SEAT 2B | By Joe Brancatelli
Under the Radar
Three major business-travel topics you may have missed in a big year.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008; 11:05 AM
Financial whiz Felix Salmon and media maven Jeff Bercovici post 24/7, but I am ushered up the aisle and into Seat 2B just once a week. That means there are dozens of topics I should have covered and lots of business-travel news that didn't quite make the cut.
I hate to end the year leaving anything out, so here are some quick bites of the business-travel apple that we easily could have talked about in more detail. Don't assume the relative brevity of the coverage means these topics are any less important.
Registered Traveler's Unclear Future
The same post-9/11 legislation that federalized airport security and created the Transportation Security Administration empowered the T.S.A. to permit privately run programs for "trusted travelers." Congress knew federalized procedures would be burdensome, invasive, and time-consuming, so it wanted private enterprise to create security-bypass plans for high-frequency, low-risk business travelers.
Unfortunately, the T.S.A. didn't. It has spent seven years making it virtually impossible for outsiders to profitably create and manage what has become known as Registered Traveler. The T.S.A.'s "not invented here" mindset has crushed third-party innovations like scanners that would allow travelers to keep their shoes on during security screenings. The agency permits no form of security bypass for any flier. It has even created a kooky kabuki at the checkpoints: Registered travelers, whose membership cards are embedded with biometric data, may still be required to show photo ID.
That has decimated the market for programs like Clear, the private plan created by journalist and entrepreneur Steve Brill. Hobbled by T.S.A. intransigence and their own hubris, Brill and his competitors now can't offer much besides "line cut" privileges at security checkpoints. Fewer than two dozen U.S. airports have signed up -- important travel hubs such as Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago, Houston, Minneapolis, and Detroit haven't bothered -- and only about 250,000 frequent fliers have joined.
Things aren't likely to get better in 2009. New T.S.A. bosses under President Obama might look more kindly on registered traveler programs, but the drastic drop in travel since Labor Day means frequent fliers probably won't need to shell out $200 or more to bypass lines that have largely disappeared.
Lufthansa's Wholly German Empire
As airlines around the world have coalesced into loose "alliances" with grandiose names like Oneworld and SkyTeam to help them compete on a global scale, the German carrier Lufthansa has gone much further. Buttressed by a pair of mighty hubs in Frankfurt and Munich and buoyed by its grip on the homegrown German market, Lufthansa has chosen to gobble up as many competitors as logic and finances allow.
It started with the 2005 purchase of Swiss International, the successor to Swissair, which came with a compact, efficient hub in Zurich. This year, Lufthansa added three more useful carriers: Brussels Airlines, Bmi of Britain, and Austrian Airlines. Brussels has a good network of intra-Europe flights and an admirable web of connections to Africa. Austrian Airlines has a hub in Vienna that offers excellent service throughout Eastern Europe. And Bmi (formerly British Midland) has more takeoff and landing slots at London's Heathrow Airport than any carrier except British Airways.
But it doesn't end there. Starting in February, Lufthansa's new Italian division will begin service from Milan's Malpensa Airport, a potentially profitable hub inexplicably abandoned earlier this year by Alitalia. Lufthansa also has a strong presence in Scandinavia via its Star Alliance partnership with SAS. The Star Alliance also brings partnership with solid Asian carriers (Singapore, All Nippon, and Thai) and three North American airlines: Air Canada, United, and US Airways. Lufthansa also hedged its American bets last year by purchasing a 20 percent stake in JetBlue Airways.
Passenger Rights, Wrong-Headed Crusaders
When Northwest Airlines stranded thousands of passengers and hundreds of flights at Detroit's Metro Airport during a 1999 blizzard, a "passenger's rights" movement sprung up and was quickly crushed by the airlines and their Congressional allies. When ferocious thunderstorms in Dallas in December 2006 forced American Airlines to divert flights to other airports, travelers were trapped on planes for hours without food, water, or adequate lavatory facilities. A California real estate broker named Kate Hanni was one of the victims and her energy and determination re-ignited the passenger's rights movement.
Even though Hanni's proposed Passenger's Bill of Rights is practically unenforceable, she became a media darling. She was, after all, glib and attractive and able to talk in sound bites. She had the added benefits of crusading for a populist cause (who doesn't hate how airlines treat us?) and being met by furious opposition from the big carriers, who won't accept any meaningful form of customer-service accountability.
Hanni's bill has gone nowhere -- and it stands little chance of passage in 2009, when Congressional attention will be diverted to matters of economic survival. And, unfortunately, Hanni has been a victim of mission creep. She's now a frequent television presence, babbling about a wide variety of travel issues where she is clearly out of her depth. That's made it easier for the airlines and its media mouthpieces to marginalize her.
Nevertheless, Hanni's crusade hasn't been for naught. Just this month, the Air Travel Consumer Report compiled by the Department of Transportation began listing specific flights that subject passengers to long tarmac delays. And the D.O.T. has even proposed airlines codify their treatment of delayed passengers in their contracts of carriage. That extraordinary bureaucratic step would allow unhappy and mistreated fliers to sue airlines in state courts. The 1978 law that deregulated air transportation currently requires travelers to sue airlines in federal court, an impossibly high bar for most individuals.
The airlines are terrified by the D.O.T. proposal and vehemently oppose its adoption. And they have an unlikely ally in the fight: Hanni herself, who doesn't seem to understand that shifting the battle for passenger redress to state courts would be a gigantic victory for beleaguered fliers.
The Fine Print . . .
When most airlines adopted new fees for checked bags earlier this year, it raised an obvious question: Are airport baggage scales accurate? The results so far have been mixed. Weights-and-measures regulators in several cities have tested the scales and found that anywhere between 4 and 20 percent were wrong. None were egregiously off-the-mark, however, and a few in Phoenix were inaccurate in the traveler's favor.
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To contact Joe, visit his Contributor's page on Portfolio.com.