The Tactical Traveler By Joe Brancatelli
Business Travel Briefing for March 23 to 30, 2017
The briefing in brief: Alaska Airlines will dump Virgin brand, add more premium seats. A new low-fare/high fee transatlantic airline is backed by British Airways and Iberia. Washington/National will replace hellish Gate 35X with a new concourse. Meet your shadow DOT Secretary.

Alaska Airlines Purges Virgin America Name, Adds First Class and Premium Economy Seats
Surprising almost no one who was following the money, Alaska Airlines said this week that it will phase out the Virgin America name in the next two years. Richard Branson, who created the Virgin brand, charges Virgin America a licensing fee of 70 basis points to use the name, a multimillion dollar annual fee that Alaska wasn't interested in continuing to pay. Along with stripping the name, Alaska will reconfigure Virgin's Airbus A320 aircraft to match Alaska Air's Boeing 737 fleet. The remake will add premium economy seats (18, up from the current 12) and expand the first class cabin to 12 seats, up from the current eight chairs. Legroom will contract, however, with premium economy shrinking to an industry-standard 35 inches from Virgin's 38 inches and first class going to an industry-leading 41 inches from Virgin's sybaritic 55 inches. Alaska's biggest challenge, however, will come on the transcontinental routes it inherited from Virgin. All of its transcon competitors have route-specific sub-fleets configured with lie-flat beds up front. "Lie-flat isn't a solution for this airline," insists Sangita Woerner, Alaska's vice president of marketing. "Two-thirds of our flyers in first are complimentary upgrades. Our best customers get the most upgrades and we wanted to make sure that they could continue to get them." Woerner admits lie-flat beds "are a fantastic experience," but stresses Alaska's first class seats "have quite a nice pitch." Woerner says Alaska "made a conscious decision to go this way [on transcons]. It's not an inferior product, but a different one, especially considering our fares and our upgrade policy." Aircraft conversions will begin late next year.

Ready for Another Low-Fare International Airline? BA and Iberia Hope So
International Airlines Group (IAG), parent company of British Airways, Aer Lingus and Iberia, has decided low-fare transatlantic carriers such as Norwegian have the right idea. So IAG is joining the fray and launching a stripped-down carrier of its own. Called Level, the airline will be based in Barcelona and begin flying on June 1. Initial routes from Barcelona include nonstops to Los Angeles, Oakland and Buenos Aires. Why hub in Barcelona? IAG owns still another carrier, Vueling and it, too, is based at Barcelona. That'll allow Level to promote onward connections throughout Europe on Vueling flights. Level's crews initially will come from Iberia and its new Airbus A330s will be configured with 21 premium economy seats and 293 coach chairs. Prices will start at $149 one-way with plenty of fees for virtually everything. The Level Web site is cleanly designed and, for the moment, free to surf.
      Garuda Indonesia will return to the U.S. market by the end of the year. There'll be three weekly flights on a Jakarta-Tokyo/Narita-Los Angeles routing. And to complicate things even further, Garuda will fly two types of Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. One will be configured with 26 business class and 367 coach seats. Another will offer eight first class, 38 business and 268 coach seats. Which probably explains why Garuda is a perennially stressed airline.
      Etihad will allow coach customers to buy their way into the carrier's lounges at Washington/National, New York/JFK and its Abu Dhabi hub. A four-hour visit will cost about US$50. More details are here. Etihad's move duplicates a decision made by Emirates to sell lounge access to the hoi polloi.

When Will Allen Talks, Washington/National Listens ...
Our man Will Allen lit into American Airlines and Washington/National airport last week for the atrocious conditions and lousy service at Gate 35X. As anyone who's ever been unlucky enough to use it knows, 35X isn't so much a gate as a hellish portal to 14 outdoor "hard stands" where American boards regional-jet flights. But when Will talks, Washington/National listens. The airport this week announced it will build a new concourse to replace 35X with 14 indoor regional-jet gates. The new concourse is part of a $1 billion upgrade program called Project Journey, which the airport promotes here. The Gate 35X project is due for completion in 2021. Of course, this isn't the first time Washington/National executives have promised to replace the Gate 35X nightmare. It cut a deal with US Airways in 1998 to build a nine-gate commuter concourse. That project never materialized because, well, US Airways was in a constant state of turmoil during the Steve Wolf years.
      Seattle/Tacoma flyers take note: Delta Air Lines starts three daily Airbus A319 roundtrips to Chicago/O'Hare on June 19.

Familiar Hotel Brands Are Popping Up Around the World
Major hotel chains continue to fill out their portfolios by bringing their brands to new places around the world. Starwood, for example, has opened a 160-room W Hotel on Vagator Beach in Goa, India. It has also opened a 188-room St. Regis in Changsha, capital of Hunan Province. The hotel is located in a skyscraper overlooking the city in Yunda Central Plaza. Meanwhile, Starwood's parent, Marriott, has opened a 244-room JW Marriott on Phu Quoc, Vietnam's largest island. It's located in the Gulf of Thailand, just off the coast of Cambodia. Hilton has been busy overseas, too. It has opened a 285-room resort on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea in Jordan. It will also slap its name on one of the best hotels on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. The 545-room Windsor Atlantica Hotel will transition to the Hilton brand, joining the existing Hilton in Rio's Barra da Tijuca district.

Business Travel News You Need to Know
American Airlines will join Delta and restore coach meals to some routes. Now the crap you didn't really want to eat decades ago will be back on American's A321T transcontinental routes between New York/Kennedy, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Meals return on May 1.
      Alaska Airlines flyers take note: Condor Airlines has joined Alaska's Mileage Plan. Condor offers low-priced, multi-class flights to Frankfurt and Munich.
      United Airlines says it will stop in-flight duty-free sales on March 31. Delta dropped duty-free in 2014 and American ended in-flight sales in 2015.

Say Hello to the Lobbyist Who's Your Shadow Transportation Secretary
The small cadre of insiders that runs the Trump Administration apparently feels its Cabinet officers can't be trusted to be sufficiently loyal. As many political publications have reported, Trump hasn't just appointed Cabinet secretaries, but he's also embedded what can only be called loyalty officers in each department. The White House spy in the Transportation Department? A failed local politician and lobbyist named Anthony Pugliese. His office is just steps from DOT Secretary Elaine Chao. Pugliese once worked for Tom Corbett when he was governor and attorney general of Pennsylvania.

This column is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. is Copyright © 2017 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.