By Joe Brancatelli

· Continental Creates a Super-Duper Elite Level
· Virgin Atlantic Slashes the Upstairs Snooze Zone
· Westin, Hilton and Marriott Open New India Hotels
· A 5-Room Microhotel Debuts at Atlanta Hartsfield
· US Airways Adds Service From Charlotte to Rome
· Air Canada Adds Labrador and Nunavut Airports
· Do You Really Care About an Old TSA Manual?

Continental Drops the Other Star Shoe: Super-Duper Elite Level
Continental Airlines joined the Star Alliance late in October and is quietly taking over from United Airlines as the group's primary American partner. Continental, not United, now sets the pricing from the United States on all of the Star Alliance's international carriers. Continental is handling the creation of new back-of-the-house information technology system that will be used by United. And now Continental has even aligned its elite levels with United by creating a new top level. This week it announced OnePass Presidential Platinum Elite, its version of United Mileage Plus 1K status. To merit an invite to PPE, you'll have to be a Platinum Elite member (in other words, fly 75,000 miles annually or accrue 90 qualifying points) and also spend at least $30,000 annually on Continental. What do you get at the new level? Priority for upgrades (six days before departure); a special telephone line; and waiver of the fee for Chase's Continental Presidential Plus MasterCard, which includes free access to Continental's Presidents Club lounges. PPE members who fly 100,000 miles or reach 120 qualifying points also receive four one-way systemwide upgrades. And those upgrades are sweet: They are good for domestic first-class or international BusinessFirst and are valid regardless of trip length or number of segments involved. The earnings clock for Presidential Platinum Elite qualification starts on January 1, 2010. Invitations to qualifying members will go out as early as mid-year 2010. You can get more details here.

No Sleep for You: Virgin Atlantic Slashes the Snooze Zone
I've never exactly understood what otherwise savvy frequent flyers saw in Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class business-class cabins. While comfortable, Virgin's business-class seats require cushions to be flipped and assembly to turn into beds. That makes it cumbersome to switch between seat and bed during a flight. The downstairs business-class cabins on the carrier's workhorse Boeing 747s have the execrable "stand-up bar," which is usually monopolized by loud, sometimes-tipsy flyers who made it impossible to work or sleep in the surrounding seats. Upstairs, the so-called Snooze Zone was almost always sold out, especially on the eastbound night flights to London. Well, now, believe it or not, it's getting worse. Virgin is pulling 10 business-class seats from its upper deck and replacing them with 33 coach seats. That should make it really quiet in the Snooze Zone--and force the displaced business-class flyers back downstairs with the lager louts. You can see the new upper deck Upper Class configuration here. … Mexicana has two new transborder routes: Chicago/O'Hare-Puerto Vallarta and Washington/Dulles-Mexico City. The carrier will use Airbus A319s and A320s on the routes.

The World Is Overbuilt With Hotels. India? Not So Much…
Your humble scribe penned a piece for Portfolio.com today about this week's financial carnage in the hotel industry. But one country that isn't overbuilt with quality hotels is India. And this week there was a burst of new properties with familiar U.S. names on the Subcontinent. Welcome the following: the 277-room Westin in Koregaon Park in Pune; the 114-room Hilton Garden Inn in the Saket district of New Delhi; the 164-room Courtyard by Marriott in Hyderabad; and the 199-room Courtyard in Gurgaon, a commercial district not far from New Delhi Airport.

Let's Get Small. A Microhotel Debuts at Atlanta Hartsfield.
Travelers who use big international hubs overseas might be familiar with the stripped-down, not-quite-a-hotel concept called the microhotel. Airport chains like Yotel, in fact, have their own little cult. But until the debut of Minute Suites this month at Atlanta Hartsfield, the concept was largely unknown in the United States. Located in Concourse B, the Minute Suites offers five private cubicles, each measuring 7 feet by 8 feet. Each "suite" is equipped with a daybed; blanket and pillow; 32-inch flat-screen TV with DirecTV service; desk; alarm clock; and high-speed Internet access. Minute Suites charges $30 for the first hour and $7.50 for each additional 15 minutes. … Air Canada is adding two airports to its network: Happy Valley-Goose Bay in Labrador and Iqaluit in Nunavut. Flights between St. John's and Happy Valley begin May 1. A route from Iqaluit to Montreal and Ottawa launches March 28. Both routes will operate with regional jets. … LA/Ontario Airport closes Parking Lot 3 effective on January 11. The reason? Not enough traffic at the lightly used facility in California's so-called Inland Empire. … The last link in the light rail service between downtown Seattle and Seattle-Tacoma airport is due to open on December 19. The 14-mile line opened in July, but currently ends at the Tukwila Station. Travelers then switch to a shuttle bus to SeaTac. When the final 1.7 miles of the route open next week, the light-rail system will reach the airport's parking garage, which is connected to SeaTac's main terminal by a passenger flyover.

Business-Travel News You Need to Know
A 392-room Mandarin Oriental is open in the new CityCenter development in Las Vegas. … Star Alliance travelers take note: Continental Airlines launches daily Boeing 737 flights to Honolulu from John Wayne/Orange County on March 7. And on May 13, US Airways will add daily Boeing 767 flights between its Charlotte hub and Rome. … AirTran Airways now sells seatback advertising on its fleet of 138 Boeing jets. … The IRS says the 2010 standard rate for car-travel reimbursement is 50 cents a mile. It was 55 cents in 2009. … Even when United Airlines does something good, you can smell the decay and decline. The carrier placed its first aircraft offer in 11 years--it will buy 25 Airbus A350s and 25 Boeing 787 Dreamliners--but the planes won't even begin to arrive until 2016. Moreover, the new aircraft will replace larger Boeing 747s and 767s in United's fleet, further shrinking the airline's total seat capacity.

Do You Really Care About an 18-Month-Old TSA Manual?
The nation is outraged because the Transportation Security Administration inadvertently posted one of its training manuals on the Internet. But I can't figure out why. We already knew the TSA was a bumptious and ineffective bureaucracy. And who really cares about an 18-month-old manual that the agency claims was never implemented? Besides, it doesn't seem that all the panting media types poring over the nearly 100-page document have turned up a single relevant TSA "secret." If you want to look for yourself, surf here.

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 © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.