Travel in the Time of Merger

The airlines are discussing deals. How to protect your luggage and why to spend your miles.

By the time you read this, two or more of the Big Six airlines may have announced a merger. Or a series of them. Or they may have jointly declared that they are combining into the Big Red One. Or they may have done nothing at all.

As the six traditional carriers-American, United, Delta, Continental, Northwest, and US Airways-enter a period of frenzied negotiations, there's smoke, mirrors, sound, fury, bread, circuses, heat, light, and a torrent of conflicting and spectacularly ill-informed media analyses.

As I explained several columns ago, mergers are never good for airline customers and rarely work out for the airlines either. Having flown through two previous merger waves-the mid-1980s orgy when about a dozen deals were consummated, and the pre-9/11 mating season when just one notable combination was completed-I predict we'll see confusion and service disruptions. But we business travelers can mitigate the pain-a little. Here are my hard-won tips for traveling in the time of merger.

Ignore Everything You Read and Hear
Airline mergers are the spectator sports of the business media, and everyone from the local beat reporter to the network news correspondent who just parachuted in has an angle or an ax to grind. They'll all dig up quotable "experts" who haven't gotten it right since the Wright brothers. Do yourself a favor and ignore all the bloviating. There isn't a human being on the planet who knows what the industry will look like a month from now, so they certainly don't have a clue about what we'll be facing a year from now. And a year is probably the earliest that any merger announced now could actually take effect after the requisite Justice Department reviews, congressional hearings, and labor-management grandstanding.

Learn the Jargon
The folks who work at the airlines can't afford to be as sanguine about the daily play-by-play. Their lives and livelihoods are seriously impacted by the fine points of any combinations, and they'll be busy worrying about themselves, not you. To get the information you need to survive on the road, you'll have to learn how to speak airline jargon.

One example: When you don't see your plane at the gate, don't ask the agent if the flight is on time. Ask, "Where's the equipment?" That will force the agent to go to the computer and find out where your aircraft is and when it will actually arrive. If the plane is already at the gate, ask, "When are we scheduled to push back?" Looking for an upgrade? Don't blindly inquire about your chances. Ask, "How are the loads today?" The agent will tell you how many seats are empty and your number on the upgrade wait list.

How do you learn the jargon? Listen to how airline employees talk to each other. Use it properly and employees will assume you know more than you really do-and they'll respond with more information than they volunteer to average fliers.

Lose Your Business Card
Frequent fliers often laminate their business card into a luggage tag and then attach it to their checked bags. Lose that habit immediately. When things get ugly in post-merger-announcement labor negotiations, disgruntled luggage handlers have been known to slice off the business cards and routing tags and send your bags to oblivion. Why target business bags? The luggage guys know that those bags probably belong to high-yield, high-profit customers, the ones most likely to complain to airline management about their treatment. Whether the tactic works as a negotiating ploy is questionable, but the effect on your luggage is undeniable.

Drain Your Mileage Accounts
I've never been a fan of "banking miles" in your frequent-flyer program accounts, but a merger environment should convince you not to leave any unclaimed awards on the table. As the six carriers contract, they will merge their programs too. That will reduce competition among the frequency plans and allow surviving carriers to increase the number of miles you need to claim a free seat. We may not know which airlines will be merging, but we can safely assume that a mile next year will be worth less than it is now.

Keep Pursuing Elite Status
On the flip side, it's probably wise to continue pursuing elite status with your current carriers. For one thing, if you reach the required status levels during 2008, you're credentials and benefits kick in immediately. And the status you accrue for 2009 isn't likely to be revoked after any merger. In fact, airlines that merge generally go out of their corporate way to appeal to their existing elite fliers. Mergers may decrease the value of the status in the coming years, but elite fliers always do better than run-of-the-mill travelers.

Be Wary of Interim Partnerships
When airlines announce a merger, they often try to mitigate the long legal- and political-vetting processes with interim marketing partnerships on routes, reservations, and other procedures. The goal, of course, is to make the merger seem real, long before it has been approved. The problem is that very few employees at the not-yet-merged carriers seem to get the memo. So don't put any faith in the partnerships announced in the interregnum. Continue to deal with each airline directly rather than relying on the inter-carrier marketing arrangements. If you don't, you're likely to find that the reservation you made with Soon-to-Merge Airline A to fly on Soon-to-Merge Airline B has disappeared into the ether and you have no seat on either carrier.

The Fine Print.
If you must handicap the current merger game, focus on Northwest Airlines. It holds a "golden share" in Continental Airlines that gives Northwest the right to block any merger agreement involving Continental. (Northwest got the share in 2001 when it sold its stake in Continental.) But the moment Northwest is involved with a merger, Continental can redeem the golden share for a $100 fee and be free to pursue its own combinations.

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