The Tactical Traveler By Joe Brancatelli
Business Travel Briefing for April 19-May 3, 2018
The briefing in brief: Alaska Air will switch Virgin America flights to new computers next week. LAX finally gets its Amex Centurion Lounge. Delta will expand winter flying to Europe. Air Canada upgrades business class on some long-haul U.S. and Canada flights. And much more.

Heads Up: Alaska Airlines Switches Virgin America to Alaska's Systems Next Week
Alaska Airlines faces its biggest challenge next week when it moves Virgin America's flights over to Alaska Airlines' passenger service system (PSS). The computer cutover is planned for Tuesday night (April 24) into Wednesday (April 25). After the disasters that were the 2007 America West-US Airways and 2012 United-Continental cutovers, Alaska Air went to school the mostly successful American Airlines-US Airways conversion in 2015. Mostly, it adopted the so-called "drain down" method American employed. That means most everything already has been done, including the fact that Virgin America tickets for April 25 and beyond have been created on Alaska Airlines' system. To increase the chance of a pain-free conversion, however, only two of 18 normally scheduled red-eye flights will operate overnight and schedules at Virgin's Los Angeles and San Francisco hubs have been reduced by 20 percent on April 25 and 26. "We've spent 18 months turning over rocks looking for trouble," says Sandy Stelling, the airline's managing director of process engineering. The most interesting facet of the conversion? It's happening midweek, a busier period than weekends, when airlines usually attempt a PSS cutover. "We think it's an advantage to have our Monday-to-Friday day shifts" on duty, explains Alaska Airlines' chief information officer Charu Jain. Besides, "business flyers are our most experienced travelers. They're a lot more savvy" and flexible if the airline runs into trouble, she adds.

Los Angeles Will Finally Get Its Amex Centurion Lounge
Los Angeles said almost three years ago that American Express would build a Centurion Lounge at the airport. Now Amex finally has its lease. But the 10-year LAX agreement won't come cheap. The 13,700-square-foot lounge in the Tom Bradley International Terminal will cost $2.8 million in rent in the first year; the 10-year term will run to an estimated $34 million. Amex expects to spend $5.5 million to build the lounge, which works out to about $400 a square foot.
      Milan/Malpensa gets more North American service this winter. Air Canada says it will extend its Toronto flights to year-round operations for the first time in more than three years. And Air Italy, the renamed Meridiana, says it will fly year-round to Malpensa from New York/Kennedy. The route launches as a daily service on June 1, but will operate four times a week beginning October 28.

A Dreadfully Sad Week on the Road
The death of a passenger on Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 on Tuesday (April 17) cast a pall on this week on the road. It's the first death on a U.S. passenger flight in nine years, since the 2009 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 outside Buffalo. At this point, I can only contribute some facts:
   Airlines are rushing to inspect their CFM56 engines, the power plant involved in Tuesday's incident. European officials last year demanded the engines be inspected more regularly, but the FAA had delayed a similar order, formulated after an eerily similar incident on a 2016 Southwest Airlines flight. U.S. carriers opposed stricter inspections, complaining that more detailed and more frequent oversight would be too costly.
   The NTSB says Tuesday's engine failure was caused by a fan blade that separated from the engine and showed signs of metal fatigue. The aircraft was traveling at about 32,000 feet and was 20 minutes out of New York/LaGuardia en route to Dallas/Love Field. It completed an emergency landing at Philadelphia.
   The Boeing 737-700 involved in the incident went into service in July, 2000. It was last inspected on April 15. The CFM56-7 engine that failed had 40,000 cycles (takeoffs and landings) and 10,000 cycles since its last overhaul.
   Medical examiners say the deceased passenger, 43-year-old Jennifer Riordan, died of blunt impact trauma to her head, neck and torso. After shrapnel from the engine or nacelle pierced the window at Row 14, Riordan was partially sucked out of the aircraft. Passengers dragged her back into the plane, already unconscious and seriously injured.
   The conversation between pilot Tammie Jo Shults and air traffic controllers is available here.
   The aircraft that departed LaGuardia immediately after Southwest Flight 1380 also encountered difficulty. Delta Air Lines Flight 5507, a CRJ-700 bound for Richmond, Virginia, diverted to Washington/Dulles after losing a wheel during takeoff. Also on Tuesday, a United Airlines 737 from Newark to West Palm Beach made an emergency landing at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. And on Wednesday, a Southwest Airlines flight from Nashville to Phoenix had a bird strike and was forced to return to Nashville.

Delta Will Fly More International Routes This Winter
Transatlantic flights will be up about 6 percent this summer from last year, according to one analysis of schedules. The biggest player this summer will be Delta Air Lines, controlling about 8.6 percent of the seats between the United States and Europe. But that apparently isn't enough and Delta will add additional routes this winter, too. One Delta run, New York/Kennedy to Lisbon, will now operate year round after two years as seasonal summer service. Ditto for Delta's Indianapolis-Paris route, scheduled to launch on May 24. It was due to run only in the summer, but Delta says it'll operate three or four times weekly through the winter months. From Los Angeles, Delta will continue flying to both Paris/CDG and Amsterdam through the winter. Those destinations, of course, are hubs for Air France/KLM, Delta's partners in the SkyTeam Alliance. But Delta will subtract, too, chopping its Newark-Paris service after October 27.
      JetBlue Airways is launching flights between its Fort Lauderdale hub and Grand Cayman. The daily service launches October 25 using 100-seat EMB-190 aircraft.
      Norwegian Air continues to juggle its all-coach, narrow-body flights from destinations in the Northeast. At least four routes will end in the fall. The Newburgh-Belfast run ends October 28. So do three routes from Providence: Shannon and Cork in Ireland and Edinburgh, Scotland.
      Volaris, a Mexican low-cost carrier, is dropping its San Antonio-Mexico City route and reducing flights between Los Angeles and Mexico City.

Hotel Changes From Rome, Italy, to Rome, Georgia
Get out that lodging scorecard because there are notable changes around the world. In Rome, the 82-room Palazzo Montemartini has joined Radisson Collection, the chain's soft brand of independent properties. The hotel is just a few steps from Rome's Termini train station. Meanwhile, a 124-room Courtyard by Marriott has opened on West 3rd Street in Rome, Georgia. And, no, the two hotels have any other connection than, you know, Rome.
      Hilton has opened two new Home2 Suites properties: a 97-room branch in DeSoto, Texas, and a 120-room outpost at 7740 Las Vegas Boulevard South in Las Vegas.
      Hyatt has opened a 134-room Hyatt Place in the Bricktown historic district of Oklahoma City.
      Ritz-Carlton has lost one of its New York City hotels. The branch in Battery Park has rebranded as an independent property called The Wagner and joined the Leading Hotels of the World.

Business Travel News You Need to Know
Air Canada is upgrading premium class service on three North American red-eye flights with lie-flat beds and mattress pads, improved dining and better wines and coffees. The so-called Signature Service begins June 1 on Flight 126 between Vancouver and Toronto; Flight 788 between Los Angeles and Toronto; and Flight 754 between San Francisco and Toronto. Some Signature Service perks will also be available on other long routes between the United States and Canada. Full details are here.
      American Airlines flyers take note: The carrier has increased the price of its Five Star Service, a private assistance operation at 16 airports. The price per flight is $350, up from $250.
      Credit card rules are changing. American Express, Visa, Mastercard and Discover no longer require merchants to collect a signature for any transaction. But don't expect the point-of-sale experience to change immediately. Many card readers are set to require signatures and must be reprogrammed before they allow no-signature transactions.

This column is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. is Copyright © 2018 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.