The Tactical Traveler

FOR MAY 18, 1998


This week: It's all in the calling cards; a subway navigator on the Web; flying planes older than you are; what do business travelers want most; a rare sale on Japan fares; and more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: It's in the (Calling) Cards
Everyone from American Express to United Airlines is suddenly hawking a telephone calling card, one of the business traveler's most invaluable tools. For years, the AT&T Calling Card has been the gold standard, but AT&T's incomprehensible decision to drop out of all frequent-flyer plans has led business travelers to reassess their loyalty. If you're shopping your phone-card business, check the angles. While AT&T has flubbed the frequent-flyer alliances, it has come up with the "One Rate Calling Card Plan." For a $1 monthly charge, AT&T (800-878-3288) prices calls at 25 cents a minute without hefty per-call connect fees. The Amex card (800-486-7571) isn't as good as it looks: the 15-cent-a-minute rate with Membership Rewards points is great, but there is a gigantic 85-cents-a-call connect fee. Most prepaid calling cards (including the United deal) have inflated per-minute pricing. A sleeper worth investigating is the VoiceNet card (800-VOICENET), which costs 17.5 cents a minute for most calls with no connect charges.

CYBERTRAVELER: Take the 'A' Train
I accept that it is sometimes more efficient to take a cab and I know it's trendier to use a black car, but I'm a mass-transit guy at heart. I'll ride any subway in any city in the world--often just to say I've done it. So I was thrilled to stumble on the Subway Navigator, which offers comprehensive travel directions for more than 60 urban mass-transit systems around the world. Built by a French doctoral candidate, the site isn't fancy and the maps, when they exist, are rudimentary. But you can enter your origination and destination station and quickly receive directions and stop-by-stop details. You can even get help if you don't remember the names of the stations in the system. It's invaluable for business travelers who do what locals do and rely on the "A" train in New York, the Paris Metro, the London Underground, the Frankfurt U-bahn, or the "T" in Boston.

AT THE AIRPORT: Flying Planes Older Than You Are
The link between aging aircraft and safety is tentative. In fact, most experts believe "cycles"--the number of times a plane takes off and lands--are more important than chronological age. Still, you can't help but be concerned by Northwest's audacious plan to fly some of its jets more than 40 years. The carrier's fleet of DC-9s, which averaged 27.3 years on December 31, 1997, may fly "approximately 15 additional years." And if you think 42 years stretches the definition of aging aircraft, consider Northwest's fleet of DC-10s. Already long in the tooth (average age: 23.5 years), Northwest says the widebody planes could fly 23 years longer. The information was buried in a Northwest filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: What Do Business Travelers Want Most?
Using spit, bailing wire, creative marketing, and the odd dollop of cash, TWA has upgraded its image among business travelers. The effort paid off last week when it snared an award from J.D. Power and Associates. For the answer to the question, "What do business travelers want most?" we went to Beth Mack, TWA's vice president of marketing. "It's all about recognition," says Mack. "Business travelers want to be recognized as your best customer and treated accordingly. Frequent flyers want you to say, 'We recognize that you pay more for your ticket and we realize that we have to give you more.' " When TWA began focusing on business travelers last year, Mack explains, research showed frequent flyers wanted a fairly short roster of basic services: good schedules, on-time flights, special recognition, and a seat in first class. To meet those needs, TWA expanded its domestic first-class cabins; improved its international premium-class cabins; created Aviators, a new frequent-flyer program; installed TWQ, a package of special services for business travelers flying between TWA's St. Louis hub and major business markets; and thrown in little perks like free club-lounge admission for full-fare travelers. "Business travelers just want to be treated a little better," says Mack.

THE WEEKLY WONDER: A Rare Sale on Japan Fares
Getting a cheap fare to Japan is the business-travel equivalent of finding a needle in the proverbial haystack. But a slump in traffic (due to the Asian Contagion) coupled with a service expansion (due to the new U.S.-Japan bilateral agreement) has yielded a dramatic decrease in fares. Led by United Airlines, and promptly matched by all competitors (including the usually aloof Japanese carriers), roundtrip fares have dropped as low as $675. That covers flights from California markets to Tokyo. Prices from Midwestern and Southern cities start at about $875 and fares from East Coast markets start at about $950. Tickets to Osaka are a few dollars lower in most markets. But hurry: tickets must be purchased by Friday, May 22, and travel must be completed by July 31.

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