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 The Tactical Traveler

joe A BUSINESS-TRAVEL BRIEFING
FOR JANUARY 22 TO JANUARY 29, 2004


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

This week: Nobody's biting on transcon seats even at $79; the phony compromise on flight delays at O'Hare; Southwest tests online check-in; Frontier caps one-way fares from Denver at $299; airlines head south to warmer places; the prototype of a new generation of Holiday Inn opens in Georgia; and much more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: What If... They Started a Fare War and Nobody Came?
As explained in Tactical Traveler last week, JetBlue Airways launched a record-breaking $79 one-way price on transcontinental routes from New York and Boston to California. With varying restrictions, the fare was promptly matched by America West and American Airlines. But guess what? No one's buying. "I can't believe it," one airline pricing executive told me on Wednesday. "We've got inventory at $79 on virtually all our flights and it is just sitting there." And my random checks this week have revealed a startling amount of seats available on all the transcon carriers at prices ranging from that low of $79 one-way to about $320 roundtrip. What's it all mean? That there are too many seats for the market, it's hard to motivate people to travel transcon during the winter months--and that ultra-low fare sales have lost their ability to shock and motivate buyers.

AIRPORT REPORT: The Phony Compromise on Flight Delays at O'Hare
As delays and aircraft movements at Chicago/O'Hare have recently exceeded their pre-9/11 peaks, the Transportation Department and O'Hare's hub carriers, United and American, continue to make phony, meaningless compromises. This week's DOT-managed announcement that the two airlines will cut flights at peak times by 5 percent will do nothing to reduce congestion at the nation's most important airport. "That's less than 10 planes per hour," explains Craig Burzych, president of the O'Hare's air-traffic controllers union. "At any moment in the afternoon and evening, we have 20 to 50 arrival aircraft sitting because we don't have a gate to park them." What's really clogging O'Hare? The small, inefficient regional jets that American and United are using. Fifty-seat jets now represent about 41 percent of the flights at O'Hare compared to just 26 percent in 2001. That means the average number of seats per departure at O'Hare dropped below 100 last year compared to an average of 110 seats per flight in 2001. In plain English, United and American continue to reduce the number of seats they offer at O'Hare even as they increase the number of flights--and then complain that taxpayers must build more runways and more terminals at the airport.

ALTERNATE AGENDA: Is This the End of the Cattle Call at Southwest?
Southwest Airlines may finally be getting the message that it will draw more business travelers with sanity than with its first-come, first-served cattle-car boarding process. While it apparently remains inalterably opposed to assigned seats, it is testing an online check-in process. Beginning at 12:01 a.m. on the day of the flight, travelers originating in five cities can now log on to Southwest.com and secure boarding passes. That mean you'd get into the first boarding group--and have a shot at a far-forward aisle seat--without having to queue up hours before a flight. On-line check-in is now available for flyers departing from Amarillo, Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood, Midland/Odessa and Nashville. The process is expected to be available nationwide by the spring.

FARE WATCH: Hikes, Cuts and the Shape of Things to Come
It's been a very busy week on the fare front. ... American Airlines tried for the second time to up its fuel surcharge by $3 one way. And, for the second time, the hike failed. American and its Big Six acolytes (most notably, United and Continental) were forced to roll back their increases. ... On the other hand, AirTran Airways successfully raised its non-sale fares by $3 each way. Its competitors, most notably Delta Air Lines, matched the increase. ... Frontier Airlines capped its domestic fares from its Denver hub at $299 one way. That's not only another huge cut in fares--Frontier's fares had previously been capped at $499 one way--but also brings Frontier in line with Southwest and JetBlue, the low-fare leaders who have a $299 top price. And one other point: Frontier's $299 cap will put even more pressure on Ted, the woebegone, supposedly low-fare carrier United Airlines will launch at Denver next month. ... US Airways has lowered some walk-up fares on East Coast shuttle flights. Fares between New York/LaGuardia and Boston or Washington/National are now as low as $110 each way. Boston-Washington fares are now as low as $140 one-way. ... Watch for this one: A major European carrier will launch an advance-purchase business-class fare category on transatlantic flights as early as next week.

INTERNATIONAL ITINERARY: South to the Warmer Places
The annual migration south to warmer climes is on and airlines are gearing up their service to the world's sunny places. Effective January 31, American Airlines launches weekly Boeing 737-800 service between Miami and Liberia, Costa Rica. The same day, it launches service between its Dallas/Fort Worth hub and two Mexican destinations. There'll be daily service to Cozumel and twice-weekly flights to Ixtapa. On February 1, American also resumes weekly Boeing 757 service between Boston and Montego Bay, Jamaica. ... Meanwhile, Air Jamaica is bulking up in the Caribbean. Effective January 30, it will launch four-times-weekly flights between New York/Kennedy and Antigua. It is also adding seats at its Montego Bay hub by switching to Airbus A321 flights to Nassau and Grand Cayman. It will also add flights between Montego Bay and Barbados. ... Frontier Airlines begins twice-weekly flights between its Denver hub and Ixtapa on January 31. Lastly, Iberia will begin two weekly Airbus A320 flights between its Madrid hub and Marrakech, Morocco.

IN THE LOBBY: The Next Generation Holiday Inn Arrives
Struggling to reposition a brand with lots of history and lots of baggage, Holiday Inn has opened its first prototype of a new generation of Holiday Inns. The property, at Gwinnett Center in suburban Atlanta, offers 143 guestrooms and lots of new perks. ... China continues to be a magnet for major hotel chains. The 262-room Sofitel Wanda has opened in Chengdu, Sichuan, and the 463-room Shangri-La has opened in Zhongshan, Guandgdong. ... A 153-room Four Seasons has opened on the Papagayo Peninsula in Costa Rica. ... The Wyndham chain continues to wither under financial pressure. Twelve Wyndham properties are being rebranded as Prime Hotels after the owner says Wyndham defaulted on its leases last year. ... Fairmont Hotels is now managing the Turnberry Resort in Aventura, Florida.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

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