Get me a room

Room service, get me a room! It hasn’t quite come to that, but with record-high occupancy rates predicted for summer, vacationers need to get busy and book. The luxury hotels below are a good bet, but even they’re filling up.

The James Chicago, opening this month, is a luxury/boutique hybrid. Suite-size rooms (the smallest is a generous 375 square feet) sport oversize couches and giant plasma-screen TVs. Service promises to be over the top, too, with two concierges and twice-daily maid service. It is a rare, pet-friendly luxury property and will, upon request, provide a pet bed, food and water bowls, a litter box, even a “pet in residence” door hanger, lest the maid startle Fido–or vice versa. Rates start at $250 (; 877-526-3755).

Acqualina in Sunny Isles, Fla.(a short drive north of Miami), is a 51-story Mediterranean-inspired high-rise also opening this month, and it exudes blingitude at every turn. Beds are decked in Rivolta Carmignani sheets and goose-down duvets, and the marble bathrooms are stocked with Lady Primrose amenities. Though many creature comforts are for grown-ups (they do, after all, pay the bills), younger guests are not out of luck. The “Fun in the Tub” amenity kit has a rubber ducky and bubble bath, and “turn down” service includes chocolate milk and warm chocolate chip cookies. There are toys for older guests as well: free hand-held GPS navigation devices with directions to local attractions. Rooms start at $425 (; 888-767-3966).

The 260-room St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco has all the touches you’d expect from an upscale hotel: custom-designed room furniture, including a 5-foot-long chaise longue, and laser-cut art made from Australian lacewood, plus deep soaking tubs and stunning city views. But how many hotel rooms also come with their own butler, who can help with everything from unpacking to dry cleaning? One butler even helped arrange a private tour of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Not that you need to go far to see expensive paintings: With $3.5 million worth of artwork on the walls, the St. Regis, which opened in November, offers a docent-led tour of the property. Rooms start at $399 (; 800-598-1863).

At the Regent Shanghai, which opened in November, guests are offered spa treatments as a welcome gift, including a back and shoulder massage. Little about this distinctive, 53-floor hotel is understated, particularly the centerpiece of its Shanghai V restaurant, Bohemian crystal lighting from the Czech Republic that looks like a dancing dragon. Rooms start at $150 a night (; 800-545-4000).

It isn’t unusual to see a yacht pull up to the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort’s private jetty–or for a chopper with a VIP guest to land on its private helipad. Monaco’s first new resort in 75 years combines high-class with high-tech. Regional ceramicists decorated the rooms, using colors inspired by the villages of the south of France–shades of white, beige, and ocean blue. But the guest rooms, loaded with tech toys, including in-room video-conferencing facilities, are equally part of the global village. Along the edges of the sand-bottom pool, guests sip the signature blue gin martinis, a mix of vodka, cognac, and passion fruit (; 800-595-0898).

US Airways ends with you

So long, US Airways.

Now that the nation’s seventh-largest carrier has filed for bankruptcy protection a second time in as many years, many industry-watchers give it only a few months before it liquidates.

Even David Bronner recently predicted it wouldn’t be saved from Chapter 11, and he ought to know. He’s the airline’s chairman.

But while most of the pundits are fixated on the reasons for US Airways’ likely demise, one question has gone largely unasked: Who is going to pay for this failure?

Certainly, its employees will.

Since 2001, the company’s rank-and-file workers have given up an unprecedented $1.9 billion in wages and benefits – reductions they willingly accepted in order to keep US Airways flying. When the airline goes belly-up, these loyal employees will also pay with their jobs.

But they aren’t alone. You’ll pay, too.

Let’s start with the big number: $1 billion. That’s how much money US Airways borrowed last year, supported by a $900 million federal loan guarantee, according to the Department of the Treasury. Although part of the loan has been repaid, the airline recently warned that it might default on the rest of it, according to a filing made with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Guess who gets stuck with the bill when US Airways goes belly-up? If you pay taxes, you will.

Here’s another number to ponder: $264 million. That’s the amount of aid the federal government gave US Airways after the Sept. 11 attacks as compensation for “direct and incremental losses incurred,” according to the airline. (True, US Airways made less money when Washington’s airports were slow to re-open, but the airline didn’t lose any planes on 9/11.)

It would be one thing if the government subsidies had actually helped the carrier recover from the terrorist attacks. The amount was far too generous for that. Instead, it just subsidized an unprofitable airline and postponed the carrier’s inevitable demise.

Who paid for the botched government bailout of US Airways? You did.

