Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Road Warriors Have Their Own Set of Big Debates
September 29, 2016 -- Monday's unconventional presidential debate was the first of a quartet of television conflicts that are packed into the next few weeks. That still leaves plenty of time to consider the debates raging in the world of business travel.
Like or hate the Marriott-Starwood merger? Who's got the upper hand between the U.S. and Gulf carriers? What's the state of premium economy? These things matter as much to us road warriors as the stuff they claimed to be discussing on Monday night.
Here is the latest on the debates that are sure to shape our lives on the road in the months and years ahead.
Starwood elites versus the Marriott merger
Marriott completed its acquisition of Starwood Hotels last week and it immediately reignited the debate on how Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) super-elite customers will fare.
As I explained when Marriott announced the deal last fall, the merger should be great for loyal Marriott customers. It'll be fine for most regular Starwood guests, too. But SPG super-elites? An unanswered question. Thanks to their outsized financial contribution, SPG elites are used to kid-gloves treatment from Starwood, something a behemoth such as the new Marriott probably can't afford to match.
Marriott's first attempt to woo SPG elites — aligning Marriott's late check-out policy to 4 p.m., a perk Starwood and Hyatt offer to their best guests— was a public relations fiasco. When it announced the benefit in the spring, Marriott didn't make it guaranteed, only conditional subject to the whims of each property. Facing ferocious blowback, Marriott first feebly insisted everyone had misunderstood its benevolent intent. Marriott only relented days later under intense pressure and it was forced to explicitly guarantee elites a 4 p.m. check-out time.
Marriott did much better Friday when it rolled out a suite of cross-company benefits. It immediately allowed you to link your existing SPG and Marriott Rewards accounts and transfer points between them at a reasonable ratio of three Marriott Rewards points to one SPG point. Better, elites now have their status with one chain honored at the other. There's even a fairly straightforward microsite explaining it all.
Still, Marriott's long-term strategy to mollify SPG super-elites remains incomplete and unclear. One of the best SPG perks — suite upgrades — was nowhere to be found in Friday's flurry of incentives. Marriott was also painfully mum on whether or how it would honor the lifetime status of SPG elites.
Gulf carriers versus U.S. Big Three
No debate has been more contentious and downright vindictive than the battle between Gulf carriers and the largest U.S. airlines. Led mainly by Delta but supported to varying degrees by American and United, U.S. carriers insist the Gulf entities — Emirates of Dubai, Qatar Airways and Etihad of Abu Dhabi — receive government subsidies.
After several years of public dust-ups and fevered appeals to government bodies, the Gulf carriers seem to have won the day. It's not that the Gulf airlines aren't subsidized; they are lavishly supported by the dynastic families who concurrently serve as heads of state and heads of the carriers. U.S. airlines are no less subsidized, however.
The most recent example: United Airlines announced last month that it would end seasonal nonstops between its Newark hub and Newcastle, England. Yet United will retain equally marginal service between Newark and Belfast, Northern Ireland. The difference? The Northern Ireland government is underwriting the Belfast route, effectively paying United $180 a passenger to keep flying.
There's also an ironic coda. Not only haven't U.S. carriers convinced the U.S. government to act against Gulf airlines, but the feds now undercut a blatantly uncompetitive advantage it routinely handed to American airlines.
The so-called Fly America Act requires government employees and contractors to fly on U.S. airlines wherever possible. Yet the government recently awarded two international contracts to JetBlue Airways. One covers flights between Washington and Dubai, the other to New York and Milan. JetBlue doesn't fly either route, but code-shares on flights operated by Emirates. After the Dubai award, United Airlines dropped its Washington-Dubai flights, complaining they weren't feasible without government succor and passengers. And fronting for Emirates, JetBlue is now the preferred U.S. government carrier over U.S. airlines that fly their own jets between New York and Milan.
The victory of premium economy
The debate over the viability of international premium economy has raged for decades. We've covered it since the Seat 2B column began.
The argument does seem nearly settled, however. While first class disappears, premium economy becomes part of the established rotation of the world's leading carriers. Two of the three largest U.S. airlines also have finally committed to the concept.
Delta already has a quasi-premium economy service called Comfort+, but it's neither comfortable enough nor plush enough to compete internationally. In May, Delta announced it would add a genuine premium economy service next year.
American Airlines is even more desperate for premium economy since it has slow-walked installation of its Main Cabin Extra service onto aircraft that had been part of the US Airways fleet. It announced a genuine premium economy late last year and some of its new Boeing 787 Dreamliners now have the cabin. American's revenue-management systems can't handle the category, however, so you won't be able to buy a premium economy seat until next year.
What of United Airlines, whose 1999 introduction of Economy Plus was first among U.S. airlines and helped keep it afloat during frequent operational meltdowns? Logic dictates that United would install a genuine premium economy as it rolls out its new Polaris business class cabins. But when did United ever do anything logically? So it and the aforementioned Gulf carriers stand alone as virtually the only major global airlines without premium economy.
If you love politics ...
I recently suggested escapes if your candidate doesn't win the election. But if you've loved this profoundly weird political cycle, why let it end on Election Day?
The liberal-leaning magazine The Nation is sponsoring a cruise in December so lefties can continue to chew the cud of progressive policies. The bastion of traditional conservative thinking, National Review, has its own post-election journey. Even neo-cons have somewhere to go thanks to a cruise fronted by The Weekly Standard.
I note with some irony that all three journeys, however different their onboard political discussions will surely be, nevertheless contracted with the same cruise line.