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 The Tactical Traveler

joe A BUSINESS-TRAVEL BRIEFING
FOR JANUARY 6 TO JANUARY 20, 2005


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

This week: Why you shouldn't book end-of-month flights this winter; Southwest Airlines is coming to Pittsburgh; more airports get Wi-Fi; a flood of news about bankrupt (or nearly bankrupt) airlines; United slashes domestic capacity by 14 percent; Delta and Alaska begin code-sharing; a scorpion-bites-passenger story; and much more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: Beware End-of-Month Flight Bookings
It didn't get much publicity because of the holiday debacles at US Airways and Comair, but United Airlines cancelled a large number of flights at the end of last month. The reason? The late-December snowstorms in the Midwest scrambled schedules, which meant that United's flight crews ran out of federally regulated monthly "duty time." The airline simply didn't have enough crews with available duty time to man its scheduled flights. In years past, winter storms have often caused end-of-month crew crunches that resulted in an inordinately high number of cancellations. But with airlines slashing employees and reducing the number of back-up workers they have on call, the first few months of this year could be extraordinarily bad for cancellations. And since we've already had several big storms this week, the schedules at the end of January look particularly vulnerable. Bottom line: Avoid booking an end-of-month flight this winter whenever and wherever possible.

AIRPORT REPORT: Southwest Targets Pittsburgh Next
With US Airways vacating most of its old Pittsburgh hub, the ever-watchful Southwest Airlines sensed opportunity. So Southwest announced this week that it would launch flights at Pittsburgh later this year. No timetable, cities, prices or schedules were announced. … With more than 100,000 high-tech freaks descending on Las Vegas this week for the Consumer Electronics Show, this is a timely note: McCarran Airport says free wireless Internet access is now available in 90 percent of the airport's public spaces. … Speaking of wireless access, Raleigh-Durham is now wired, too. The pay-for-play access is provided by Cingular. ... And six British Airports, including London/Heathrow, London/Gatwick, Glasgow and Edinburgh, are now wired with for-pay T-Mobile Wi-Fi access. … A VIP lounge has opened at Bogota's Eldorado Airport. The shared-access facility has a business center--and, yes, it has Wi-Fi, too.

ANNALS OF BANKRUPTCY I: Watching the End Game at US Airways
It seems like even its bankruptcy judge has given up on US Airways. Judge Stephen Mitchell said today that he had "grave questions" about the airline's ability to emerge from Chapter 11 a second time. "It certainly could not emerge from bankruptcy today," he added. Mitchell made his comments while giving the carrier still another financial boost by voiding the airline's contract with its mechanics and permitting US Airways to dump about $1 billion of pension liability on the taxpayers by way of the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. … Meanwhile, remember the airline's much-publicized claim that its baggage calamity and flight cancellations in Philadelphia over Christmas were due to a spike in worker absenteeism? Not true. An analysis of the sick-out numbers shows that there was no real difference in rate of absenteeism during Christmas, 2004, compared to Christmas week of 2003. The most likely cause of the fiasco? Management's decision not to have employees on call as backup. … But here's a US Airways number that you can rely on. The Air Travel Consumer Report for November, 2004, released this week, flagged US Airways for having the highest percentage of mishandled bags among the Big Six carriers. It also finished 14th out of 19 airlines, reporting a mishandled-bag rate more than twice as high as AirTran, the best-in-baggage class.

ANNALS OF BANKRUPTCY II: United Stews in Its Own Red Ink
How's United Airlines doing as it enters its third year of bankruptcy. Just disastrously, thank you very much. In its recently reported November financial statement, it admitted that it lost more than $6 million a day during the month and that its unit operating costs are still rising. Meanwhile, the airline's controversial plan to bribe its pilots to acquiesce in its attempt to dump its billions of pension obligations has drawn the ire of the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. The quasi-public operation says it will now ask United's bankruptcy court for permission to immediately take over the pilot's pension plan, thus reducing the PBGC's exposure by several hundred million dollars. The pilots, who sold their pensions down the river in exchange for the promise of $500 million in United notes, are outraged by the PBGC move because it will further reduce their payouts. Either way, taxpayers lose.

ANNALS OF BANKRUPTCY III: And You Were Expecting Good News?
Aloha Airlines, the Honolulu-based carrier that offers both Hawaiian inter-island and mainland flights, declared bankruptcy just before New Year's Day. It continues to operate normally, however. … Continental Airlines, which has been boasting that it was better-managed than its Big Six competitors, now says it faces a cash crunch this year unless its workers make massive financial concessions. So much for recently deposed chief executive Gordon Bethune's legacy as a managerial wizard. … "Butch" Stewart, the Sandals Resorts entrepreneur who rescued Air Jamaica several years ago, has given the carrier back to the Jamaican government. The government is now slashing jobs and routes and says the airline is out of cash again.

ON THE FLY: Business-Travel News You Need to Know
Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines begin code-sharing on Monday, January 10. … If your favorite United Airlines flight suddenly disappears, don't be surprised. The airline reduced its domestic capacity by 14 percent today. Most of the cuts are in flight frequencies from its hubs, but one notable route has been eliminated: Denver-Raleigh, a 1,500-mile flight that United Express launched last year with a regional jet. … Delta has fiddled with its SkyMiles frequent-flyer program again. Effective January 1, it restored one mile of elite credit for low-fare flights and reduced the bonus elite credit it awards on some higher-priced fares. It also reduced the number of miles needed for Platinum Elite status to 75,000 a year from 100,000. … The 97-room Hotel Andalucia (877-468-3515) has opened in Santa Barbara, California. It is housed in a five-story, 60-foot-tall building, which makes it Santa Barbara's tallest hotel. An introductory rate of $195 a night is valid through February.

THE PARTING SHOT: And You Thought You Had a Bad Week…
So maybe you got caught at the airport when Comair's computers melted down and the Delta commuter carrier cancelled thousands of flights over the Christmas weekend. Or perhaps US Airways lost your luggage. Or maybe you got snowed in this week. Well, it could be worse. Honest. You could be Dale Rodel. The 19-year-old was bit by a scorpion at Auckland Airport earlier this week.

This column originally appeared at joesentme.com.

Copyright © 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.