The Tactical Traveler By Joe Brancatelli
Business-Travel Briefing for January 7-21, 2016
The briefing in brief: Let's all hope United's ailing chief executive gets better treatment than United provides. Be prepared for the de facto end of first class upgrades at Delta SkyMiles. WestJet now plans year-round London flights. Air France revives New York-Paris/Orly run. And more.

Let's Hope United's Ailing CEO Gets Better Treatment Than United Provides
It's hard not to note the irony of this week's news from chronically heartless and rudderless United Airlines. Just as the flailing carrier was announcing that its ailing chief executive, Oscar Munoz, had undergone a heart transplant, the Department of Transportation fined United $2 million for mistreating its passengers with disabilities. As you recall, the 57-year-old Munoz was only on the job a few weeks last fall when he suffered a heart attack. United originally insisted he would return during the first quarter. But despite United's cheery new pronouncement, Munoz's transplant on Wednesday (January 6) indicates a longer recovery. The standard recuperation period is six months to a year, according to published information, although some hospitals with transplant expertise say you can return to work "two to three months after the surgery." With Munoz out of action, the airline has been limping along with Brett Hart, the carrier's general counsel, acting as interim chief executive. Worse, it's hard to know whether Munoz has any concrete plans to revive United since he was hastily hired after last year's ouster of Jeff Smisek. When he got the gig, Munoz admitted he needed to fly around the United system and learn about the carrier's woes. As for the DOT action this week, the agency said disability-related complaints against United recently mounted "significant[ly]." DOT investigators subsequently found the airline was not helping disabled passengers on or off planes and was slow to return wheelchairs and other assistance devices. At the same time, the DOT also fined United $750,000 for five tarmac holds longer than the federally mandated three-hour maximum.

The Next SkyMiles Devaluation? The De Facto End of First-Class Upgrades
Delta Air Lines is so proud of its sell-what-we-promises-elite-for-free strategy that it's boldly going where no airline has gone before: the de facto end of complimentary first class upgrades. In a presentation to analysts just before Christmas, top Delta executives outlined what can only be the death warrant for most elite-status SkyMiles upgrades. By 2018, for example, it hopes to push paid first class load factor to about 70 percent, up from 57 percent in 2015 and 45 percent in 2013. During the same period, it only expects to add about 10 percent more seats at the front of the plane. What's the future for Delta elites hoping to escape the back of the bus? If you don't want to buy a full-fare first class seat or pony up for an upgrade, settling for an "upgrade" to Comfort+, Delta's somewhat better than coach service. Delta began treating Comfort+ as a separate cabin late last year. But at least Delta plans a major expansion--on the order of 30 percent--in the number of Comfort+ seats by 2018. Even there, though, it's hoping to sell 50 percent of Comfort+ seats, up from 34 percent in 2013. Bottom line: If you want comfortable seats on Delta, the airline wants you to pay for them. It doesn't think your elite status entitles you to upgrades anymore.

WestJet Now Plans Year-Round Service to London/Gatwick
Just three months after announcing a massive seasonal expansion of flights to London/Gatwick airport, WestJet is upping the ante. Flights from Toronto/Pearson and Calgary launch May 6 and will operate year-round with Boeing 767-300 aircraft. There'll be daily service from Pearson and three weekly flights from Calgary. Flights from Edmonton, Winnipeg, Vancouver and St. John's will continue to be seasonal, operating from May to October.
      Austin will get two nonstops from American Airlines' Philadelphia hub in April. American will operate the flights with EMB-190s.
      LOT Polish flyers take note: The airline this week shifted its flights to Terminal 7 (the British Airways terminal) at New York/Kennedy from its previous location in Terminal 1.
      Priority Pass has two more lounges. In Miami, the Avianca VIP Lounge in Concourse 3 South now accepts cardholders. And at Shanghai/Pudong, the No. 77 VIP Lounge in International Terminal 2 is now part of the program.

A Small Boost for Embassy Suites, Hilton's Laggard Brand
Embassy Suites was one of the stars of Promus, the lodging company that merged with Hilton in 1999. But the intervening years haven't been kind to Embassy. Hilton hasn't known how to market or expand the all-suite chain and has even tired to convince hotel builders that Embassy Suites hotels could be built with "one-room suites." (That, in case you miss the obvious, is essentially a traditional hotel room.) But at least Hilton can claim 2016 will start well for Embassy Suites with two new domestic outlets. A 200-room property opened in Olathe, Kansas, and a 205-room hotel opened in The Woodlands development in Houston.
      Marriott opened a 99-room TownePlace Suites in Columbia, South Carolina; a 70-room Fairfield Inn in Pasadena, Texas; and converted the former W Hotel in San Diego into a 258-room Renaissance Hotel.
      Starwood has added three international hotels to its roster: a 234-room St. Regis in Dubai; a 308-room Four Points in Magong City on Penghu Island off the coast of Taiwan; and The Heritage, a 90-room hotel that is a repurposing of the 1920s era Dutch Telecommunications building in Jakarta, Indonesia. The Heritage joined the chain's Tribune Portfolio soft brand.

Business Travel News You Need to Know
Air France must be feeling the heat from Norwegian and British Airways subsidiary OpenSkies, both of which fly from New York to Orly, Paris' close-in airport. Effective June 6, the French carrier is moving one of its New York/Kennedy flights to Orly from its Paris/CDG hub. A daily Boeing 777-200 with 309 seats, configured with coach, premium economy and business class, will ply the route. It's the first time Air France has flown JFK-Orly in about 40 years and it last flew a Newark-Orly route in the late 1990s.
      The TSA says it may now require certain travelers to use full-body scanners rather than opting out for a pat-down instead. The TSA has justified the controversial scanners by saying they were optional. But in a new policy quietly released just days before Christmas, the agency says "security considerations" justify "mandatory [full-body scanners] for some passengers." The TSA's move raises legal questions because the agency previously has told more than one court that the scanners are legal because passengers were not required to use them. At least one case already has been filed attempting to stop the TSA's new policy. Ironically, several independent studies have shown that the full-body scanners are nearly useless.
      United Airlines is now bundling its Economy Plus seating with other optional products such as checked bags and bonus miles. You can read about the new sales pitches here. Most of the bundled extras are useless to frequent flyers because they already receive the additional services free via their United credit card or MileagePlus elite status. And, astonishingly, United explains in its FAQs that it may not actually provide the bundled perks for which you've paid.

This column is Copyright © 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. is Copyright © 2016 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.