The Brancatelli File



July 13, 2006 -- I don't know very much about the World Cup and I know even less about soccer, but I do know that the world has gone to hell in a handbasket ever since the French guy head-butted the Italian guy last Sunday.

Just think about what has happened since Zinédine Zidane thrust his bald pate into the blue-jerseyed chest of Marco Materazzi on the Berlin pitch:
    A Pakistan Airlines Fokker headed toward Lahore crashed and killed all 45 people aboard.
    A Sibir Airlines Airbus crashed on landing at Irkutsk in Siberia and killed at least 127 passengers and crew.
    An irate and possibly insane doctor in New York blew up his multi-million dollar townhouse.
    Part of a ceiling tunnel in Boston's Big Dig project collapsed and killed a woman.
    Terrorists killed at least 188 passengers during a coordinated bombing of Mumbai's mass-transit system.
    A rush-hour train derailment and fire on a Chicago transit line injured more than 150 people.
    Wildfires have consumed more than 35,000 acres of California's Yucca Valley.
    Israel, Gaza and Lebanon--and maybe Syria and the entire Middle East--are on the brink of war. All while Iran continues to press its nuclear brinksmanship and Iraq's sectarian violence takes a brutal turn toward outright civil war.

Against that horrendous backdrop, it's difficult to focus on business travel. It all seems so trivial and meaningless. After all, what's another summer meltdown at the airport or more widespread weather delays? What's another price hike? What's one more insult at the hands of an airline or hotel?

But we are here to talk about business travel, aren't we? So here are random thoughts from the handbasket en route to hell.

LIVING SMALL It seems like forever ago, but it's just 10 months since Northwest and Delta declared bankruptcy. The result has been a truly dramatic retrenching. According to analyses of this month's schedules, Delta is offering 14 percent fewer flights than during July, 2005. Northwest's schedule is 15 percent smaller. The decline in available seats is probably greater since both Delta and Northwest have turned over huge amounts of their remaining flying to the regional jets flown by commuter carriers.

LIVING LATE Speaking of Northwest, that popular perception that the airline "won" last summer's strike with its mechanics continues to pervade the media. But business travelers know that simply isn't so. Northwest was second in on-time performance since 1987, according to Transportation Department statistics. However, it finished 17th in the on-time ratings in the third and fourth quarters of 2005. It finished 11th in the first quarter of 2006. It was fifth in April and fourth in May, the latest available reporting period.

LIVING A LIE For months before it exited bankruptcy on February 1, United Airlines was touting its improved on-time performance. It also kept insisting that its decision to squeeze additional flying out of its existing fleet by reducing "turn times" wouldn't hurt its operations. Once again, however, the numbers prove otherwise. Historically, United was seventh in on-time performance since 1987 and had rebounded to eighth in the third quarter of 2005. Since then, however, the airline is back on the skids. It finished tenth in the fourth quarter, 16th in the first quarter of this year, 14th in April and 16th in May.

LIVING ON THE EDGE Airlines such as United and US Airways have pegged their out-of-bankruptcy profit potential on crude oil selling for an average of $50 a barrel. After the trouble in the Middle East this week, oil closed north of $76 a barrel today. That, of course, hammered airline stocks. The parent company of American Airlines sank 8.23 percent today. Continental Airlines dropped 7.38 percent. US Airways, which hit a post-bankruptcy high of $56.41 on Monday, dropped another 7.67 percent yesterday and closed at $48.52. United dropped 6.99 percent. JetBlue dropped an eye-popping 10.29 percent.

LIVING IN THE PAST CNN this weekend will air a two-part documentary on TWA 800, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island, New York, on July 17, 1996. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has officially blamed the Boeing 747's crash on a fuel-tank explosion caused by frayed wires. But the findings are disbelieved in many circles for a number of reasons, including the fact that the mechanics involved with the NTSB investigation largely rejected the frayed-wire scenario. And despite the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has refused to implement the NTSB's urgent and repeated calls for new fuel-tank safety regimens, the Boeing 747 continues to fly safely.

LIVING WITH THE STATS Chicago/O'Hare is once again the nation's busiest airport, at least in terms of flights. According to the FAA, 477,001 flights departed from or arrived at O'Hare during the first six months of 2006. About 5,000 fewer used Atlanta. Dallas/Fort Worth was third with 348,434 flights. … Moscow is the world's costliest city for business travelers to work, according to a major consulting group. With New York City set as the benchmark at 100 points, Moscow registered 123.9 on the cost scale, followed by Seoul (121.7), Tokyo (119.1), Hong Kong (116.3) and London (110.6). Cheapest city on the list of 144 international destinations? Asuncion, Paraguay, at 43.5. … Major U.S. carriers have lost almost half of their highest-paying passengers in the last five years. According to an airline consulting firm, 18 percent of all travelers paid the highest coach fares or flew in premium classes prior to 9/11. Today that number is just nine percent. High-fare flyers have defected to private jets or migrated to discount fares, the firm says.

LIVING LIKE IT'S 90 YEARS AGO You'll forgive me for coming back to our friend Zidane. But since he finally broke his silence yesterday, it's worth noting his explanation for the head butt that got him ejected and may have cost France the World Cup. He says he was verbally provoked and his attack on Matterazi was a matter of honor. In other words, honor was more important than winning. Which seems to me exactly what the French said 90 years ago at Verdun. As a matter of honor, France took perhaps 550,000 casualties defending the militarily marginal town from German attacks during World War I. Expecting the French to defend their honor, the Germans took about 450,000 casualties futilely trying to bleed France white.

I just hope when we meet in this space next week that the world won't have a new series of Verduns that are being defended and attacked at any cost as a matter of honor.

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