Brancatelli — How Can Business Travelers Help with the Challenge Ahead

Brancatelli — How Can Business Travelers Help with the Challenge Ahead

It is almost four years since 9/11 and more than a month since Hurricane Katrina. You tell me whether America has fully and honestly dealt with either.

You tell me if we’ve even tried.

I was at Ground Zero on Sept. 11 this year because I couldn’t think of where else I should be. After all, I am a frequent flyer and a New Yorker. Ground Zero is where my life as I knew it before 9/11 ended. Ground Zero is where my life as I know it now began. Ground Zero is still a big hole. There are days, many more than I admit even to myself, when the life I live now seems like a big hole.

But the question before us all today must be Hurricane Katrina and how we, as business travelers, can help the million people whose lives as they knew it ended on Aug. 29, 2005. Rich or poor, black or white, underclass or masters of their own domain, they have lost their homes, their jobs, their possessions, their towns and their cities.

The good news, such as it is, is that the donations are flowing now. Surf over to The Network for Good to see a comprehensive list of places where you can give cash. Surf over to Randy Petersen’s admirable to see how you can donate miles and points.

Money, and miles and points that become money, won’t be enough, however. Sometime soon we will have to face a brutal reality: A million Americans will need housing. Four hundred thousand people will need jobs. Three of our poorest states — Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi — do not have the infrastructure to cope. One of our richest states, Texas, has been incredibly generous, but it won’t be able to bear the brunt of the homeless and jobless forever.

And this, I think, is where we come in. And when I say “we,” I mean me, you and the men and women who run the travel industry. The travel industry, and those of us who fund it by buying plane tickets and renting hotel rooms, are in a unique position to help with the long-term needs.

What follows are five suggestions on how we can turn our miles, our points, our dollars and our time into practical, useful and unique longer-term solutions. I fervently believe that they make sense. If you agree, I urge you to write to the airlines, hotel chains and credit card companies that you use most frequently. Ask them to implement these ideas so that you can help our fellow citizens with their long-term needs.

The extended-stay hotel fund
All the money and all the supplies in the world won’t solve a simple problem: Even a nation like ours cannot build houses fast enough to replace the stock that has been destroyed or made unlivable along the Gulf Coast. But we do have a wonderfully American invention available: the extended-stay hotel.

Only the foolish or unfeeling would put families in a traditional hotel room and consider it an adequate substitute for a home. But extended-stay lodgings have most everything families need to function normally for months. There are kitchens and bedrooms and closets and cabinets and facilities like laundries and sports facilities. Most of all there is space and a sense of privacy. Business travelers can and do live in extended-stay hotels for months and years at a time. So can displaced families who are waiting for their homes to be repaired or replaced.

So let’s create an extended-stay hotel fund so that business travelers can use the points in their frequent-stay program to buy nights for families who need long-term accommodations. At least four major chains — Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt and InterContinental — have huge stocks of extended-stay hotels and large frequent-stay plans. They should each create a special award that permits their members to claim extended-stay room nights for displaced families.

The one-way airline award
Generally speaking, we business travelers are the economically fortunate ones. Many of us have empty guest rooms in our primary homes that could be used by people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Some of us have second homes and vacation properties that could be contributed to the cause. But we need to get displaced people from the Gulf Coast to our accommodations.

Right now, virtually every airline frequent-flyer program award is a roundtrip ticket with a zillion annoying rules. I believe the airlines should create a special one-way award at half the going roundtrip rate. That would allow us to use the awards to fly the displaced from where they are to where we have accommodations for them. Then, on that glorious day when someone from the Gulf Coast has a home to which they can return, we can claim a one-way award to fly them home.

The rebuild-a-life award
The two big credit card loyalty programs, Diners Club Club Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards, offer gift-card and gift-certificate awards at a wide range of retailers: clothing shops, furniture stores, home-improvement chains, department stores, kitchen-supply firms and electronics and office-supply companies. I suggest that the credit-card firms create a special series of awards so that we can maximize the value of these gift vouchers. What if we were to claim our points for, say, a $25 card? We could then add a $15 contribution and the credit-card company and the sponsoring retailer could each add $5. Suddenly, a $25 card would be a $50 card that could be distributed to families who are trying to rebuild their lives.

The volunteer award
Soon, and I hope sooner than seems possible today, Americans will be asked to volunteer their time to help in the rebuilding process along the Gulf Coast. We business travelers have skills that could help. We can all make time to go down there and do whatever is necessary: hammer, sweep, sling hash, process paper, set up computers, drive vans, lift, carry, sew, sow, be a butcher, a baker or even a candlestick maker.

The airlines, hotels and car-rental firms should create special volunteer awards that will allow us to burn our miles and points without restrictions to get down to the Gulf Coast when our time comes. When we can go, the travel industry should make it easy for us to cash our unrestricted, Volunteer-level awards to get there. The money we save on plane tickets and hotel rooms and rental cars can be used along the Gulf Coast to buy food and gasoline and another bag of nails to help the cause.

The tithed-earnings fund
This last idea is simple enough: Tithe our earnings of miles and points. For decades, the travel industry has blithely called miles and points a “second currency.” If they are, let’s tithe them. What if at least 10 percent of the miles and points we earn during the next year are immediately diverted to a special Katrina fund? The fund can be independently administered by a volunteer board of our peers. These volunteers would have the freedom to use the tithed miles and points to claim awards for needy families, first responders who need a break or whatever purpose that seems reasonable in this difficult time. Ten percent of our frequency earnings is little enough to pledge if it will help.