The Tactical Traveler

Public Charter Carriers Fly Into the Big Six Gap
I'm no fan of public-charter carriers--they have defined the term fly by night in the last 20 years--but you can't ignore the fact that they are growing fast again and flying to destinations that the Big Six carriers simply won't serve. The newest contender: Western, which launched last week and flies from Bellingham, Washington, to three destinations: San Diego, Los Angeles/Ontario and Mesa Airport near Phoenix. A month ago, SkyValue brought flights back to Chicago/Gary Airport and currently operates to Mesa, Orlando, Las Vegas and St. Petersburg/Clearwater. Vision connects Mesa with North Las Vegas Airport. And two new public charters, Southern Skyways and Myrtle Beach Direct, hope to launch in March and fly golfers and vacationers into Myrtle Beach. Should you use them? If they simplify your schedule, of course. But don't book too far in advance (Remember the abrupt departures of Southeast and Hooters Air?) and have back-up plans if the public charter disappears without notice.

Time to Bypass BA and Heathrow and Gatwick Airports
Last-minute talks have failed and the union representing British Airways' cabin crews has called a series of three strikes against BA in coming weeks. BA has responded with massive flight cancellations, especially on flights to London/Heathrow and London/Gatwick. The bottom line? Britain's leading airline and London's two largest airports will be chaotic--and largely out of business--for most of the next three weeks. The union has called the strikes for January 30-31, February 6-8 and February 12-14. BA has already cancelled about 1,300 flights in the days around the first strike period and has been reluctant to rebook passengers on BA flights on other days because it doesn't seem to know where its aircraft will be and when. (BA is posting schedule information on its Web page.) Want my advice? Skip BA for the next several weeks and avoid flying into either Heathrow or Gatwick on any carrier. What are the alternatives? Eos and Maxjet, the two all-business-class airlines, fly to London's Stansted airport. All-business-class Silverjet launched from Newark this week and it flies to London/Luton airport. Continental flies from its Newark hub to Bristol, about 100 miles and a two-hour train ride from London's Paddington Station. If you are headed to Northern England, use Manchester, where several U.S. carriers and bmi fly. (BA claims that its Kennedy-Manchester route will not be affected by the strikes.)

The International Terminal Shift Is On in Toronto
With surprisingly little disruption and less publicity, Terminal 2 at Toronto/Pearson Airport will close over the weekend and all of its international flights--including U.S. routes--will shift to Pier F of Terminal 1. The new facilities at Terminal 1 include 25 gates with covered passenger bridges and more than 50 new check-in desks. The 35-year-old Terminal 2 will be dismantled after good-bye ceremonies on Sunday afternoon (January 28) that are open to the public. Flight-starved Mississippi travelers get another option on September 5 when Continental Airlines launches daily regional-jet flights between Jackson and Newark US Helicopter, which last year revived helicopter service to New York/Kennedy and Newark, is adding another stop in Manhattan. The start-up carrier has been operating from the Downtown Heliport near Wall Street. Effective February 5, it will also offer flights from the East 34th Street Heliport in midtown Manhattan.

Are You Ready for the $2 British Pound?
Here's a scenario we knew was coming: The U.S. dollar has slipped to the $2 mark against the British pound. Although it hasn't quite reached that level on currency markets, travelers who need British pounds will end up paying at least $2 when fees are factored in. It's the worst dollar-to-pound exchange rate in about 15 years. Meanwhile, the dollar has sunk against the 13-country euro after a brief rally. Expect to pay at least $1.30 for each euro you need to buy this week. The Big Six airlines tried another fare increase over the weekend, this time $5 each way on most routes--but it collapsed when it wasn't matched across the board. Expect them to try again as early as this weekend.

What to Expect on the Road in February
We may get an idea of the future shape of the airline business in February thanks to an odd confluence of merger and regulatory factors. AirTran Airways says that its hostile tender offer for Midwest Airlines will expire on February 1. Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines goes before its bankruptcy court on February 7 to begin approvals for its standalone reorganization. The hostile US Airways bid for a merger is scheduled to end a few days earlier, on February 1. Of course, nothing bars either AirTran or US Airways from extending the validity period of their offers or sweetening the deals they've proposed. Finally, the Transportation Department (DOT) will most likely rule on the application of Virgin America to fly. The DOT tentatively rejected Virgin late last month, but it appealed the ruling and made some changes in its organizational structure. Marathon Airport in the Florida Keys gets its first commercial service in years when Delta launches commuter flights to Atlanta on February 15. And February is when the airlines really ramp up new and seasonal flights to sun destinations. AirTran, for instance, will launch flights from Chicago/Midway to Miami and West Palm Beach, Florida, beginning February 7. Northwest Airlines is adding flights between mid-February and April from its hubs (Detroit, Memphis and Minneapolis/St. Paul) to the Caribbean and Mexico. And Phoenix gets new service from Atlanta (on AirTran) and Delta (from New York/Kennedy). Both routes begin on February 15.

Business-Travel News You Need to Know
Bankrupt Northwest Airlines is buying its equally bankrupt commuter carrier, Mesaba Aviation. Clear registered-traveler lanes opened this week in San Jose and Cincinnati. Ready for this week's on-the-road oddities? A guest at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Minneapolis fell 16 stories from a hallway window and survived. Meanwhile, a United Airlines passenger on a flight from Boston to San Francisco faces federal charges after trying to open a cabin door in-flight and fighting with flight attendants. She was apparently intoxicated and agitated. And a family aboard an AirTran Airways flight from Orlando was removed before departure because the parents couldn't control their 3-year-old daughter or buckle her into her seat. Finally (and I mean that literally), a Continental Airlines pilot died in-flight after takeoff from Houston. The flight, which was headed to Mexico, was diverted to McAllen, Texas. The co-pilot handled the emergency landing.

Copyright 1993-2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.