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A BRIEFING FOR FEBRUARY 12 TO 26, 2009
By Joe Brancatelli

· The Bargain Trail Hits a Bump in the Road
· AirTran Challenges Midwest in Milwaukee
· Hate United? They Won't Take Your Call
· The Twisted Tale of a Hotel Name Change
· Hilton HHonors and Amex Have a New Card
· Atlantic City Casinos Bet on a Train Ride
· January Airline by Agents Sales Fall by 25%


The Bargain Trail Hits a Bump in the Road This Weekend
As any business traveler knows, hotel rates and airline fares have been plummeting for months. But you can't tell that by the next 10 days or so, when airfares and hotel costs have climbed back to the highs of late 2007 and early 2008. The reason: the confluence of Valentine's Day, the long President's Day weekend and the mid-winter closing by many schools. Although those factors would have meant a sell-out at sun and ski resorts in palmier days, there are still rooms and airline seats to be had this year, just at comparatively higher rates than we've seen in recent months. But the price spike is just that: a short-term peak between valleys. "I'm fine for the next week or so," one hotel general manager told me. "But after the 25th of February, I'm empty and I'm dealing."

AirTran Airways Challenges Midwest and Northwest at Milwaukee
AirTran Airways never got over its unsuccessful attempt to buy and merge with Milwaukee-based Midwest Airlines. After its 2006 bid drove Midwest into the arms of Northwest Airlines and an investment group, AirTran began bulking up its flight schedule at Milwaukee. Now AirTran has announced another 40 percent increase in flying in Milwaukee in direct competition with Midwest, which has been slashing its own schedule in recent months. In May, AirTran will launch new service to Branson, Missouri; St. Louis; Minneapolis/St. Paul, which is a Northwest Airlines hub; and seasonal flights to Denver.

The Twisted Tale That Brings Us to the Waldorf Astoria Collection
Florida's Naples Grande Beach Resort (formerly the Registry Resort) has become part of Hilton's Waldorf Astoria Collection and therein hangs a bizarre story of brands, buyouts, rebranding and the ever-changing nature of the lodging landscape. The tangled tale begins in 1981 when Trammell Crowe created Wyndham Hotels, mostly to fill the lodging niche in the mixed-use developments he was building around the nation. In 1997, Patriot American, then the nation's second-largest real estate investment trust, buys Wyndham and adopts its name. In 2004, the Blackstone investment house buys the Boca Raton Collection, an upmarket group that includes The Registry and the Boca Raton Resort. The next year, Blackstone buys Wyndham and merges the best Wyndham properties with the Boca Raton Collection to create LXR Resorts. Later in 2005, it sells the Wyndham brand to Cendant, which was once called Hospitality Franchise Systems. Cendant, whose brands include Super 8, Ramada, Days Inn and Howard Johnsons, then adopts the Wyndham name. In 2006, Hilton decides to build a luxury brand around New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel, a property it picked up in 1949. In 2007, Blackstone buys Hilton. And that brings us full circle. Blackstone has been slowly converting its LXR Resorts to Waldorf Astorias. The best known Wyndham/Boca/LXR property, the Boca Raton Resort, is expected to switch to the Waldorf Astoria Collection in the next few months. (You can't believe what I've left out of this summary--and I have no idea when Hilton dropped the iconic equal sign from between the words Waldorf and Astoria.)

Delta's Phony Fare Move at the Hub It Loves to Hate
No airline has treated a hub more cavalierly than Delta Air Lines has treated Cincinnati. In recent years, it has cut hundreds of daily flights there and switched virtually all of the remaining service to small regional jets (RJs) run by Delta's dysfunctional Comair subsidiary. And for all that trash, Cincinnati-area flyers pay $595 roundtrip, the highest average fare in any major market in the United States. And now that Cincinnati area flyers are abandoning Delta and flying from other airports in startling numbers, Delta wants to play nice. "We're going to be rolling out a new fare structure in Cincinnati," Delta chief executive Richard Anderson said last month during the airline's fourth-quarter conference call. The move Anderson promised was unveiled last week and not only isn't it a structure, it also isn't new. The phony fare cuts--almost all of them are capacity controlled with a raft of restrictions, including 21-day advance roundtrip purchase and a three-day or Saturday-night stay--are almost exactly the same as Delta tried twice before in Cincinnati. They didn't work in the past because Cincinnati travelers understood that Delta was still ripping them off. Now that Delta has slashed its service and jammed travelers into RJs, how do you think the phony fares will play?

Business-Travel News You Need to Know
Several struggling casinos in Atlantic City have teamed up with Amtrak and New Jersey Transit to launch a rail connection from New York and Newark. The ACES Train will operate on Friday, Saturday and Sunday between Penn Station in Manhattan, Penn Station in Newark and the Atlantic City train station. Fares currently start at $50 one-way. A year behind its announced schedule, Southwest Airlines has launched a test of in-flight Internet service. The test will be expanded to a total of four aircraft next month. Caribbean travelers take note: KLM drops its flights between Amsterdam and the Dutch territory of Aruba at the end of March. How fast are the world's airlines losing business? ARC, the clearing house for more than 175 carriers worldwide, said travel-agent sales in January dropped by 24.6 percent compared to January, 2008. A new version American Express card tied to the Hilton HHonors program is loaded with perks. The Surpass card offers complimentary HHonors Gold status if you spend $20,000 a year and top-level Diamond status if you charge $40,000 a year. It also awards nine HHonors points for each dollar spent at Hilton properties, six points per dollar spent on some categories of purchases and three points per dollar for all other spending.

United Shuts Off Its Customer Service Phone Line
The delusional maroons who run United Airlines have done it again. Barraged by complaints from travelers about the quality of its complaint line--United outsourced the operation to India several years ago--the bosses at United have responded by firing the Indian outsourcing company. Great, you say, we need more airlines bringing jobs back from India and staffing call centers with people who speak a less-accented version of English and may actually be familiar with the product. But United isn't bringing the customer-complaint line back to the United States. Oh, no. Now that it has dumped its India call center, United is turning its telephones off. Now if you want to complain about a problem with United--and who doesn't have a problem when they fly United?--you have to send an E-mail or write a letter.
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 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.