Business Travel Briefing
For January 7-21, 2021
The briefing in brief: Elaine Chao quits as the Transportation Secretary and her motive is, um, political. Sonesta suddenly grows to 1,200 hotels. Alaska Airlines adds more long-hauls from Southern California. Airlines go to the dogs--and only dogs. WestJet resumes Boeing 737 MAX flying. The humbling of the Airbus A380. And more, including the daily Coronavirus update.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao resigned today (January 7) and if you are one of those who believe travel and politics must never mix, you might want to skip along to the next item. A Trump Administration original, Chao explained she was resigning effective Monday (January 11) because "supporters of the President stormed the Capitol building [and] it deeply troubled me in a way that I simply cannot set aside." A Cabinet secretary resigning nine days before her term ends wouldn't normally be noteworthy. But Chao, married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is literally part of the deep-state swamp that Trump frequently claims to oppose. As a two-term Labor Secretary under President George W. Bush, her most notable "accomplishment" was ignoring mine inspections that eventually led to multiple mining disasters and death. Part of a family of Chinese merchants with extensive shipping interests, her appointment as Trump's DOT Secretary was always suspect. She compounded the suspicion by working sparingly and secretly. Her office was also a direct conduit for transit graft to Kentucky interests aligned with McConnell. She didn't even bother to cover her tracks. Her resignation today was clearly a political stunt. If you're a Trump supporter, you'll see the move as a rat deserting a listing ship. If you're anti-Trump, you'll see her departure as a way to avoid any possible requirement to decide on a 25th Amendment move to remove Trump. For the record, President-Elect Biden has designated former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg as DOT Secretary. His appointment is subject to Senate confirmation, of course.

A year ago, Sonesta had fewer than 100 hotels worldwide. But one of the chain's owners got into financial spats with InterContinental and Marriott and has been shifting around 225 more properties to Sonesta's various lodging flags. Now Sonesta is adding 900 more properties to its increasingly complicated and convoluted mix. In a deal announced just before the New Year, Sonesta is buying RLH Holdings, its 900 franchised properties and eight brands. Never heard of RLH? Yeah, you actually have. It's the holding company for Red Lion, a once-respected chain of properties located mostly around the West. Through earlier mergers and acquisitions, RLH also includes the Signature Inn, Knights Inn, GuestHouse and America's Best Value Inn chains. That will make the new-new-new Sonesta an eclectic collection of low-end motels, mid-priced properties, extended-stay operations and upmarket urban gems. Valued at around $90 million, the RLH deal is expected to close in the first quarter and bring Sonesta to about 1,200 properties in the United States, Canada, Latin America and Egypt.

As airlines scramble for routes that might yield some profit in these pandemic times, Alaska Airlines is once again looking for gold in Southern California. Effective April 4, it will launch daily Boeing 737 flights between San Diego and New York/Kennedy. The carrier previously announced it would add routes linking San Diego to Newark and Boston/Logan. A few weeks earlier, it'll add daily EMB-175 flights between Los Angeles and Austin. Alaska Air added a dozen LAX routes last year.
        Palm Beach International now has a common-use lounge. The Escape Lounge is now open in Concourse B. Access is $40 (booked in advance) or $45 at the door. Amex Platinum cardholders get complimentary access.

After a Transportation Department ruling last month, most airlines are cracking down on abuse of their service-animal/support animal rules. Carriers are coalescing around a simple regulation as directed by the DOT: If you prove to us your dog is trained for the purpose, you can bring it. All other animals are off-limits no matter how much you think you need to fly with a pot-bellied pig, flamingo or trained wombat. Most carriers now also have more specific paperwork to file and advance-notice regulations to follow. If you are expecting to fly with a service/support dog, update yourself on your specific carrier's regulation. The new DOT rule officially kicks in on Monday (January 11).

WestJet says it will resume flying the Boeing 737 MAX on January 21. There will be three weekly roundtrips between Calgary and Toronto to start.
        Alaska Airlines says it is buying 68 Airbus 737-9 MAX aircraft in the next few years. The planes will replace Airbus A319/A320 aircraft Alaska Air inherited in its 2016 merger with Virgin America.
        Montenegro Airlines has tanked. The flag carrier of the tiny Adriatic nation folded when the country's government refused to continue to underwrite losses. The 25-year-old carrier operated a fleet of EMB-195 and Fokker aircraft.
        Gibraltar will become part of the Schengen Zone, which will allow easy passage between the tiny British possession and Spain. Britain fully withdrew from the European Community on December 31 and was never a member of the Schengen transit pact.

We have known for years that the Airbus A380 double-decked jet should never have been built and could never make a profit. But more details are coming to light about the plane's failure to hit specs that could have saved it and helped it prosper. It probably won't matter much now. Only about 20 of the 243 built were in service as of early December. Most other survivors will never fly again and one, retired from Air France, is now being dismantled at an aircraft boneyard in Ireland.