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 The Tactical Traveler

joe A BUSINESS-TRAVEL BRIEFING
FOR JANUARY 15 TO JANUARY 22, 2004


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

This week: Transcontinental fares dip to a record-low $79 one-way; US Airways devalues member-ship in its airport-club network; low-fare WestJet challenges Air Canada in Toronto; in-room, high-speed Internet advances at mid-priced hotels; American Express charges for mileage transfers; InterContinental renames the Six Continents Club; Delta Air Lines goes to "zone boarding" in the United States; United uses the bankruptcy court to cheat retirees; and much more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: Oh, What a Lovely Fare War!
The airlines--specifically, JetBlue Airways--made history this week by introducing a $79 one-way transcontinental airfare. No one I contacted could remember transcon fares dropping that low; the previous eye-popping, get-your-attention low fare on transcontinental flights has long been $99. JetBlue's $79 fare, announced Wednesday morning, is available between Boston/Logan and New York/Kennedy and three of JetBlue's California destinations: Long Beach, San Diego and Oakland. The fare is available on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays until April 14. Tickets must be purchased seven days in advance at the JetBlue Web site by February 10. By the end of the day on Wednesday, America West had introduced a $79 fare on its flights between JFK, Los Angeles and San Francisco. America West's restrictions are similar, except it requires a roundtrip purchase. (JetBlue only sells one-way fares.) The background: JetBlue's move came after American and Delta responded to JetBlue's launch of service at Boston last week with a fly-two, get-one-free frequent-flyer promotion. The kicker: Several Big Six carriers have now selectively matched JetBlue and America West, but Delta's matching fares do not qualify for the frequent-flyer promotion.

AIRPORT REPORT: US Airways Devalues Airport Club Membership
Looking for another example of how US Airways is pinching pennies and absolutely infuriating its few remaining loyalists? Beginning April 1, standard membership in the US Airways Club will not include reciprocal privileges at the United Red Carpet Club. Basic membership in the US Airways club will cost $375 a year, down from $450, but will only include privileges at the 25 US Airways-run clubs. If you want access to Red Carpet Clubs, that'll cost $120 more. Want access to the Red Carpet Clubs and the clubs operated by the Star Alliance, which US Airways is expected to join this spring? That'll cost $220 more. Astonishingly enough, the move is even partially retroactive. Existing US Airways Club members will continue to have access to Red Carpet Clubs only until September 1. All this stupidity at its code-share partner clearly took United Airlines by surprise. United says Red Carpet Club members will continue to have unlimited free access to US Airways Clubs. No other airline charges its club members for privileges in the lounges operated by code-share or alliance partners.

ALTERNATE AGENDA: WestJet Goes Head-to-Head With Air Canada
WestJet, the 8-year-old Canadian discounter that has been feasting on the deteriorating carcass of Air Canada, is upping the ante. Effective April 18, the low-fare airline is planning a huge expansion at Toronto/Pearson, moving to Terminal 1 from its current location in Terminal 3. Among the 182 weekly WestJet flights from Pearson will be service on the Montreal-Toronto run, Canada's premier route. WestJet will also launch flights from Pearson to Ottawa and Halifax. To accomplish the Toronto expansion, WestJet will dramatically downsize its operation at Hamilton, an alternate Toronto airport. The Toronto moves are all part of WestJet's growth to 1,580 weekly flights beginning April 18. Among the other new routes: Montreal and Winnipeg; Halifax and St. John's; and Halifax and Gander.

IN THE LOBBY: High-Speed Internet Becomes Mid-Priced Standard
If you have any doubt that high-speed Internet access is finally making its way into the DNA of the hotel industry, consider this week's announcements from Hilton and Marriott. Hilton announced on Tuesday that all 25,000 rooms in the 180 mid-priced Hilton Garden Inn hotels in the United States, Canada and Mexico are now wired for complimentary, in-room high-speed access. On Wednesday, Marriott announced that 600 of its mid-priced hotels--all in the Residence Inn, Towne Place and SpringHill brands--are now offering free high-speed access. This is in addition to the 500 Courtyard by Marriott properties that already offer free access. Marriott also said about 500 Fairfield Inn properties will be wired for free, high-speed access by the end of the year.

MILES & POINTS: American Express Makes You Pay for Loyalty
Proving once again that the travel industry expects you to pay for your loyalty to them, American Express Rewards will now charge a fee when you convert Reward points to airline frequent-flyer miles. Amex claims the fee--up to $50 per transfer--is meant to offset the federal excise tax on mileage sales. At the same time, however, American Express admits the "fee may be more or less than the actual amount of the excise tax" Amex pays. Amex has also upped the "reinstatement fee" you pay to get back points forfeited due to a late payment. Effective March 15, the fee is $29, up from $15. Diners ClubRewards has charged a mileage-transfer fee for several years. ... The Six Continents Club, the guest-recognition program of InterContinental hotels, has been renamed InterContinental Ambassador. The fee-based program, which offers upgrades and other amenities, will also be more closely aligned with Priority Club Rewards, the InterContinental group's frequent-guest program. There will be one membership number, one card and unified communications. ... Here's one to watch: the proposed $58 billion merger between Bank One and JP Morgan Chase may scramble the frequent-travel affinity-card market. Bank One issues the credit cards tied to United Mileage Plus and is a huge creditor of bankrupt United Airlines. Chase issues competitive cards tied to Continental OnePass.

ON THE FLY: Business-Travel News You Need to Know
Delta Air Lines will switch to "zone boarding" on its U.S.-originating and some Caribbean flights effective January 21. ... Fares in Canada will be simpler--but not cheaper--beginning next week. That's when Air Canada, WestJet and Jetsgo roll their fuel surcharges into the base fares. Separately, Air Canada has also been ordered by Canadian regulators to roll its insurance surcharge into base fares by the spring. ... American Airlines has opened a new Admirals Club at Kansas City International Airport. It is located next to Gate 79 of Terminal C. ... Southwest Airlines launches a daily nonstop between Spokane and Las Vegas on Sunday. ... Olympic Airways, the struggling Greek flag carrier, has been renamed Olympic Airlines. It's part of a corporate reorganization launched by the Greek government.

THE PARTING SHOT: Watch What We Do, Not What We Say
If you have any question that the men who run the Big Six are without honor, consider this latest tale from the United Airlines bankruptcy saga. United admitted this week that it is preparing to ask the bankruptcy court to substantially increase the amount that retirees would pay for their health insurance. Thousands of United employees retired last year at the airline's behest because United management specifically promised to retain the existing health benefits for anyone who took early retirement.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

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