The Tactical Traveler

With or Without Mergers, Travelers Already Take a Hit
Quietly brewing since late September, airline merger mania broke into full frenzy and public view this week. AirTran Airways revealed a distinctly unwelcome offer for Midwest Airlines and the long-speculated dance between United and Continental airlines became common knowledge. Add those developments to the month-old attempt of US Airways to force a hostile merger with Delta Air Lines and the entire airline industry is now in play. The problem with that: Airline managers are being driven to distraction as they plan for--or defend against--real or imagined mergers. And that, of course, forces them to ignore pressing operational issues like getting passengers to their destinations on time and making sure checked baggage gets where it is going. With on-time ratings and luggage handling already at very low levels and the holiday traffic rush about to start, the management time diverted from operational realities could mean massive meltdowns in the coming weeks. "Everyone's crunching numbers, planning or working on strategy," one airline executive told me this week. "No one is watching the day-to-day ops. It's almost inevitable that something serious will go wrong somewhere over the holidays."

JetBlue's Trade: More Legroom for Less In-flight Service JetBlue Airways has lately exhibited all of the signs of sinking into the creative torpor that afflicts the Big Six. But the six-year-old carrier regained some of its old flash today (December 14) by announcing that it would be pulling a row of seats from each of the Airbus A320s in its fleet. That would reduce each aircraft to just 150 seats and create the most spacious seating in the domestic coach skies. Rows 1-11 will have 36 inches of legroom--that's more than Northwest offers in first class on its DC9s, for example--and Rows 12-25 will have 34 inches of seat pitch. The industry standard in coach is 31 inches. But JetBlue's extra legroom won't come without a cost: The airline won't charge more for the extra legroom, but reducing the A320 seat capacity legally allows the carrier to reduce its in-flight crew compliment by one. Instead of four flight attendants serving 156 passengers, as currently happens on the A320s, just three cabin crew will handle 150 passengers. (That's one flight attendant per 50 flyers, compared to the current one-to-39 ratio.) Besides saving on the salary of a flight attendant, JetBlue also reduces fuel costs by shedding about 900 pounds of aircraft weight and as many as seven flyers per flight. The modifications on the A320s should be complete by March and it requires JetBlue flyers to rethink their seating preferences. JetBlue pulled six seats from the A320s in 2003--going from 162 chairs to the current 156--and that resulted in the back rows of the plane having more legroom than the first few rows. Now the extra room will be up front again.

They'll Follow the Sun This Winter
Alternate carriers will bulk up their service to sun destinations in the coming weeks. Southwest Airlines, for example, will launch daily flights to Orlando from both Detroit/Metro and Denver on December 20. Meanwhile, Frontier Airlines is focusing on Mexico. On December 22, it will launch four weekly flights from its Denver hub to Guadalajara. It will also add a weekly flight from San Diego to Cancun on Saturday (December 16). And AirTran Airways plans to launch two daily flights to Phoenix from its Atlanta hub on February 15. L'Avion, a French all-business-class airline originally called Elysair, hopes to launch six weekly flights between Newark and Paris/Orly as early as December 27. It is already selling tickets in France, but does not yet have U.S. approval to sell tickets on the Newark-Paris leg. The airline says it will have just 90 seats on a Boeing 757 and fares will start at about $2,200 roundtrip.

So Much for Passengers-Only at the Gate
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) continues to make baffling decisions. Since 9/11, only ticketed passengers have been permitted to pass through a security checkpoint and into the so-called sterile area around the gates. But now the TSA has changed the rules for the benefit of--wait for it--shoppers. In a test program, guests at the Westin hotel adjacent to Detroit/Metro Airport and at the Grand Hyatt adjoining Dallas/Fort Worth International are permitted to clear security in order to shop and dine at airside retailers and restaurants. The long-delayed Registered Traveler program got a boost this week when the TSA approved a device that would scan shoes and boots without forcing travelers to remove the footwear. The shoe scanners are expected to be deployed at Registered Traveler lanes planned by Clear, which hopes to be operational in at least five airports in the coming month. The secret and probably illegal Automated Targeting System, which assigns all U.S. travelers a terror rating, is being universally decried by privacy advocates and legal scholars. First disclosed last week after more than four years of clandestine operation, the program has also generated an online petition campaign. You can view the petition at the Privacy Alert Network.

Business-Travel News You Need to Know
American Airlines says it will spruce up the Boeing 767-200s most often seen on the carrier's transcontinental routes between New York/Kennedy and Los Angeles and San Francisco. The $20 million investment includes motorized seats in the first-class cabin, a new audio-video system in first and business classes and new upholstery and carpeting. The carrier is also adding one seat in first class. Another perk: First- and business-class passengers on transcon flights will receive free admission to American Airlines lounges. The improvements will begin appearing next spring. Even further out, United Airlines says it will introduce a new first-class seat-bed on its international fleet. In next year's fourth quarter, the airline says it will begin installing chairs that convert to fully flat, 78-inch beds. The so-called First Suites will also have 15.4-inch video monitors, 50 channels of XM Radio audio, universal power outlets, USB ports and iPod connectors. Seattle Airport removed and then restored its Christmas trees this week. The removal was an apparent overreaction to the request of a rabbi to add menorahs to the holiday displays. Seattle officials promise to be more inclusive with next year's holiday decorations.

Copyright 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.