Brancatelli on Business Travel — Planning for Failure

Brancatelli on Business Travel — Planning for Failure

Before we proceed, two facts: TWA went the entire decade of the 1990s without turning an annual operating profit and was still flying at the beginning of the 21st century. And even now there is a distant progeny of Pan Am flying planes with a big blue ball on their tails and claiming to offer scheduled commercial service. By Joe Brancatelli

Before we go any further, one simple truth: Big airlines linger a long, long time after logic and the market decree that they are commercial and financial toast.

Keep those facts and that truth in mind as we discuss how we survive the chaos that is finally beginning to completely overwhelm the Big Six. That chaos was particularly evident this week (Aug. 15-19): bankrupt United said it would probably terminate its employee pension plans and that will surely cause a cascade of pain at the other Big Six carriers; the egomaniac who squandered about $240 million of Alabama state employees’ retirement funds to buy control of US Airways now says he may force the carrier into Chapter 7 liquidation; Delta admits its newest “solution” includes massive layoffs and a broad withdrawal from many routes; and a half-dozen other dreary nuggets that momentarily escape me.

But let’s not waste another column discussing what the Big Six should be doing to fix their swamped boats. Their management stopped listening to reason a long, long time ago, so a pox on their executive dining rooms. Let’s focus instead on some practical strategies for us, ideas for traveling sanely through the Big Six chaos to come.

No major carrier’s frequent-flyer program has simply disappeared and left travelers with unclaimed awards. But there’s always a first time for outright failure. And who says the next carrier rescuing another airline’s program has to offer you mile-for-mile credit? The offer could be a fraction of your existing balances. So I suggest that you review your frequent-flyer programs now. Cash out rationally and lower your exposure. I’ve never believed in banking miles, but now I think it especially wise to keep minimal amounts of miles in your programs. And a special message to all you flyers who are holding millions of miles and expecting to use them to travel in style in retirement: What color is the sky in your world?

I still say an airline-club membership (not to mention the Priority Pass program) is the best investment that a frequent flyer can make in his or her own comfort and productivity on the road. But I’d be very careful with those “lifetime” club memberships. For starters, who says that you’ll be flying any particular carrier for the rest of your life? What if that airline sells or closes the hub that you use? What if it drops service to your hometown? And then there is the reality of past disappearances: not all Ionosphere Club and Clipper Club members had their “lifetime” credentials honored when Continental took over Eastern and Delta took over Pan Am. Go year-to-year with club memberships.

The airlines are reporting dreadfully low bookings for fall and winter and that means two things: First, startling fare sales with eye-popping prices will appear with virtually no notice. Second, the Big Six are coming into their weaker financial periods and some are so stressed that cash flow is a critical issue. Routes could disappear without notice as carriers scramble to conserve operating capital. And then there is this: Although the Big Six have stubbornly refused to simplify fares across their systems, tactical changes are happening more and more frequently. Earlier today, for example, Delta drastically reworked fares from its RJ-riddled hub in Cincinnati. So many travelers were driving to nearby airports for lower fares that Delta was forced to respond. Its SimpliFares now cap walk-up prices at $499 one-way in coach and $599 on those few Cincinnati routes where there still is a first-class option.

The Big Six are bulking up on international routes because they are not yet facing competition from lower fare carriers such as JetBlue or Southwest. But in their arrogance and stupidity, the Big Six have ignored the fact that international competitors, especially the European ones, have been simplifying their own domestic fares. Those domestic fare changes are coming over the Atlantic and at least two international airlines will announce streamlined pricing structures this fall. Many of the rules about Saturday stays and roundtrip purchases will disappear. So will the absurdly high walk-up fares in first- and business-class cabins. The Big Six will have to match wherever they compete. So wait for the fare changes before booking international flights for later this fall and winter.

The woes at US Airways are well-known and there is now the possibility that the airline might suddenly stop flying temporarily or even permanently. Especially given the discouraging rhetoric coming from the current “leaders” of that star-crossed carrier, it wouldn’t be absurd if you booked away from US Airways whenever there was a viable alternative. But US Airways is hardly alone: ATA Airlines is teetering on the edge of insolvency, too. Don’t be shocked if you wake up one morning soon to read that the carrier has been grounded or has abruptly withdrawn from all or most of its routes. And I’d be wary of Independence Air, too. The former United Express carrier is expanding its RJ service like crazy–crazy being the operative word. Its load factors are hovering around 50 percent and it is sustaining very heavy losses. Sanity, if not financial necessity, could cause a sudden restructuring of I-Jet routes.

When the markets closed today (Aug. 19), the Big Six carriers still solvent were selling for prices near their historical lows. AMR, the parent of American, was at $8.34. Delta was at $4.06. Northwest and Continental were at $8.93. US Airways was at $1.78. So it’s inevitable that one of your brokers or financial advisors will soon suggest a technical play. “All the stock has to do is move a couple of bucks and you’ll make a big score,” they will advise. Take my more clear-eyed suggestion: Run for the hills. The “we’ve reached the floor” line was exactly what the technicians were spouting a month after 9/11 when the carriers had sunk to then unheard of lows such as $25.79 (Delta) and $19.90 (AMR). And it was just two summers ago that some wise guys were suggesting that US Airways ($2.65 a share) and United ($4.17) were “can’t miss” technical buys. Tell that to all the folks who gambled on United and US Airways and were then wiped out when the carriers declared Chapter 11.

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