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 The Tactical Traveler

joe A BUSINESS-TRAVEL BRIEFING
FOR JUNE 12 TO JUNE 19, 2003


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

This week: Midwest Express is dying; Paris's new airport terminal opens next week despite another strike; how the airlines have bungled in-flight food sales; Four Seasons reopens its Prague hotel; United changes its boarding procedures; when hotels imitate airline pricing; and more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: Midwest Express is Dying in Milwaukee
Midwest Airlines (fka Midwest Express) has launched a Web sale offering 15 percent off virtually any fare into and out of its Milwaukee hub for the next month. It's a good deal--and a sure sign that the once-beloved carrier is dying. Always quirky and insular, Midwest Express was never good at maximizing the advantages of its comfortable seating, its sumptuous in-flight meals or the hub potential of its compact, efficient Milwaukee home base. Now it seems intent on committing suicide. First, there was the inexplicable name change. Then there was the decision to reduce, and finally to jettison, the food service. Now there is the move to water down the carrier's signature amenity--the 2x2 configuration of its wide, leather chairs--by going to cramped 3x2 seating and a "discount" service on some of its MD-80 routes. Rather than slow the carrier's losses, however, the moves are increasing Midwest's cash burn and passenger drain. (The airline's traffic dropped an eye-popping 16 percent last month.) And don't think that other carriers don't see the blood in the water. Northwest Airlines is adding flights to Milwaukee from six cities next month and Frontier is launching Milwaukee flights from its Denver hub in August.

AIRPORT REPORT: SkyTeam's Looming Disaster in Paris
Prepare for a travel nightmare next week if you're flying Delta, Air France or other SkyTeam carriers to, from or through SkyTeam's Paris/Charles DeGaulle hub. French public-sector workers are planning another general strike on Tuesday (June 17); work stoppages on the two previous Tuesdays this month have all but grounded air travel to or from France. But the oblivious folks at Air France have nevertheless chosen next Tuesday as the day to open Terminal 2E as the new nexus of SkyTeam operations. Anyone who has tried to change planes at CDG's sprawling, disconnected, arch-shaped Terminal 2F knows how chaotic it already is. The partial opening of Terminal 2E means Air France and SkyTeam flights will be distributed throughout both terminals and along its interminable hallways and endless satellite concourses. Three other SkyTeam carriers--AeroMexico, CSA Czech and Korean Air--will also use Terminal 2E. Another SkyTeam member, Alitalia, will continue to use the west wing of Terminal 2F. Bon chance. You're going to need it.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Surprise! Airlines Bungle Food Sales
For all the talk, tests and publicity, selling food in flight is shaping up as a costly flop. Carriers testing in-flight food sales are learning two difficult--and mostly predictable--lessons: Costs are ballooning because of high spoilage rates and the logistics of in-flight selling are nightmarish. "We're getting crushed by spoilage," an executive at one major carrier told me last week. "Even on the same flight we're seeing 40-50 percent changes in day-to-day demand. We end up with higher spoilage costs than revenue." And the logistics issue is infuriating flight attendants and passengers. Flight attendants selling food continually clog the aisle, thus restricting passenger movement and access to restrooms. And there aren't enough small bills available to make change. "Suddenly, we have a cash-disbursement issue," another airline executive told me. "We have no way of giving crews enough change on a flight-by-flight basis." Are the problems intractable? No, but they will probably force the airlines to abandon most in-flight sales. "We can make this work if airlines sell at the gate or in their clubs," an executive of an airline-catering firm believes. "That ameliorates the spoilage and inventory issues and obviates the in-flight logistics. But [the airlines] probably have to bleed themselves a bit more before they come to that conclusion."

IN THE LOBBY: Four Seasons Tries Again in Prague
The posh Four Seasons Hotel Prague was only open 18 months when last summer's devastating floods caused substantial damage to the property's three historic buildings and forced it to close. The 161-room property is scheduled to reopen next Friday (June 20) under the guidance of general manager Rene Beauchamp, who arrived last August, just a week before the flooding began. "Prague itself is 95 percent back to normal," Beauchamp told me recently, "and I'm confident guests will find the hotel even better than it was when it opened to so many accolades." Located in Prague's Old Town (Staré Mesto), the hotel is next to the Charles Bridge and overlooks the Vltava River. It was considered the best hotel in Central Europe before the flood and now the renovated property offers a business center, health club, meeting space and highly regarded restaurant.

ON THE FLY: Business-Travel News You Need to Know
United Airlines has basically adopted the boarding procedure used to great effect by American Airlines in recent years. Passengers no longer board by rows, but by numbered groups. In United's case, it's four groups: premium-class customers and elite MilegePlus members first; then Economy Plus customers and travelers who hold elite Star Alliance or US Airways Dividend Miles status; then passengers in the last 10 rows of coach; and, finally, all remaining passengers. ... Northwest Airlines has doubled its paper-ticket fee to $50. And US Airways now charges a $10 fee for most tickets issued at its 13 remaining city ticket offices. ... This useful item thanks to Tim Winship, the mileage guru of FrequentFlier.com: Effective June 30, American Airlines says it will no longer honor any request for miles that have not yet been converted from the defunct TWA Aviators program. If you haven't had your TWA miles converted to American AAdvantage miles, call the AAdvantage service center at 800-882-8880.

THE PARTING SHOT: When Hotels Imitate the Airlines
If we've learned anything in recent years, it's that the Big Six airlines have driven themselves to the brink of financial ruin by their use of a misleading, convo-luted, incomprehensible, Byzantine fare structure. So why do the nation's hotel chains think that it's smart to imitate airline pricing? Want a tangible example of the foolishness? Consider the Westin ad in The New York Times this week, which promotes the chain's Modern Luxury Weekend program. The big type offers weekend rates at $99-$149 a night until September 14 if you book rooms by June 15 and mention promotion code LUXNYT. And here's just some of what's buried in the fine print: "Rates are valid for Thursday-Sunday stays ... that include a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday day of arrival. A one-night non-refundable deposit is required at time of booking. Basic rooms do not include additional per room, per night charges that may be imposed ... A limited number of rooms may be available at these rates, and additional restrictions and blackout dates may apply. Rates are $159-$239 for select city and resort locations." Sure makes you want to stay at a Westin some weekend soon...

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

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