The Tactical Traveler



This week: United faces a strike on February 20; the baggage glitch at Northwest’s new Detroit terminal; JetBlue and AirTran grow; American Airlines and British Airways give up on code-sharing; and much more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: Racing the Strike Clock at United
United’s mechanics this week overwhelmingly rejected a contract proposal suggested by a Presidential Emergency Board and set a February 20 strike date. At this point in the dispute, only a Congressionally imposed settlement could delay a strike if the two sides cannot reach a contract agreement. But there does seem to be a ray of hope: Neither the mechanics nor United seem to want a strike and the two sides are scheduled to resume last-ditch negotiations on Friday, February 15. United’s mechanics have been working under the terms of a 1994 contract and the two sides have been negotiating a new deal for more than two years. President Bush intervened to stop a mechanics strike in December, but his creation of the Emergency Board at that time ended his legal authority in the matter.

SECURITY REPORT: Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
The new Transportation Security Agency takes control of airport security on Sunday, February 17, and the government seems most interested in convincing travelers that nothing will really change. And, apparently it won’t. Most, if not all, airport security stations will continue to be manned by private security firms in the coming months. (The federal law passed last year gives the government until November 19 to replace private screeners.) In fact, even the disgraced Argenbright temporarily keeps its gigs at more than 24 airports despite a government pledge not to work with the company. The loophole: technically, Argenbright will operate through subcontracts with the airlines that originally hired the firm.

AIRPORT REPORT: Baggage Snafus at Northwest’s New Terminal
Northwest insists its twice-delayed, 97-gate Midfield Terminal at Detroit/Metro will open as currently scheduled on February 24, but insiders say the new baggage system isn’t working. “We’re getting failures as high as 50 percent on some transfer tests,” one of the airline’s insiders told me earlier this week. What’s the problem at the $1.2 billion facility? No one seems to know for sure. Some think the computers are at fault, others insist the machines are being misused and incorrectly programmed. Either way, you’re probably best served by booking away from connecting itineraries using DTW during the next few weeks. … Want to know why Oakland International is growing so fast? Consider this: of the top 25 airports, only San Francisco International had a poorer on-time record in 2001 than 2000. Based on Transportation Department figures for December, 64.6 percent of flights arrived at SFO on-time in 2001 compared to 65.5 percent in 2000. In contrast, many airports showed an on-time improvement of 20 percent or more, while New York/LaGuardia improved by 43 percent and Chicago/O’Hare was 30 percent better. … Wayport, which scooped up nine Laptop Lane locations last year before that chain went under, is reopening four more of the airport business centers. All are in Cincinnati. The facilities in Terminal 2, B and C will reopen this month. A self-service, 24-hour location is scheduled to open in April.

ALTERNATE ARRANGEMENTS: The Small Guys Just Keep Growing
The major carriers are slowly beginning to restore some flights cut in the wake of September 11, but the alternate airlines are growing and restoring much more quickly. JetBlue Airways, which this week announced plans to go public, is adding transcontinental service from Washington/Dulles. Beginning May 1, there will be two daily flights to Oakland and two daily flights to Los Angeles/Long Beach. Both all-coach routes were originally due to launch last October. … Meanwhile, two-class AirTran Airways is bulking up at Baltimore-Washington International, which was virtually abandoned by US Airways after September 11. The carrier has already launched nonstop flights from BWI to Fort Myers. Nonstop flights from BWI to Rochester, New York and Tampa begin on March 14. Speaking of Rochester, AirTran is expanding there, too. On March 14, the carrier will also launch nonstops to its Atlanta hub.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Is This the End of Oneworld?
British Airways and American Airlines have abandoned their second attempt in five years to forge a code-sharing arrangement. The latest effort, which ended earlier this month after the U.S. Department of Transportation required slot divestitures at London/Heathrow as the price for approving the deal, may also mean the demise of the Oneworld Alliance as currently constituted. “The problem with Oneworld is that both BA and American want to be the top dog,” an executive of a Oneworld carrier told me this week. “The Star Alliance works because United bows to Lufthansa in Europe and Lufthansa bows to United in the United States. Same with the Northwest-KLM code-share and the SkyTeam deal between Delta and Air France.” Neither BA nor American’s corporate egos can accept second-fiddle status anywhere, however, and that stress, added to the failure of the code-share plan, may doom Oneworld. “How’s this for a scenario?” another Oneworld carrier executive told me. “American leaves Oneworld, then BA adds US Airways as the U.S. partner. As for American, it could try to build a new alliance with the new Swissair and maybe Japan Airlines. I could see Thai leaving Star to join this new alliance, too.”

VERBATIM: John McCain on the Airport-Security Lobby
Lobbyists for the major security firms lost the war to keep airport security screening in private hands, but it wasn’t for lack of trying--or spending large sums of money. In a profile of Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who successfully championed the federalization of security last year, the February 4 issue of The New Yorker reports on the spending orgy: “‘They’ve hired every lobbyist in Washington,’ McCain said--‘they’ being the private security firms, whose lapses on September 11th have become notorious. McCain … was sure that the support the security firms were getting had to do with money they were spreading around the Capitol. ‘We won’t see the disclosure statements till January. You’ll see huge contributions. Huge!’”

This column originally appeared at

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