The Tactical Traveler By Joe Brancatelli
The Briefing for January 22 to February 5, 2015
The briefing in brief: Amex tests using Membership Rewards points for American and United awards. More flights to China and Canada. A San Francisco hotel changes brands--again and again and again. The dollar keeps gaining. How you can be a TSA bureaucrat, too. And more...

Amex Tests Booking American, United Tickets With Membership Rewards Points
American Express is testing a wowser of a new program: allowing you to use Amex Membership Rewards points to book award seats on United or American. Neither carrier is part of Membership Rewards, of course, but the Amex test buys you an American or United seat for cash, then charges you in Membership Rewards points. Better yet, Amex is "points matching," equalizing the value of Amex points to American AAdvantage or United MileagePlus miles. In other words, you'll pay in Amex points only what AAdvantage or MileagePlus would charge if you claimed an award directly. The implication of the test, detailed here, is staggering. Amex is attempting to break the stranglehold of the bank-airline alliances that exclusively tie one airline to one bank. (United is partnered with Chase, American is aligned to Citi and Amex is currently Delta's partner.) If Amex buys seats for cash on the open market, neither Chase nor Citi could stop Amex from making American and United de facto partners of Membership Rewards. That would allow American Express to boast that you could use Membership Rewards points on any major U.S. carrier as well as its existing transfer partners. But before you shift spending back to Amex in advance of such a windfall, consider: The points-matching test is limited to invited cardholders and scheduled to end on June 30. Moreover, it may be too expensive to roll out widely. But stay tuned, fellow travelers, this could be a game changer if some version of points matching is eventually included as a permanent benefit of any Amex card.

A Whole Lot More Canada and China in Your Future
There's a new carrier on a transborder route between the United States and Canada. TAM, the Brazilian airline, is tagging a flight between New York/Kennedy and Toronto/Pearson onto the end of its Sao Paulo/Guarulhos-JFK nonstop. The "secret" JFK-YYZ flight using Boeing 767-300ERs launches five times a week on March 28. Separately, TAM is adding a daily flight between Brasilia and Orlando starting June 12. TAM is a Oneworld Alliance carrier. ... Speaking of transborder routes, WestJet is adding a daily flight between Calgary and Houston/Intercontinental on September 8. The Canadian discounter is also starting a brace of new routes from Halifax and returning to Gander after a decade-long absence. Meanwhile, Air Canada is adding new routes from Calgary this spring, including flights to Halifax as well as Terrace and Nanaimo, British Columbia. ... Hainan Airlines, the Chinese carrier, is adding two more U.S. routes. It has asked for authority to fly Boeing 787 Dreamliners five times a week between San Jose and Beijing and wants to add four weekly Airbus A330 flights between Seattle and Shanghai. Both routes are due to launch in the second quarter. Hainan already flies to Beijing from Seattle, Chicago and Boston. ... Speaking of China, American Airlines has gotten approval to begin its flights between Dallas/Fort Worth and Beijing. The route begins May 7 with Boeing 777-200s configured with business class, premium economy and coach.

There May Not Be Enough Velcro in All of San Francisco for This One
San Francisco has a new independent hotel. The 36-story, 676-room Park Central at 50 Third Street is close to the Moscone Center and a few steps from Yerba Buena Gardens. Sound vaguely familiar? It should. Until today (January 22), the hotel was called the Westin Market Street. But the 30-story building has been the very model of a modern "Velcro hotel" since it opened in 1984. It premiered as the Le Meridien, rebranded as the ANA Hotel and later rebranded as The Argent before becoming a Westin in the spring of 2007. ... New from Hyatt this week: a 159-room Hyatt Place in downtown Salt Lake City and a 284-room Hyatt Regency halfway between Istanbul airport and the old city. ... Marriott has opened a 93-room Residence Inn in Harlingen, Texas. Its AC Hotels brand has also converted the 812-room former Bella Sky in Orestad near Copenhagen Airport. ... Starwood has opened a 148-room Sheraton in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. ... DoubleTree by Hilton continues slapping its name on almost anything that claims to be a lodging. At Jacksonville airport in Florida, the 201-room hotel, once known as a Clarion and recently trading as an independent, is now flying the Doubletree flag. The chain also has reflagged the former URH Hotel in Girona, Spain. That 115-room property is near the city's major convention facility.

Here's Your Chance to Be an Annoying TSA Bureaucrat
As you surely know, the Transportation Security Administration is a mess: Travelers hate it (for reasons both fair and unfair), the most recent arrogant boss fled for a tiny university in Indiana, the agency is a reactive and bureaucratic cesspool and it has sabotaged PreCheck so completely that flyers don't want to pay in. So will the TSA heal itself? Of course not. Its solution is to try to paper over its failings by hiring a marketing specialist. If you're looking for a gig, the job pays as much as $115,000 a year and the TSA will pay to relocate you to Arlington, Virginia. ... A Federal Aviation Administration employee was arrested last week while trying to fly with a handgun in his carry-on bag on a flight from Atlanta to New York. The arrest comes about a month after a gun-running scandal on flights between Atlanta and New York.

Business-Travel News You Need to Know
Virgin Atlantic flyers and Citibank credit cardholders take note. Citi ThankYou points are now transferable to Virgin's Flying Club program. That makes Virgin the second carrier after Singapore Airlines to accept transfers from Citi, Amex Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards. ... Star Alliance flyers and United MileagePlus members take note: Effective May 6, All Nippon Airways is switching to a Boeing 777-300ER on its Seattle-Tokyo/Narita run. That means there'll be a first-class cabin and a new award opportunity using MileagePlus. As previously announced, ANA is launching Houston/Intercontinental-Narita flights on June 12. Those flights will also be operated with Boeing 777-300ERs. ... The dollar continues to gain against other major currencies. As of Thursday afternoon (January 22), the euro had fallen to around US$1.13, the British pound was down to $1.50 and the greenback had risen to $1.24 Canadian dollars, 61 Indian rupees and $1.25 Australian dollars. That's the highest the dollar has been against the euro in 11 years.

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.