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 The Tactical Traveler

joe A BUSINESS-TRAVEL BRIEFING
FOR FEBRUARY 27 TO MARCH 6, 2003


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

This week: Midwest Express loses its way; hotels rush to add wireless Internet access; American and Alaska airlines add new transcontinental flights; an update on frequent-travel programs; airports end random vehicle searches; the London flight sales keep coming; and more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: Midwest Express Loses Its Way
Midwest Express, long admired for its lavish in-flight meals and its coach seats configured in a spacious, 2x2 arrangement, has lost its way. After slashing its signature food service in recent months, the airline announced this week that meals are out altogether. Passengers on breakfast flights will receive a pastry and all other flights will be limited to the airline's baked-on-board cookies. Moreover, the company says it will cut about 12 percent of its flight schedule. It will also launch an as-yet unnamed "low-fare" carrier this summer using MD-80s configured in a traditional 3x2 arrangement. The problem with all this? For a small carrier, Midwest seems intent on imitating the Big, Sick Six rather than attempting more creative solutions. Unlike Frontier and America West, smaller carriers that have simplified their fare structures, Midwest Express has clung to the convoluted, traffic-depressing pricing system employed so disastrously by the Big Six. It has also refused to coordinate flight schedules at Milwaukee and Kansas City to allow East-West passengers to use Midwest Express as an alternative to the Big Six. The result? Staggering losses and this week's brand-blurring cutbacks that are sure to send Midwest Express even deeper into the red.

IN THE LOBBY: Wireless Access, the New Black
What does the well-heeled, well-equipped hotel boast now? Wireless Internet access. "Consider it the new black," one hotel general manager told me this week, making a tortured analogy to the omnipresent and all-purpose little black dress. "In a few years, hotels won't be taken seriously without it," he added. "Besides, if you can tell a guest, 'Yes, we have it,' they generally stop asking other service questions." How fast is wireless Internet (generically known as WiFi) coming to hotels? Well, consider this: Both Marriott and Starwood have announced plans to market and advertise WiFi availability with Intel. (Intel has a new product called Centrino, which includes built-in wireless capability, which explains the chipmaker's interest.) Marriott says 200 of its properties already offer wireless access and 200 more will be equipped this spring. Starwood says 150 of its properties are getting WiFi. Independent properties are even rushing into the wireless world. In London, where WiFi remains a relatively exotic concept, the One Aldwych hotel is already testing the service with a local provider named Liberty-I.

ON THE FLY: Business-Travel News You Need to Know
Effective May 1, Alaska Airlines is closing three of its eight city ticket offices in Juneau, Anchorage and Portland. ... Now that New York state has repealed its law against selling collision-damage waivers, Hertz has begun marketing the optional add-on for $9-$12 a day. American Airlines, which surrenders to JetBlue on the New York/JFK-Oakland route this weekend, is trying a new transcon service. Beginning in April, it will fly one daily nonstop between Kennedy and John Wayne/Orange County. ... Speaking of new transcontinental service, Alaska Airlines says it will begin nonstop flights from its Seattle hub to Orlando on May 22. Alaska will use 172-seat Boeing 737s on the route. ... KLM says it will begin adding a fuel surcharge on fares this weekend. Intra-Europe flights will be tagged with an additional $5 one-way fee; inter-continental flights will get hit with a $10 fee. Lufthansa has eschewed surcharges, but raised fares this week to reflect higher fuel costs.

MILES & POINTS: New Fees, New Products, New Promotions
Effective Saturday (March 1), Northwest will charge a $50 fee for changes to WorldPerks award tickets. ... Delta Air Lines says its SkyMiles program will no longer participate in the Hilton HHonors reward-exchange plan that allows HHonors points and SkyMiles to be converted. ... Air Canada is introducing a U.S.-based credit card for Aeroplan members. The airline says more than 400,000 travelers residing in the United States are members of the program. ... Midwest Express is changing the name of its frequency program to Midwest Miles and juggling partners. Out are Northwest and Virgin Atlantic (both partnerships end May 28). In are American Airlines (beginning June 1) and Air Jamaica (April 2). ... Gold Points Rewards, the frequent-stay program of Radisson and Country Inn hotels, is adding an elite level. Travelers must accumulate 30,000 base points per year to qualify for elite status. Benefits include room upgrades and bonus points on nightly stays.

SECURITY WATCH: Yellow Means No Searches
Random searches of vehicles on or near airport grounds ended within hours after the government this week downgraded the nation's security alert status to yellow from orange. ... The Transportation Security Administration has signed off on a plan to allow airline pilots to carry firearms. The largest pilots union has already complained about the TSA's plan to conduct regular and extensive psychological testing before issuing permits. It is also annoyed that the agency has imposed strict controls on how pilots will be allowed to store and transport firearms.

THE PARTING SHOT: The London Sales Keep on Coming
It's probably the only bright spot in the otherwise dreary late-winter landscape: the endless series of fare sales to London. This week's offer comes via Virgin Atlantic (888-747-7474), which is selling midweek roundtrip flights to London from New York/Kennedy or Newark for as low as $268. Low-fare flights are also available from Boston ($316), Washington/Dulles ($318), Los Angeles ($426), and Miami, Orlando and San Francisco ($446). Virgin has even put its Premium Economy class--the carrier's upgraded coach service--on sale for as low as $718 roundtrip from New York or Boston. To get the fares, you have to buy tickets by March 7 and travel must be completed by March 31. A seven-day advance purchase is required, but travelers receive an additional $20 discount if they book at the Virgin Atlantic Web site.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.