Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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What I Learned on the Road This Year
December 31, 2014 -It was another difficult year for business travelers. They all are. But I consider a year spent on the road successful if I can at least say I learned a few things.
As 2014 yields to 2015 — and my January business trips are already booked — here is what I learned on the road during the past 12 months.
Storytellers in the sky
When Delta Air Lines, the nation's most profitable carrier, named a new chief communications officer this year, chief executive Richard Anderson called the former wire service reporter and editor " an expert storyteller."
The most important lesson I learned in 2014 is that airlines are now intent on telling stories, and that is extremely worrisome. Why? Because the stories that airlines tell are often skewed.
Some of the most egregious storytelling comes from the airline's trade and lobbying group, once sensibly named the Air Transport Association. Now it uses the ridiculous handle Airlines For America. Raise your hands, America, if you believe any airline or its trade group does anything "for America" as opposed to its corporate best interest. Raise your hands, airline shareholders, if you want your carrier doing things "for America" instead of your dividend and your stock price.
So when airlines slash seat room and squeeze you into tighter, smaller and less-comfortable seats, they aren't really making you unhappy. The airline storytelling version is that they are giving you " the illusion of space." Billions of dollars of fees for essentials once bundled into fares — checked bags, seat assignments, itinerary changes — isn't about upping your price of flying. In the airline storytelling version, it's about giving you the choice of buying only what you value.
When Airlines for America lobbyists propose legislation that would allow them to obfuscate prices by advertising fares stripped of taxes and fees, they aren't trying to hide anything. That's why, in the airline storytelling version, the bill is called the Airfare Transparency Act of 2014.
And there's always United Airlines, which has upped "storytelling" into performance art. When a coach passenger recently attempted to relocate to a more spacious, premium-priced coach chair that United calls Economy Plus, a flight attendant tried to charge her credit card for the more expensive seat. The incident spiraled out of control and ended in the flier's arrest and a three-day stay in the clink. But United executives would have none of it. In United's storytelling, fliers aren't legally permitted to change seats in flight because of safety regulations.
The beans that hotels count
When 2015 arrives, two major hotel chains, Marriott and Hilton, will require you to cancel a reservation 24 hours (or more) before your arrival. If you don't cancel in time, you'll be charged for your room.
Both chains claim the change is for our benefit because it'll free up rooms for travelers who need them at the last minute. That's ridiculous — hotels are "storytellers," too — given that nearly four in 10 rooms are empty on an average night. And I'm not convinced either chain is expecting a windfall of revenue from business travelers who get stuck by flight delays or bad weather and miss their reservations.
So what beans are hotel accountants counting? Theoretical ones. Hotels have adopted airline-style yield management techniques, and the price of a night's lodging has become much more volatile.
One example: Within 12 hours last week, a New York outpost of a major chain changed the online price of an entry-level room from $120 a night (at 8 a.m.) to $235 (just after noon) and then back to $139 (around 7 p.m.). Savvy travelers now track the yield-management waves, and they frequently cancel higher priced reservations and rebook as cheaper rates become available. The 24-hour cancellation policy will effectively lock out price-tracking travelers looking to benefit from last-minute rate decreases.
But with about four in 10 rooms empty on an average night, why would price-conscious shoppers — or business travelers worried that they might miss a flight — risk making a reservation with a 24-hour cancellation restriction? In most cases, they can fly into a town, go to their smartphone and book a room as they are headed from the airport to the city.
So rather than locking us in, the bean counters may have freed us up to play the supply-and-demand game.
Planes are dumber than smartphones
Despite what CNN endlessly repeated before the debris of AirAsia Flight 8501 was found several days after it crashed into the sea last Saturday evening U.S. time, aircraft don't "vanish." Vanishing is the stuff of vintage episodes of The Twilight Zone.
But planes do go missing for a while — something we learned in March when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing. That aircraft still hasn't been located and CNN and other TV outlets repeated the same shameful orgy of speculation and fantasy with AirAsia 8501. Before the wreckage of the AirAsia Airbus A320 was found on Tuesday, Fox News even went so far as to wonder if it had run afoul of the metric system.
But the lesson this year isn't that the media are often clueless (we knew that already). It's that big, hundred-million-dollar aircraft are dumber than $500 smartphones. After all, if you lose your smartphone, there are any number of ways to track it down in real time. Aircraft? Not so much.
Despite the airline industry's resolve after MH370 to adopt some or all of the inexpensive and easy-to-implement technologies that can track aircraft in real time, very little has been done. Airline industry officials once claimed better tracking technology wasn't necessary because they never lost a plane. They can't say that anymore, and it's long past the time to stop alibiing and start acting.
Hotel WiFi wars are over
We began the year wondering how the war over hotel WiFi would shake out. With business travelers insisting that WiFi was an intrinsic part of the hotel experience and the lodging industry groaning under the cost of providing Internet access, it looked like a long, drawn-out fight lay ahead.
But we learned this year that the hotel industry has surrendered: Free, basic WiFi — adequate for email and normal Web surfing — is going to be free. At least five major chains — Marriott, Starwood, Hyatt, Loews and Taj of India — announced that everyday WiFi access will be complimentary. Hyatt made it free for all guests while Marriott and Starwood want you to join their frequency plans and book directly with them rather than travel agents. Quirks aside, however, the jig is up and the remaining large chains (notably Hilton and Accor) that charge guests for basic WiFi will soon have to yield.
But the next war has already begun. How much can or will hotels charge for higher-speed access? And how long will they be able to charge for that enhanced, file-downloading-quality connectivity?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.