By Joe Brancatelli

· Starwood Ups Benefits for Gold, Platinum Elites
· American Airlines Lost $900 Million in December
· Major Hotel Chains Flip Flags Around the World
· United Will Fly Nonstop From Dulles to Honolulu
· Spanair Shuts Down. Malev May Be Next to Go.
· Continental Adds Economy Plus to Europe B757s
· Half of All Flight Delays Are Blamed on New York

Starwood Ups the Benefits for Gold and Platinum Elites
Effective next month, Starwood's Preferred Guest program is dramatically enhancing benefits for its gold and platinum members. The biggest changes are at the platinum level, where travelers will be stratified by number of stays and receive additional benefits at each rung. Here's a snapshot of what's new:
    Gold members (10 stays or 25 nights) will receive a check-in amenity of bonus points (250 at full-service properties and 125 at Aloft, Element and Four Points hotels). They'll also get a choice of free internet for the length of their stay or a $15 or €15 beverage credit.
    All SPG Platinum members (25 stays or 50 nights) will receive a choice of daily continental breakfast for two or 500 bonus points at full-service hotels or 250 points at other properties. This is in addition to the current perks of room upgrades and free internet.
    Platinums who stay 50 nights a year will receive 10 space-available suite upgrades a year, confirmable five days in advance.
    Besides the 10 annual suite upgrades, Platinums who stay 75 nights a year will receive a 100 percent bonus on in-hotel spending (as opposed to 50 percent for other elites). They will also receive access to a new program called Your24. SPG is pitching this as 24-hour rooms, but since the benefit is not guaranteed, it's a space-available option. If available, travelers will be permitted to check in at any time of the day or night and check out 24 hours later.
    Besides the other benefits, Platinums who stay 100 nights a year will have access to a Designated Starwood Ambassador, a dedicated concierge program. If you're already at this level, you may have been part of a pilot program Starwood has been running to get the ambassadors up to speed.

American Lost $900 Million in December, Plans 13,000 Job Cuts
In its first disclosure since declaring bankruptcy, American Airlines reported a staggering $904 million net loss In December. Excepting special items, the loss was still $728 million. Then American dropped its other shoe: as many as 13,000 layoffs to help the carrier shave $3 billion a year in costs. Much of the cost savings and many of the layoffs will come in the maintenance area since the airline plans to move most repair work offshore and shut its in-house operations. American also wants to terminate its pension plans and cut back health benefits for current and former employees. The airline's attempt to cancel its pensions is being resisted by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp., which would be required to take over the plans. The carrier's labor unions are sure to resist the job cuts and the abandonment of their pensions.

Change Partners: Hotel Flag Flips Around the World
Time to get that hotel scorecard out because major chains are gaining and losing properties with dizzying speed. In North Houston, the former Crowne Plaza with the unwieldy designation Houston North-Greenpoint has been converted to a 335-room Hyatt. The hotel is near the intersection of the Sam Houston Tollway and Imperial Valley Drive. ... In New York, the old Wyndham Garden Inn near the Javits Convention Center has become a 224-room DoubleTree by Hilton. The DoubleTree flag has also been raised on a 125-room resort in Saltillo, Mexico, that has been operating as an independent hotel. ... The former Holiday Inn behind the Convention Center in Decatur, Georgia, has become a 179-room Courtyard by Marriott. ... The former Movenpick in Lubeck, Germany, has become a 197-room Park Inn, one of Carlson's brands. ... There are some newly built and freshly flagged properties this week, too. A 120-room Holiday Inn has opened in Manhattan's Korean business district near the Empire State Building. And a 270-room Crowne Plaza has opened in Semarang, Central Java, Indonesia.

United Will Fly Nonstop Between Dulles and Honolulu
This is better news for MileagePlus members searching for more award seats to Hawaii than business flyers looking for a new route, but United will launch nonstop flights between Washington/Dulles and Honolulu. Daily service using Boeing 767-400s begins on June 7. ... Clear, the revived security line-jump program, has finally signed a third airport. It has been chosen by San Francisco to operate at all three terminals. The service, which currently operates only at Denver and Orlando, hopes to be up and running in SFO within three months. ... Delta Air Lines has shifted into Terminal A of San Jose airport ... LAN, the Latin carrier, has moved into Terminal 8 of New York/Kennedy, the home of its Oneworld partner American Airlines. ... Speaking of New York airports, you can't really be surprised by this: A new report from the Government Accountability Office says half of the nation's air-travel delays are due to Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark, Philadelphia and Teterboro, the corporate-jet airport in New Jersey. The five airports handle 12 percent of the nation's flights.

Spanair Shuts Down. Malev of Hungary May Be Next.
The Spanish carrier Spanair shut down last weekend. Based in Catalonia, the airline had been a member of the Star Alliance, and, of course, the Star Alliance was virtually useless in protecting travelers stranded when the carrier hit the skids. Spanair folded because the government of Catalonia stopped investing in the airline and a bailout by Doha-based Qatar Airways collapsed. ... The next airline flying to the graveyard may be Malev, the government-owned Hungarian carrier that is part of Oneworld. Malev has been hemorrhaging cash and the Hungarian government appointed a receiver this week to oversee the carrier's operations. The airline admits that it is currently out of funds. Malev controls about 40 percent of the traffic at its hub in Budapest. February 3 update: Malev collapsed early this morning Budapest time. A few flights may still be operating, but Malev is now officially grounded and, apparently, out of business permanently.

Business-Travel News You Need to Know
United Airlines says that it has completed the installation of Economy Plus seating on Continental's fleet of 41 Boeing 757s used primarily on flights to Europe from the Newark hub. The aircraft now offer 16 seats in business, 45 in Economy Plus and 108 in coach. ... Alaska Airlines has switched to Starbucks coffee for its in-flight service. You have to wonder why it took so long. Both Alaska and Starbucks are headquartered in Seattle. ... Carnivores take note: Morton's, the steakhouse chain, abruptly closed at least seven locations this week. The shuttered restaurants are in Phoenix; Atlanta; Boston; Denver; Miami; Vienna, Virginia; and Brooklyn, New York. The chain was purchased this week by another restaurant firm. ... TripAdvisor has been barred by British regulators from using the term "reviews you can trust" from "real travellers." The regulators accepted the claim of several unhappy hotels that TripAdvisor could not prove that all of its reviews were genuine.

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 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.