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THE BRIEFING FOR MAY 24 - JUNE 7, 2007
By Joe Brancatelli

· Unbundled Fares Are the Least of Our Worries
· You Know the Hotels. The Names? Well...
· Alaska Airlines Devalues the Value of Upgrades
· United Airlines Takes a Perk From Its Elite Flyers
· TSA Gums Up the Registered Traveler Again
· Watch Out for a Strike on SAS Scandinavian
· Two Carribean Carriers Set Their Merger Date


Skybus' Unbundled Prices May Be the Least of Our Worries
The launch of Skybus this week generated a spate of stories in the general media about ΰ la carte and unbundled pricing in the airline business. But airline unbundling may be the least of our worries. As you can see by the specifics of a lawsuit filed last month against Starwood Hotels, the Phoenician Hotel tacked a $28 daily "bell gratuity" and a $4 daily "housekeeping gratuity" onto a guest's $325 daily room rate. Neither of the supposedly mandatory charges was disclosed on the confirmation that the luxury resort sent to the guest. And then there's this: Banks that issue Visa, MasterCard and DinersClub cards have agreed to a $336 million settlement over undisclosed currency-conversion fees tacked on to overseas credit card purchases. The settlement of the class-action suit covers fees posted between 1996 and 2006 and you may be in line for a refund. And just for good measure there's this: If you have a Citi banking card and use it to get cash at overseas ATMs, you'll now pay a 3 percent "conversion" fee for each transaction. The bank never even bothered to inform its customers that it was tacking on the new fee.

You Know the Hotels. The Names? Well, Nothing Is Forever.
Nothing's an "icon" on the road anymore, not even iconic hotels. Take the Westin Rio Mar, the 600-room luxury resort in Puerto Rico. Well, the 600-acre property is now known as the Wyndham Rio Mar. Or maybe you're a big fan of the Sofitel Paris Forum, the huge conference center property in the 14th arrondissement. It's now the Paris Marriott Rive Gauche. And how about The Savoy, the most iconic of all of the famous London hostelries? It's managed by Fairmont now and the whole place is closing in December. Not forever, but for a $200 million restoration. The property will reopen in 2009.

Nip and Tuck. Give and Take. Okay, Mostly Take…
Alaska Airlines is trimming its Mileage Plan program. Its 20,000-mile award for domestic travel will increase to 25,000 miles if you call to make a booking. The price remains 20,000 miles for online redemption. More serious, however, is a substantial shift in first-class upgrade rewards. Effective August 1, only H-Class and higher-priced coach seats can be upgraded for 10,000 miles each way. The 10,000-mile upgrade has been good on any fare. … United Airlines is also slashing the value of some its Mileage Plus upgrades. Effective June 1, elite members who received the so-called "500-mile" certificates must use them or lose them. Until recently, United allowed expired certificates to be cashed for miles. … On the positive side, elite members of US Airways' Dividend Miles programs have won a small perk: They will no longer be charged the $25 fee for a confirmed standby seat. … American AAdvantage members who carry an AAdvantage Visa card from Citigroup take note: Citigroup is going to switch you to a Citi-issued American Express card. You'll have to call to retain your Visa card otherwise you'll be automatically converted. The change does not affect AAdvantage MasterCard holders.

Forget the Fingerprint and Iris Scan. Where's Your Driver's License?
The struggling Registered Traveler programs that were meant to allow trusted travelers to bypass some of the hassles of airport security screening have suffered still another bizarre bureaucratic blow. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says that it will continue to require registered travelers to show separate, government-issued IDs. That not only slows the whole process down, of course, but it also shows that the TSA has no intention of allowing Registered Traveler programs to succeed. After all, why is a driver's license necessary when a Registered Traveler card from the RT operators is specially encoded with a traveler's fingerprint, iris scan and other biometric information? Only a bureaucracy intent on destroying the RT programs would suggest that an ID card has some extra probative value. And, of course, it imposes additional bureaucratic burdens on registered travelers at the security checkpoint, exactly the opposite of the program's original intent.

Business-Travel News You Need to Know
Ho-hum. Another $5 fare increase failed this week. This fare bump was launched by Continental Airlines and was disguised as a hike in the fuel surcharge. … Clear, the only operating registered traveler program, has opened lanes in Terminal Four at New York/Kennedy airport. … Two struggling Caribbean carriers, Carribean Star and LIAT, have set the date for their previously announced merger. The two carriers will officially combine on June 15. … SAS Scandinavian flyers take note: Flight attendants may launch a strike this weekend. … CNN is giving up on Pipeline, its subscription streaming-video news service. Beginning July 1, CNN will redesign its Web site and offer much of what was available on Pipeline for free. … Southern Skyways, a public-charter carrier, is scheduled to launch tomorrow. The scaled-down service will fly just one route--Charleston, West Virginia, to Myrtle Beach--and use 30-seat aircraft instead of traditional jets. The carrier had planed to launch from four cities.

ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.