The Tactical Traveler



This week: The battle of Chicago is joined now that AirTran will build a hub at Midway from bankrupt ATA's assets; Hertz begins guaranteed "make and model" reservations at 12 airports in California and Florida; who's lending money to the Big Six; the TSA's witch hunt for a whistle-blower at Newark Airport; news about your miles and points; and much more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: Let the Battle of Chicago Be Joined
The future of the U.S. air-transportation system may be defined in Chicago in the next year as the biggest of the Big Six--United and American--square off with two of the best-managed alternate carriers--AirTran and Southwest--and each other. These new battle lines began to take shape this week as ATA Airlines filed for bankruptcy and simultaneously announced a deal to transfer most of its Midway Airport assets to AirTran. Although the deal is subject to the approval of the bankruptcy court and Chicago aviation authorities, AirTran will pay about $87 million for up to a dozen of ATA's Midway gates and more than two dozen of ATA's slots at New York/LaGuardia and Washington/National airports. AirTran, which currently flies only to its Atlanta hub from Midway, says it will build a Chicago hub this winter. It will probably be able to offer as many as 100 daily flights from the Midway gates. That led to an instant response from Southwest Airlines, which already operates 145 daily flights from Midway. Chief executive Gary Kelly says Southwest will add more Midway flights early next year and is kicking the tires on some of ATA's Boeing 737s. All of this is bad news for United and American, the dominant carriers at O'Hare Airport. Why? AirTran and Southwest will certainly compete ferociously with each other, but they are also sure to draw point-to-point travelers away from O'Hare, bankrupt United and financially weakened American.

AT THE AIRPORT: Hertz Adds a Key Perk for Picky Renters
Car-rental companies have been resisting it for years, but Hertz has finally begun bowing to customer demand. Effective December 1 for rentals beginning January 1, Hertz will permit members of its #1 Club program to reserve cars by specific make and model at six Florida and six California airports. Available at no extra charge, the service will allow mid-size renters to reserve a Mazda 6; full-size renters to choose a Taurus or Camry; and premium renters to reserve a Grand Marquis or Buick LeSabre. Renters looking for a sports car can reserve a Mustang Coupe and SUV renters can reserve either an Explorer or Expedition. The make-and-model guarantee is only valid for weekend or weekly rentals, however, and must be booked at or the company's reservation number (800-654-3131). If you detect a bias toward leisure customers--longer rentals and big vacation states--you're right. A Hertz spokeswoman admits that it isn't yet prepared to roll out the service to business travelers who tend to rent midweek and at less-obvious vacation areas. "It's a matter of fleet control," she told me this week. "For right now, we want to make sure we can deliver what we promise and it's easier to control that with longer rentals. But we have every intention of rolling this out in additional locations and for business travelers as soon as possible."

BANKRUPTCY WATCH: Who'd Lend Money to the Big Six?
So who'd lend money to the Big Six? Apparently only the credit-card companies tied to their frequent-flyer cards. Bank One, which generates 10 percent of its profits from the United Mileage Plus Card, is one of United's big creditors. And American Express, which issues the Delta SkyMiles Card, is now lending money to Delta Air Lines. A division of Amex loaned Delta $100 million on Monday and advanced the airline $500 million against expected purchases of SkyMiles points over the next three years. ... Meanwhile, Delta on Thursday announced it had secured almost $1 billion in concessions from its pilots, thus enabling the airline to avoid a bankruptcy filing for now. ... United Airlines, now nearing 23 months in bankruptcy without a reorganization plan and threatening to dump its employee pensions, announced on Monday that it will close a reservations center in Indiana and move 650 jobs to India. ... Bankrupt US Airways reported a $232 million loss Thursday; that's more than twice the size of its third-quarter loss last year. Meanwhile, the carrier's chief financial officer quit the airline Monday after less than six months on the job. ... Independence Air reported an $83 million third-quarter loss on Wednesday and may face a January bankruptcy. It is responding by trimming schedules from its Washington/Dulles hub and abandoning its policy of selling tickets only through its Web site or 800-number. It will soon make seats available via third-party travel agencies.

MILES & POINTS: Changes, Bonuses and Special Opportunities
Frontier Airlines is offering elite members of other frequent-flyer programs instant Ascent-level status in its Early Returns plan. ... Marriott Rewards will no longer accept point transfers from American Express Membership Rewards after December 31. On the other hand, Amex members will be able to transfer points to JetBlue's TrueBlue program beginning December 8. ... Among the new bonus opportunities of note: Stays at more than 130 Radisson SAS hotels are worth double (1,000) miles in the American AAdvantage or United Mileage Plus programs until December 31. ... Register for a Starwood promotion and you'll receive 5,000 American AAdvantage miles for your first stay and another 5,000 miles on your third stay. The promotion is valid through December 31. ... Register for an American Express promotion and you'll receive 5,000 Delta SkyMiles for the first Song roundtrip, 5,000 more on the second roundtrip and 10,000 more on the third. The promotion runs through December 15.

SECURITY WATCH: The TSA's Witch Hunt at Newark
The Newark Star-Ledger uncovered massive security flaws at Newark International this month and reported that at least nine screeners were removed from their posts "after failing two separate tests of their abilities to detect weapons and explosives." The Transportation Security Administration's response? It's hunting down the whistle-blower who leaked the news to the paper and top TSA officials have warned Newark employees that they will be fired if they talk to the media. The witch hunt has drawn the ire of New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine, who promised to "stand up for" any whistle-blower exposed or disciplined by the TSA.

ON THE FLY: Business-Travel News You Need to Know
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) criticized both American Airlines and Airbus for the crash of American Flight 587 shortly after take-off from New York/Kennedy Airport in November, 2001. The A300's tail ripped off and killed 265 people. The NTSB says the co-pilot's "unnecessary and excessive" rudder movements probably caused the accident. However, it criticized Airbus for withholding details of the rudder's performance from American. ... Customers of Delta, Alaska and Horizon airlines will receive reciprocal lounge access and linked frequent-flyer programs beginning November 1. ... The $1 billion Terminal 3 at Ben Gurion Airport at Tel Aviv is scheduled to open on November 2. All international arrivals and departures will operate from there, so check with your airline for more details as the date approaches. ... Lufthansa already offers in-flight Internet access on its Los Angeles-Munich flights, but the FlyNet service goes live on its Charlotte-Munich flights beginning on Sunday, October 31.

Daylight Savings Time ends on Sunday, October 31, and airlines implement their "winter schedules." Don't forget to change your watches--and the clocks in your PDAs, mobile phones and computers. And don't fly without checking your flights' departure times, which may have changed due to schedule adjustments.

This column originally appeared at

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