The Tactical Traveler By Joe Brancatelli
Business-Travel Briefing for December 15-29, 2016
The briefing in brief: United's new coach squeeze on long-haul flights. Alaska Air and Virgin America link frequency plans. Hertz boots chief executive, but not because its service stinks. Drury Hotels expands east with Pittsburgh hotel. Qantas' nonstop Europe-Australia link. And more.

United's Part-Time Polaris and Full-Time War on Coach
If the indignity of United's new basic economy fare--no carry-ons, please--isn't enough for you, say hello to the Boeing 777-300ER, the airline's newest international aircraft. United will put 14 of them into service on long-haul routes next year and the news is very bad for coach flyers. You'll be squeezed 10 across in a 3x4x3 configuration. The seat pitch? Just 31 knee-crunching inches. That's even less than the 32 inches offered in United's uber-cramped 9-across coach cabin on Boeing 787s. Think you'll do better by moving up to Economy Plus? Only a little. The 777-300ER offers just 34 inches in Economy Plus, down from 35 inches on United's Dreamliners and the 36 inches United promoted on domestic flights when Economy Plus launched in 1999. Of course, you haven't heard too much about this because the mainstream media has been breathlessly regurgitating United's press release about the imminent arrival of the Polaris business class seats on the 777-300ERs. The first aircraft will be deployed starting February 16 on a Newark-San Francisco run. It'll then debut March 25 on the San Francisco-Hong Kong route. Meanwhile, United rolled out the Polaris "soft product"--meals, blankets, amenities and such--on December 1. One JoeSentMe member caught a Polaris run from Europe last week and reports that it is generally "a better experience." Drinks and desserts are served from carts and there's a "better" range of meals. Quality was iffy, however, with a "still partially frozen charcuterie plate." And, he noted, "not all of the flight attendants have been trained on" Polaris service regimens.

Alaska Mileage Plan and Virgin America Elevate Are Now (Almost) One Big Happy Family
Alaska Airlines officially closed on its purchase of Virgin America this week and it wasted no time trying to harmonize the carriers' frequent flyer plans. The two airlines will continue to operate separately for months to come, but the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan and Virgin America Elevate link starting Monday (December 19). You'll be able to earn Alaska Air miles on Virgin flights and vice versa. Elite members will also have their perks--priority check-in and boarding--honored on each carrier, too. Using Alaska Air miles for Virgin awards (and vice versa) begins on January 9. Virgin flyers will also be status-matched with an Alaska Air account next month. More details are here.
      American AAdvantage flyers take note: Barclays Bank is once again issuing AAdvantage credit cards. The "red" version of its Aviators card is available again and at least one new AAdvantage-themed card will arrive in the months ahead. More details are here. As you surely know, Citibank also issues AAdvantage cards because neither bank wants to pay American what it demands for credit card exclusivity.
      Asia travelers take note: Shangri-La and Taj Hotels will create a new joint frequent guest program. The so-called Warmer Welcomes plan is due in March.

Hertz Boots Its CEO, But Not Because Its Service Sucks
Hertz has been on a long, downward arc--both as an investment and as a rental company with which to deal--for at least a decade. And the intervention of Carl Icahn, the former greenmailer and TWA owner turned "activist investor," has only made matters worse. Fourteen months ago, Icahn forced out chief executive Mark Frissora, a rental-car know-nothing who deserved the ax. But his replacement, John Tague, was a former United Airlines executive who helped destroy United in the years before its merger with Continental Airlines. Now Tague is also out, in part because Hertz sucks as a rental firm, but mostly because its stock has lost half its value this year. That didn't make Icahn, who now owns 35 percent of Hertz, happy. Tague officially "retires" on January 2 and will be replaced by another rental-car know-nothing. Tague was so awful on the job that he's only getting a tin parachute: about $3.7 million in severance and no bonus for this year.
      Priority Pass has added three Air France lounges to its portfolio of airport clubs worldwide. Your card now gets you access to the Air France Lounge in Terminal 2 at Frankfurt; the Air France-KLM Lounge in Geneva and the Air France-KLM SkyLounge in the international terminal of Bangkok/Suvarnabhumi.
      Aberdeen has a new airport hotel. Marriott has opened a 200-room Moxy hotel just outside the airport grounds. But fair warning: There's no hotel shuttle to the terminal.
      Rio/ Galećo now has a Star Alliance lounge. The 6,000-square-foot club is located on level 3 of the international departures pier of Terminal 2. It's open 24 hours a day. It's available to first or business class flyers on United, TAP Air Portugal, Lufthansa, Avianca and COPA as well as Star Alliance Gold members.

Drury Hotels Heads East With a Hotel in Pittsburgh
If you're a bi-coastal elite, you may not know Drury Hotels, a 40-year-old, family-owned chain of mostly Midwestern properties that is consistently rated best for customer service. (Our self-admitted hotel snob, Michael Matthews, also raves about Drury.) But Drury continues its push toward both coasts and it now has reached Pennsylvania. The 207-room Drury Plaza Pittsburgh is located in the former Federal Reserve Bank building at the corner of Grant Street and Liberty Avenue. The hotel hired a former Pittsburgh-based Hyatt executive as general manager and Drury has redeveloped the former firing range as a swimming pool.
      Kimpton, now the boutique-y part of InterContinental Hotels, has lost two of its three properties in Alexandria, Virginia. The Hotel Monaco and the Morrison House are out. Kimpton last year lost many of its San Francisco properties. Speaking of notable properties out of major chains, Hyatt is gone as manager of the former Hyatt Regency Newport. The hotel on Goat Island reflags as an independent property next week. And the Sheraton Brussels closed this week after being forced into receivership. The owners said the property lost 25 percent of its business after Brussels was hit with terrorism attacks. The hotel also faced a huge bill for asbestos mitigation.
      Hilton has opened its first hotel in Hong Kong in more than 25 years. It's a 258-room Hilton Garden Inn on Soy Street in the Mong Kok district. Speaking of urban Asian newbies, Marriott has opened a 634-room JW Marriott in the Marina Bay district of Singapore.

Business Travel News You Need to Know
Qantas has announced the first-ever regularly scheduled nonstops between Australia and Europe. Effective in March, a Boeing 787-9 will operate between London and Perth, the city of two million in Western Australia. Qantas also says it will reconfigure its Perth airport facilities to accommodate onward transcontinental flights to Sydney, Australia's largest city. The London-Perth run is 9,000 miles and will take about 17 hours. It will be the third-longest nonstop in the world.
      American Airlines has been fined $1.6 million for flights delayed more than three hours on the tarmac. The U.S. Transportation Department action is in response to seven flights in 2015 held longer than the three-hour limit at Dallas/Fort Worth and Shreveport, Louisiana, and 20 US Airways flights at Charlotte in 2013. But the fine isn't all that it seems. The DOT will credit American with $600,000 for compensation paid to passengers and $300,000 spent on new equipment at Charlotte and DFW. That brings the actual fine down to $700,000.
      In-flight voice calls using WiFi may be allowed, according to a proposal from the Transportation Department. The DOT idea is to let individual airlines decide whether to allow the WiFi service. The Federal Aviation Administration already bans in-flight cellphone calls. But stay tuned. Voice calling continues to be controversial and you should assume nothing is final.

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.