Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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How Not to Trip When You Plan Fall Business Trips
September 24, 2015 --All things considered, summer wasn't so bad for business travel. There were no disasters, minimal delays, a neutral pricing landscape and surprisingly few cancellations. The strikes were all in Europe and, largely, manageable.

But summer's gone. Fall is here and there are plenty of bumps in the road that can trip us up. Don't panic, though. Many potential problems can be predicted. And if we can predict them, we can plan strategic solutions and tactical workarounds.

Here are five things to worry about this autumn. And some thoughts about how to avoid the worst repercussions.

Beware of airlines merging computers

A computer glitch at American Airlines last week delayed more than 1,000 flights. Business travelers shuddered at the news. American is due to swallow the last remnants of US Airways next month and computer transitions have proven to be schedule busters.

American denies that last week's snafu was related to its plan to phase out the US Airways brand and systems. And as sound as American's transition plans seem on paper, however, history has not been on the side of seamless airline integrations.

Solution: Avoid American Airlines in the days immediately before and after the October 16 combination date. Then keep your fingers crossed for the remainder of the fall.

Beware of rental firms claiming damages

It's a good thing smartphones have cameras because business travelers have been dinged more frequently by car rental firms that claim we've dinged their vehicles. The standard advice in recent years take pictures of your rental when you pick it up and when you return it is more crucial than ever. There are no statistics, but I have plenty of anecdotal evidence that rental firms are inventing ex post facto claims of damages.

One recent example: A business traveler returned a Mercedes CLS to a Hertz rental lot in Germany. The car was undamaged and no Hertz employee inspected the vehicle. Yet his credit card was charged $985 for alleged scratches to a wheel and bumper. Since Hertz never inspected the car, there was no logical way they could blame him for the real or imagined scratches. Yet Hertz was adamant and refused to remove the charge. Only the intervention of the renter's credit card company the business traveler contested the bogus charge and demanded Hertz provide proof of the blemishes led to the reversal of the $985 ding.

Solution: Take good, time-stamped photos when you take possession of a rental. When you return to the lot, demand an inspection and get the return agent's name. Make sure he or she signs off on the car's condition. Then take pictures of the vehicle before you leave. And, of course, vigorously contest any after-the-fact claims of damage.

Beware of carriers changing schedules

The airline industry isn't big on nature's seasonal rhythms. In fact, it has boiled everything down to two seasons: summer and winter. And it significantly reworks routes and departure times at the beginning of each: usually late March for the "summer schedule" and late October for the upcoming "winter schedule."

What's it mean? Frequent, and sometimes wrenching, changes to your previously booked departure and arrival times and seat assignments. Want an extreme case? Consider poor Will Allen, whose plans for a Christmas trip to Asia with his family have been repeatedly and unilaterally changed by Delta Air Lines since he booked in February. A lifetime Delta elite flyer, Allen became so infuriated with Delta's high-handed actions that he finally rebooked his family on Cathay Pacific. Allen told me switching cost him north of $3,000 to book into the Hong Kong-based carrier's more commodious premium economy class, but he's fed up with Delta's arrogance.

Solution: To avoid nasty surprises, make sure your airline has a current email on file so they can inform you of any alterations. And remember that you don't have to meekly accept any drastic changes to your pre-booked travel. You can negotiate alternate flights, itineraries and seat assignments. If the airline won't budge, demand a refund and book elsewhere.

Beware TSA going to the dogs

The TSA made a bureaucratic hash of PreCheck, its supposed "known traveler" plan. The biggest problem besides its refusal to run the $85-a-year program like a business? Hordes of unvetted, unwitting flyers herded into the PreCheck lines. That infuriates properly vetted flyers like us and is a security risk.

Rather than address its fundamental flaws, however, the TSA engages in more bureaucratic double-talk. After claiming it would end its policy of "managed inclusion" that's Washington gobbledygook for shoving those unvetted, unwitting flyers into PreCheck lines it turns out that the TSA is only rearranging deck chairs. The new plan, Managed Inclusion III, will still chose flyers at random and mix them with people who've earned PreCheck privileges. It'll just add dogs to the mix.

Solution: Expect nothing to change. PreCheck won't offer frequent flyers the fast, predictable experience they deserve and the TSA will refuse to separate the low-risk flyers from the general travel population. Plan accordingly.

Beware of flying regional airlines

In a summer of flying when the airline industry ran surprisingly on-schedule and cancelled remarkably few flights, there's been a notable exception: regional carriers in general and Republic Airways in specific.

Republic, which flies small jets and turbo-prop aircraft for all of the legacy airlines, has been scrubbing flights in bunches. On many days in the last month, it accounted for nearly a third of the industry's cancellations even though it flies only about one-third of a percent of the nation's schedule.

The culprit? Republic is short of pilots thanks to the industry's policy of underpaying young aviators. Republic isn't alone, either. Delta Air Lines claims a new round of schedule cuts from its shrinking Cincinnati hub is due to the shortage of regional-jet pilots. Things are so dire that even big raises offered by Republic in contract negotiations isn't enough to balance the pay scales.

Solution? This fall will be tricky for regional carriers, which operate about half of the nation's commercial flights. Your best bet is to avoid regional airlines wherever possible and stick to flights operated by mainline jets. Consider driving if there are no non-regional options.


This column is Copyright 2015 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.