Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Take a Trip Back to a Business Travel Future
August 18, 2016 -- I've been covering the exigencies of business travel since forever and I've flown in almost everything and stayed in nearly everything sold to business travelers. One thing I've missed: a time machine.

Not my fault, of course. There are no DeLoreans with flux capacitors available on the car-rental lots. No aircraft currently in service can execute the Starship Enterprise's slingshot effect. And hotels that promise you can "step back in time" always seem to be making excuses for their lousy beds, tiny rooms, crummy showers and wonky HVAC systems

So I offer this column as a poor substitute. It's a journey back in time and updates you on some important topics we've covered during the nearly ten years I've been sitting in Seat 2B.

Leaving LA(X)
Three years ago, a three-way battle raged for control of Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest market. Now the fight over always-under-construction LAX boils down to Delta Air Lines versus American Airlines. Once-dominant United Airlines is scaling back. Its current LAX market share (15.6 percent) has fallen behind new leader American (19.7 percent) and Delta (16.6 percent). In fact, United's LAX share has slipped behind Southwest Airlines (16.2 percent).

Although United has added a few cities to its LAX route map lately, gone are a half-dozen runs to Mexico and Latin America, nearly a dozen intra-California routes and transcontinental flights to Philadelphia and New York's Kennedy Airport. In contrast, American has grown to 225 daily LAX flights, including several new routes to Asia. American is also juggling its LAX terminals to add two new departure gates. Meanwhile, Delta has grown to 175 daily flights and committed to a $1.9 billion LAX construction project. Over the next few years, it'll move to a connected complex at Terminals 2 and 3.

Triangulation
At about the same time in 2013, the same three airlines and JetBlue Airways fought for primacy in the lucrative Transcon Triangle between LAX and San Francisco and New York, the nation's Number one travel market. Again, United has been a loser. Last year it pulled its p.s. service from Kennedy Airport, traditional home of transcontinental service. But there is strength underlying the United move. Its hub is in Newark, across the Hudson River from JFK. United shifted p.s. service to its Newark-LAX and Newark-San Francisco runs and is now largely unchallenged for the lucrative custom of corporations based in New Jersey, parts of Pennsylvania and Manhattan's financial district.

Meanwhile, American has parlayed its strength at LAX to keep its transcon service percolating. Its specially configured Airbus A321T aircraft have first class cabins, something United and Delta do not offer. That plays especially well in Hollywood. And the Los Angeles Times last week revealed that American solicits input from Hollywood's transcon elite about in-flight menus and new routes.

Yet nothing has transformed the transcon as much as Mint, JetBlue's unconventional business class. Its seatbeds are spacious and comfortable, the small-plate meal service is genuinely inventive and pricing is aggressive low. Mint has been so successful that JetBlue has expanded it to transcontinental flights from Boston and Fort Lauderdale and even offers the concept on some routes to the Caribbean.

United at last
United Airlines has been a mess for nearly 15 years, both before its merger with Continental and after, when then-chief executive Jeff Smisek screwed everything you could pooch. Smisek's eventual fall last year was bizarrely corrupt and he was replaced by Oscar Munoz, who knew nothing about the airline business. Munoz has been "the new boss" for almost a year, but we still know little about how he'll run the place. Part of that is because Munoz suffered a heart attack a month into the job and then had a heart transplant. And part of it is because recent changes attributed to Munoz a switch in coffee suppliers and a new international business class had already been approved by Smisek.

But Munoz can now say United Airlines is truly United. He negotiated a deal with flight attendants and, last week, they narrowly approved the contract. That matters because it will be the first time since the merger that all of United's cabin crews will work under the same rules. So now we'll finally get a sense of whether Munoz can revive the carrier. Meanwhile, United escaped criminal charges in the bribery case that led to Smisek's departure. The New Jersey bureaucrat who demanded the bribe a special flight to take him to his weekend home in South Carolina from Newark is scheduled to be sentenced in December.

No more trophies
The hotel industry has been humming since the economy revived after the Great Recession. But a 2007 Seat 2B column about Raymond Bickson, the Hawaii-born head of India's Taj Hotels, was something completely different. Bickson's plan to build Taj into a global luxury-lodging powerhouse ran into several roadblocks: a paucity of reasonably priced properties in the United States; a stubborn recession in India; an influx of U.S. chains onto the subcontinent that forced Taj to defend its home market; and infuriating internal politics at Tata, Taj's global behemoth of a parent company. Bickson departed two years ago and now runs a luxury lodging consultancy. And while Taj will remain the name on the door at its first U.S. acquisition, the Boston hotel known for decades as the Ritz-Carlton, the building itself was sold last month at a hefty loss.

China clippers
Travel seems to be immune to the relative slowdown of the Chinese economy. If anything, it is racing past any expectations we discussed in a Seat 2B column just 18 months ago. One example: Beijing Capital Airlines, virtually unknown to North American travelers, wants to fly between Vancouver and Hangzhou and Qingdao. If flights start as planned on December 30, Beijing Capital will be the sixth Chinese airline in Vancouver, where many wealthy Chinese live and play.

Want another example? Xiamen Airlines, also unknown on this side of the Pacific, launches its first U.S. flights in September with runs between Fujian province and Seattle. It expects to fly to New York by the end of the year. But Chinese carriers aren't alone. Although American and Delta have limited their China routes to Beijing and Shanghai, United Airlines has aggressively pushed into the heart of the country. It launched flights to Xi'an in May and Hangzhou last month. It's also the only U.S. carrier flying to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province.


This column is Copyright 2016 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.