The Tactical Traveler



This week: Life after hubs in St. Louis; United is adrift; there's a surge in flights to Mexico; several Marriott brands will offer free, high-speed Internet access; US Airways adds first-class seats to East Coast shuttle flights; more scrutiny for laptops at screening checkpoints; Delta's chief doesn't fly the competition; and much more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: Life After Hub Status at St. Louis
The more that St. Louis-area travelers look at American's 50 percent cut in flights this fall, the more they realize St. Louis is hardly a hub at all anymore. AA's decision to reduce its schedule to about 200 daily flights in November from the current roster of about 400 is more draconian than it seems. When the slashing and burning is over, American will only have 53 jet flights at Lambert and most of them will be to AA's hubs in Chicago/O'Hare, Miami and Dallas/Fort Worth. The remaining three-quarters of the new Lambert schedule will be commuter flights, mostly to Midwestern destinations. In other words, and despite AA's protestations to the contrary, St. Louis is now essentially a spoke and not a hub. Semantics aside, however, AA's cuts have lead other airlines to beef up St. Louis flights. In recent days, several airlines have announced new flights to their hubs from Lambert: Air Canada will add three daily nonstops to Toronto beginning September 1; Delta Connection carrier Comair will launch service to New York/Kennedy and add a flight to Atlanta; Frontier and United will add flights to Denver; Northwest will begin additional flights to Detroit and Minneapolis; and United Express will add flights to Washington/Dulles.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Is United Heading for Oblivion?
United Airlines posted a startling $623 million second-quarter loss, much wider than last year's $341 million second-quarter deficit. Worse, revenues in the second quarter dropped 18 percent. Although these numbers were somewhat distorted because of the SARS epidemic--United's extensive Pacific network was badly hurt--there are disquieting signs that United is adrift. Eight months into its Chapter 11 reorganization, it has no plan to emerge from bankruptcy court nor has it reapplied for a crucial, government-backed loan. A Standard & Poor's credit analyst recently expressed doubt that United will meet the future covenants of its debtor-in-possession financing. Moreover, United is now embattled on the operational front, too. The airline's management has alienated both Denver airport and ACA, the Washington/Dulles carrier that controls United Express' commuter gates there. "It's not like we have a clue," one depressed middle manager told me last week. "We're fighting with our employees, our hubs and our commuter carriers. Our best passengers hate us and we have no direction and no leadership. Some airline, huh?"

INTERNATIONAL ITINERARY: A Surge in South-of-the-Border Flights
The U.S. dollar continues to surge against the Mexican peso. It's now buying about 10.5 pesos, a ten percent jump in the last 45 days. That's partially why travel to Mexico is booming and why airlines are rushing to fill the gap in flights to destinations south of the border. Alaska Airlines and AeroMexico last month added service and more carriers are lining up now. On October 20, America West will launch nonstop daily service between its Phoenix hub and Monterrey. ... US Airways has set October 26 as the start date for its daily nonstops between its Charlotte hub and Mexico City. ... ATA is expanding from its Chicago/Midway hub, too. On December 17, it will launch a weekly flight to Puerto Vallarta. Three days later, it will begin a weekly flight to Ixtapa. ... Frontier is expecting to fly to two new Mexican destinations this fall from its Denver hub. Weekly flights to Los Cabos begin November 1; the service expands to three weekly flights on November 22. The same day, the airline will add weekly flights to Puerto Vallarta. And this week Frontier announced it has applied to begin flying to Ixtapa in the first quarter of next year.

IN THE LOBBY: More Free High-Speed, In-Room Access
Free, in-room high-speed Internet access is quickly becoming the standard for mid-market hotels. The latest converts are four mid-level Marriott brands: Courtyard, Residence Inn, TownePlace Suites and SpringHill Suites. The hotels will all offer free high-speed access by the end of the year. A fifth Marriott brand, Fairfield Inn, will off free access at more than 500 properties by the end of next year. ... The former Renaissance hotel on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami has been converted to the Radisson Hotel Miami. ... The struggling Wyndham chain is nevertheless picking up seven more resorts in the Bahamas, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. The seven properties were formerly known as Viva Resorts. ... The Crowne Plaza Toronto Centre hotel is undergoing a $21 million restoration and the 586-room property will be reflagged as an InterContinental next month.

ON THE FLY: Business-Travel News You Need to Know
US Airways says it will add first-class seats on its shuttle product that links New York with Boston and Washington, DC. The first of the A319s to be converted will begin flying on October 6. Since Eastern created the shuttle in the early 1960s, the on-demand, hourly service has always been all coach. Delta Air Lines, which runs the competing shuttle, says it won't match at the moment. ... British Airways has been offering discount vouchers worth about $125 to travelers who were inconvenienced by the worker dispute at Heathrow Airport last month. The airline said it had already contacted 17,000 passengers by last weekend. ... KLM, which was already taking reservations for flights to Baghdad, says it won't launch the service after all. They say it's too dangerous to fly commercial aircraft into Iraq. No kidding. ... US Airways has eliminated the in-flight entertainment charge. Travelers are free to bring their own headphones or purchase compatible headsets onboard for $5.

SECURITY WATCH: Be Prepared for More Laptop Scrutiny
The announcement was understandably overshadowed by the horrendous
car bombing at a Marriott hotel in Jakarta, but the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Tuesday ordered more scrutiny of electronic gear passing through airport checkpoints. Effective immediately, security screeners will be looking more closely at laptop computers, CD players, cameras and other electronic items that travelers are carrying through security checkpoints. The DHS says it has information that al-Qaida may try to use electronics to conceal bombs and other weapons. ... The government has abruptly suspended two programs that allow foreign nationals to pass through U.S. airports without a visa if they are en route to a third country. The programs, Travel Without Visas and International-to-International Transit, applied to passengers who normally would be required to obtain a visa to travel to the United States. With the programs suspended, these passengers must now have a visa even if they are simply changing planes in the United States as part of a trip to another country. ... The Transportation Security Administration has posted an online form for travelers who claim that items went missing or were damaged after their checked bags were examined by TSA agents.

THE PARTING SHOT: When in Doubt, Ignore the Competition
If you're wondering why Delta Air Lines management seems so clueless--and why carriers such as AirTran and JetBlue are pummeling Delta--consider this little tidbit: The nation's highest paid airline executive, Delta chief executive Leo Mullin, has no first-hand knowledge of his competitors. In an interview with SkyGuide Go, veteran aviation journalist Jim Glab asked a logical question: Had Mullin ever flown on his competitors? "I haven't flown on JetBlue," Mullin admitted. "I flew on AirTran once."

This column originally appeared at

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