The Brancatelli File



November 17, 2005 -- As we wheeze our way to the Thanksgiving Day break, remember that it always could be worse: Your next few days could be as bad as those suffered by Neal Page, the put-upon business traveler in Trains, Planes and Automobiles.

We're much luckier than Neal. For starters, we're not likely to run into any shower-ring salesmen in the next few days. And our lives are actually governed by these almost-the-holiday tales of planes, trains, bridges to nowhere and peanuts in bankruptcy court.

Don't believe me? Read on…

I've always advised you to sue an airline in small-claims court if the carrier's actions went beyond its usual rude or incompetent treatment. This week's tale from a Manhattan small-claims court not only proves the efficacy of that advice, it also comes with a delicious dollop of cosmic comeuppance.

Last Christmas Day, a business traveler and his 13-year-old daughter were involved in an overbooking situation with Continental Airlines on a flight between its Newark hub and Colorado. The traveler, Thatcher A. Stone, planned a one-week ski holiday, an especially important event since Stone is divorced, his daughter lives with her mother and his time with his daughter is limited.

According to Stone, he and his daughter checked in, checked their bags and proceeded to the boarding gate. At that point, Continental said there were no seats for them. The airline's only alternative was flights that would have gotten Stone and his daughter to Colorado just a day before they were scheduled to return. Stone refused.

Continental refunded Stone's $2,000 in tickets, but refused to retrieve the checked luggage, which was packed with winter clothes and skiing gear. In fact, it took three days for Stone to get the luggage back, essentially destroying any chance for a holiday skiing trip with his daughter.

Stone was furious with Continental's treatment. He also vowed to get compensation. But Stone is no average flyer. He's a lawyer. An aviation lawyer, in fact. An aviation lawyer who's also a lecturer at the University of Virginia. Stone's course this semester: Airline Industry and Aviation Law.

The small-claims case was a slam dunk, especially since Continental was represented by a customer-service manager. Manhattan Civil Court Judge Diane Lebedeff awarded Stone $3,110, including $1,360 for his nonrefundable, prepaid expenses at the Colorado resort; $1,000 for "inconvenience damages;" and $750 for the loss of the use of the contents of the luggage.

Of course, not every just-before-the-holiday tale of life on the road has such a neat and happy ending.

Back in August, I told you about a couple of bridges to nowhere in Alaska that Don Young, the Alaskan who's chairman of the House Transportation Infrastructure Committee, stuffed into a pork-laden federal transportation bill. The $442 million in appropriations became a huge embarrassment to Congressional Republicans, especially after Hurricane Katrina. Even three weeks ago, however, a Senate attempt to kill the appropriation failed.

But never underestimate the power of public ridicule, the fear of losing control of Congress and the dedicated efforts of some Republican lawmakers who really understand what being "conservative" is supposed to be about. Yesterday, House and Senate conferees used a back-door maneuver to kill the bridges. "One down and 6,299 to go," crowed Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has been trying to end funding for 6,300 superfluous programs in the $286 billion transportation bill.

Happy ending? Not really. Yesterday's action kills mandatory funding for the two bridges, but $442 million of your tax dollars still goes to Alaska. The state can now use the funding on any transportation project it pleases. No strings attached, either. And as I reminded you back in August, we've spent a total of just $115 million on mass-transit security for the entire nation since 9/11.

Back in June, 2002, I warned you that David Gunn, who had just been hired as president of Amtrak, was a bully and nowhere near as good a manager as his delusional supporters contended. Gunn got the axe two weeks ago and politics was probably the reason--he vehemently opposed the Bush Administration's approach to the nearly moribund national rail system--but his three-year reign of error is just another weird tale of life on the rails.

The independent auditing arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, recently excoriated Gunn's tenure, citing lack of planning, weak financial controls and a wide variety of bad decisions on management issues large and small. The November 3 report apparently had no effect on Gunn's Congressional supporters, however, and some of them are trying to get Gunn's dismissal reversed. The reason? They claim that Amtrak's board of directors didn't have a quorum when it fired Gunn. Of course, that conveniently ignores the fact that Amtrak's 7-member board may not have a quorum because Congress hasn't voted on any of the Bush Administration's nominees to fill the empty board seats.

However, the Bush Administration is also clueless on Amtrak. It keeps calling for reform and revitalization of national rail policy, but doesn't actually propose any solutions. Even its February maneuver to end Amtrak funding has backfired. As I explained in a column at the time, I endorsed Bush's idea of zero-budgeting Amtrak as a way to jump-start an intelligent conversation on rail policy even if I didn't know or trust Bush's intentions. Yet Congress' response to Bush's no-funding idea is as perverse as its decision to ignore its own audit reports. This year Congress has increased the subsidy it gives to Amtrak.

It's hard to process everything that is happening in the separate New York bankruptcy courts where Northwest and Delta airlines are working out their kinks. There has been a blizzard of motions in each case, including an attempt by Delta's pilots (the only unionized employees at the carrier) to force the judge, Prudence Beatty, to disqualify herself.

Beatty dismissed the pilots' claims of bias--she had called their pay "weird" and once asked how rich they could get--and refused to leave the case.

Which turns out to be a good--well, perhaps, entertaining--thing. Witness her comments during today's session, where Delta chief financial officer Edward Bastian was demanding Beatty allow the airline to void the pilots' contract.

Bastian also praised Song, the airline's second failed attempt at launching a discount carrier, while finally admitting that the low-fare service had never been profitable. Still, said Bastian, Delta planned to integrate much of Song into the carrier's mainline service.

"That's great," snapped Beatty, "our favorite product is not one that makes money."

And Beatty, who said her daughter is allergic to peanuts, also saw fit to criticize Delta for its in-flight snacks.

"Do you serve peanuts?" she asked Bastian. "Well, I don't think you should."

With bankruptcy judges like Prudence Beatty, who needs shower-ring salesmen?

Copyright © 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.