The Brancatelli File



December 22, 2005 -- Chances are you've just gotten home and are looking forward to some much-needed R&R or maybe a nice holiday getaway. It's been a tough year. You deserve a break today--and all the way through the New Year.

So what do I have for you today? A column about what to expect in 2006.

I freely admit that my timing isn't great, though it's right by the calendar. 'Tis the season to prognosticate and all. But, mentally, who really wants to talk about next year? You finally get off the road for the year and here I am talking about 2006 already.

But, hey, fellow travelers, I'm just doing my job here. I gotta write this stuff. This is what I don't get paid to do: Peer into my crystal ball, which bears an uncanny resemblance to my bald pate, and try to give you a, um, heads up, on what awaits us next year.

I'll try to make this as fast and painless as possible. Read it, file it and go off and have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Chanukah, a wonderful Kwanzaa and a jolly New Year.

Next year will bring another insane increase in the number of flights across the Atlantic. The Big Six has aggressive plans to add new routes and destinations. Some of the expansion is good--we need more competition on routes to Tel Aviv and Athens, for example--but a lot of the new capacity is superfluous. It's not being added because the Big Six believes that the transatlantic market is under-served. The routes are being added because the brainiacs who run the Big Six think they can fly there without competition from fast-growing discount carriers. All of which means that there'll be incredible bargains on these new flights--and on most transatlantic routes--as the Big Six struggle to fill seats with warm bodies. You can see the pattern already: Delta not only launched an international fare sale this week, it's also offering double miles to London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. And American Airlines has realized that there's no profit in carrying customers to Newcastle. This week it dumped previously announced plans to launch flights to the Northern English city.

On the other hand, this largely foolhardy transatlantic expansion has a silver lining: the availability of frequent-flyer award seats. As we discussed earlier this month, the Big Six' domestic cutbacks raise the specter of a no-seat scenario for frequent-flyer awards in 2006. So if you really want to cash your chips--and you should--look across the pond. Besides, you've always wanted to fly to faraway and unfamiliar places like Bristol, Hamburg, Chennai and Moscow.

Since the bankrupt airlines have sold their souls to the banks and financial institutions that continue to advance them money against future purchases of frequent flyer miles, there will be ferocious competition for affinity cards next year. So here's a strategy to take advantage of the frenzy. When one of your cards tied to Delta's SkyMiles program is due for renewal, call American Express and tell them you don't want to keep the account because you doubt Delta's long-term viability. If you're a high-volume customer, don't be surprised if American Express offers a fee-free renewal. Ditto for the bedraggled Diners Club, which has just lost most of its major frequent-flyer program partners. When your Diners Club comes due, call and cancel the card--unless they offer a free year of membership. Same deal with U.S. Bank and its Northwest WorldPerks card.

There are so many new types of regional jets in the pipeline that there literally isn't a term for the equipment. They are not the familiar, cramped, one-class RJs of old, but they aren't traditional Boeing or Airbus aircraft, either. And as the airlines start to offer more spacious configurations, you'll be facing a maze of new seating arrangements, too. Consider the new Embraer 190, which Air Canada placed into service this week. JetBlue Airways launched the plane in October with 100 seats in a 2x2 configuration and 32 inches of legroom. But Air Canada's version has 93 seats: nine in first class with 38 inches of seat pitch and 84 in coach with 33 inches of legroom. I'll do a column next year offering a carrier-by-carrier look at their "regional" fleets and configuration, but keep your eyes open. There'll be lots of unfamiliar planes up there.

The stopgap renewal of the Patriot Act and the Bush Administration's domestic surveillance activity got all the publicity this week, but a federal appeals court drew an interesting line in the ever-shifting sands of the post-9/11 contest between national security and civil rights. The court called out the Bush Administration for its attempt to circumvent Supreme Court scrutiny of its handling of Juan Padilla, the U.S. citizen who was held without charge in a military brig for more than three years. Padilla was nabbed at Chicago/O'Hare and branded an enemy combatant by the Bush Administration, which switched gears last month and finally charged him in civilian court. The judicial rebuke was especially notable because the court's opinion was written by J. Michael Luttig, a conservative judge who has been on the Bush Administration's shortlist for the Supreme Court. It may also signal a swing away from the near-blanket acceptance of the controversial post-9/11 security measures championed by the government. Among the major business-travel-related issues that may be litigated in 2006: the Transportation Security Administration's plans for a registered traveler program; the TSA's efforts to build a computerized database of flyers; and the case of John Gilmore, who has challenged the government's rationale for demanding identification before flying.

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