A LOUSY WEEK FOR BUSINESS TRAVEL
By Joe Brancatelli
April 24, 2013 --Unless your mama was also a business traveler, she probably didn't tell you there'd be days like this. And she certainly had no clue that there'd be weeks like this, when the news from the road is unhappy, disquieting, disappointing or downright bad.
Stuff we thought we'd won (the right to carry our Swiss Army Knives on planes) has been yanked away at the last moment. Problems we thought we'd solved (long flight delays) may be returning thanks to sequester-inspired furloughs of air-traffic controllers. Things we never want (fare increases and fee hikes) are back. And a least a few possible terrorists have decided that trains make a softer, more appealing target than airplanes.
It's a lousy week to be a business traveler. And it's only Wednesday. Who knows what the weekend will bring?The folding-knife fight
The Transportation Security Administration's decision late on Monday to temporarily continue the carry-on ban on small knives is discouraging. Just a month ago, TSA Administrator John Pistole surprised and delighted business travelers and rational thinkers by announcing that the agency would permit Swiss Army Knives and their ilk in carry-on bags. Until its last-minute reversal, the TSA planned the minor change to its so-called Prohibited Items List for this Thursday, April 25.
Banned immediately after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, small knives never posed much of a threat to the airline system. Yet tens of thousands have been confiscated at security checkpoints from travelers who inadvertently left them in a carry-on bag or dangling off a key ring. The TSA's decision to allow them back in the business traveler's actual and metaphorical toolkit was a bow to reality: European security agencies permit them on aircraft and no one can recall an incident when a folding knife was used in a terrorist attack. (On 9/11, the hijackers of the four doomed jets used box cutters to attack pilots and flight attendants).
But even when the much-criticized TSA gets it right, it gets it wrong. Special-interest groups have brought big guns to the knife fight. Flight attendants mounted a very noisy campaign to maintain the ban. Some federal air marshals and pilots found reason to carp. The odd airline executive was also skeptical. A few politicians put on their best moral-outrage face.
Bottom line: Assuming it hasn't already been confiscated, keep your own Swiss Army Knife in checked luggage or (like me) in the top drawer of your desk. The setback is probably temporary because one thing we know about the TSA is that it almost always does what it wants to do in the longer term.The Administration that cried 'Delays!'
You're forgiven if you've ignored all the chatter about how the March 1 budget sequester would destroy business travel. The Obama Administration claimed that the cuts would cause massive back-ups at security checkpoints. It didn't. They said international travelers would face gigantic waits at Customs and Immigration facilities. We haven't. They warned the closure of 147 air-traffic-control towers at lightly used airports would devastate commercial aviation. It won't. Besides, a flurry of last-minute lawsuits has delayed any shutdowns until at least June 15.
But the furlough of air-traffic controllers, which began on Sunday, April 21, may be a different. While I'm skeptical of the Federal Aviation Administration's claims that delays could extend to 3.5 hours, statistics from the first two days of travel since the controller cuts are worrisome.
In case you've forgotten, the sequester requires the FAA to slash $637 million from its budget by the end of the fiscal year on September 30. The agency responded by requiring employees to take 11 days of unpaid leave between April 21 and the end of September. Critics point out that the furloughs shouldn't show the flow of air traffic because the commercial airline system is smaller than it's been in a decade, yet the FAA's budget has continued to grow.
At least on Sunday, the first day of cuts, skeptics were right. According to FlightStats.com, the system ran to a higher on-time percentage (81.1) than it had the previous Sunday, April 14. There were also fewer excessively late flights (delays exceeding 45 minutes). But after a good start on Monday, April 22, delays did pile up throughout the day. Although there were some weather problems (snow in Denver, wind in New York, hard rains in Florida), only 70.69 percent of flights ran on-time. That was lower than the 79 percent rating for the previous two Mondays. Especially worrying: 13.2 percent of flights were excessively delayed on Monday, much higher than April 15's 7.1 percent.
Bottom line: It's too early to tell if we've got a crisis, but it wouldn't hurt to monitor FlightStat's handy-dandy Global Cancellation and Delay Tracker. And remember: Flying early is the day is always the best strategy for avoiding delays. One other tip: Avoid the temptation to blame every delay you encounter on the sequester. That's not true and, frankly, won't make your delay more palatable.Fares and Fees and Charges, Oh My!
Airlines are reporting first-quarter earnings this week and the usually dreadful early-in-the-year results have been surprisingly decent. US Airways and Delta Air Lines were profitable. Losses were down at bankrupt American Airlines. And while oil prices remain high--energy represents 30-40 percent of an airline's costs--jet-fuel prices are falling.
So why has United Airlines raised change fees to $200 from $150 on domestic tickets? And why is Delta trying to raise fares--up to $10 round trip, according to FareCompare--for the fifth time since mid-February? United is expected to report a large first-quarter loss on Thursday and will probably claim that the higher change fee represents an effort to better align revenues and costs. (Buy me a beer if United executives use that exact phrase...) Delta's attempted fare bump reflects a continuing effort to boost its revenue growth, which is faltering lately.Oh, Canada...
Monday's revelation that the Canadian Mounties (okay, the RCMP in modern parlance) have broken up a plot to attack a passenger train has some extra-depressing fillips. The potential terrorists were at least in tenuous contact with al-Qaeda and they were targeting a cross-border train that runs between Toronto and New York. Coming just a week after the Boston Marathon bombings, it's enough to rattle the frazzled nerves of business travelers.
Although they're not exempt from terrorism and, in fact, are seen as inviting "soft targets," trains and hotels have always been relative havens for business travelers. And after a week like this, it's disconcerting to think that two more "safe" places aren't as safe as we thought they were.