The Tactical Traveler



This week: Millennium mayhem; all or nothing at all for hotel dining; the regulatory lambs finally attack the airline lions; a new carrier's bargain fare to Basel; and more.

Here's a Year 2000 Bug you may not have thought about: airline seats and hotel rooms may be difficult to book for the December 15, 1999-January 15, 2000 period. What's happening is that tour operators and wholesalers, the bulk buyers who create travel packages for tourists, have already blocked out huge numbers of airline seats and hotel rooms in Europe and larger cities in the United States and Asia. They're naturally expecting a big run--and big profits--from millennium holiday makers. Unfortunately, individual frequent flyers can't protect themselves and buy tickets now for business trips in the December 15, 1999-January 15, 2000 period. We're generally restricted to reserving and booking within one year of our flight departures or hotel reservation. So how do you solve this particular Y2K bug? "Wait six months," one airline marketing executive told me. "When people realize this whole millennium thing is overrated, there'll be plenty of seats turned back and we'll have more inventory than we know what to do with."

IN THE LOBBY: All or Nothing at All
Notice how schizophrenic many hotels have become when it comes to food? They either offer no dining room at all or charge you hundreds of dollars for a meal in a super-glitzy dining room fronted by a celebrity chef? What's driving the all-or-nothing dining trend? The bottom line, says Bjorn Hanson, the lodging expert at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the professional-services firm. Hotel-based food and beverage outlets are uniquely expensive to operate and rarely make a profit, Hanson explains. Unlike independent, storefront restaurants, hotel F&B operations generally must pay its unionized employees higher salaries and benefits; must operate for longer hours; usually serve three meals a day seven days a week; and often must maintain multiple dining outlets. Faced with this no-win, no-profit scenario, many hoteliers now choose to build "limited-service" properties with no food outlets at all. "F&B income accounted for as much as 50 percent of a typical hotel's revenue in 1960," Hanson says. "It is now approximately 20 percent and trending lower." At the other end of the scale, however, luxury hotels now place a premium on chefs of celebrity or near-celebrity status. Keeping a hotshot cook in the house enhances a luxury hotel's reputation, galvanizes its marketing power and allows a property to increase guest-room rates. "The cachet of a celebrity chef in a hotel restaurant justifies an incremental rise in a hotel's average daily room rate," Hanson explains.

STRIKE WATCH: People and Packages
File these two items your mind because your end-of-the-year holiday travel and shipping plans may be at risk. Flight attendants at America West recently voted by 99 percent to strike. Although talks are continuing and the flight attendants haven't yet taken the steps that would lead to a federally mandated 30-day cooling-off period, some experts believe a strike could occur right around Christmas or New Year's. Meanwhile, Federal Express pilots have begun the process that could lead to a strike vote. While a strike before the holidays is unlikely, labor and management are far apart and aren't even talking directly. Moreover, the pilots have already voted to stop working overtime.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The Lamb Attacks the Lions
The lambs at the Department of Transportation have finally begun to realize that the nation's major airlines will do almost anything to slaughter the DOT's attempts bring competitive balance back to the air-transportation system. The regulators' efforts to create a dialogue about the DOT's proposed competition guidelines has been met with stonewalling from the major airlines and vicious verbal attacks from the Air Transportation Association, the carriers' lobbyist group. "Not everyone wants to participate" in the dialogue, according to DOT general counsel Nancy McFadden. Referring to the ATA's view of the process as a war, McFadden told a California travel conference that, "We as a department do not view this as a war to win or lose. The public only wins if the best public policy decision is reached."

WEEKLY WONDER: A Bargain to Basel
Basel is tucked away near the Swiss border just miles from the French and German borders and that makes it a popular European crossroads. Beginning December 17, Swissair (800-221-4750) launches six weekly nonstops between Newark International Airport and Euroairport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiberg. The introductory fare on the Newark-Basel route is $298 roundtrip and is valid for travel through January 31. But ttckets must be purchased by December 4 and a Saturday-night stay is required. Delta Air Lines will code-share on the Swissair flights. For more information, call 800-221-4750.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.