Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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What I Learned on the Road This Year
December 23, 2015 -- People ask me all the time what I think is the most important thing you need to know about business travel. My answer is always the same. It's not what you know so much as what you learn as you do your business travel. I've been traveling on business for more than 30 years and I'm happy to say that I've never stopped learning. Here's what I've learned this year on the road.
Frequent flier programs may no longer matterNow that all three of the major airline programs (American AAdvantage, United MileagePlus and Delta SkyMiles) have joined Southwest and JetBlue in rewarding you by ticket price rather than miles flown, we can make a crucial determination: For most business travelers, frequent flier programs are no longer a compelling proposition. The 20 percent devaluations that the big carriers surreptitiously folded into their switch to revenue-based recognition sharply increases the price of award travel. There are many fewer upgrades to be had and the basic benefits (priority boarding and free checked bags) are available to anyone who acquires the airlines' proprietary credit card. So since the airlines don't really value your loyalty, why give it to them? On a flight-by-flight basis, book the carrier whose price, schedule and service best meets your needs. And in case you think only frequent fliers are disillusioned, consider the case of the airlines' best customers: the banks who issue their credit cards and buy trillions of points to distribute when you use those cards. As one bank executive told me recently, airline credit cards are at a tipping point because banks now pay upwards of two cents each to buy those miles. "That's close to unprofitable for us and very close to the point where banks may walk away" from the frequent flier game.
All terrorism is political ... and time-sensitivePoliticians on both side of the aisle tend to channel their inner Donald Trump when it comes to talking about terrorism — and that demagoguery was especially striking this year. After the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, when 3,000 were killed, the George W. Bush Administration insisted we should all go about our business, spend money and act as if everything was just fine. But after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino this year, where the combined death toll was orders of magnitudes lower, Republican politicians especially were infuriated that President Barack Obama counseled a measured, go-about-your-business reaction. And isn't it odd how the status of Muammar Gaddafi, the dead Libyan strongman, has changed? In the 1980s and 1990s, politicos claimed he was an existential threat to the American Way of life. Now some say ousting him was a mistake because he was, after all, merely a tin-pot dictator. Of course, this ignores the fact that Gaddafi accepted responsibility for the 1988 attack on Pan Am 103. The Boeing 747 exploded in the skies over Lockerbie, Scotland, and 259 people were murdered. Then there's the controversy over gun sales to people who are on "no fly" or terrorist watch lists. It sounds like a logical concept no matter where you fall on the matter of gun laws and control in general. The problem? Politicians never explain what specific list they are talking about — and there are upwards of a dozen maintained by several government agencies — or why they have refused to make the lists more logical, less discriminatory and less chaotic.
Airlines will say anythingAirlines are notorious for saying just about anything that sounds good in public at the moment. But the depths to which they will stoop now are shameless. What's the new way to describe cramming more seats on a aircraft and taking away legroom? Finnair said earlier this month that it "has decided to improve the space efficiency" on its planes. And how about this: Qatar Airways these days says it operates an all-first-class flight between Doha, the capital of Qatar, and Jeddah, the financial capital of Saudi Arabia. The Airbus A319 is configured with 40 lie-flat seats and features "superbly stylish cabin design" and "world-class cuisine." Does that sound vaguely familiar? It should. When it flew between London and Doha, Qatar Airways insisted the same aircraft was not first class, but an all-business-class service.
Big is all that matters in hotelsThe overwhelming trend in hotels these days is small: smaller rooms because flat-panel televisions meant hotelkeepers could eliminate bulky TV sets and the armoires that housed them; smaller bathrooms because the trend toward fancier showers meant jettisoning big bathtubs; and even smaller lobbies and miniaturized front desks. But that's misleading. All that matters in lodging these days is big, specifically the size of your "global footprint" and having properties anywhere and everywhere in the world. That's why Marriott is buying Starwood, Accor of France is gobbling up Fairmont Hotels and InterContinental acquired the boutique Kimpton group. Those big players, as well as Hilton, Choice and Wyndham, are now above the 4,000-property mark and growing organically, too, sometimes opening dozens of new hotels each month.
The end of the flexible airline ticketAlthough there have been always been exceptions such as Southwest Airlines, most major carriers have traditionally "interlined" tickets. That's industry jargon for allowing you to transfer the value of a ticket from one carrier to another. But no more. Interlining is dying, mostly because Delta Air Lines thinks it's better than other carriers. Instead of accepting the industry-standard payment for interlined tickets and passenger re-accommodation during irregular operations, Delta insists on a higher level of payment. American Airlines balked, so Delta and American tickets are no longer exchangeable. Earlier this month, Delta also severed its interline deal with carriers such as Emirates and several Chinese airlines. What's the lesson to be learned? I guess the same one that I learn every year as a business traveler. The travel industry don't really care about us and our needs as road warriors. All they care about is what's good for them. And they don't think servicing our needs or making our lives on the road a little less complicated is good for their bottom lines.
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