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 The Brancatelli File

joe IT SEEMS I WRITE
THIS STUFF EVERY WEEK...


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

Saturday, July 29, 2006 -- Strange and disturbing as it may seem, this is the beginning of the tenth year of the Internet-specific version of this column.

Trust me when I tell you that ten is positively ancient in Internet years. Want proof? Surf over to WaybackMachine.org, that amazing archive of what has gone before on the Net. You'll see that the 1997 debut of The Brancatelli File on the Internet predates American Airlines' use of AA.com. (In 1997, AA.com pointed to a Japanese firm called Architect & Arts.) Delta.com was the address of a software-development company and United Airlines was using Ual.com. Continental.com was the home page of a cable-TV company. There were no hotels at Marriott.com and no rental cars at Budget.com back in the day, either.

So what have I learned bashing out two and sometimes three Internet columns a week for nine years? What else have I gleaned after nine more years of life on the road?

Sadly, only that nothing much has changed. Of course, I'm fatter and balder and, I hope, wiser. But after plowing through my thousand or so Internet posts since 1997, I find we're still talking about the same things in July of 2006 as we were talking about in July, 1997, or July of 1999, or July of 2003. Every day, in every way, almost nothing about life on the road has changed.

Want an example? Sure. This week Delta proposed an across-the-board $5 fare increase. Geez, how many times have we talked about fares these last nine years? And how many times have I written the obvious: The more the airlines raise prices for business travelers, the more they lose money. And don't get me started on Delta's Simplifares "price cap," which was $499 one-way when it was introduced in January, 2005, and now stands somewhere north of $700. Everyone who thinks paying $764.31 walk-up to fly from Delta's Cincinnati hub to Delta's Atlanta hub makes good business sense, please raise your hands.

Or how about this: Gerard Arpey, the chief executive of American Airlines, got himself a 24 percent raise on Monday. How many times over the past decade have we discussed what I call the "axis of excess," Big Six bosses paying themselves lavishly while their airlines, their employees and their passengers are on the fast track to oblivion? American's apologists will note with absolute accuracy that Arpey is among the lowest-paid airline bosses in America. I will note with absolute accuracy that American Airlines has lost tens of billions of dollars since 2000 and Arpey is frantically trying to shrink the carrier to profitability, a strategy that has never worked in the airline business. Besides, even Arpey noted last week that AA has managed just two profitable quarters in the last 22. And how does a guy who's just gotten himself a 24 percent raise explain to employees the $3 billion shortfall in their pension fund? Or credibly preach cost-cutting and more labor sacrifices?

Of course, one thing we've learned about life on the road is that airline executives live in their own lavish private Idahos. And like Claude Rains in Casablanca, they are shocked--shocked--to learn that business travelers won't live there with them. How many times during the last decade, for example, did we hear the Northwest suit-of-the-month explaining how things were "normal" when the airline was sliding into the abyss? Does it really surprise you to learn that it happened again this week after a computer glitch threw the carrier's schedule into chaos on Tuesday. After a day of horrific delays, Northwest spokesdweebs blithely promised nearly normal operations for Wednesday. What really happened yesterday was this: According to Flightstats.com, there were 14 cancellations, 193 flights delayed up to 30 minutes, 99 flights delayed up to 45 minutes and an astonishing 189 flights delayed more than 45 minutes. On Thursday, FlightStats.com reports that Northwest cancelled 33 flights and about 300 more ran late. The airline didn't really get back to "normal" until Saturday.

Or how about this bit of déjà vu? On Monday, United Airlines will report its first quarterly profit since the second quarter of the year 2000. You remember the great meltdown of 2000, right? And what were United executives doing as the carrier began melting down financially and operationally during the second half of 2000? Picking out corner offices in the airline's new corporate headquarters. And what will United's crew of post-bankruptcy executives be doing after announcing the second-quarter profit on Monday? Yup. Picking out corner offices in the airline's newly announced corporate headquarters. You just can't make this stuff up, fellow travelers. Oh, on Thursday, United cancelled 34 flights. Ninety more were cancelled Friday. Tomorrow and Monday should be a killing field, just as it was at the end of June. Why? United executives don't have enough crews with available duty time this month to fly the published schedule. As a result, may more flights will be cancelled before federally mandated duty-time clocks reset on August 1. If you're stuck at O'Hare, maybe you could ask to wait in one of the new corner offices.

But let's not start year ten in this state of mind. Really, there is some good news. Look at Hilton Hotels, for example. This week it announced a truly cool new in-room amenity: a Cuisinart dual-cup, single-brew coffeemaker with honest-to-goodness premium coffee supplied by Lavazza, Italy's best-selling brand. Italophiles among us could have wished for Lavazza Red Label, of course, but Hilton's choice, the Grand Filtro blend, will do nicely.

And I figure it this way: If we're gonna spend another year of life on the road together, at least we can do it secure in the knowledge that somewhere, someplace, we can make ourselves a good cup of joe.

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