The Tactical Traveler

FOR JULY 17 TO JULY 24, 2003


This week: Public charters are back--and as unreliable as ever; the Chicago Tribune sees no evil at the top levels of United; why the middle seats are full on all your flights; new hotels open in Warsaw, Niagara Falls and Silicon Valley; international carriers shuffle routes; Delta adds more Hawaii service; MedJet Assistance adds short-term plans; British Airways launches a Concorde souvenir Web site; and much more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: The Return of the Public Charters
Whenever fares get outrageously high on the legacy airlines, a peculiar kind of alternate transportation appears: the "public charter" carrier. Public charters aren't scheduled airlines in the legal sense, but they are permitted to advertise "scheduled" flights and sell tickets to individual travelers. They also operate under a separate set of Transportation Department rules. The problem with public charters? Historically, they rarely operate the flights and schedules they claim. Want an example? Check the press releases from a public-charter operator called I-Jet. Few of the more than a dozen routes it has announced this year ever launched and the carrier has already abandoned the few services it did start. Some other public charter operations--TransMeridian, Southeast and Hooters Air--have been a bit more reliable. But history shows that public-charter operators don't last long and are rarely even a viable short-term option for business travelers.

CYBERTRAVELER: United's Biased Rhapsody of Blues
The Chicago Tribune this week completed a mammoth four-part series on the downfall of United and the feature is notable for its totally biased view of events. A team of four business journalists--but not the paper's award-winning former aviation reporter who covered United for years--relentlessly detailed every failing of the airline's contentious, combative unions. Yet they were egregiously soft on the parade of top executives who doomed the carrier with endless bursts of megalomania, greed, intransigence and incompetence. The series makes much of an unverified report of a pilot supposedly grounding a plane for a phantom mechanical while a weeping passenger tries to make a family funeral. But there's not a single mention of the hundreds of millions of dollars that management blew on a failed corporate-jet program and a new corporate headquarters or the tens of millions that various top executives took away in golden parachutes. And, astonishingly, there's virtually no coverage of the endless string of marketplace blunders that destroyed United. The series is a textbook example of why average Americans hate their pompous, biased business media.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Why the Middle Seat Is Almost Always Full
Wondering why you almost never find an empty middle seat in coach? Easily explained. Last month, the U.S. airline industry flew 12 percent fewer flights and 13 percent fewer seats than in June, 2000. So despite the sharp drop in travel since 9/11, there's a scramble for the remaining seats that the airlines are flying. The result? Soaring load factors at even the most troubled major carriers. United, for example, filled 82 percent of the seats it flew in June. Not far behind were Northwest (81.8 percent), America West (81.6 percent), Continental (81 percent), Delta (80.5 percent), American (78.8 percent) and US Airways (78.6 percent). The situation at the major discounters is just as tight. At Southwest, which hasn't cut flights or seats since 9/11, the load factor was 74.6 percent in June. Just a few years ago, Southwest's load factor was in the low 60s. And fast-growing JetBlue Airways actually led the industry, filling an astonishing 87 percent of its seats last month, even though it flew 60 percent more capacity than it did in June, 2001.

IN THE LOBBY: More New Hotels and Another Flag Change
Silicon Valley was desperately in need of accommodations during the boom, but there's a surplus of lodgings now. Nevertheless, the 213-room Hotel Valencia has opened in San Jose. The property is the sister of the Hotel Valencia in San Antonio, Texas. ... The 361-room Westin Warsaw has opened in the business and financial district of the Polish capital. Opening rates are $172 a night through August. The 512-room Embassy Suites Niagara Falls has opened about 100 yards from the brink of the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Almost every suite has a view of the falls. Prices start at about US$90 a night. ... Marriott has opened a 295-room hotel in Cranberry, Pennsylvania. About 30 miles from Pittsburgh Airport, the property is located in the business park at the intersection of Interstate 79 and Route 228. ... After an ugly, 18-month legal fight, Le Meridien has been ousted as the manager of the 407-room hotel on North Pearl Street in Dallas. The property has been reflagged as the Westin City Center Dallas and is slated for a modest renovation to install Westin's signature bed and bathroom fixtures.

INTERNATIONAL ITINERARY: Comings and Goings Overseas
British Airways will shuffle its network beginning October 26. Out are flights to San Diego as well as service to Brussels; Bremen; Dusseldorf; and Zagreb. New on the schedule are flights from London to Turin and Dubrovnik. ... Swiss Air Lines, the troubled successor to Swissair, is slashing its route network by about 25 percent, making the airline much less useful to American flyers accustomed to connecting to distant destinations via Switzerland. Long-haul flights from Basel and Geneva will be sharply cut; so will flights to many African and Asian destinations from Zurich, the carrier's major intercontinental hub. Service to the federal capital of Berne will be eliminated entirely. ... Effective July 23, KLM launches twice-weekly flights from its hub in Amsterdam to Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, and Douala, Cameroon. ... Emirates, the much-admired carrier based in Dubai, has once again shelved plans to launch flights to the United States this year. On August 1, however, it plans to extend its network to Auckland, New Zealand. The 14 weekly flights will operate as extensions to Emirates' flights to Sydney and Melbourne, Australia. And on October 26, the airline will launch daily Dubai-Brisbane service. Those flights will also continue to Auckland.

ON THE FLY: Business-Travel News You Need to Know
Delta Airlines is launching nonstop flights between its Cincinnati hub and Honolulu beginning November 1. Boeing B767-400s with 285 seats will be used on the route. ... Effective September 4, Continental Airlines will no longer offer special meals--vegetarian, low-sodium, etc.--on most flights in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America. ... Medjet Assistance, the leader in on-demand emergency evacuation services, has added short-term programs. Seven-day protection is $69 for individuals and $129 for families; 14-day ($89/$169) and 21-day ($109/$199) coverage is also available. Those plans may be fine for occasional travelers, but business travelers are better off with the traditional MedJet program that offers on-demand evacuation on an annual basis for $195 (individuals) or $295 (families). ... Trafalgar Square in London has received a $42 million facelift; some streets feeding the area are now off-limits to vehicular traffic. ... The first phase of a new terminal and new access roads has opened in Boise, Idaho.

THE PARTING SHOT: Buying a Piece of the Supersonic Skies
I'm not a plane guy or much of a memorabilia guy, but even I have to admit that the imminent demise of Concorde--the first and possibly last supersonic transport--is a notable event. And don't think British Airways doesn't know it. The airline has opened a Concorde Souvenir Web site. At the moment, you can buy models of the needle-nosed plane and bits of jewelry and personal-luxury items such as frames, paperweights and clocks. All are tattooed with the Corcorde logo or emblazoned with profiles of the plane. BA promises more items in the future. And a word to the wise: If BA offers them, jump on the Concorde pens and bound Concorde notepads with perforated pages. Both are of extremely high quality and perfectly sized to pack in your kit bags.

This column originally appeared at

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