One more number to consider: $240 million. That’s what the Retirement Systems of Alabama, the pension fund for Alabama’s teachers and state employees, paid for a 37 percent stake in US Airways in 2002, an investment that helped the airline emerge from bankruptcy the last time.

That stake was reportedly valued at less than half that amount just before the airline filed for its latest bankruptcy protection. If the carrier folds, it will probably be all but worthless.

Guess who foots the bill for that? Sure, Alabama’s public employees do. But indirectly, so do the people who paid their salaries.

And if you live in Alabama, that would be – you guessed it – you.

Speaking of pensions, let’s not forget US Airways’ own retirement issues. The carrier recently asked for government permission to stretch out about $68 million in contributions it owes to its pensions over the next five years instead of the next 18 months. That would be a best-case scenario, actually. What if US Airways defaulted on its pensions – as United Airlines recently threatened to do – and then went under?

The government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. insures that retirement money. Actually, you do.

Remember the carrier’s jingle, “USAir begins with you”? Now it looks as if US Airways actually might end with you – with you paying for its complete failure to operate a competitive business.

As America’s travelers and taxpayers watch US Airways slowly die during the coming months, they should pay less attention to the pontifications of the analysts and the spin of the publicists, and more attention to who is going to be left to clean up this mess.

Who is going to cover the loan losses? Who will pay for the bailout that didn’t work? And what about the 27,848 suddenly-jobless airline workers who will be applying for unemployment benefits? Who’s going to pay up?


Waiting for Frances

If there is anything worse than being hit by a hurricane, then it must be waiting to get hit by a hurricane.

And if you live in Florida, you’ve been doing a lot of waiting lately.

It started in late July with Hurricane Alex, which appeared just north of Jacksonville and then barreled up the eastern seaboard of the United States before disintegrating in the cool waters of the North Atlantic.

Then there was Bonnie, who whipped through the Gulf of Mexico but lost momentum just before making landfall, faking out frightened residents of the Panhandle. Her brother Charley, who arrived a few days later, wasn’t so kind: he chiseled his way through the center of the state, taking 27 lives and inflicting $20 billion in damage.

Now we’re waiting for Frances, a slow-moving storm the size of Texas that, if the projections are true, will smash into Florida’s east coast anywhere between Florida City and Flagler Beach during the Labor Day weekend.

In Orlando, we have a front-row seat to hurricane season. If you plot the path of Charley on a map, it zigs up the state from Punta Gorda, cutting its way toward the Magic City before heading back out to sea near Daytona Beach. If you look at Frances’ projected path, she comes up the other side, crossing Charley’s route.

Put the two storm paths together and look where they intersect.

Right here in Orlando.

I know, it’s hard to feel sorry for anyone who lives here. We have year-round warm weather. We have the beach. We have Disneyworld. But you might want to make an exception for us, just this once.

The first clue that something truly horrifying is about to happen is that the tourists leave. They scurry back north, realizing that this isn’t the paradise they’d expected when they booked their dream vacations. What’s worse, they demand refunds on the unused portions of their hotel rooms and rental cars, leaving those of us who are dependent on these visitors to face our doom with a few more financial worries.

Tourists are a reassuring presence in Florida. Their absence makes us irritable and impatient.

Gone, suddenly, is that Midwestern politeness we’re often known for. As I wait in a long line at the gas station, it feels like 1973 again. Nervous motorist cut each other off, jockeying for what could be their last opportunity to gas up for the next few days. At one of the few remaining service stations that hasn’t run out of fuel, there is a police officer directing traffic – and making sure civility is maintained.

In the days before the hurricane hits, the supermarket is in chaos. Entire rows have been pillaged by would-be storm survivors. Water, batteries and beer are gone. An employee stands at the entrance, shaking her head as customers enter the store.

“No,” she says, “we’re out of that.”

At the hardware store, try asking for a gas canister, a generator or plywood, and you just get a laugh. Not a friendly laugh. A laugh that says: “You really ought to know better.”

The once-immaculate residential areas soon resemble a crack-infested inner city. Windows and doors are boarded up. There is debris on the sidewalk from the previous storm – broken fence posts, bent shutters and severed branches – waiting for the county truck that never came.

More disconcerting is the unnatural quiet. Many residents have packed their valuables into minivans and headed north in a giant, slow-moving caravan on Interstate 95.

Those of us who have survived a hurricane know that moving is often futile. We remember how people fled Hurricane Andrew in 1992, driving up to Homestead from the vulnerable Keys, only to be ravaged by the killer storm. And our grandparents remember the great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the train filled with refugees that was flung into the Florida Bay, and the hundreds who drowned or were impaled.

