The Tactical Traveler

FOR MARCH 23, 2000


This week: Will US Airways shut down: Iridium bites the cyberdust; 400 percent turnover of security screeners; another round of fare hikes and surcharges; post-crash scrutiny at Alaska Airlines; and more.

The federally mandated "cooling off" period ends at US Airways at 12:01AM Saturday, March 25. At that time, the carrier's flight attendants are legally free to strike. Conversely, US Airways management has threatened to shut down the entire airline if no agreement is reached. Will either or both events happen? As late as Wednesday, both sides were still hurling invective at each other. The flight attendants have worked without a contract for more than three years and are among the lowest-paid in the airline industry. On the other hand, US Airways has the highest cost structure in the industry. So a deal by the deadline seems unlikely. But it is possible that both sides could push back the deadline. And while unlikely, President Clinton could legally intervene. No matter what happens, however, travelers should be prepared for the worst. Book away from US Airways next week, even if it requires a connecting flight on another carrier. And make sure you have paid tickets in hand. Should US Airways shut down, seats on competitors will be hard to book at the last minute. If you must fly US Airways, insist on a paper ticket because other carriers will not honor electronic tickets. Another note: Southwest and AirTran do not honor any US Airways ticket.

CYBERTRAVELER: The Death of Arrogance
Want to see how a "can't miss" service for business travelers goes down in flames? Surf on over to the Iridium website, Less than two years ago, Iridium was first to market with a hand-held global satellite telephone. It promised worldwide calling to and from a single number and a single hand-held device. But a combination of marketing arrogance, incredibly bad advertising, a poor product and high prices doomed the service. It ceased operation last Friday after squandering upwards of $10 billion and signing up just 50,000 users.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: You Want Fries With that X-Ray?
Business travelers hate those long lines at the security checkpoints, but we put up with the delays, the metal detectors and the X-ray screening because we think they help ensure safer flights. The truth may be less comforting, however. Hearings before the House Aviation subcommittee last week revealed several depressing facts. Turnover among the nation's 15,000 screeners approaches 400 percent, due in part to the low pay, which ranges from $5.25 to $6.25 an hour. Scanners require extensive training and "are a critical link in the performance chain," commented Cathal Flynn, the Federal Aviation Administration's top security official. "But at 400 percent turnover, it's hard to train people to sharpen pencils." Added Rep. John Duncan, the Tennessee Republication who chairs the subcommittee: "Scanners can go to fast-food operations for better job opportunities."

FARE FOLLIES: The Fourth Time's the Charm
The major U.S. airlines rammed a fare increase down our throats on February 1 with the imposition of the $20 fuel surcharge. Three times after that, they tried and failed to raise fares again. But last weekend they succeeded, increasing fares by about $40 on roundtrip business fares and $20 on leisure fares. Continental launched the fuel surcharge and initiated most of the failed fare increases. Northwest blocked the first three attempted fare increases, but began last week's successful price hike. One other note: the price of jet fuel on the spot market has dropped every week since the airline imposed the fuel surcharges last month.

SAFETY WATCH: Post-Crash Scrutiny at Alaska Airlines
The crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 on January 31 has shed light on an array of safety inquiries at the carrier. According to a story in the Seattle Times, the FBI has been investigating maintenance practices at the Seattle-based airline. Separately, a grand jury in San Francisco is investigating whether supervisors at a maintenance facility in Oakland signed for repairs that weren't done or that they were not authorized to approve. And last week, 64 mechanics at the airline's Seattle maintenance hangar said they had been "pressured, threatened and intimidated" to cut corners on repairs. The charges were contained in a letter mechanics delivered to airline executives and resulted in the carrier placing the head of the maintenance base on leave pending an investigation. The airline's chief executive, John Kelly, denied any improprieties, but announced three new safety initiatives: an outside audit of Alaska Airlines operations; appointment of a vice president for safety; and the establishment of an employee hotline for safety concerns.

ON THE FLY: Business-Travel News You Need to Know
TWA and America West have linked their frequent-flyer plans. Travelers can choose either TWA Aviators miles or America West FlightFund miles when they fly either airline. Now that Air Canada, a member of the Star Alliance, owns Canadian Airlines, the subservient Canadian is dropping out of the Oneworld Alliance on June 1. JetBlue, the well-funded start-up based at New York's Kennedy Airport, has launched three daily flights to Tampa. A study by the Salomon Smith Barney investment banking firm reveals that Northwest has the nation's oldest jet fleet. Northwest's aircraft average 19.9 years of age.

This column originally appeared at

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