The Brancatelli File



April 6, 2006 -- So I opened my "business-travel outlook" file this week and a blizzard of bad news tumbled out:
   · Airline traffic this spring and summer is expected to be at an all-time high.
   · Big Six carriers continue to trim domestic capacity and downsize the aircraft they fly.
   · On-time performance is skidding.
   · Load factors are at record highs and major carriers report near sellouts on many routes.
   · Airline employment is at record lows as Big Six carriers cut back on the number of flight attendants on planes, reservation agents on phones and ground employees at the airport.
   · Weather experts are predicting another bad hurricane season with several major storms making landfall.

You don't need me to tell you that all those factors make for a toxic business-travel stew. Too many passengers, too many small planes, too few empty middle seats, too many delays, too few employees to help and lousy weather all auger badly for our upcoming travel plans.

So what can you do to protect yourself on the road in the months ahead? Short of staying home--or planting yourself on the beach in Hawaii or in a nice little chateau in the south of France--until this all blows over, your only option is aggressive preparedness. You need to think more, plan more and control as much of your business-travel environment as possible.

Allow me to offer some tips. Some of them you already know. Some of them you need to remind yourself that you know. And all of them are worth considering as you hunker down to survive what may be the spring and summer of our business-travel discontent.

Seat availability, at least on routes in the United States and Canada, will be tight all spring and summer. A few flight cancellations--or a storm that knocks out a hub for an hour or two--will cause chaos. Don't assume that the airline will have seats to re-accommodate you--or enough employees at the airport to unsnarl the snafus. Protect yourself: Program airline, hotel and car-rental reservation numbers into your mobile phone or PDA. Research your alternatives on other carriers or via other hubs before you reach the airport. The more you know your options and how to book them, the better your chances of mitigating the damage.

Business travelers are creatures of habit. We fly in and out of the airports we use because those are the ones that we assume are the logical ones. Not so. There may be an alternate airport that you can use and it may be less crowded and closer to your final destination. Why, for example, would you use any of New York's three major airports when you are headed to the northern suburbs? Fly into White Plains instead. The airport in Manchester, New Hampshire, is about 60 miles north of Boston. But given the traffic around Logan Airport, it might actually be easier to fly into Manchester and head down Interstate 93. If your destination is north of Chicago, try flying into Milwaukee rather than Chicago/O'Hare. Los Angeles-area travelers don't need to rely solely on LAX. There are good alternatives: Long Beach, Burbank, even Orange County. Get a map and check your options.

For the millionth time: An airport club is the best investment you can make in your own comfort and productivity on the road. Yes, the fees are higher than they used to be, some airlines have cut back on locations and hours and the lounges are more crowded than they used to be. So what? How can you balance those minor annoyances against being able to wait out delayed and canceled flights in the relative quiet and comfort of a private lounge with workstations and cushy chairs? You should be a member of the club sponsored by the airline you fly most frequently. Augment that with Priority Pass, a private network that gives you visitation privileges at more than 450 airport clubs around the world. And remember: Elite American Express cardholders have day-of-travel privileges at Northwest, Continental and Delta clubs when they are flying on those airlines.

Checked bags complicate your travel, so pack less and carry on whenever possible. One effective downsizing strategy: Go monochrome with your wardrobe for each trip. When you stay within a single color palette, you maximize your ability to mix-and-match clothes, shoes and accessories. A good strategy if you travel to a particular location on a regular basis: Make one hotel your base of operations, then ask the hotel to store your clothes between trips. One more thought: Consider shipping your bags. Companies such as SportsExpress offer overnight, one- or two-day service and the price is competitive when you consider the time you waste waiting to check your bags and then waiting for them to come off the carousel.

Frequent flyers have let the gadget thing get out of hand. If you're traveling with a PDA, laptop, BlackBerry, mobile phone, iPod, noise-reducing headphones and pager, you're traveling with too much stuff. Leave some gear--and all the attendant power adapters, cables and accessories--behind. And please: Make sure your batteries are always fully charged.

Most major airlines now allow you to check in and get your boarding pass on the Web up to 24 hours before departure. Do it. If you do check bags, look for the curbside check-in option. Why wait on any line you can logically bypass?

I am not a morning person, but I can't ignore the obvious and neither should you. Almost two decades of data in the monthly Air Travel Consumer Report consistently show that flying early in the day minimizes your chances of flight delays. So get on the earliest flights you can book. And do your homework: The report offers hour-by-hour statistics on when major airports operate most efficiently.

Too many business travelers still live in sartorial fantasyland at the airport. Lose the sports jackets and suit jackets, folks. Jackets are just another thing that the TSA makes you run through the X-ray machine. Ditto belts with huge, metal buckles. And may I introduce you to loafers? The only thing sadder than watching a sharp-dressed man doggedly retrieving his wrinkled Armani jacket from a dusty plastic security bin while struggling to get back into his five-eyelet oxfords is watching a good-looking woman juggling her jacket, her pocketbook, her rolling bag and her laptop while trying to lace up her running shoes. And if you want to travel with a pocketful of change and keys and a belt full of gear--cellphones, iPods, pages, BlackBerries--at least be smart about it. Before you get in the security line, dump all that stuff in a zippered plastic bag and throw that bag in your carry-on.

If ever there was a moment for attitude adjustment, this spring and summer is it. Tempers are short: Airline employees are worried about their jobs and are being asked to work two or three times harder than ever. We're tired and stressed. And leisure travelers seem more clueless and oblivious than ever. So make an extra effort to smile, be nice and control your anger. You really will be surprised at how much more pleasant even the worst flight will be if you smile broadly and act politely. Try a cheery "Good Morning!" to the gate agent. It won't kill you. You might even get a smile in return.

A note to readers: JoeSentMe members at the Elite and Executive levels receive a 20% discount on Priority Pass membership and free upgrades to overnight shipping from Click the Claim Your Discounts link on the upper right of the home page.

Copyright 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.