem. The 73-year-old Kelleher is a living legend and one of those rare business types who is nearly impossible to replace. In fact, when Parker, an accomplished labor negotiator, couldn't cut a deal with the airline's flight attendants and talks became acrimonious, Kelleher was brought in earlier this year. In a few weeks, Kelleher had crafted a deal, averted a possible strike and once again looked like a hero and the protector of Southwest's cultural imperative.

Parker's days were numbered after that. Now Kelly, who had already been tabbed as Parker's heir apparent, gets a crack at filling Herb's shoes and his bourbon glass.

INFLIGHT, ON THE PHONE AND ON THE INTERNET
There hasn't been much in the way of product innovation since 9/11, but hope springs eternal. And if you've been hoping to use the Internet or use your own cell phone in flight, then I've got good news.

American Airlines successfully tested in-cabin mobile-phone use today on a two-hour flight from Dallas/Fort Worth airport. I even got a call from an American Airlines executive on the plane. (He called my mobile, but I had no signal, and he had to leave a voicemail.) No one is expecting in-flight mobile phone use to become widely available any time soon--one tech expert not involved with the American test suggests that's three years away--but it will be a big leap forward. After all, when was the last time you used one of those outrageously over-priced seatback phones?

Meanwhile, after years of work, the Connexion by Boeing in-flight Internet system is actually working on six Lufthansa aircraft. They ply the Munich-Los Angeles and Munich-Toyko routes. Stan Deal, the vice president of network sales for Connexion, says he expects 30 planes from four airlines to be equipped with in-flight Internet by the end of the year.

I was lucky enough to play around with an earlier version of the Connexion system on a British Airways testing flight about 18 months ago and I can attest to the fact that it works pretty much as advertised: seamless, relatively high-speed (about twice the speed of dial-up) satellite Internet access at your seat during your flight. I was able to surf the Net with abandon and check my Web-based E-mail. At that time, the access was via an Ethernet cable. The current Connexion system is wireless and works with any laptop equipped to handle the 802.11b wireless standard.

Deal says Boeing has signed up 37 corporate accounts for Connexion and that covers about 300,000 travelers. For the rest of us, the system is priced at $9.95 for 30 minutes plus 25 cents for additional minutes. Unlimited access plans range from $19.95-$29.95 per flight depending on distance.

MEANWHILE, BACK ON EARTH...
Tens of thousands of passengers around the world were delayed yesterday (July 14) and Northwest abruptly cancelled more than 200 flights after what the carrier called "an internal power failure affecting the use of the computer systems." In its beneficence, Northwest waived rebooking fees and penalties for passengers affected by the airline's power failure. Nice of them, don't you think?

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

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