E-MAIL JOE    PRINT    2009 COLUMNS    ARCHIVES    SEARCH ARCHIVES
A BRIEFING FOR MAY 14 TO MAY 28, 2009
By Joe Brancatelli

· The TSA Secure Flight Program Starts Tomorrow
· Oil Prices Spike Again and Fuel Surcharges Return
· AirTran Jumps Blindly Into In-Flight WiFi Service
· The Dollar Is Sliding Against Foreign Currencies
· Stupid: United Raises Checked-Bag Fees Again
· American AAdvantage Adds One-Way Awards
· Four Seasons Loses Exuma, Fights for San Diego


Secure Flight: The Leaderless, Clueless TSA Does It Again
Almost four months after his inauguration, President Obama still has not appointed an administrator to run the Transportation Security Administration. Its day-to-day operations remain in the hands of clueless career bureaucrats and Bush era hacks who created the agency and turned it into a bloated, passenger-repellant disgrace. So now that you understand this is a matter of bi-partisan insanity, you should also know that Secure Flight officially launches tomorrow (May 15). According to a TSA press release issued Tuesday (May 12) with no fanfare, Phase One of Secure Flight, as expected, will ask flyers "to enter their full name--as it appears on the government issued identification they will be traveling with--when making reservations." Ominously, the handout also says, "In the near future, small differences between the passenger's ID and the passenger's reservation information will not be an issue for passengers." But what if your names don't match now? The TSA is mum--and has been mum for months. You may not be challenged or you may get flagged for a dreaded secondary screening. One of the name-related problems: Hyphens. Most airline reservation forms can't accommodate hyphened names. Phase II of Secure Flight kicks in on August 15, when you'll also be required to add your gender and date of birth to each reservation. Are the airlines, which must turn all Secure Flight information over to the TSA so it can check us against government "terrorist watch lists," prepared to collect this data? Not as of a month ago, when I wrote this column to warn you that the TSA would drop Secure Flight on us without any advance warning.

AirTran Is the Latest Carrier to Go Blindly Into In-Flight WiFi
AirTran Airways announced this week that it would equip all of its aircraft for in-flight WiFi. It claimed the entire fleet of 136 Boeing 737s and 717s will be wired with Aircell's Gogo Inflight service by the end of July, a record for speedy installation. Delta Air Lines, which began wiring its domestic fleet last fall, has only reached the 150-plane plateau in the last few days. American Airlines, which wired its first planes early last year, has fewer than 25 aircraft equipped with WiFi. It's taken almost a year for Virgin America to get 24 of its 28 planes wired. Two other airlines, Southwest and Alaska, are testing WiFi from a different provider. But notice what you haven't heard from any of these carriers? Whether travelers are actually using the system on the planes and paying the $8-$13 fee charged for each flight. "Everybody says they want Internet on planes, but no one is willing to pay for it," says the president of one major airline I spoke to a few weeks ago. (His carrier has so far resisted the impulse to wire planes.) AirTran's blind enthusiasm for a system that few have sampled and even fewer have paid to use is simple: Delta, which never tested passenger enthusiasm for paid in-flight WiFi, is committed to wire about 300 planes by the end of this summer. Delta is AirTran's most menacing competitor. So AirTran blindly jumped in after Delta as a competitive response. As you'll recall, an attempt to wire international aircraft for Internet failed miserably earlier in the decade because passengers refused to pay up to $30 a flight for access to Boeing's Connexion service.

Four Seasons and the Owner Go to War Over the Aviara Resort
We haven't seen a hotel war like this since 1997, when Ritz-Carlton walked out in the middle of the night on four hotels that it was managing for a picky sheik. Now the venue has moved to Carlsbad, California, and the new war is between Four Seasons and the owners of the resort that we currently call the Four Seasons Aviara. Last week, the owners, a hotel powerhouse called Broadreach, apparently tried to reassert control over its property by picking some office locks and seizing bank accounts. Four Seasons promptly responded by erecting barricades and checkpoints to keep the owners off the grounds. The matter landed in court on Monday (May 11), with Four Seasons fighting to keep control of the property and the owners seeking to evict Four Seasons and install a management firm called Dolce, which mostly handles conference hotels and is not coincidentally owned by Broadreach. For the moment, Four Seasons remains in operational control of Aviara and further court action is scheduled for May 27. What's the beef? Broadreach says that Four Seasons is running Aviara, near San Diego, inefficiently and profligately. Four Seasons claims that Broadreach has refused to supply required operating capital and has breached a contractually required arbitration process that began in late March. ... Independently, the six-year-old Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma in the Bahamas will close on May 26. The resort is part of the 500-acre Emerald Bay development, which has been in receivership since 2007.

