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THE BRIEFING FOR DECEMBER 12-26, 2013
By Joe Brancatelli

· New Budget: Taxes for Us, Kickbacks for Airlines
· JetBlue Adds High-Speed (and Mostly Free) WiFi
· Portland's Eastland Hotel Reopens as a Westin
· Delta Adds Confirmed Upgrades, But Cuts Seats
· Alaska Airlines Loosens Elite-Qualifying Rules
· US Airways Will Join Oneworld on March 31
· Etihad and Qatar Airways Will Both Fly to DFW


The New Federal Budget: Taxes for Us, Kickbacks for Airlines
Your opinion of the federal budget deal reached this week by Democratic Senator Patty Murray and Republican Representative Paul Ryan probably rests on your personal political opinion. But frequent flyers can all hate how the deal shafts us and gives a financial gift to the airlines. The Murray-Ryan budget increases the TSA security fee we pay. Assuming that the deal passes Congress and is signed by President Obama, the security fee will jump to a flat $5.60 for each one-way itinerary. (It's currently $2.50 a segment up to $5 one-way.) But it's not really an increase in the "user fee" because the extra revenue--estimated at $12.6 billion over 10 years--will not go to security. Instead, the money will be routed to the general tax coffers. In other words, it's a tax increase cloaked as user-fee increase so that Ryan can tell Republicans that the budget doesn't raise taxes. But, wait, there's more. The Murray-Ryan deal also relieves airlines of any contribution to TSA funding. They paid a cumulative $380 million in fiscal 2012 and a high of nearly $573 million in 2007. How did airlines get the security kickback? "That's how it works," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC). "If you have a lobbyist, you get something." Want still more? Delta chief executive Richard Anderson vows to pass along the higher TSA fee to flyers. "Airfares are going up [because] this tax increase will not be absorbed by Delta," Anderson said. But when I asked Delta officials this week if Anderson was preparing to lower fares as a result of Delta's TSA-payment kickback, you'll be shocked to learn that I didn't get an answer.

JetBlue Adds Satellite WiFi, Alaska Air Attacks Salt Lake City
JetBlue Airlines has rolled out an in-flight WiFi system that it promises will offer passengers broadband-style speeds in the sky. It'll also allow JetBlue passengers to use WiFi from take-off to landing by next month. Basic web browsing will be free through June and high speeds capable of video and music streaming will cost $9 an hour. As of today (December 12), three aircraft are equipped with what JetBlue is calling Fly-Fi. The airline is promising 140 wired aircraft by the end of 2014. ... Southwest Airlines is now selling a texting package to iPhone users for an introductory price of $2 per flight. Android phones will be offered texting next year. ... Delta Air Lines has been invading the Seattle-Tacoma hub of Alaska Airlines for nearly three years and Alaska Air has basically absorbed the blows from its sometimes marketing partner. But apparently Alaska has had enough. It's now striking back at Delta's Salt Lake City hub. Effective next June, Alaska will launch flights to Salt Lake City from Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and Portland, Oregon. It's also adding a third daily flight between Sea-Tac and Salt Lake City, a route Alaska initially launched in collaboration with Delta in April.

Portland's Iconic Eastland Hotel Reopens as a Westin
Westin has opened a 289-room hotel in Portland, Maine, and the location may be familiar. The property, called the Westin Portland Harborview, is the former Eastland Hotel, once known as the largest hotel in New England. Its iconic rooftop sign is also one of the most recognizable parts of the Portland skyline. The property was closed for two years as the owners renovated it into a Westin. Originally opened in 1927, the hotel had many corporate affiliations: Dunfey, Sheraton, Sonesta and Radisson. ... Also new from Starwood this week: a 314-room Aloft in Dalian, China, and the 123-room W Hotel in the Swiss ski-resort of Verbier. ... New from Hyatt this week: a 157 room Hyatt Place in San Jose del Cabo, Baja California, and a 156-room Hyatt Place in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. However, the Hyatt Regency Irvine in Orange County has left the chain. ... New from Hilton: the 110-room Homewood Suites in Southington, Connecticut, and the 97-room Home2 Suites in Queretaro, Mexico. ... New from InterContinental this week: the 196-room Holiday Inn Express in the financial district of Panama City, Panama; the 126-room Hotel Indigo in Dusseldorf, Germany; and a 149-room Staybridge Suites in Hapeville on Interstate 85 just outside of Atlanta/Hartsfield Airport.

Etihad and Qatar Airways Will Launch Flights to Dallas/Fort Worth
Dallas/Fort Worth Airport was encased in ice for much of this week, but here's some warming news. Qatar Airways and Etihad of Abu Dhabi will both launch nonstops to DFW next year. Qatar will add daily nonstops to Doha effective July 1 and Etihad will begin three weekly nonstops on December 3. Both carriers will use ultra-long-range Boeing 777-200LRs on the route. Etihad's aircraft will be configured with eight first-class suites, 40 business-class beds and 189 coach seats. Qatar's configuration will offer 42 business-class beds and 217 coach seats. What's drawing all this attention? The American Airlines hub at DFW. Qatar joined Oneworld in October and has already announced that it will add flights next year to American's Miami hub and US Airways' Philadelphia hub. And Etihad is an American code-share partner. Sound a bit incestuous? Do remember that another Oneworld member, Qantas, has a wide-ranging code-share deal with Emirates, the third heavyweight Gulf Carrier.

Delta Adds Confirmed International Upgrades, Cuts Premium Seats
Delta is overhauling upgrade perks of Sky Miles for elite members. Good news: Upgrades will be confirmable from virtually any fare and Diamond elites can even choose confirmable international upgrades. Bad news: some domestic and Latin America routes are off-limits and Delta is quietly pulling business-class seats from some overseas routes. For complete details of the changes, surf here. But in a nutshell: Platinum elites can choose new "regional upgrades" and Diamond elites can finally get a long-sought-after perk: useful "global upgrades" that can be used with almost any fare. The new upgrade regimen is effective on March 1. But that perk is reduced because Delta is pulling business-class seats from some aircraft. Delta said at an investor conference this week an undisclosed number of Boeing 767s will lose 14 seats up front in favor of 20 additional coach chairs. Some of Delta's Boeing 777s will lose seven premium seats and be replaced with 30 coach chairs. ... Another change from United MileagePlus that you will hate: Effective immediately, you'll no longer be able to see award availability for Star Alliance partner Singapore Airlines on United.com or the United app. That means you'll not only have to work harder to get a Singapore Airlines award seat, you will also have to pay for the privilege since United charges a fee for award redemption by phone. ... Big news for Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members: Effective January 15, you'll earn elite-qualifying miles on all 12 of the carrier's international partners.

Business-Travel News You Need to Know
The American Airlines-US Airways merger officially closed on Monday (December 9). The big news--besides the fact that airline officials were celebrating while their hubs and passengers were buried in ice and snow--is that US Airways will exit the Star Alliance on March 30. It will join Oneworld on March 31. ... The Federal Communications Commission voted today (December 12) to lift its ban on the use of mobile phones in-flight. The proposal now goes to a public-comment period. But Transportation Department Secretary Anthony Foxx said today that the DOT may impose its own ban on in-flight calls. Stay tuned and remember what I explained last week: This is about mobile data, not voice. If the FCC lifts its phone ban, the DOT can impose a ban on voice calls while allowing you to use the data functions of your device. ... Delta Air Lines initiated a $4-$10 roundtrip price hike this week, but it's still unknown if the increase will stick. Which means we're ending where we began: The nation's most profitable airline talking about raising fares.

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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 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.