The Business Travel Briefing For April 25 to May 9, 2019
The briefing in brief: United's boss says airlines stink, so he'll repaint his planes. Marriott's future for Sheraton looks long on buzz and BS, short on substance. Austin/Bergstrom gets even more local. Air Italy and Asiana cut U.S. routes. SAS Scandinavian faces a strike. And more.

United Airlines chief executive Oscar Munoz has mostly been a potted plant since arriving in 2015 to replace deservedly maligned and scandal-plagued Jeff Smisek. Whatever little he did to improve the airline--um, the Illy coffee is better--has basically been unwound by president Scott Kirby, who arrived at United a year later as president after being told his services were no longer required at American Airlines. Kirby has been driving United downward--service and staffing have been reduced in the Polaris business class, legroom has been slashed on most aircraft and MileagePlus was further gutted--and Munoz has apparently noticed. In an interview with ABC News this week, Munoz decried everything about the flying experience, including lack of personal space on aircraft and United's particularly awful in-flight WiFi. Munoz is committed to reversing the awful state of the airline, however. United announced this week that it was repainting its planes with a slightly revised livery. Which, you know, should solve all the problems.

No part of Marriott's merger with Starwood has been more problematic than the wounded Sheraton brand. Sheraton has been a joke for years and its better-than-average international properties have not been able to improve the image of its dreadful domestic hotels. It has also resisted several attempts to remake itself. Yet even with more than 7,000 hotels worldwide, Marriott can't afford to give up on Sheraton, which has around 450 locations. Last year it purchased a down-at-the-heels Sheraton in downtown Phoenix and promised a new future for the chain. First results are, um, unimpressive. A reporter for a lodging trade magazine got a look at plans for the 1,000-room, 10-year-old Phoenix hotel and there are more buzzwords and bullshit than innovation. Part of the problem may simply be the numbers. Depending on how you slice lodging segments, Marriott has at least 11 brands chasing full-service hotel guests. Besides Sheraton, there is Marriott itself, plus Renaissance, Westin, Le Meridien, Delta, Gaylord, W Hotels, JW Marriott and two "soft" chains (Autograph Collection and Tribute Portfolio). There's not much a remade Sheraton could do to stand out from the Marriott crowd let alone the external competition. Why keep the tarnished Sheraton name if there's no valid revival path or market need? Revenue, of course. The more full-service brands it runs, the more hotel owners Marriott can convince to pay franchise fees.

Runaway expansion of international flights is beginning to hit some walls, especially for secondary airlines serving North American gateways. Financially stressed Asiana, the second-largest Korean carrier, is dropping its Chicago/O'Hare route. The five weekly flights from the Star Alliance carrier will end on October 27. Meanwhile, Air Italy, 49 percent owned by Qatar Airways, is trimming its North America ambitions. Three routes that it launched this year--from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto to Air Italy's Milan/Malpensa hub--will be converted to seasonal service. Flights will end at the end of the "summer" schedule in late October. Air Italy this year already scrapped flights to O'Hare without ever launching. Ironically, the three major U.S. carriers have been railing against Air Italy's new routes, claiming they were part a Qatari end-run around an agreement with the U.S. government concerning expansion on U.S.-Europe routes.
      American Airlines is dropping its flights from Dallas/Fort Worth to Managua, Nicaragua. The six weekly flights end on June 1.
      KLM will end flights between its Amsterdam hub and Mauritius. The three weekly flights were scheduled to resume on October 28. The decision will make it more difficult for SkyTeam flyers (and Delta SkyMiles award travelers) to get to the Indian Ocean island.

Austin/Bergstrom airport has gotten a big upgrade in recent weeks. What's new? A 4,500-square-foot area near Gate 19 called Heart of Austin. It includes another stage for live music performances; a branch of The Saxon Pub, a well-known local bar; and a food truck named in honor of Texas football great Earl Campbell. A branch of local favorite Jo's Coffee is due to open soon. Meanwhile, over by Gate 21 there are four new restaurants. Well, three restaurants and the return of Amy's Ice Cream, Austin's greatest contributions to the dessert world. The new outlets are Flyrite Chicken, Hat Creek Burger Company and pizza specialist East Side Pies. All are local Austin dining institutions.
      Milan/Linate airport will close for runway repairs between July 27 and October 27. During the closure, the close-in Milan airport will disperse flights to Malpensa, Milan's distant primary airport, and Orio al Serio, the airport in Bergamo about 50 kilometers from downtown Milan.
      Merced, the airport in California's San Joaquin Valley, gets a shift in its only flight. Boutique Air will add a daily route to Sacramento on May 15. But Boutique Air will drop its existing run between Merced and Oakland. The small airline uses Pilatus PC-12 prop aircraft.

SAS Scandinavian flyers take note: Pilots at the trans-Scandinavian carrier have authorized a strike starting Friday (April 26) local time. SAS has posted details of its plans and a list of flights it insists will operate regardless of the work stoppage.
      TSA PreCheck service is now available to travelers flying from the United States on Qatar Airways. The PreCheck service is also available on flights of Edelweiss Air, a division of Swiss International that operates from Denver, Orlando, Las Vegas, San Diego and Tampa.