The Tactical Traveler

FOR MAY 19 TO JUNE 2, 2005
Would You Like Pink or White Slime With That?
I can't for the life of me figure out why business travelers obsess about airline meals or the lack thereof, but here's another reason to avoid in-flight food like the plague: The world's second-largest airline catering company, Gate Gourmet, has been slammed by inspectors for the second time this year. Health inspectors investigating Gate Gourmet's sprawling Honolulu location found live cockroaches, dirty utensils and something described as a "pink slimy substance dripping onto the 'clean end' of the pot-washing machine." In a letter to Gate Gourmet released this week, the Food and Drug Administration detailed a long list of disgusting conditions including: food kept near uncovered trash cans; food stored at improper temperatures; mold growing on windows; and dirty utensil racks. The problems at the Honolulu facility, which caters 70 flights for more than 10,000 passengers daily, come on the heels of serious lapses at Gate Gourmet's Chicago storage facilities. City inspectors closed the site in March after discovering unsanitary conditions and an expired business license. And in 2003 inspectors discovered Gate Gourmet's Denver catering unit was infested with insects and "slimy residue." In case you were wondering, Gate Gourmet operates 115 flight kitchens in 30 countries.

Bagless in Seattle(-Tacoma) Airport
Just days after baggage handlers at its Seattle-Tacoma hub rejected concession demands, Alaska Airlines abruptly fired them last weekend and hired an outside firm to move checked luggage. The result? Long delays to retrieve bags this week. Some Seattle travelers have waited almost two hours for luggage. The union representing the 476 fired ramp workers said it would fight the move. ... Speaking of Sea-Tac, Borders has opened a 3,400-square-foot store selling best-selling books, newspapers, magazines and top-selling CDs and DVDs. The shop is in the main terminal. The nation's worst airport? That dubious distinction goes to Fort Lauderdale, where only 55.8 percent of the flights arrived on time in March. The problems are partially due to bad weather in the Northeast, where several carriers compete on route to Fort Lauderdale. But US Airways also opened a Caribbean and Latin American hub at the airport in late February.

Believe What I Say, Not What I Signed
You have undoubtedly heard US Airways chief executive Bruce Lakefield opine that he does not have a "golden parachute" and is serving only as a favor to his friend, chairman David Bronner. Well, that's just another indication that you can never believe a word that comes out of the mouth of an airline CEO. According to his employment contract, signed in April, 2004, but filed just last week with US Airways' bankruptcy court, Lakefield will cash in nicely if he is fired when the America West/US Airways merger is completed. His contract's change of control clause guarantees that he'll receive three times his base salary of $425,000; 24 months of continuing health and medical coverage; 24 months of life-insurance premiums; and lifetime, first-class travel privileges for him and his family. According to the first details of the merger announced late today (May 19), Lakefield is slated to become vice chairman of the merged firm. ... Hawaiian Airlines says that it will exit bankruptcy on June 1. The carrier filed for Chapter 11 in March, 2003, and says it will exit with more than $110 million in unrestricted cash. That's almost six times the amount of cash it had on hand when it filed.

TSA Says Bring Your Lighter After All--But Pack It Empty
Never underestimate the political power of the cigarette-lighter manufacturers. Led primarily by Pennsylvania-based Zippo and its Senate vassal, Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum, the Transportation Security Administration has partially backed down from its lighter ban. The TSA's lighter ban went into effect on April 1, but has now been changed. Although lighters (even the legendary Zippo) are still banned from carry-on bags, you can now pack empty butane lighters in your checked bags. It looks like the Bush Administration proposal to raise the security fee to $8 a segment is dead for now. The House Appropriations Subcommittee approved a budget for the TSA last week that does not include an increase from the current $5 a segment level.

Business-Travel News You Need to Know
The Big Six raised discounted fares last weekend by as much as $20 roundtrip. At the same time, alternate carriers such as Southwest, Frontier and JetBlue Airways also raised fares by about $2-$6 roundtrip. None of the fare increases affected the carriers' respective caps on walk-up fares, however. A casual comment by French President Jacques Chirac--that air travelers should pay a ticket tax to help African development--has won the support of the European Union. The supposedly voluntary levy will be discussed on June 7 at the next meeting of the EU finance ministers. The fast-growing Indian domestic airline market gets another carrier next week: Spice Jet launches on Monday with three Boeing 737-800s. Kingfisher Airlines, which is owned by the Indian brewing conglomerate that makes Kingfisher Beer, began flying this week. The result? A fare war that has dropped prices to about 99 rupees a flight. That's about US$2.25. The inspector general of Amtrak says the railroad's maintenance firm knew about the cracks in the brakes of the high-speed Acela train as long as three years ago. Amtrak pulled its 20-train Acela fleet out of service last month and full service may not be resumed until the end of the summer.

Maybe They Have Some R-O-T Handkerchiefs, Too!
The Plaza Hotel in New York closed three weeks ago and now the inevitable memorabilia sale is upon us. Starting tomorrow (May 20), liquidators will be selling everything from dinner plates with the Plaza crest ($35 each) to uniforms worn by Plaza bellhops ($100 each). Admission to the sale costs $10 at the door, which is also for sale for $250. I may go just to see if Roger O. Thornhill, the character Cary Grant played in North by Northwest, dropped one of his R-O-T handkerchiefs when the commies hustled him out of the Oak Bar.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.