The Brancatelli File



February 1, 1995 -- It may be the single most stressful and strenuous portion of any business trip. You've driven your rented car into the return lot and now you must negotiate that arduous final trek from the parking lot to your airline gate.

First, you lift your multitude of luggage--carry-on bags, sample cases, laptop computer, attache case, purse, checked baggage, whatever--out of the trunk. Next, you maneuver that fleet of cases through the parking lot to the rental company's shuttle bus. Then, you laboriously hoist your armada of bags onto the bus. Now you sit while the lumbering behemoth negotiates the narrow airport access roads. When you finally reach your airport terminal, you elbow your way through the crowd, retrieve your bags, make your way down the shuttle-bus steps, and through the exit door. Only then--perhaps an hour after you first drove your rental car into the return lot--have you reached the promised land where airplanes depart.

A generation after the introduction of the first commercial jet aircraft, however, two car-rental firms have finally devised a better way to separate you and your bags from your rented car. The process involves a dash of high-tech wizardry, a dollop of human interaction, and a massive dose of common sense.

Despite proprietary brand names--Hertz calls its plan "Curbside Return" and Avis has dubbed its program "Return Valet"--the concepts are identical. You drive your rental into the return lot, and head for a specially marked valet area. A clerk carrying a hand-held computer calculates your bill and hands you a receipt. Then comes the common-sense part: the clerk hops into the driver's seat of your rental car and drives you directly to your airline terminal. He helps you unload your luggage, and then drives the car out of your life.

This easy, quick, and stressless conclusion of a car-rental transaction is now available at more than a dozen major airports around the country and costs between $4-12 per rental.

The obvious advantages of personalized valet service over the bus-and-schlep system raises an equally-obvious question: why didn't the car-rental firms introduce these programs years ago? That's a long story, involving a raft of conflicting regulations, a rash of recent lawsuits, and some internecine squabbling between Hertz and Avis. Even now, it seems, valet car-rental returns may violate the rules of several major airports.

But let Hertz and Avis worry about that technicality. You've had enough car-rental return stress over the years.

And you thought airline meals couldn't get worse. Delta Air Lines has eliminated its traditional lunch and snack service for domestic coach passengers and switched to meals featuring sandwiches from the Blimpie chain. ... United Airlines now offers GTE Airfone fax service on its nonstop flights between San Francisco and New York's Kennedy Airport. GTE says a one-page document costs about $4.50 to send; incoming fax service is not available. ... Business-travel costs for three meals and lodging are $208 per diem in San Francisco, but just $129 in the northern and eastern suburbs, according to Runzheimer International. Similarly disparities between city and suburban costs exist in Boston, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., the consulting firm says.

This column originally appeared in San Francisco Focus magazine.

Copyright 1993-2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.