The Tactical Traveler By Joe Brancatelli
The Business Travel Briefing for March 15-29, 2018
The briefing in brief: United putting the brakes on Polaris. Chicago plans a 35-gate, $8.5-billion expansion at O'Hare. Air France/KLM Flying Blue eliminates award charts. Air Canada says wait 'til next year for warm-weather flights. Hotels continue rapid global expansion. And more.

The Sun Is Setting on United's Polaris Business Class
United's Polaris business class may go down as the worst rollout in airline history--and it may not be long for the skies, either. The service was being developed under ousted chief executive Jeff Smisek, then hurriedly introduced before it was ready in June, 2016, by his desperate-to-impress CEO successor, Oscar Munoz. Two months later, Scott Kirby arrived as president from American Airlines and he's never been a Polaris enthusiast. As Kirby's star has risen at United, Polaris' future has dimmed. Although the Polaris package of "soft" in-flight amenities--new menus, wine flights, upgraded bedding--premiered in December, 2016, only five of 69 existing United aircraft have been retrofitted with the frequently delayed Polaris seat. Just one of nine planned Polaris lounges has opened. Four were due last year, but have been delayed, one of them (at LAX) indefinitely. The other four have been deferred and may never open. Even the "soft" in-flight product and service elements have been gradually trimmed in the last 15 months. The latest cutback: "on request" options such as mattress pads, slippers and gel pillows. Notice of their existence quietly disappeared from Polaris in-flight collateral earlier this month. "Scott doesn't believe in Polaris and he knows it hasn't created a [fare] premium," a United executive told me this week. "There's a sense that the whole idea was botched and may never have been financially viable as an ongoing concept."

Air France/KLM Flying Blue Rewards Are Almost Certainly Rising in Price
I don't know anyone who actually earns in Flying Blue, the frequent flyer plan of Air France and KLM. But it is popular for claiming awards because prices have been modest (even with the cash co-pays) and credit can be moved on a 1:1 basis from all three bank programs. But nothing good lasts forever, right? In an attempt to align itself with SkyTeam partner Delta Air Lines and its hideous SkyMiles program, Flying Blue has eliminated award charts. New award rates vary by route and now essentially start at around where the prices had been. Flying Blue claims new route-by-route prices will fluctuate based on any number of conditions. In other words, Flying Blue is raising prices. They just won't tell you by how much.
      Radisson Rewards is the new name of the program that covers Radisson, Park hotels and Country Inns and Suites. Along with the name change--it was Club Carlson--there's a minor points-earning devaluation, but slightly easier paths to elite status. To introduce the changes, Radisson is offering a rich second-quarter promotion. You can earn as many as 120,000 bonus points when you stay 20 nights before June 30. (You must you book by April 15.) Full details are here.
      Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan now requires at least three days advance reservations for rewards on Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines or Hainan Airlines.
      United MileagePlus members can now earn miles for fuel purchases at BP stations in the United States. Details are here.

Chicago Pitches an $8.5 Billion, 35-Gate Expansion of O'Hare
Remember when Chicago was going to solve its capacity crunch with a gigantic airport in Peotone? Or when the airports in Gary, Indiana, or Rockford, Illinois, would be the solution? The latter two airports added "Chicago" to their official names, but Gary currently has no commercial service and Rockford makes do with occasional flights from Allegiant Airlines. And except for a cameo in an old Frederik Pohl science fiction novel, no one has heard about Peotone for years. The current idea to add capacity in Chicago? An $8.5 billion expansion of Chicago/O'Hare. It would entail 35 additional gates; renovation of Terminals 1, 2 and 5; demolition of 55-year-old Terminal 2 to make way for a Global Terminal; and new satellite terminals connected to the Global Terminal by an underground pedestrian terminal. After overcoming some objections from American Airlines yesterday (March 14), the plan was scheduled to go in front of the Chicago City Council starting today. Current estimate of completion date: 2026. So, you know, check back in a couple of years.
      La Familia is the latest airport-specific restaurant concept from HMS Host, the huge food-service operation. Branches have already opened at LAX (Terminal 3) and Fort Lauderdale (Terminal 1). The chain specializes in long lists of tacos and tequila.
      Newark Airport Terminal B, a restaurant desert, has a new option. The Liberty Diner purports to be a Jersey-style diner featuring comfort food. Unfortunately, it's from the same folks who run several of the other low-rated restaurants in the terminal.

Air Canada Expands Warm-Weather Flights--But Not 'Til Next Winter
It's been a brutal winter and we can all use some relief. But Air Canada is saying wait 'til next year. It'll launch a seasonal route from Calgary to Palm Springs using an Airbus A320 and flights from Edmonton to Las Vegas using a Rouge-configured Airbus A219. Both routes will run daily between October 28 and April 30. Also coming: Three weekly flights between Vancouver and Kauai using new B737 MAX aircraft. The flights will operate between December 15 and April 27.
      Icelandair is dropping premium economy on its flights starting April 7. The carrier will return to a two-class (business and coach) configuration.

Hotel Chains Continue Global Expansion, Two Million New Rooms in the Pipeline
If you thought major hotel chains had grown about as far and as fast as they could go, check out the numbers. Consulting firm Lodging Economics says that nearly 13,000 new hotels are in the global development pipeline. That represents 2.1 million new rooms around the world. You won't be surprised by which chains dominate the new builds. Various Marriott brands represent 2,400 of the projects and 400,000 of the rooms. Close behind is Hilton. Its brands have 2,100 hotels in construction representing 315,000 rooms. They are followed by InterContinental (1,500/224,000) and Accor (809/150,000).
      Fairmont has opened a 1,048-room hotel in Austin, directly across from the Convention Center and accessible by the Red River Canopy Walk.
      Hilton has opened a spread of properties in far-flung international destinations. In Europe, there's a Curio Collection hotel in Reykjavik and a 242-room Hilton in Belgrade, Serbia. In Asia, there's a 285-room Conrad in the Central Business District of Bengaluru, India, and a 329-room Hilton in Shenyang, the largest city in Northeast China.
      Hyatt has opened a 114-room Hyatt Place across from Cavaleiros Beach in Rio de Janeiro.

Business Travel News You Need to Know
Atlanta/Hartsfield Airport terminals are now restricted to ticketed travelers between 11 p.m. and 4:30 a.m. Critics claimed the airport has been overrun with homeless people in the overnight hours.
      Lufthansa says international coach and premium economy passengers will be able to pre-order la carte meals. Beginning in May, the program will cost 19 to 33 euros for one of the seven rotating special choices. The carrier says the la carte options complement, not replace, existing in-flight meals.

This column is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. 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.