The Tactical Traveler



This week: Isabel scrambles travel; two hotel chains change names; a fare war breaks out Down Under; Alaska Airlines slashes frequent-flyer program benefits, too; JetBlue gets tangled up in CAPPS II; US Airways finally retreats on the use-it-or-lose-it rule; knives return to the skies; and much more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: Don't You Hate Isabel Already?
Hurricane Isabel was rampaging along the East Coast as this is being written at 9 p.m. on Thursday night. Thousands of flights and many Amtrak trains also have been cancelled through Friday--and there's every indication that flight schedules, airports and roads will be disrupted at least through the end of the weekend. And don't expect anything to be normal early next week, either. "We've got a lot of planes and a lot of flight crews in the wrong place," one airline's harried schedule guru told me Thursday afternoon. "The winds and the flooding and the power outages mean we're going to be scrambling to get back to normal in the next couple of days." Bottom line: Don't assume your flights will operate normally next week. Check before heading to the airport and expect sporadic, abnormal delays through the week.

IN THE LOBBY: Two Chains Pull Down Their Flags
Say goodbye to the Garden Plaza mini-chain that operated in four cities in Tennessee. All the properties--in Jackson, Oak Ridge, Murfreesboro and Johnson City--have been converted to Doubletree Hotels. ... Speaking of flags, the Flag Hotel chain of New Zealand is disappearing. All 46 properties will be, um, reflagged as Comfort Inns, Quality or Clarion hotels. ... As the hotel inventory in Orlando continues to expand--there are now more than 110,000 rooms, second only to Las Vegas' 125,000 rooms--some older properties have found it impossible to compete. The 919-room Hyatt Orlando abruptly closed last week without advance notice. And the 281-room Four Points Orlando in downtown Orlando will close at the end of the month.

INTERNATIONAL ITINERARY: It's War Across the Tasman Sea
Incensed that regulators refused to allow Qantas to buy into financially strapped Air New Zealand, the carriers have launched a fare war. (I don't understand the logic, either, folks...). Prices have dropped about 40 percent in the new fare structure. Qantas has also gone to an all-coach configuration on its trans-Tasman flights. Meanwhile, Virgin Blue, a low-fare carrier partially owned by Virgin Atlantic mogul Richard Branson, says it will become the fourth major carrier across the Tasman on February 1. At the request of the Australian government, Emirates, the Dubai-based carrier, began flying on trans-Tasman routes last month. ... Swiss, the successor to Swissair, says it will drop flights between Washington/Dulles and its Zurich hub on October 26. The financially shaky airline says it will continue flying on its other North American routes, however. ... A 237-room W Hotel has opened in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City. ... Le Meridien has opened a 284-room hotel overlooking Las Aussenalster in Hamburg, Germany. Opening rates are as low as $140 a night until February 29.

MILES & POINTS: Alaska Slashes Its Benefits, Too
It didn't generate as much publicity as Continental's decision to reshuffle the Elite level of its OnePass program--see the Brancatelli File this week--but Alaska Airlines is also slashing the benefits of its Mileage Plan. Effective January 1, MVP Gold members are only permitted immediate free upgrades on higher priced fares; free upgrades from other fares can only be reserved three days before departure. MVP members are only permitted immediate free upgrades on full fares; free upgrades from other fares can only be reserved two days in advance. The airline is also hiking the number of miles you need to fly to reach the MVP and MVP Gold levels by 5,000 miles; increasing the miles needed to claim a free, first-class seat in the United States and Canada to 80,000 miles, a 20,000-mile increase; and upping the cost of a one-way upgrade to 10,000 miles. ... Jetsgo, the Canadian discount carrier, has launched a frequent-flyer plan called Jetmiles. ... Delta is offering a bonus of 5,000 miles when you transfer the equivalent of 20,000 miles to SkyMiles from six hotel programs (Hyatt, Meridien, Marriott, Priority Club, Radisson and Starwood). The bonus is also valid on 20,000-mile transfers from the American Express and Diners Club programs. The transfers must be completed by October 31.

SECURITY WATCH: Maybe They Just Overslept...
Judges in Chicago are throwing out cases against travelers caught with banned items at O'Hare and Midway airports and airport police officials charge the Transportation Security Administration is to blame. Why? Federal airport screeners aren't answering subpoenas to appear at the trials. So far this year, about 60 people have been arrested on weapons charges at the airport. ... A Sikh businessman is suing Delta Airlines, a Delta Connection commuter carrier and members of a flight crew. In a filing in U.S. District Court in Newark, the man says the crew harassed him, claiming he was "trouble" and "should keep a low profile" because he was from "the Middle East." The incident took place on November 26, 2002, on a flight between Cincinnati and Dayton. ... As Bob Dylan almost sang, JetBlue Airways is now tangled up in CAPPS II, the TSA's controversial passenger-screening program. Not only has the carrier agreed to replace Delta as the CAPPS II test airline, it admitted this week that it turned over five million passenger records to a defense contractor. The contractor augmented the data with other sensitive personal information and published it at a technology conference and on a Web site. Bill Scannell, the privacy activist who has led the charge against CAPPS II, has extensive coverage of the incident at his Don't Spy on Us site.

ON THE FLY: Business-Travel News You Need to Know
US Airways, which created the use-it-or-lose it policy last year, has finally retreated. It announced last Saturday that it would join the rest of the Big Six and allow unused tickets to retain their value for up to a year. ... United Airlines says its latest attempt at a low-cost airline--originally code-named Starfish and now creatively called the "low-cost operation" (LCO)--will launch next year at its Denver hub. LCO will use Airbus A320s outfitted with coach and United's Economy Plus seating. ... Here's what passes as good news in the skies these days: Northwest Airlines on Tuesday began using metal knives in the business class of many of its international flights. Continental says it has received approval to resume the use of real knives beginning November 1. Metal knives were banned after the 9/11 terrorism attacks.

This column originally appeared at

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