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ONLY THE LONELY
By Joe Brancatelli
October 7, 2010 -- Life on the road is lonely. At least it is for us business travelers.
Airlines and hotels? Not so much.
They've been merging, doing joint ventures and getting antitrust immunity so fast lately that they can't possibly be lonely. Just this week, for instance, three airlines (American, British Airways and Iberia) got it on. Two or three more (United, Continental and Air Canada) did something no one can figure out. And Marriott did a big deal with a big Spanish hotel chain.
It's all explained below. But don't talk about this stuff with anyone who isn't a road warrior. They'd walk out halfway through your explanation and then you'd really be alone…
AA-BA-IBERIA: A LONG AND WINDING ROAD TO SOMEWHERE
Considering that it took more than a decade to get done, the benefits of the American Airlines-British Airways alliance haven't exactly bowled us over yet. And when you consider that Iberia is included in the nearly universal OneWorld antitrust immunity, well, you're forgiven for having expected more.
But benefits are finally beginning to flow. First and foremost, the long-overdue integration of American Airlines AAdvantage with British Airways' Executive Club kicked in on October 1. Most importantly, you can now earn and burn AAdvantage miles on all British Airways flights. Ditto for Iberia flights. Elite earnings are slightly murkier, however, especially if you were hoping to gain AAdvantage elite-qualifying miles for flying on British Airways. Check the FAQs posted at the AA Web site carefully.
On the awards side, AAdvantage members can now claim freebies on all BA and Iberia flights. That opens up a lot of reward opportunities to London, Madrid and Barcelona--and offers much better connections on travel to other Europe destinations via Heathrow and Barajas airports. But there are quirks. One example: AA doesn't offer an award for seats in World Traveler Plus, BA's premium economy cabin. But AA says its one-class upgrade awards will ONLY get you into World Traveler Plus if you buy a coach ticket. In other words, damned if you do and damned if you try to upgrade.
And a warning: If you claim AA miles for a BA ticket, you'll pay as much as $250 each way in fuel surcharges. Why? Because that's what BA does. You won't pay a surcharge if you book the same itinerary on AA metal, however. So it still makes financial sense to try to book AA-only or AA/Iberia itineraries before claiming on BA flights.
On the flip side--new service--the new alliance isn't exactly burning up the route map. Rather than expand, they are giddily slapping each other's codes on flights. American says it will put the AA code on 322 BA and Iberia flights while British Airways will put the BA code on about 2,000 American and Iberia flights. Iberia adds IB to about 350 AA and BA flights.
But there are four new routes, although at least two are retreads. Next year, American Airlines will begin flying between New York/Kennedy and Budapest and Chicago/O'Hare and Helsinki. British Airways will once again try flying between San Diego and London/Heathrow. (BA has launched and dropped San Diego flights several times in the last 20 years.) And Iberia's new route, Los Angeles-Madrid, is actually a revival of a service that the Spanish carrier abandoned more than a decade ago.
MARRIOTT: A NEW BRAND FOR EUROPE, 90 PROPERTIES AT A TIME
The leading U.S. hotel chains have been racing to broaden their footprint in Europe and Marriott has just announced a big-gulp expansion that will give it more than 90 "new" properties in Spain, Portugal and Northern Italy.
Marriott this week signed a joint-venture deal with Spain's AC Hotels. It's a fairly well-regarded chain of four-star properties that focuses on "style" and urban locations. (Like Marriott, AC Hotels is named after the chain's founder, Antonio Catalan.) The joint venture will rename the hotels "AC by Marriott" and, most importantly, put them in Marriott Rewards program and the Marriott reservation network. The deal is expected to close by the end of the year and launch in 2011.
Dozens more hotels where we can earn and burn points in locations we frequent for business and like to visit on holiday is a good thing. But what we don't know are the standards. What in heaven's name will an "AC by Marriott" property be? Like Marriott or hate it, brands it built are amazingly consistent and fairly easy to judge. The current AC hotels? Not so much. Some are stunning. Some are intriguing failures. And some are downright goofy and infuriating in the way that only "style" hotels can be. You can examine the current crop here. This will be worth watching.
BEATING MORE FROM THE TRANSBORDER CONNECTION
United and Continental airlines are merged, owned by the brilliantly named holding company called United Continental Holdings Inc. It has antitrust immunity with 47.5 million carriers in the Star Alliance. (I may be off by a million or two airlines there.) But too much is apparently never enough. This week it announced that it is working toward a "revenue-sharing joint venture" with Air Canada. Air Canada, by the way, is already one of those antitrust immunity carriers in the Star Alliance.
So what's left for United Continental-Air Canada to do? Tax the double doubles at Tim Hortons? Slap a surcharge on Budweiser? Or Labatt Blue? Skim a little off the top of the $4 tolls on the Ambassador Bridge?
No one knows. Other than a bit of PR babble, UnitedContinentalAirCanadaSuperNinjaStrikeForce Airlines hasn't said. So stay tuned.
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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.