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 The Brancatelli File

joe STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF SUMMER

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

August 24, 2006 -- I don't mean to go Motown on you, but we're standing in the shadows of summer and I don't know a business traveler who won't be glad to bid this particular season adieu.

In case you've already turned the summer of 2006 into a repressed memory, here's the season in a nutshell. Lousy weather. Long delays. Packed planes. Rising fares, hotel rates and car-rental prices. Terrorism scares. Train bombings. Middle-of-the-night changes in carry-on rules. Bottled-water bans. A Middle East war. Horrific plane crashes. One of our planets is gone. Not to mention tomorrow night's potential strike at Northwest Airlines. And there are still 90 days left in what has been an eerily calm hurricane season.

But what will we face on the road when the autumn leaves start to fall? (Hey, that's Johnny Mercer…) More of the same, I'm afraid. It will be the same old summer song, but with a different beat. I'd say wake me when it's over, but I'm afraid you'll whack me upside the head if I mangle another Holland-Dozier-Holland lyric, so let's just proceed with the fall travel agenda. Take good notes because y'all been warned. (Oooh, Wu-Tang Clan…)

FIGURING OUT THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Depending on your world view, we seem to be headed into a new phase of terrorist activity and/or a new generation of government-induced scare tactics. Either way, expect a never-ending series of changes at the nation's security checkpoints. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says that it won't be scrapping its liquids ban any time soon. Which would be okay, if only there were any signs of consistent enforcement. Why are there secondary screeners at some gates and not at others? And anyone who's been on the road since August 10 has seen at least one example of someone who has successfully and quite openly brought a contraband beverage aboard. And wait until the checked luggage hits the metaphoric fan. The major carriers were already "mishandling" a greater percentage of checked bags than at any time since 1990 before the 20 percent spike in volume caused by the new carry-on rules. I'm also just paranoid enough to think that the TSA went to school on the British government's brief ban on all carry-ons. Would it really shock you if, just before election day, there is another terror alert? One that requires the TSA to ban carry-on bags "for our security"? My best advice right now: Travel with fewer bits of expensive and irreplaceable electronic gear. And ditch the carry-on bags of bling. I don't think we've seen the last of draconian changes in carry-on rules implemented in the wee small hours of the morning.

WHO WINS CHINA?
Two generations removed from the cold-war-era "Who Lost China?" fandango, we have a new debate: Who Wins China? As in which U.S. carrier will win the quite lucrative right to launch a new route from the United States to China. Four airlines are vying for the honor and you'll be bombarded throughout the fall with notes from Northwest, United, Continental and American, each urging you to support their respective bids. American even launched a Web site to promote its effort. Despite the cheesy site and infuriating "What's good for American is good for America" rhetoric, American probably does have the best case. After all, why give another route to Northwest. The bankrupt carrier says it loses money on its vast Asian route network, so why give it another opportunity to screw up? United, which is also huge in Asia, is hamstrung by a lack of cash, credit and planes. It can't launch a new route without scrapping an existing international service. As a New York-based flyer, I'd personally benefit if Continental got the right to fly Newark-Shanghai nonstop, but the reality is that American's Dallas/Fort Worth-Beijing proposal would bring nonstop China service to a region of the country that currently has no such option.

MERGER MANIA
The Big Six, even the bankrupt ones, all made some operating profit in the second quarter and most may earn a few shekels in the third quarter. But the profit was largely accidental, a combination of pent-up demand, a momentary reduction in seat capacity that allowed for substantial fare increases and brutal wage-and-work-rules concessions from employees. Those factors won't be repeated anytime soon. So watch this fall for endless stories about Big Six mergers. You can--and the media will--speculate about a Rubik's Cube worth of options: Northwest-Delta; United-Continental; US Airways-anybody; and all manner of manage-a-trois. My guess is that United and US Airways are the most motivated to do deals. United because its clueless management has no other ideas. And US Airways because chief executive Doug Parker has already wrung all the advantages out of the US Airways-America West combination and he doesn't want to face the hard stuff that he's ducked for a year.

SPEAKING OF US AIRWAYS…
Life is likely to get very interesting at US Airways this fall. The carrier has done very little of the grunt work of last year's merger and its two substantive attempts--a combined frequent flyer program and a new Web site--have been panned. A systemwide fare alignment is finally scheduled for next week, but the carrier has done nothing to rationalize fleets, work rules and operations. In fact, the "airline," from a flying standpoint, still operates under both the old America West and US Airways federal certifications. That's a legal dodge that has infuriated employees of both carriers, who legitimately feel that the airline's management has profited with pay raises and options sales while they are locked into concession-laden contracts. The carrier's most frequent flyers feel abused by massive cutbacks in the elite benefits of the new Dividend Miles program and the Philadelphia hub continues to be an operational disaster from both an on-time and a baggage-handling perspective. Not to mention that JetBlue Airways has barged in on both the US Airways Shuttle routes and some of US Airways' profitable Carolina flights.

AND SPEAKING OF JETBLUE…
A year ago at this time, JetBlue was gearing up for an October assault on Continental's hub in Newark, a few miles and a lucrative fortress market away from JetBlue's own hub at New York's Kennedy Airport. A lot of wise guys--including, it must be said, yours truly--thought JetBlue had triangulated by attacking Continental on routes to the sun destinations, where JetBlue had the most advantages and Continental was weakest. But as the bookies say, that's why they play the games. Continental has mounted a ferocious, albeit costly, defense and blunted the JetBlue incursion. In fact, JetBlue is dropping the Newark-San Juan route on September 11 and this fall will operate two fewer daily flights from Newark (14) than last year. This should be a very interesting fall in Newark, to say the least.

HYPE ON A PLANE
But wait, there is likely to be some good news in the skies this fall. Despite all of the Internet hype and surprisingly decent reviews, Snakes on a Plane basically pancaked at the box office last weekend. That should spare us a fall full of snakes-on-planes puns and wordplay. Even more important, it means that we won't be assaulted with the hype about a sequel. I wasn't looking forward to speculation about Squid on a Plane or Squirrels on a Plane or, heaven forfend, Contraband Soda Cans on a Plane.

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