So we hold our ground as Frances approaches.

We watch the cyclone coming closer – her eye tightening, her winds accelerating, her speed slowing in order to inflict the most damage.

Frances looks unstoppable.

No amount of negotiating will change the fact that she is on a collision course with us.

There is only one last thing left to do. In the hours before the power inevitably goes out, I make sure a copy of my will is in a watertight lockbox – and I hope, I pray, it is an unnecessary precaution.

More fees, please

True, its executives are incompetent. Its service is inadequate. But grant our failing airline business this: it certainly is inventive.

I admit, I doubted America’s worst-run industry had any creativity left in it. Despite generous government loans and subsidies, at least one major airline, Delta Air Lines, is on the brink of bankruptcy. Another, US Airways, is reportedly close to insolvency.

But I was wrong, so very wrong.

In the middle of our summer vacation, when it apparently thought no one was paying attention, Northwest Airlines announced new fees that stunned most industry observers. The Minneapolis carrier said it would soon begin charging customers $5 extra for tickets booked through a phone agent, $7.50 for tickets bought through a travel agent and $10 for those purchased at an airline ticket counter.

The reason? It wanted to “lower its distribution costs,” and bring them in line with low-cost carriers such as Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways.

But it turns out some of us were paying attention.

And we are impressed.

In fact, after the initial shock of Northwest’s audacity wore off – after all, how many businesses actually charge their distributors to sell a product? – I now know what must be done.

Thanks to Northwest’s bold leadership, it’s clear that the key to the airline industry’s survival doesn’t lie in something as trivial as streamlining routes or improving operating efficiencies. No, the secret to its success, and perhaps even its profitability, is in adding more fees. Northwest estimates it will save $70 million a year with its new surcharges.

Don’t stop there, I say.

Why do airlines still give us free sodas and pretzels? That costs money, doesn’t it? Where in the airlines’ terms and conditions does it say anything about refreshments? In order to bring costs down, airlines must add a snack surcharge and start collecting it from their passengers.

The bone-dry cabin air can really make you build up a thirst, so I’m sure this fee would be a big moneymaker.

Then there’s luggage. Why do airlines check in so much of our luggage – 50 pounds worth of it – without charging us? Does FedEx give you the first 50 pounds of your packages for free? Does the U.S. Postal service allow you to send the first two parcels “on the house” before you have to start paying for stamps.

Of course not.

Come on, folks. There’s no such thing as a free ride – especially for the clothes you wear on vacation.

How about a fee to use the toilet? I’m not about to suggest the airlines make all of its WCs coin-operated. But maybe there’s a market for a lavatory with no line, upgraded soaps and hand towels. The kind of toilet that’s cleaned regularly, as opposed to once a week.

I’d pay money for that.

If the airlines start to depend on fees for profitability, I say raise the existing surcharges, and raise them high. Why charge only $100 to change a non-changeable ticket? It should be at least $200, because after all you’re changing something that can’t be changed, and that’s awfully difficult, isn’t it?

The same goes for the unaccompanied minor fee. I mean $40 is way, way too little. Considering how much trouble kids can be on a flight, and considering the going rate for a babysitter, airlines should double their fee. At least.

And what’s with the free movies? It used to cost $4 to watch a movie on a plane, and then airlines started giving away the headsets. Never mind that these films weren’t any good to begin with, but please, did the executives setting these policies sleep through Economics 101?

Here’s a newsflash: It costs at least $8 to see a movie in a theater. The airlines should take what is rightfully theirs.

There are so many wonderful opportunities for generating additional revenues, whether it’s implementing new fees or just increasing old ones.

Justifying the fees may be something of a trick, though. After all, the airlines are in the service industry, and at some point they’ll have to explain themselves to their customers.

Northwest’s reasons for the new service fees, for example, are absurd. It suggests that the new charges make sense because its low-fare competitors have similar distribution costs.

But they don’t. No other carriers had these fees before Northwest instituted them.

The airline’s recent actions also imply that its cost of selling tickets online is zero. That is also false. The carrier, like all of its competitors, has invested millions of dollars in its Web site over the years. Booking a ticket online costs it money, and if it wants to be consistent, it should also charge for reservations made through the Internet.

Northwest’s otherwise brilliant creativity is eclipsed by unfortunate lapses in logic. What it should have said is that it wants our money and is now going to help itself to it, thanks very much.

That’s OK. Impose the fees now, I say. You can always think of a reason later.

