The Tactical Traveler



This week: Airlines plan big fare sales next week and hotel chains and car-rent firms are sure to follow; don't fly Pan Am if you travel with a laptop; a quick look at the route and service cutbacks; your share of the taxpayer-funded airline bailout is $17.85; and several carriers impose "security" surcharges.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: Watch for Falling Fares Next Week
The nation's airlines desperately need to launch a good, old-fashioned fare sale to lure travelers back to the skies, but good taste has led them to restrict their advertising. At least a few carriers are now convinced fare-sale advertising wouldn't look tacky next week, however. None wants to be first out of the box with price ads--if it wrong and America isn't ready, the first airline to advertise will look insensitive and callous--but financial factors will almost certainly cause at least one carrier to launch its sale by next Wednesday or Thursday. What should you look for? Very low rates for advance-purchase domestic travel through November 15, and even cheaper rates (perhaps as low as $99 one-way transcontinental) on the airlines' proprietary websites. Several airlines are actively considering a walk-up fare sale for business travelers and at least one carrier is toying with a first-class sale. Europe and Latin America fares also will be slashed, but sales on Asia seats will be more restrained.

AND THEN: Hotels and Car-Rent Firms Will Open the Flood Gate
Hotel and car-rental firms have been cutting rates during the last two weeks, but they've done so quietly, without advertising. As soon as the airlines unleash their sales, however, the major hotel chains and rental firms will jump back into the fray. "Advertising a hotel sale won't matter if people won't fly," the marketing chief of one major hotel group told me yesterday. "But once the airlines get out there, we'll follow with a big promotion." Again, watch for the hotel and car sales to be effective through mid-November. Also look for some joint fly-drive and room-car deals.

Despite our sympathy for smaller, start-up carriers who offer an alternative to the major airlines, no business traveler can afford to fly Pan Am now. The tiny carrier, a very distant progeny of the original Pan Am, announced on Tuesday it would limit carry-on to wallets, purses and diaper bags. Even laptop computers are included in the carry-on ban and therein lies the rub. Airline contracts of carriage routinely exempt computers from lost-baggage coverage. If you fly Pan Am, you'll be forced to check you laptop and, if Pan Am loses your laptop, then you bear the financial loss. Bottom line: Pan Am is stupid, so don't fly them.

CUTBACKS: Tracking What's Gone
As the airlines retrench, lots of familiar flights, routes and services will disappear with little or no notice. Frankly, it will be impossible to cover it all, but we'll do our best to report on the major developments. America West has eliminated meals on all flights. Effective November 1, American and TWA will cut meals on most domestic coach flights and in first class on flights under two hours. Many Caribbean and Latin American flights are also affected. US Airways will end meals on all short-haul domestic and Caribbean flights. US Airways will end its MetroJet low-fare service and it is switching to US Airways Express commuter flights at 10 airports. Beginning October 7, TWA will disappear from its once-mighty worldwide hub at New York/Kennedy airport. Flights will be eliminated or transferred to American, which bought TWA earlier this year. Continental Airlines is dropping flights between its Cleveland hub and London/Gatwick, eliminating nonstop service between its Newark hub and Rio de Janeiro, and reducing its Newark-Hong Kong nonstops to four weekly flights. United is dropping its Washington/Dulles-Paris service. Through March 15, Delta says it will drop flights between New York/Kennedy and Tokyo, Munich, Dublin, Shannon, Zurich and Brussels. Service to Stockholm is off the schedule indefinitely.

THE BILL: You Share of the Airline Bailout Is $17.85
The airlines got their bailout last week--the House and Senate approved the bill last Friday night and President Bush signed it Sunday--but the terms are just now seeping into the national consciousness. The nation's passenger and cargo airlines get a $5 billion tax infusion with virtually no strings attached. It's not a loan, but an outright gift. Not a penny is required to go to improve security and not a dime is earmarked for the almost 100,000 workers who have been laid off since September 15. According to the calculations of Aviation Daily, individual carriers will receive from $970,000 to $880,000,000 each. And if you're having trouble getting your mind around the $5 billion figure, try it this way: Every man, woman and child in the nation will pay the airlines a one-time fee of $17.85. (There's no word on whether the airlines will send a tax collector directly to your door to collect.) The bailout also includes $10 billion in loan guarantees and American and United were shielded from certain liability arising from the quadruple hijackings on September 11.

MIDDLE EAST UPDATE: Where Has All the Service Gone?
Whenever terrorism strikes, U.S. carriers pull up stakes and leave the Middle East. Sadly, this time is no different. TWA has already dropped its flights to Egypt and Saudi Arabia after ending its Israel service earlier this year. Continental has chopped its Tel Aviv service. Delta has eliminated its service to Tel Aviv, Cairo, and Dubai until at least March 15. Foreign flag airlines, including El Al, have largely maintained their service from the United States, however.

SECURITY CHECK: Here Comes the Surcharges
Never underestimate the airline industry's ability to outrage passengers even when it has no passengers to offend. Now they are reviving a hoary old chestnut from the 1970s and 1980s: the so-called "security surcharge." KLM was first out of the box, adding a $5 a flight fee to cover what it claims is additional safety measures. WestJet, the low fare Canadian carrier, on Wednesday announced a $3 one-way surcharge for insurance "as part of a cost-recovery program." Singapore Airlines, Air New Zealand and Qantas have imposed $1.25 per passenger fees. Lufthansa is expected to add a security surcharge--as well as fare increase--as early as next week. If tradition holds, the U.S. carriers won't be far behind.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.