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 The Tactical Traveler

joe A BUSINESS-TRAVEL BRIEFING
FOR AUGUST 3, 1998


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

This week: Heads up for a fare war; where to find restaurants on the Web; why fuel is cheap and fares are high; Delta loves itself--and it shows; the Mansion on sale in Dallas; and more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: Heads Up for Fare Wars
Airline executives are saying privately that advance bookings for the fall travel season look weaker than at any time in the last few years. What's that mean for you? Deeper price cuts, more frequent fare sales, and the occasional honest-to-goodness fare war. If the airlines hold to form, look for the first volley of domestic fare sales to break during the last week of August and to cover travel from mid-September to mid-December. There'll be the usual advance-purchase and Saturday-stay rules, of course, so start your planning now to take advantage of the lowest prices. International traffic is even weaker, so price cuts may be deeper and rules less restrictive than in previous years. The most dramatic price cuts will continue to be in Asia, where traffic has all but disappeared due to the "Asian Contagion." Japan prices will also be impacted by the brace of new flights heading to Tokyo and other Japanese cities. There'll also be bargains in Latin America, thanks mostly to Delta's wholesale addition of flights to the region in recent months. The best prices for Europe will be to London, but fares will be declining for all major continental destinations.

CYBERTRAVELER: Food, Glorious Food
It won't replace the Zagat Survey series, but Restaurant Row (www.restaurantrow.com) has its advantages. With a database of about 100,000 restaurants located in more than two dozen countries, the site is probably the Web's most comprehensive single source for dining information and advice. Depending on the restaurant, the site offers menus, photos, driving instructions, reviews from newspapers and magazines, and personal critiques from visiting web surfers. Another nice feature: the site promises to E-mail you information about new restaurant openings near home. It seems like a good way for foodies to keep in touch with the dining scene around the world.

DOLLAR WATCH: Cheap Fuel, High Fares
Most major U.S. carriers reported record earnings for the second quarter of the year, continuing an unprecedented string of profitable quarters. The bottom-line bonanza was partially created by high passenger traffic, but was largely due to stratospheric fares for business travelers and unbelievably cheap jet fuel prices. Therein lies the rub: airlines have continued to increase walk-up and other unrestricted business fares at a breakneck pace while fuel prices plummeted. Last in 1996, for example, airlines paid as much as 70 cents a gallon for fuel. In June, however, prices had bottomed out at about 40 cents. These cost savings dropped right to the airlines' bottom line; analysts say every penny an airline saves on fuel adds from $7 million (for TWA and Southwest) to about $30 million (for United and American) to annual profits. But it's not enough that airlines haven't passed along a dime of their recent savings. Whenever fuel prices begin to rise again, fares will be adjusted upward. And if prices spike upward due to a disruption in supplies, airlines will add a per-ticket fuel surcharge, much as they did in 1991. "We view rising fuel costs as a pass-along item," one airline executive told me recently. "We'll raise or surcharge fares accordingly."

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: They Love Themselves--And It Shows
Delta Air Lines once used the jingle "We love to fly and it shows" in its advertising, but it hasn't been the kind of airline business travelers have loved to fly in recent years. Regular Delta flyers constantly complain about flight delays to and from Atlanta, the carrier's major hub; indifferent or nonexistent customer service; and everything from a poor frequent-flyer program to rapacious fares. The complaints have taken their toll: until the early 1990s, Delta consistently ranked at or near the top of the charts whenever frequent flyers were asked about their favorite airlines. Now it ranks closer to the bottom of those same surveys. But Delta obviously believes it has rebounded. Scott Thurston of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently interviewed Vicki Escarra, Delta's new executive vice president-customer service. Here is what she had to say about the airline's efforts to improve service: "I don't think we give ourselves enough credit, and I believe we need to do a better job selling ourselves in terms of the things we've done. In on-time, bags, staffing, food, all of those areas have seen significant progress, and in many categories we have improved faster than the industry."

THE WEEKLY WONDER: The Mansion on Sale
High rolling business travelers headed to Dallas usually drop their bags at The Mansion on Turtle Creek (800-527-5432), the super-swanky boutique property that is the flagship of the Rosewood group. In August, however, nightly rates drop to less stratospheric levels, and standard room prices start at $195. Each guest room at the five-star/five-diamond hotel has a VCR and a balcony with a view of Turtle Creek.

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

Copyright 1993-2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.