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A TURBULENT 2010
By Joe Brancatelli
December 8, 2010 -- For each of the four years that I have sat in the metaphorical Seat 2B at Portfolio.com, I've devoted a December column to the lessons learned after another 365 days of business travel. I always seem to conclude that it's been another bizarre year for those of us who live our lives on the road.

But bizarre isn't quite the word for 2010. "Contradictory" is much more apt. Every lesson learned this year was contradicted by another lesson learned. Every idea proven was immediately disproved by another idea. After more than 30 years of business travel, I don't expect life on the road to make a lot of sense. This year, however, even the narrative thread seems lacking.

So please return your tray tables to the upright position and pull your seat belt low and tight across your lap because this week's ride is unusually turbulent. Contradictions are always turbulent.

Good Ideas Never Die
Three years ago, international business travelers had just one mainstream option to avoid punitive foreign-exchange fees on overseas credit-card purchases. You took a Capital One card and tucked away your American Express card and your airline and hotel credit cards. While Amex and the other banks charged as much as 3 percent in fees each time you used your card internationally, Capital One charged nothing.

But 2010 marked a dramatic change in bank thinking about forex fees for the affluent, frequent-charging international business traveler. Chase introduced a credit card for PriorityClub Rewards, the frequency program of InterContinental Hotels, that made a virtue of its lack of forex levies. A few months later, Chase's much-anticipated credit card for Hyatt Hotels debuted, and it, too, offered fee-free international charges. Shortly after that, Chase switched its popular British Airways credit card to a no-fee forex policy. And Chase is not alone. Almost stealthily, Citigroup this month began promoting two new credit cards that are forex-fee free.

"When we were designing the Hyatt card, no foreign-exchange fees was at the top of our customers' wish list," explains John Wallis, Hyatt's global head of marketing and brand strategy. "We think it's the kind of benefit that sets us apart, burnishes the brand."

Bad Ideas Refuse to Die
The post-9/11 legislation that created the Transportation Security Administration and federalized airport security also envisioned a safety valve: a privately operated "trusted traveler" program to exempt the most frequent flyers from the most picayune aspects of security checkpoints. Two years later, journalist and serial entrepreneur Steven Brill wrote a book that gave public voice to the sound security underpinnings of trusted traveler: If you rigorously prescreened flyers who were known to pose no threat and moved them quickly through airports, security checkpoints could more effectively focus on the infinitesimally small number of people bent on committing acts of terror.

A match made in hell was born. The TSA built a series of bureaucratic roadblocks that all but doomed trusted traveler. And Brill's post-book creation, the Clear registered-traveler plan, was a cash-eating monster. The TSA never allowed Clear to offer any meaningful security bypass, and Brill bungled attempts to reposition Clear as a program that at least allowed frequent flyers to cut the sometimes long lines leading to the security checkpoints. Clear died an abrupt death in mid-2009, leaving several hundred thousand members holding a worthless biometric identity card.

In the last 30 days, however, a firm that purchased Clear's assets out of bankruptcy has resurfaced at two airports. But the new Clear is inexplicably making the same mistake as the old Clear, promising to "speed [you] through airport security." It can't. Like Brill's Clear, all the new Clear offers is a quicker path to the inevitably time-consuming and repetitive procedures at the checkpoint.

The irony of it all? Brill was right about the efficacy of exempting trusted travelers to focus on real threats. And the TSA wouldn't have encountered so much bad press about its new full-body imaging scanners and aggressive pat-down had it implemented trusted traveler years ago.

Government Intervention Works
After a decade of nearly fruitless effort on the legislative front, passenger's rights activists found an unlikely ally: The Department of Transportation. Infuriated by a flight snafu that ended up with dozens of passengers held hostage overnight on a small aircraft, the DOT earlier this year imposed new rules that essentially ended long "tarmac holds." Airlines would be fined as much as $27,500 a passenger if it happened again.

Airlines fulminated and threatened the dire consequence of massive flight cancellation, but complied. And the reasons were simple: Long tarmac holds cost carriers money, and canceling flights out of pique isn't profitable. Without missing a beat, the big airlines adjusted flight schedules and "irregular operations" procedures, tarmac holds essentially disappeared, and there's been no substantive upswing in flight cancellations.

Everyone seems happy with the results of the new DOT rules—except for a few fist-clenching, table-pounding "experts" who can't admit they were wrong. Every few weeks, they churn up cockeyed statistics and insist flight delays are piling up or that it's only a spate of good weather that has spared travelers from Armageddon. Of course, the one thing they can't invent: flyers who'd volunteer to sit for endless hours on an aircraft without food, water, or an exit plan.

Live (but Delayed) From New York
The black hole of American aviation is the New York Metropolitan area. The three major airports—LaGuardia and Kennedy International in New York and Newark Liberty in New Jersey—routinely rank at the bottom of the national on-time scale. In November, for example, FlightStats.com said LaGuardia operated at just 69 percent, a full 10 points below the nationwide average. In some months in recent years, New York airports have operated below 50 percent.

The worse news? Government intervention hasn't helped. A late October report from the DOT admits that attempts to limit takeoff and landings in the area have failed to reduce delays. A combination of heavy traffic, antiquated air-traffic control infrastructure, and a nearly farcical assessment of the area's actual ability to absorb aircraft traffic has led to the problem.

Worst of all, the situation is so bad that it's literally inexplicable. "No one fully understands the impact of New York flight delays nationwide," the DOT report concluded.

Clean Rooms, Confused Planes
Without hitting the meme too hard, contradictions abounded everywhere on the road this year.

Hotels, for example, are desperate to offer their most frequent guests more flexibility in basic matters like check-in and check-out time. Yet this year they began outsourcing housekeeping tasks to third parties. That will only ensure that hotel guests are further inconvenienced because contract cleaners only work during specified hours, thus limiting a hotel's ability to offer early check-in or late check-out.

Some analysts are desperate to defend airline checked-baggage fees with a new spin: Lost-baggage rates have plummeted since American Airlines pioneered the charge in 2008. But American Airlines continues to have the worst baggage-handling efficiency of all the so-called "legacy carriers," and its American Eagle regional network is the least efficient of all commuter carriers. Meanwhile, JetBlue Airways, which still permits customers to check one bag for free, mishandles fewer bags than any of the legacy lines. And Southwest Airlines, which has gobbled up market share in the last two years by aggressively promoting its two-bags-fly-free policy, saw its lost-luggage rate drop 44 percent since 2007. Southwest's mishandled-bag rate is also lower than three of the five legacy lines.

Finally, a head-scratcher from Jeff Smisek, now chief executive of United Continental Holdings, the parent company of the newly merged United and Continental airlines. When asked if the two carriers would harmonize and standardize their wildly mismatched in-flight cabins—United has four classes, Continental just two—Smisek said no. "We have spent a lot of money" on the respective products. "Why would we just throw that away?" I guess the obvious answer—a merger means working together and offering a consistent experience to paying customers—doesn't apply to airlines.

The Fine Print…
Talk about contradictions: Aircell, operator of Gogo Inflight, the main provider of in-flight WiFi, continues to insist that passengers will pay for the service. But once again it has brought in a sponsor to underwrite WiFi during the holiday season. Thanks to a deal with Google, which hopes to promote its Chrome browser, WiFi is free on AirTran, Delta, and Virgin America flights through January 2.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.