The Tactical Traveler



This week: The TSA will make the November 19 screening deadline--sort of; the airlines begin slashing frequent-flyer benefits; Midwest Express reduces food service; the "fat-flyer" update; and much more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: Meeting the Screening Deadline. Not.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is required to federalize security at all but five of 429 U.S. commercial airports by November 19. As of Thursday afternoon, however, government-trained screeners were operating at only 192 airports--and many of those airports have federalized screeners only at selected terminals. Yet TSA officials continue to insist the agency will meet the November 19 deadline. How do they plan to miraculously cover more than 230 additional airports in less than a month? "At best, we'll have a token presence in every airport," a TSA official told me this week. "But there's no chance we'll have [federal employees] checking every passenger and screening every carry-on bag by November 19." There is some good news in the midst of this governmental legerdemain, however. Wherever federal screeners are in place, they have earned raves for their professionalism, politeness, speed and willingness and ability to communicate with travelers.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Asterisks, Disclaimers and Little Deceits
This isn't hugely important in the scheme of things, but it is illustrative of the airlines' seemingly endless stream of little deceits. The embattled US Airways Shuttle is offering a so-called quintuple guarantee on its service and it's even placing large newspaper ads claiming that travelers "won't find any asterisks" and that there are "no disclaimers" on the guarantees. But you don't believe everything you read in an airline ad, do you? Look on the Shuttle Web site and you'll find several "terms and conditions" despite what the ads say. For example, the guarantees--a variety of bonus miles if the Shuttle fails in any of five categories of service--are only valid Monday through Friday and only until the end of the year. And two of the most important bonus offers--for cancelled flights and for unavailability of a guaranteed seat--are only valid once each day. So if the Shuttle is having a really bad day and you're screwed twice--not an unheard of occurrence when you're trying for a day trip between Boston, New York and Washington--you're only compensated once.

MILES & POINTS: Here Come the Cutbacks
The Big Six have been nibbling at the edges of the frequent-flyer programs for months now, slapping an array of fees on "free tickets" and fiddling with upgrade procedures. Now American Airlines is raising the prices of some its awards beginning May 1. The details are posted on the site, but don't assume American will be going it alone. Most carriers will be boosting award levels--especially for premium-class awards--in the coming weeks and months. ... US Airways is offering up to 30,000 bonus Dividend Miles to fly on its European flights this fall. Registration is required before travel. ... Speaking of US Airways, it has asked the bankruptcy courts to void its deal with MCI WorldCom to offer miles for MCI calls. ... American Express is phasing out its classic green and gold cards and replacing them with five new "Rewards" cards. Beware the $65-a-year Rewards Green card, however. It forces you to transfer two Membership Rewards points to earn one frequent-flyer mile. The other four new cards offer one-to-one transfers, however. All five cards--and the existing Platinum and Centurion (black) cards--will offer double Membership Rewards points for most gasoline, supermarket, home-improvement and wireless-phone charges.

ON THE FLY: Business-Travel News You Need to Know
Northwest Airlines and have ended their little pricing spat and travelers can once again purchase Northwest tickets on the booking engine. ... Midwest Express is cutting back on food service beginning next week. The airline has served a full meal on every flight during its 14-year history, but now will switch to snacks during off-hours. It is also simplifying its entrees on meal flights. The airline had been spending about three times more per passenger on food service than its domestic competitors. ... American Airlines is shuffling the operations of its mainline jet service and American Eagle commuter flights at Dallas/Fort Worth. Beginning February 1, all American flights will operate from Terminals A and C. Eagle's regional-jet flights will move to Terminal B while Eagle's turboprop flights will remain at the commuter carrier's satellite terminal. ... If you missed the third-quarter numbers reported so far, the five largest airlines--American, United, Delta, Northwest and Continental--all reported large losses. Southwest, Alaska and AirTran reported a profit. Highlight of the reports: Continental chief executive Gordon Bethune redefined his job. Apparently, he no longer is required to lead his company to a profit. "Winning is defined as outperforming your competition and we clearly have," he said of Continental's $37 million quarterly loss. Previously, Bethune had promised profits at Continental by this year's second quarter. Continental now says it won't be profitable in this year's fourth quarter or all of next year, either.

THE PARTING SHOT: The "Fat-Flyer" Update
The ongoing saga of the rights of large passengers to occupy more than one seat and the rights of the airlines to charge them more continues. Virgin Atlantic recently paid a transatlantic passenger about $20,000 in compensation when she was squashed by an obese traveler in the seat next to her. Meanwhile, the Canadian Transportation Agency has upheld Air Canada's right to charge large travelers more if the airline determines the traveler must upgrade to a premium-class seat or occupy two coach seats.

This column originally appeared at

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