They're Back (or Never Left): Fuel Surcharges!
Japan Airlines applied to the Japanese government this week for permission to drop fuel surcharges on its international flights. And just when it looked like other airlines would also drop their energy extras, the price of oil has ratcheted up again. Crude cracked the $60-a-barrel barrier this week before falling below the $59 mark today (May 14). That's compared to less than $34 a barrel back in January. The inevitable result? Airlines are beginning to rethink fuel fees even as the weak economy forces them to slash fares to fill seats. The first to increase surcharges again? El Al, which bumped its existing fuel fees by US$5-US$25 a flight. The U.S. dollar hit a seven-week low against the euro this week and the greenback has also fallen back against the British pound, Swiss franc and Canadian dollar. In recent months, the dollar has moved in reverse lockstep with the Dow Jones Industrial Average. As the Dow fell precipitously after Labor Day, the dollar regained most or all of the ground it had lost in recent years against many major foreign currencies. But as the Dow has steadied and trended upward in recent weeks, the dollar has slid backward again. The British pound is now above $1.50 again and the euro is trading in the $1.35 range. Through it all, however, the Japanese currency has remained strong and one dollar has bought less than 100 yen. That makes Japan the most expensive country in the world for U.S. business travelers.

Plenty of Blame to Go Around in Buffalo Crash
It's inevitable: A plane crashes, passengers and crew die and the blame game begins. The National Transportation Safety Board held hearings this week into February's crash of Continental Connection/Colgan Express Flight 3407 in wintry conditions near Buffalo Airport. Early testimony fingered Colgan for lax training, pushing fatigued pilots to work and generally bad management practices. Transcripts of the cockpit tape recordings revealed that neither the middle-aged Captain, Marvin Renslow, nor the young First Officer, Rebecca Shaw, felt they were qualified to fly the Q400 aircraft through icy conditions. Their contemporaneous comments brought furious public denials from Colgan. Colgan blamed its own dead employees: "Captain Renslow and First Officer Shaw did know what to do, had repeatedly demonstrated they knew what to do, but did not do it. We cannot speculate on why they did not use their training." And what of Continental Airlines, which slapped its name, colors and logo on the Colgan flight and sold it as its own? No comment.

Business-Travel News You Need to Know
American AAdvantage has introduced one-way awards priced at half the number of miles required to claim a roundtrip ticket. The one-way awards can be mixed and matched based on class of service and availability of seats in award-level categories. In 2007, Alaska Airlines was the first traditional network carrier to introduce one-way awards. The Northwest Airlines name and brand has disappeared at two more airports--Albany, New York, and Knoxville, Tennessee--and Northwest flights have been moved to Delta Air Lines gates. The Obama Administration official who authorized a secret, low-altitude flyover of Manhattan last month has resigned. Louis Caldera approved a photo shoot of a Boeing 747 used as Air Force One at a cost that the Air Force estimated at $328,000. The low-level flight over New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty terrified many people in Lower Manhattan, who thought another 9/11-style attack was under way. Marriott has opened a 187-room Courtyard hotel in Toulouse, France. It is located about three miles from the airport and the home of Airbus.

You Can't Fix Stupid: United Raises Checked-Baggage Fees Again
It's difficult to determine which carrier is the first with the least these days, US Airways or United Airlines. After all, they seem to take turns doing repulsive things. Three weeks ago, US Airways raised checked-bag fees by imposing a $5 extra charge if you don't arrange checked bags online. Guess who's the first legacy carrier to match? United, of course. Effective for new ticket purchases for travel on or after June 10, United will charge $20 to check the first bag at the airport and $30 to check a second bag. The fees remain $15/$25 if you deal with the bags online. And, of course, these new fees fly in the face of the reality I pointed out in a recent column: The faster airlines raise checked-bag fees, the faster their overall revenue declines.
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.