Business Travel Briefing
For February 4-18, 2021
The briefing in brief: Airlines threaten another round of layoffs without a third bailout. A new Marriott in Tuscany welcomes award guests. Meanwhile, Bonvoy lowers the award prices on far too few hotels. HNA, the Chinese conglomerate that ate travel, goes bust. Silver Airways adds flights from Savannah. And more, including the daily Coronavirus update.

Two tranches of Coronavirus relief shoveled around $75 billion in grants, loans and other aid to the nation's airlines. What has the nation in general and travelers in specific received in return? Schedules reduced by 50% or more. Dozens of cities shorn from airline route maps. In-flight service cutbacks. Refusal to promptly refund tickets for flights they cancelled. And, of course, ousting around 100,000 employees despite claiming the primary goal of bailouts was to keep flight attendants, pilots and others employed. In Bailout II, for example, airlines received $15 billion to keep 32,000 on the job for four months. That's around $470,000 for each worker. Well, guess what? The airlines are coming back for a third round of bailouts and the tactic is the same: Give us billions or we'll lay off the thousands you paid us $470,000 each to keep just six weeks ago. United Airlines this week filed WARN notices for the furlough of 14,000 staffers. American warned that 13,000 employees are headed for the chop. Another 900 face dismissal at Hawaiian Airlines. What can save these jobs? Another big bailout, explain the airlines and Sara Nelson, head of the nation's largest flight attendants union. For my part, I repeat what I've been saying for nearly a year: Not a dollar. Not a dime. Not a penny. Not that anyone in Congress is listening to you or me, of course.

Last time we spoke to Plato Ghinos of Pennsylvania-based Shaner Hotel, he was opening Marriott-aligned properties expecting a travel revival in Greece. As if that wasn't challenging enough, he's also been renovating a 16th-century palazzo in the heart of Tuscany, Italy. That's been ... an adventure. The 55-room Grand Universe Lucca opened in late November, nearly three years late--"6 or 8 months" of which Ghinos attributes to Coronavirus delays. The Autograph Collection hotel sits in Piazza Napoleone, the main square, and it now has a rooftop bar and a wine cellar, too. It won't surprise you that occupancy is dreadful--"in the teens," Ghinos admits--but that is expected, he says. "What we're getting are locals with cabin fever," Ghinos explains. "It's the only demand right now." But he has hope for the summer as vaccinations spread and national borders open. "The U.S. market is very active," he says, "because Americans love Tuscany." He also expects a "drive-in" market from nearby European countries. "The Asian market won't be coming back as soon as we'd hope, of course, but it will come." One happy note: Ghinos welcomes Marriott Bonvoy guests using awards. (The Grand Universe is a Category 4 redemption.) "Award nights are good exposure for us. And, for a smaller hotel, it works out financially, too."

This won't shock you: Sprawling, debt-laden HNA Group, which has bought up huge swathes of the travel business, has gone bust. Originally founded in 1993 as Hainan Airlines, the group went on a US$50 billion buying spree and, at one time or another, owned all or parts of Hilton Hotels, Radisson Hotels and NH Hotels. It had stakes in TAP Air Portugal, Virgin Australia, Comair of South Africa and Azul of Brazil. It scooped up Gate Gourmet, the airline-catering giant; Swissport, the airport-logistics operations; office buildings, golf courses and much more. As far as we can tell, HNA has at least US$110 billion in debt, owns 2,200 companies and, besides Hainan Airlines, controls Chinese carriers such as Beijing Capital, Lucky Air and Tianjin Airlines. And last week it was revealed that shareholders may have embezzled US$10 billion from the company. Stay tuned. This one could be wild.

The annual rejiggering of award categories at Marriott is upon us and Bonvoy has lowered the nightly price of 150 hotels. Only 51 are rising. But it raises the obvious question: Hotel chains are quick to jack up award prices when times are good. Yet faced with an unprecedented global collapse in hotel occupancy and nightly rates, Marriott only found 150 of its more than 7,000 hotels and resorts worthy of a downward price adjustment? Astounding. Award changes, both up and down, are effective for reservations made beginning March 3. The chart of changes is here.
        IHG Rewards Club, which began life as Priority Club, has changed names again. Now it's just IHG Rewards.

Most other airlines are contracting, but the small independent commuter carrier Silver Airways continues to expand briskly. After launching new flights to Florida from Charleston, Columbia and Greenville-Spartanburg, South Carolina, Silver is adding Savannah, Georgia. Effective April 1, there'll be nonstops to both Tampa on the Gulf Coast and Fort Lauderdale on the Atlantic Coast. Fares start at $59 one-way for flights on 34-seat Saab 340B turboprops.
        Berlin/Schoenefeld, once the airport of East Berlin, is closing. The passenger terminal, now called Terminal 5 of Berlin/Brandenburg, is shutting down for lack of traffic. All remaining flights will be shifted to Terminal 1 by the end of the month. If this confuses you, remember that the new Brandenburg Airports shares much of the same geographic footprint as Schoenefeld.

JetBlue Airways has unveiled its Mint business class service for its upcoming London flights. There will be 24 private pods with sliding doors configured 1x1 on Airbus A321 aircraft. Each pod will have a 17-inch monitor, wireless charging, power receptacle and storage spaces for shoes, laptops and handbags.
        Breeze Airways, the new carrier from JetBlue founder David Neeleman, has taken its first two aircraft. One is an Embraer E190 with 108 seats and the other is an E195 with 118 seats. Breeze is hoping to launch this year and eventually expects to have a fleet of new Airbus A220 aircraft.