THE FALL TRAVEL AGENDA
By Joe Brancatelli
August 28, 2014 --What's on a business traveler's mind just now? A long weekend getaway, of course. So let's not kid ourselves by making believe we can think great thoughts while sitting in Seat 2B today.
But I warn you: it's going to be an interesting autumn. You'd be wise to consult this cheat sheet of upcoming travel controversies before you check out. You'll need to know this stuff. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of the year.
The war on JetBlue's soul
So why do security analysts hate JetBlue? Why do they yowl for the scalp of chief executive David Barger? Why do they demand the airline charge for all checked bags and jam more chairs onto flights?
JetBlue "is an overly brand-conscious and customer focused-airline," complains Cowen and Co. analyst Helane Becker.
Horrors! An airline that cares about its brand and its customers. Wall Street can't abide it. After all, the bigger carriers have surged to record (if very recent) profits by bastardizing their names and inconveniencing travelers. How dare JetBlue embarrass the flying fraternity by giving customers a little more and earning just a little less.
Becker's comments and equally inane gripes from other analysts constitute a war on JetBlue's soul. And while JetBlue insists it isn't necessarily listening, developments this fall bear watching.
The carrier has already signaled that a first-bag fee will eventually appear on some fares. Free WiFi probably won't last forever. It musters only a technical defense of its comfortable seating: wedging even one more chair onto its 150-seat Airbus A320s also increases costs because JetBlue would be legally required to deploy a fourth flight attendant on every flight. And the airline frankly admits that it isn't locked into its high levels of service in perpetuity.
"As other airlines reduce their standards, we get even better by maintaining ours," says JetBlue president Robin Hayes, who analysts see as a potential replacement for Barger. "But we're not seeing the [financial] reward on many routes. We'll probably never be the kind of airline [analysts] want us to be, but we do need to know that passengers support what makes us" a better product.
Love lost no more
The incumbent, Southwest Airlines, already controls 96 percent of the traffic at Love Field, according to government figures for the 12 months ended in May. But all of its flights there have been to an arbitrary number of nearby states. Beginning on October 13, Southwest will fly to dozens of new business destinations from coast to coast. Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Orlando and Washington are in the initial tranche. Flights to San Diego, Phoenix, New York and Tampa start a few weeks later. And service to both San Francisco and Oakland begins in January.
But Southwest won't be in Love alone. Virgin America won the right to two gates at Love Field as part of last year's merger of US Airways and American Airlines. On October 13, Virgin will launch flights from Love to Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Two weeks later, it'll fly between Love and New York.
Also worth watching: The effect that flights from Love Field service will have on American Airlines' gigantic network at Dallas/Fort Worth. American fought for years to keep Southwest hamstrung at Love. Now American's key DFW business routes will face competition not only from all-coach Southwest, but also from Virgin America, which offers a better first-class experience than American.
The battle for Seattle
Delta has mounted an all-out assault on Seattle-Tacoma Airport, Alaska's only hub. Over the last two years, Delta has gone from a minimal presence to 80 Sea-Tac flights a day, including nonstop service to London, Amsterdam, Beijing, Paris, Shanghai and both Narita and Haneda airports in Tokyo.
Delta claims it isn't looking to crowd Alaska Air out of its hometown. All it wants, says Delta, is to establish a nonstop hub to Asia, essentially replacing the Narita-based hub it inherited from Northwest Airlines in their 2008 merger.
There's logic to Delta's argument. Seattle-Tacoma is geographically advantageous for an Asia operation. It can draw on the ties between the Seattle area's high-tech community and Asia's manufacturing centers. Besides, Tokyo isn't the financial powerhouse it once was and Narita is an overcrowded and disliked airport. Most U.S. flyers would prefer to change planes in Seattle and fly nonstop to their final Asian destination.
But it's hard to ignore Delta's other moves in the battle for Seattle: gutting its formerly close marketing and operational alliance with Alaska Airlines, making it nearly impossible for travelers to book Alaska Air tickets or reward flights on Delta.com and going head to head with Alaska on many domestic routes that seem unlikely to yield flyers headed to Asia.
For the moment, Alaska Airlines is holding its own. Profits are solid. And government statistics show that Alaska Air and its Horizon Air subsidiary still command more than 52 percent of the Sea-Tac market. But Delta is selling hard to insinuate itself with local travelers.
"Not a week goes by that I don't get some kind of offer from Delta to switch my allegiance," reports Alice Bookman, a long-time Alaska Airlines elite-status flyer. "Delta certainly wants more than just my twice-a-year flights to Asia."
And now here comes Carl Icahn, the corporate raider who has somehow convinced the world that he's an "activist investor." Icahn last week revealed he holds 8.5 percent of Hertz and isn't thrilled with how the company is running, either.
The last time Icahn delved this heavily into a major travel company he ended up running TWA on a day-to-day basis. Not only wasn't he a great chief executive, he also put the airline in bankruptcy twice and stripped it of vital assets. When he eventually departed, he walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars in TWA tickets and marketed them in direct competition with the airline.
Icahn probably isn't interested in running Hertz, but it sure is going to make for an interesting autumn in the car-rental segment.
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 © 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.