The Tactical Traveler



This week: Early warnings on the strike front; America West is now the nation's worst airline; bad choices from Amex on Membership Rewards; three more luxury hotels open around the world; bowl bargains for the New Year; and more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: Early Warnings on the Strike Front
The first few months of the new decade could be ugly on the airline labor front and that would mean major disruptions for business travelers during the winter. Of most immediate concern: the contentious relations between USAirways, Northwest Airlines and their respective flight attendant unions. At USAirways, the carrier's flight attendants voted overwhelmingly on Monday to authorize a strike. The timing of any work action is in the hands of the National Mediation Board (NMB), however. Mediated talks between the flight attendants and USAirways are scheduled to resume January 3. A strike could only occur after the NMB officially declared an impasse in negotiations and a federally mandated 30-day "cooling off" period. The flight attendants have been working without a contract since 1996 and have already asked the NMB to declare an impasse. Over at Northwest, negotiations collapsed earlier this month and the NMB recessed talks indefinitely. Northwest's flight attendants have also been without a contract for three years. A tentative agreement hammered out in June between Northwest and union negotiators was rejected in August by 69 percent of the flight attendants. As with the USAirways situation, a strike could not legally occur until the NMB declares an impasse and imposes a 30-day period passes.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The New Airline Cellar Dweller
For most of the last three years, Northwest Airlines defined bad airline service and topped most business travelers must-avoid list. But thanks to some improvement at Northwest and a total collapse at America West, the Phoenix-based airline is now the industry's new cellar dweller. Ever since William Franke, the mercurial head of America West's parent company, resumed day-to-day management of the airline earlier this year, America West's operations has deteriorated. According to Transportation Department figures [], America West has finished dead last in on-time performance in four consecutive months. In October, the most recent month for which figures are available, only 66.6 percent of America West's flights arrived on time. Shockingly, that's America West's [ital]best[ital] performance over the four-month span. (In July, for example, fewer than six in 10 America West flights arrived on time.) During October, a startling 3.9 percent of all America West flights arrived late more than 70 percent of the time. That's [ital]four times[ital] the rate recorded by USAirways, the next poorest performer in that category. The cold, hard facts are especially distressing to regular America West travelers. "On my last six trips," reports frequent flyer Phillip Slater, "eight of the twelve flights have been late leaving. One was over four hours late. One was more than eight hours late."

MILES AND POINTS: Bad Choices from American Express
American Express has rolled out two options to its Membership Rewards frequent-charging program and both are bad choices for business travelers interesting in getting the best bang for their Amex charges. The "Options" plan cuts the annual fee for Membership Rewards to $15 from its current $40, but the cost of that $25 savings is horrendously high. That's because travelers who choose the Options plan pay a stiff premium for most of Membership Rewards awards. Most notable: Options members must cash 2,000 Membership Rewards points to claim 1,000 frequent-flyer miles in participating airline programs. Standard Membership Rewards members need cash only 1,000 points to receive 1,000 miles. The Membership Rewards "Plus" plan carries a $35 premium over the cost of a standard membership. Its unique feature? "Your Ticket," a scheme which Amex claims "allows enrollees to obtain airline tickets to any destination in the world from any airline without blackout dates and frequent-flyer seat restrictions." True enough, but American Express has added its own onerous restrictions: Tickets are available only for coach seats and require a 21-day advance booking and a Saturday-night stay. Worse, there are price barriers, too. If the ticket you seek is above Amex's artificial price limits--$500 on a seat in the continental United States, for example, $850 for Hawaii, or $1,300 for the Middle East--you must pay the difference. Virtually any frequent traveler would do better by sticking with the standard Membership Rewards plan, dumping their Amex points into their preferred frequent-flyer plan, then choosing from their own carrier's award chart.

ON THE FLY: Business-Travel News You Need to Know
The relentless march of luxury chain hotels continues across the globe. Three more opened last week. Four Seasons opened a 142-room hotel in London's Canary Wharf district and reopened the historic George V in Paris after a $125 million renovation that reduced the number of rooms in the 1920s era landmark to 245. And Ritz-Carlton opened a 307-room resort and spa in Sharm El Sheikh on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. American Airlines, based at Dallas/Fort Worth, continues to throw legal brickbats in the path of Legend Airlines, which is trying to launch flights from Dallas/Love Field. In the latest twist in the bizarre, years-long tussle, Legend received approval to begin service in February, but now American's lawyers want the start-up grounded pending American's final appeal.

WEEKLY WONDER: Bowl Business
The big New Year's weekend college football bowls are always hot tickets, but Spectacular Sports Specials (800-451-5772) has seats and hotel rooms. Prices start at $785 a person for four-night bundles that include game tickets, accommodations, game and airport transfers, and taxes. The games available: the Rose Bowl in Pasadena; the Orange Bowl in Miami; the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans; and the Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix.

This column originally appeared at

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