Serving itself

Travel is still thought of as a service industry. But someone must have forgotten to tell Craig Kobayashi, the Hawaiian Airlines pilot who recently refused to fly his plane from Honolulu to San Francisco with Joshua Gotbaum on board.

Kobayashi said he was “uncomfortable” having Gotbaum on his plane, even though he posed no security risk to the flight. It turns out the passenger, a court-appointed trustee overseeing the carrier’s bankruptcy reorganization, had tried to make changes to the pilots’ pension plan. Gotbaum ended up taking another flight.

Never mind that federal law doesn’t allow crewmembers to screen travelers for ideology (passengers can be removed if they’re deemed a threat to safety). Never mind, too, that the only comfort Kobayashi – or any other commercial airline pilot for that matter – ought to have been concerned with was that of his customers who, after all, are paying the bills.

The Hawaiian case is just the latest example of the travel industry forgetting why it’s here.

It isn’t just airline employees who have somehow convinced themselves that their companies exist solely for their benefit – not that of shareholders or, God forbid, even of travelers. Check into a hotel, and you’ll find much the same attitude: serve yourself and then, when you’re ready to check out, let us help ourselves to the money in your account. Ditto for car rental companies.

The American travel industry, which used to set standards for its exemplary customer service, has lost its way.

One of the most dramatic examples is in the skies. Today’s airline industry is just a shell of its former self. The legroom in economy class has shrunk to less than 32 inches of legroom from a standard of 34 inches since airline deregulation in the 1970s. Flight attendants – don’t you dare call them stewardesses – often don’t even come through the aisles to offer you a drink. They now claim they’re here to save your butt, not kiss it, and they jokingly refer to customers as “the enemy.”

The attitude extends to the boardroom, where bean counters make heartless cuts in wages and benefits (the apparent source of the Hawaiian pilot’s discontent). In short, everyone from the baggage handlers right up the line to the executives sitting in their corner offices seem to be in it for themselves, not the passenger. How else do you explain some of the recent labor disputes, the criminal compensation packages reaped by underperforming airline CEOs, that continue to dominate the news headlines?

Unfortunately, the “me-first” mind-set is infectious. “Help yourself” is a favored lodging industry term nowadays. The hotel clerk has devolved from the most articulate employee in the building, to someone who barely has a grasp of the English language, to … a machine.

Help yourself: check yourself into the hotel by sliding your credit card through the ATM-like machine in the lobby. Help yourself: Want breakfast? Go to the buffet, where there’s no server – don’t you dare call him a waiter – in sight. Help yourself: Ready to check out? Don’t bother coming downstairs to tell us how you enjoyed your stay. We’ll just slide the bill under your door and charge your credit card automatically.

Meanwhile, hotel executives are busy inventing new ways to help themselves to your money. How about a surcharge for an in-room safe? A fee to deliver a fax to your room? A charge for parking, or a special “resort fee” that covers everything from the coffeemaker in the room to the towels provided poolside? These are increasingly common charges, not to be confused with bizarre extras like an “electricity surcharge” to cover high power costs, or phone “connection” fees that are incurred every time you pick up the hotel phone.

But the one business that’s almost completely forgotten why it’s here is the car rental industry. In no other segment of the travel industry – not even airlines – are customers taken advantage of more than when they rent a set of wheels for their vacation or business trip.

Forget, for a moment, the long line customers have to wait in if they’re not frequent renters. The fun really starts when the rental agent tries to strong-arm a hapless motorist into buying expensive (and almost always unnecessary) insurance. And don’t hesitate, otherwise the car rental employee is likely to pull out photos of damaged cars and to ask, in a portentous tone of voice, “Do you want this to happen to you?”

No other industry has figured out how to routinely quote a base rate that’s nearly 25 percent lower than the actual cost of the product, and to do so legally. That’s right, when renting from a major airport, the cost of a rental car will be an average of 25 percent higher, once taxes, surcharges and extras are added on – and that doesn’t even include insurance and prepaid gas options.

Is it any wonder that almost every major customer-satisfaction poll reflects a growing disenchantment with the American travel industry? It is painfully obvious that the business has lost its way to the detriment of passengers, guests and drivers.

Fortunately, there’s hope. Ailing legacy airlines like United Airlines and Delta Air Lines appear to be having a change of heart by spinning off low-fare startups such as Ted and Song, which try to recapture the essence of customer service. Hotels from the smallest bed-and-breakfast to big chains such as Ritz-Carlton often surprise guests by bucking the industry trend – as do full-service car rental companies like Hertz and Avis.

But they are exceptions.

There’s an adage in business that if you don’t take care of your customers, someone else will. In the case of the travel industry, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.