The Brancatelli File



July 20, 2006 -- Life on the road has been difficult this summer, what with the bad weather, the long delays, the high prices, the packed planes, the crowded hotels and the horrendous backdrop of the frightening and confusing news from the Middle East.

I wouldn't dream of adding to your burden, so let me just tell you a few on-the-road tales of protest, pique, television mobsters and, oddly, an airport shuttle bus hijacking.

The smug refugees of the Big Six who run Air Canada all too often forget that it's different in Canada, where the culturally fractious and geographically dispersed population expect more from their virtual monopoly carrier. So it's no surprise that Mapleflot ran into a hornet's nest recently when it decided to drop the St. John's, Newfoundland, stop on the airline's daily flights between Halifax, Nova Scotia, and London/Heathrow.

Effective September 4, Air Canada Flight 861 will begin flying over St. John's as it travels nonstop between Halifax and Heathrow. That will force Newfoundlanders to fly two hours west to Halifax and change planes if they want to get to London.

In making the announcement this spring and in countless subsequent justifications, Air Canada spokespeople haughtily explained that the St. John's stop inconvenienced Nova Scotia travelers and it wasn't all that profitable, either. Air Canada's dismissive attitude as much as the service snub infuriated Newfoundlanders, who pointed out that St John's had a flight to London even before the province joined the Canadian confederation in 1949. They bombarded Air Canada with protests. Canadian newspapers around the country picked up the cause, declaring Mapleflot arrogant, cynical and a mess of other adjectives that don't go down well in Canada, where provincial prerogative and regional pride are the third rails of national life.

Today, however, Air Canada blinked. It wasn't a complete retreat, but it shows how things are different in the Great White North. The airline announced that it will launch seasonal St. John's-Heathrow flights next April. Whether spring and summer flights to London will mollify Newfoundlanders remains to be seen, however.

An airline you may have never heard of, Etihad, announced this week that it would launch nonstop flights between New York/Kennedy and Abu Dhabi. Etihad, which already flies from Abu Dhabi to Toronto via Brussels, will begin daily nonstops between the United States and the United Arab Emirates on October 26.

Etihad's planned flights will border on the sybaritic. The carrier will use the ultra-long-haul Airbus A340-500 configured with 240 seats in three classes. The so-called Diamond Zone first-class cabin will have 12 suites, each with a seat that converts to an 80-inch bed. Each suite will have a 23-inch video monitor, a laptop power supply, two USB ports and an RJ-45 jack. Folding and sliding tables have integrated personal mirrors and each suite rotates 180 degrees so passengers can hold meetings or dine with other flyers. The business-class cabin, configured 1-2-1, will have 28 seats. Each seat will have a 15-inch monitor, laptop power port, USB ports and an RJ-45 jack and each seat will convert to a 73-inch long bed. Seats in the coach cabin will have about 32 inches of legroom, adjustable foot and headrests, 10.4-inch monitors, a power port, USB port and RJ-45 jack. The on-demand audio-video system in all three cabins will feature more than 200 hours of entertainment, including 30 films, 24 hours of television programming, 28 video games, 12 audio channels and 120 CDs of music.

Who would fund an airline that offers such elaborate service and has expanded to dozens of destinations in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East in less than three years? The royal family of Abu Dhabi, who founded Etihad in a fit of pique. The Emirate is a part-owner of Gulf Air, but became infuriated in 2003 when Gulf Air's new boss decided to move the carrier's long-haul, full-service hub to Bahrain and base a shorter-haul, all-coach operation in Abu Dhabi. By November, 2003, Etihad had been created with a fleet of new planes, planeloads of investment capital and a mission: Out-luxury Gulf Air and even Emirates, the highly regarded airline based about 75 miles away in Dubai. So far, frequent flyers around the world have raved about the service offered by Etihad, the airline that pique built.

Tony Sirico, who plays the skunk-haired Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos, is suing the Atlantic City Hilton for using his picture on a billboard advertisement.

According to both sides, Sirico and five other cast members of the show were paid about $250,000 to make a "meet and greet" appearance on March 25 at a hotel event for high rollers. Afterward, Sirico went into the hotel casino to play roulette. The photograph of him in the casino eventually ended up on a billboard on the Atlantic City Expressway. Sirico's suit said the photo was taken after his contractual obligation to the hotel was complete and that he never gave the Hilton permission to use the photo. It also says he was gambling on his own time with his own money. His lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for invasion of privacy, consumer fraud and breach of contract. A spokesman for the Atlantic City hotel says Sirico "posed for the photo" and the hotel "is well within its rights to use his likeness."

An armed man hijacked a shuttle bus at Vancouver Airport last week and forced the driver to take him to Vernon in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. "It's a pretty traumatic thing to have to drive that far," said a police spokesman in Vernon, which is about 275 miles from Vancouver. "I think they stopped at a couple of rest stops on the way here." Police are still searching for the hijacker, who was wearing cowboy boots and a baseball cap.

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