The Tactical Traveler By Joe Brancatelli
The Briefing for January 15-January 29, 2015
The briefing in brief: United is suddenly nervous about MileagePlus elites. Delta swaps one problem for another with new JFK terminal addition. Marriott yields in the WiFi wars. Delta adds LAX-Shanghai route. The dollar climbs. Captain Picard is annoying. And more...

United Suddenly Seems Very Nervous About Losing MileagePlus Elite
Observers weren't exactly shocked when United Airlines did what it does--mindlessly mimic Delta Air Lines--and introduced minimum-spend requirements for elite status, bumped up the required spend for 2015 status and switched MileagePlus to a revenue-based earnings scheme. But moves in recent days indicate the boys in the United C-suite are having second thoughts, especially since many MileagePlus elites are fed up with the airline's crappy operations. For starters, United has quietly waived the minimum-spend requirement for some existing elite flyers. More than a few have told me that United re-upped their 2015 status even though they missed the published spending threshold. Meanwhile, Business Travel News reported this week that United is now much more liberal with status matches for employees of corporate customers. United has also taken the unprecedented step of publishing an appeals mechanism for flyers who believe they should have received 2015 Global Services status. That's especially odd since there are no published standards for attaining GS status in the first place. Finally, even though it now awards miles based on spending, United has matched a 2015 bonus scheme launched weeks ago by American Airlines. The promotion, which targets premium-class ticket buyers, doesn't even require registration. Why all the backtracking? "Let's just say we're not where we want to be," one United executive told me this week in a terse E-mail. Of course, since United considers elite customers "over-entitled," it's no wonder the airline is having trouble holding on to them.

Delta Swaps One Problem for Another With JFK Terminal Switch
Delta Air Lines this week opened an 11-gate, 75,000-square-foot expansion of its B Concourse at Terminal 4 at New York/Kennedy. And that is, on balance, exceedingly good news for Delta Connection flyers who have lived with the awful conditions at Terminal 2. The new T4 space boasts something that the T2 commuter facilities don't have: enclosed jet bridges. It'll mean much better access to Delta's international flights, which also use T4. But nothing is ever free with airlines (and especially Delta). The 11-gate addition means incredibly long walks since the new commuter facilities are tacked onto the already monstrously long layout of the B Concourse. So put on your track shoes since Concourse B at T4 now has Delta gates numbered from B18 to B54--and they proceed in a straight line. Delta, which already connects its T2 and T4 operations with a bus, has added a shuttle between B18 and B54, but it won't make any intermediary stops. ... Some changes at Pittsburgh. American Airlines has moved its operations next to US Airways in Concourse B. The merged carrier now has 14 gates at PIT. Also worth noting: The gas station at the airport exit has closed. Airport authorities say it will reopen in the spring after a renovation. In the meantime, use other alternatives for rental-car refueling. ... United Airlines outsourced baggage handling at its Denver hub and service promptly collapsed. So what are United's screw-the-customer experts planning next? Cutting 2,000 staff jobs and outsourcing ground services at as many as 28 other airports. That would include Atlanta, Miami and several other Florida airports as well as cities such as Hartford, San Jose, Raleigh-Durham and San Antonio.

Marriott Yields in the WiFi Wars--for Now
Marriott launched its free-WiFi-for-most policy today (January 15) and announced an added fillip: It won't try to block your MiFi devices despite recently requesting that authority from the Federal Communications Commission and being fined last year by the FCC for blocking personal WiFi devices. But Marriott has not yet withdrawn its FCC petition, so who knows what the future holds. Meanwhile, Marriott's new free WiFi policy has an important caveat: You must be a Marriott Rewards member and you must book through a Marriott-controlled channel. That has raised the ire of travel agents and travel-management companies that handle bookings for many corporate clients. But here's the interesting thing: Some folks inside Marriott admit that their WiFi and information-technology systems can't discriminate between booking channels. So if your reservations are handled by a third-party reservations system, try entering your Marriott Rewards number and see what happens. Let me know what you find. ... InterContinental has opened a 145-room Holiday Inn Express in Snowmass Village, Colorado ... Hilton has opened an 88-room Hampton Inn in Columbus, Mississippi. And its DoubleTree division has converted two more properties: a 120-room former Radisson in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a 189-room property in the Pittsburgh suburb of Cranberry that previously operated as a Four Points by Sheraton.

Delta Adding a Los Angeles-Shanghai Route in July
Delta Air Lines is fighting to hang on to its Seattle-Tokyo/Haneda route, but it's also expanding elsewhere across the Pacific. On July 9, it'll add a daily Los Angeles-Shanghai flight using a Boeing 777-200LR configured with 37 business-class beds, 36 premium-economy seats and 218 coach chairs. ... La Compagnie, the French start-up that launched Newark-Paris/CDG flights last year, is getting another Boeing 757 and another route. Effective March 29, it'll launch flights between Newark and London. Which London airport? Typical for this just-barely-all-business-class airline, they ain't saying. It won't be Heathrow. It'll probably be Gatwick, where they have arranged for gate space, but might be Luton or Stansted. Stay tuned. ... Two more Western-branded hotels for India. Marriott has opened a 274-room property on the Lulu Mall campus in Kochi, Kerala. And DoubleTree by Hilton has added a 104-room hotel in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.

Business-Travel News You Need to Know
The Department of Transportation today (January 15) socked Southwest Airlines with a $1.6 million fine for holding flights on the tarmac for more than three hours. The DOT fine was levied after Southwest experienced a breakdown of equipment (and, apparently, management) in a storm on January 2 last year at its Chicago/Midway hub. Sixteen flights were held hostage, so that works out to $100,000 an aircraft. ... JetBlue Airways is adding a route between its New York/JFK hub and Reno. Believe it or not, it will be the only nonstop between Reno and the East Coast. The daily flight launches May 28 using Airbus A320s. JetBlue also says it'll fly a daily nonstop between Portland, Oregon, and Anchorage from June 18 until September 8. ... Not that it matters now that it has become a less-competent version of Spirit Airlines, but Frontier Airlines is out of the American Express Membership Rewards program. All points transfers must be completed by March 4. ... The Swiss government dumped its policy of tying the value of the Swiss franc to the euro today (January 15). The franc's value immediately jumped about 30 percent from its former peg of 1.2 francs to the euro. Meanwhile, the U.S. dollar continues to climb against many other currencies as oil settles in well below $50 a barrel. The Canadian dollar is now worth only 84 U.S. cents and the euro has dropped to around US$1.16. That means the euro is below its launch price of US$1.17 for the first time in nine years. Meanwhile, the dollar has weakened to around 116 Japanese yen after trading as high as 120 yen earlier this week.

You'd Think Captain Picard Would Be Comfortable in the Middle Seat
If you recall your Star Trek: The Next Generation seat assignments, Captain Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, had the con: the middle chair on the bridge between first officer Commander Riker (portrayed by Jonathan Frakes) and ship's counselor Deanne Troi (played by Marina Sirtis). So it was with some trepidation that I watched Stewart play the most annoying passenger on a plane this week on Jimmy Kimmel Live. You'd have thought after 178 television episodes and four movies playing Picard that he'd be comfortable and polite almost anywhere on a plane except the middle seat.

This column is Copyright © 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. is Copyright © 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. 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.