By Joe Brancatelli

· American Airlines, America's Least-Reliable Airline
· AirTran Adds Fees for Advance Seats, Exit Rows
· Marriott Has a Deal With SpongeBob SquarePants
· Small-Town Airports Take Another Big Service Hit
· Famous Hotels Get New Names and New Looks
· Arab Carriers Fly Where U.S. Airlines Fear to Go
· United Makes a Small Concession to Elite Flyers

America's Least-Reliable Airline? Surprise! It's American Airlines
This may come as a shock to its disgruntled flyers, but US Airways may not be the nation's least-reliable airline after all. That dubious distinction now belongs to American Airlines. Even though US Airways finished dead last in on-time performance in the Department of Transportation's Air Travel Consumer Report this week and was also mercilessly trashed in a survey of Consumer Reports readers, a broader look at the DOT statistics shows that American Airlines is actually running even more poorly. In April, the month covered by the DOT report, American's on-time performance was 14th among the 20 carriers listed. American Eagle, its wholly owned commuter carrier, finished 17th. American Eagle also cancelled a higher percentage of scheduled flights than any of the 20 carriers in the DOT report. American had the third-highest rate of cancellations. American Eagle was also worst in baggage-handling efficiency. Eagle's 13.01 reports of "mishandled bags" per 1,000 passengers was more than twice as high as the industry average. American itself finished 13th in baggage handling. This dreary performance may partially explain why American Airlines' top executives dumped about $19 million worth of shares within five days of receiving controversial stock bonuses in April.

You Can't Live in a Pineapple Under the Sea Forever
Marriott and the Nickelodeon television network say they'll open as many as 20 Nickelodeon-themed hotels and resorts in the next 10 years. That's no surprise. If you've made as much money as SpongeBob SquarePants has, a two-bedroom pineapple condo in Bikini Bottom gets a little confining after a while. Back above the sea, InterContinental Hotels says it will slap its brand on the 5-star Grand Hotel Duomo in Florence, Italy. The 157-room property will renovate before the InterContinental name is attached. Speaking of iconic properties, the Royalton in New York will close on Sunday (June 10) for a three-month renovation. Shangri-La has opened a 36-story, 594-room hotel in Chengdu, Sichuan, in China. Adam's Mark may have breathed its last as a hotel chain. The five remaining hotels have been sold to new owners and they are likely to rebrand the properties. Staybridge Suites now offers free wireless Internet access throughout its hotels. Guest accommodations already had free wired high-speed Net access.

Small-Town Airports Take Another Big Hit
Mesa, the commuter carrier for several Big Six carriers, continues to devastate its small-town flight network. Last week, the carrier quietly decided to dump flights to 16 smaller airports in the West. Now it's the East's turn. Mesa's Air Midwest subsidiary is dropping flights in five cities, including Athens, Georgia; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Hagerstown, Maryland. Most of the 21 cities Mesa is cutting from its route map are served under the federal Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes the flights. In many cases, Mesa won the subsidies after undercutting the bids of existing carriers that had successfully served the airports for many years. Speaking of cuts at small airports, Delta Air Lines is starting to bail on Trenton, New Jersey. Its commuter carrier recently launched flights to Trenton from both Boston and Atlanta. The Atlanta flights were dropped today (June 7), however. A cell-phone parking lot has opened at New York/Kennedy airport.

AirTran Adds Charges for Seat Assignments and Exit Rows
I warned you that la carte fees would be one of the big stories of 2007 and here's more evidence: AirTran Airways now charges a seat-assignment fee for discounted-coach fares and an add-on surcharge for a seat in the exit rows. Until recently, only higher priced Y and B fares on AirTran came with advance seat assignments. Travelers on discounted fares could choose a seat at check-in. Sometime in the last 30 days, however, AirTran quietly began offering discounted-coach flyers the opportunity to pay $5 for a seat assignment when they purchased their tickets. As for the new exit-row charge, AirTran traditionally held back exit-row seats until you checked in at the airport. Now travelers can snare an exit-row seat assignment at time of booking, but only if they pay a $15 fee.

Arab Carriers Fill the Gap Where U.S. Airlines Fear to Go
The Big Six airlines have made much of their shift of domestic capacity to international routes. But that retrenchment clearly has its limits. Only Delta Air Lines flies to any destination in Africa and, except for United Airlines' Washington/Dulles-Kuwait flights, no U.S. carrier flies its own equipment to the prosperous states along the Arab/Persian Gulf. So who's filling the gap? The flag carriers of those prosperous nations. The latest: Qatar Airways. It will launch four weekly flights on a Newark-Geneva-Doha route starting on June 28. Then, on July 19, it will launch daily nonstops from Dulles. Meanwhile, Dubai-based Emirates is adding two more North American routes this fall. The carrier already flies nonstop from New York/Kennedy to Dubai. Beginning October 29, it launches three weekly flights from Toronto. Then, on December 3, it launches three weekly flights from Houston/Intercontinental. A third Gulf airline, Etihad Airways, flies to Abu Dhabi from New York and Toronto. Air Jamaica begins three weekly flights from Fort Lauderdale to Barbados on June 24. Delta Air Lines bulks up in the Bahamas this month. Beginning June 16, it adds three weekly Atlanta-North Eleuthera flights and four weekly Atlanta-George Town, Exuma, flights.

Business-Travel News You Need to Know
American Airlines has joined the crowd and shortened the validity date for AAdvantage program miles. Joining the other major carriers, AAdvantage miles expire in 18 months if there is no account activity. Avis Rent a Car says it will now rent you a driver as well as a vehicle. In a deal with WeDriveU, a company that provides chauffeurs for private vehicles, Avis will offer rental cars and chauffeurs to drive them in 10 U.S. business-travel markets. Drivers will cost $30 an hour with a three-hour minimum. A 24-hour advance reservation is required. For more details, click here. Airports in Thailand have now imposed the carry-on potions-and-lotions rule adopted by most airports worldwide. As with elsewhere, your carry-on liquids must fit in a clear, one-quart, zippered bag and no item inside may exceed 3 ounces. United Airlines has partially backed off its decision to expire the 500-mile upgrade certifications issued to its elite Mileage Plus flyers. Travelers at the Global Services, 1K and Premier Executive levels may continue to convert the upgrades to miles if they register in advance. AirTran Airways raised many of its fares by $5 each way on Monday (June 4) and the Big Six matched wherever they compete.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.