A BRIEFING FOR MARCH 18 - 31, 2010
By Joe Brancatelli

· Free Food in Coach Is Dead. Does Anyone Care?
· FAA Slaps American With Two Big Safety Fines
· Virgin America Bails on Orange County Flights
· Oxnard, 55 Miles From LAX, Is Off the Route Map
· Lufthansa Opens Beer Garden at Munich Airport
· Do We Need an MSP-Gander-London Route?
· Westin Opens Hotel in Austin's Domain Complex

Free Food in Coach Is Dead. Does Anyone Care?
Continental Airlines announced this week that it will join other legacy carriers and drop free meals in coach. You didn't know Continental still offered meals in coach? It did, in meal-time windows that had become so miniscule that you can be forgiven for not knowing. By the fall, free grub in the back of the bus will be gone, except on those few Continental domestic flights that exceed six hours. Of course, if you remember when Continental claimed to be the best of the legacy carriers because it didn't nickel-and-dime you for stuff like blankets, meals, checked bags and seat assignments, well, too bad because the airline's new "pizza" strategy is all about charging you for everything. Which makes it just like, say, crappy carriers such as United and US Airways. Interesting you mention that. Continental is now partners in the Star Alliance with US Airways and United. On the other hand, can you really--I mean, honestly--give a damn about the swill that passed as free food in coach? Continental once served smart, good food in coach--I even wrote a column about it--but that was long ago and far away. Grab a sandwich at the airport before you fly or pack good snacks in your carry-on bag. Your digestion will thank you.

The FAA Slaps American With Two More Huge Maintenance Fines
It's hard to tell who's more embarrassed these days about how the federal government has overseen the maintenance regimens at American Airlines: The Federal Aviation Administration, which has been criticized for shoddy oversight of American, or American itself, which seems to be an endless trough of safety abuses. The FAA is clearly feeling the heat after last month's report from the Inspector General's office of the Department of Transportation. The IG was scathing in its indictment of the FAA's cavalier approach to American's shaky procedures. That may explain why the FAA has responded with two gigantic fines on American in the last seven days. On March 12, it fined American $787,500 for three lapses, ranging from a broken computer on an MD-82 used for 10 passenger flights to crucial bookkeeping and maintenance lapses on Boeing 757 and MD-80 aircraft. And today (March 18), the FAA added $300,000 more in penalties, this time because American deferred critical maintenance on an MD-82 that was flown five times for scheduled passenger services. This week's actions do not include a $2.5 million safety penalty levied last month on American Eagle, American's wholly owned commuter carrier. Nor do we know what fines the FAA is contemplating for the 2008 fiasco when American abruptly canceled more than 3,000 flights for emergency inspections and repairs on its fleet of MD-80s.

Virgin America Bails on Orange County, Adds Orlando, Eyes Toronto
The never-ending soap opera that is Virgin America took a few more twists this week. The airline, which has been pummeled by losses and ownership chaos since long before its 2007 launch, is overhauling its route network again. Out is John Wayne/Orange County Airport, which Virgin America will abandon on May 26. In is Orlando, which the carrier is adding on August 19. There will be one daily nonstop from both Los Angeles and San Francisco. And Virgin is also asking U.S. and Canadian authorities for the right to fly to Toronto. The airline claims it can start service there as early as June.

Oxnard Falls Off the Nation's Airline Route Map
Although United Airlines has yet to confirm it, officials at Oxnard Airport in California say the carrier is pulling its three daily turbo-prop flights from the airport. Oxnard officials say the flights to Los Angeles International, about 55 miles away, will end on June 8. That is Oxnard's last commercial service. Okay, how can you hate this? Lufthansa will open a beer garden in one of its business-class lounges at Munich. The garden, in a lounge in Terminal 2, will open on March 23 and is a cooperative effort with Franziskaner, a noted "weiss bier" brewer. Of course, there'll be pretzels and draught beers tapped from a barrel. This is Bavaria, after all American Eagle says it will operate seasonal flights from Dallas-Fort Worth to Myrtle Beach between April 6 and October 31. Eagle will use 44-seat regional jets on the route.

Business-Travel News You Need to Know
Westin has opened a 340-room hotel in Austin, Texas. It is located within The Domain, a purpose-built "neighborhood" that offers residential, office and retail space. Here's a route I bet you didn't know we needed: Minneapolis-Gander, Canada-London/Stansted. The flights were announced this week by Sun Country Airlines, which will use a Boeing 737-800--you heard me, a 737--on the route. That explains the Gander stop. A 737 can't make it nonstop between Minneapolis and London. In fact, who do you know who wants to fly a 737 across the Atlantic? Service will operate between June 11 and August 15. United Airlines says its now offers mobile boarding passes and check-in for travelers who log on to United's new Mobile Site. The service is available for domestic flights to and from a dozen airports.

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 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.