The Tactical Traveler By Joe Brancatelli
Business-Travel Briefing for December 1-14, 2016
The briefing in brief: Trump drains the swamp into the Department of Transportation. United opens new airport lounges in Los Angeles and Chicago. El Al hit by surprise strikes. United dumps German routes on short notice. Phony Marriott brand chart wows the media. And more.

Donald Trump Drains the Swamp Into the Department of Transportation
Incoming presidents rarely appoint the best or brightest to the post of Secretary of Transportation. In fact, the DOT has been where recent presidents dumped a member of the opposing party, the better to burnish his bipartisan credentials. President Obama's first DOT secretary was Ray LaHood, a Republican Congressman from Illinois. And Norm Mineta, a Congressman from California, was the only Democrat in George W. Bush's cabinet. So it isn't shocking that President-elect Donald Trump made a symbolic move with his DOT appointment. But Elaine Chao? She's exactly the kind of Washington swamp dweller that Trump promised he'd clear out. A former Secretary of Labor in the aforementioned Bush Administration, she's also a former DOT official under President George H.W. Bush. She's been implicated in political fund-raising scandals. And, oh, yeah, she's the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump's promise to keep fat cats out of government? Not so much with Chao. She's a former executive of both Citibank and Bank of America and now sits on the board of scandal-ridden Wells Fargo. She perched on the board of Northwest Airlines, too. Also worth noting: During her tenure as Labor Secretary, she eliminated the jobs of more than 100 mine inspectors--and there were two mine disasters that claimed the life of 15 people. Government investigations later partially blamed lax inspection regimens.

United Rolls Out New Lounges at Los Angeles and O'Hare
United Airlines this week debuted the soft service (in other words, non-seat) elements of its new Polaris business class and timed two new lounge openings to milestone. In Los Angeles, a 20,000-square-foot United Club in Terminal 7 near Gate 71A has a gourmet kitchen and an outdoor terrace. The facility opened Monday (November 28), a week ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, at Chicago/O'Hare, United worked on the first Polaris business class lounge until just minutes before its opening yesterday (November 30). Lewis Lazare of the Chicago Business Journals has photos and early impressions. That lounge is only for United and Star Alliance business class passengers, of course.
      Delta Sky Club membership fees rise again next year. Basic membership is jumping to $495 annually from $450. "Executive membership," which allows club members to bring guests without an additional fee, rises to $745 from this year's $695. On the other hand, Delta is lowering the price of membership if you pay with Sky Miles. Next year, it'll cost 47,000 miles, down from 70,000 miles this year. Executive membership will cost 70,000 miles next year, down from 110,000 miles.
      Beijing Capital Airport has a new SkyTeam lounge. The 8,000-square-foot club is available to SkyTeam first and business class customers and Elite Plus flyers.

Airlines Continue to Juggle Routes Across the Atlantic
U.S. and European carriers are grappling with any number of issues--terrorism fears that scare some U.S. flyers, a strong dollar that makes travel to the United States expensive for Europeans and far too many coach seats. So it shouldn't surprise you that the airlines are swapping out routes with abandon. Without notice, for example, United Airlines has temporarily cancelled two routes between January and early May. If you're booked on Newark-Hamburg or Houston/Intercontinental-Munich during that time, contact United for alternate travel arrangements. But some carriers continue to bulk up. LOT Polish, for instance is launching a weekly nonstop between Chicago/O'Hare and Krakow. The run starts next July, the first time in six years LOT has flown nonstop between the two cities. Meanwhile, Aer Lingus will add Miami-Dublin nonstops beginning September 1. The three weekly flights will be served with Airbus A330-200s configured with business and coach classes.
      El Al flyers take note: A nasty battle between the carrier's management and pilots is causing a clutch of last-minute cancellations. Pilots often call in and say they are unavailable just hours before scheduled departures. The most recent casualty? A Tel Aviv-Boston flight last weekend. If you're flying El Al in the days and weeks ahead, be prepared for the potential of a disruption. Or, of course, book a different carrier.
      Lufthansa pilots struck for six days last week and earlier this week. Nearly 4,500 flights were cancelled and more than 500,000 travelers were affected. It's at least the 14th pilot strike at Lufthansa during the last three years.

Marriott Phonies Up a Brand Chart and the Media Goes Gaga
After Marriott gobbled up Starwood earlier this year, it ended up with more than 5,000 properties spread out across 30 brand names. Logic would dictate Marriott eliminate many of the brands to streamline the portfolio and rationalize its value proposition to customers. But money dictates otherwise. The more brands Marriott has, the more properties it can inject into a market without causing geographic conflicts with franchisees. And the more properties it has, the more fee revenue it can collect from those franchises. There's literally no other reason to keep 30 brands, many of them indistinguishable from each other. (Lots of luck discerning the difference between a Renaissance and a Le Meridien, for example, or a Ritz-Carlton and a St. Regis.) But Marriott doesn't like being seen as the fee-grabbing operation that it is. So it invented a meaningless chart that claims to explain the brands by dividing them into "distinctive" or "classic" operations. And guess what? Some media outlets actually make believe the chart makes sense. Bloomberg claims to be "skeptical," but quotes a Marriott executive at length babbling about a "perfect marriage." And Skift, which never heard buzz words it wasn't dazzled by, thinks terminology like "distinctive select" makes sense in the real world of lodging.

Business Travel News You Need to Know
The Transportation Department said last month that it was opposed to a broader alliance between American Airlines and Qantas. The DOT's theory? The carriers, partners in Oneworld, already control 60 percent of the seats between the United States and Australia. Faced with DOT opposition, American and Qantas this week withdrew the application. Chances are they'll reapply next year, when the theory is that the Trump Administration will be more friendly to joint ventures.
      Amtrak reported record sales and passenger numbers for fiscal 2016. During the year, which ended September 30, Amtrak says it recorded revenue of $2.14 billion and carried 31.3 million passengers, 400,000 more than in fiscal 2015. The railroad said it covered 94 percent of its operating costs from ticket sales and other revenue in 2016, up from 92 percent in 2015.
      Delta Air Lines says the SkyMiles program now allows redemptions for premium economy seats on Virgin Atlantic, a carrier 49 percent owned by Delta. A premium economy seat between the United States and London will cost a pricey 110,000 miles roundtrip.
      London travelers take note: A combined Underground and railroad strike next week will snarl traffic around the British capital. Two tube lines--Piccadilly and Hammersmith & City--will be struck at the same time workers initiate a three-day work stoppage on the Southern Railway. The strikes begin Tuesday, December 6. If you're planning to be in London next week, make sure to check developments at the Transport for London site.

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.