What Have We Learned
These Last 18 Years?
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 26, 2019 -- At 4:44am ET on Friday, September 28, 2001, I walked away from my computer and dragged trash to the curb for the morning pickup. Thus ended the birth of the first edition of Joe Sent Me.

As those of you who received my E-mail a few moments before the trash drag might recall, the first Joe Sent Me wasn't much. A fresh Brancatelli File and new Tactical Traveler laboriously cobbled together and pasted in place of photos of my infant niece that I'd posted on the now-dead ZyWeb.

I expected Joe Sent Me, such as it was, to last a month, to fill the gap created after 9/11 when commercial publishers ran and hid rather than serve business travelers.

Eighteen years later, still waiting. Still running this technologically challenged, barely-a-blip-on-the-radar little collective of dedicated volunteers who write for bedraggled communities of wandering business people.

Eighteen years later, however, business travel is remarkably different than it was in those dreadful days immediately after 9/11 and almost unrecognizable from those ancient years after the 1978 deregulation. Martin Deutsch was telling me yesterday about invitation-only, candlelit dinners on the upper deck of Pan Am 747s. That bears no relation to the life on the road I was living in the 1990s and is a prehistoric curiosity in today's business travel environment.

This is a long-winded way of saying, 18 years after we began, that it's time to take stock. While we work the minutia to survive day-to-day on the road, the big stuff sometimes slips by unnoticed. Here's my best shot at summarizing the last 18 years.

The infrastructure of business travel--flying, lodging, ground transportation, payment systems, dining--remains. Yet everything about that infrastructure has been existentially altered by technology. We can track aircraft in flight in real time on dozens of Web sites. Ride-shares have obviated the need for most car rentals. Our phones have replaced dozens of other devices and procedures--and do what we need faster, cheaper and more simply than what went before. Sustenance from anywhere can be ordered and delivered anyplace. Hell, we don't even get lost anymore since Google Maps guides us every literal step of the way. Yesterday, for instance, I effortlessly mapped dry cleaners near my Lisbon lodging and some luggage shops near a Dublin hotel.

The travel industry has shown these last 18 years that it views loyalty as strictly transactional. All it cares about is your dollars now. Yesterday and tomorrow mean nothing. We business travelers have been slow to understand that, blinded as we've been by "loyalty programs" that dangle an often-illusory payoff. But we see it now. In the long run, we win in a loyalty-free world because it frees us to make the best choices for ourselves every flight and every hotel along the way.

In a world where our leading lodging chains each have dozens of brands--Hyatt introduced another one yesterday--hotels have successfully done what airlines have not: At each few dollars along the pricing spectrum, lodging organizations have developed a unique concept and set of services. For decades, we were all squished into the "full service" niche, paying inflated, all-in prices for everything from bellmen and meeting rooms to on-site restaurants and room service. Now we can tailor our lodgings to our own needs on each and every trip. And usually pay less. Personally, if I never see a bellman again, I'll be fine.

The history of airliners will eventually conclude the obvious: The Airbus A380 is the Edsel of the skies. It's not that the plane itself is awful: It's fast and quiet and, in a different reality, might have solved some air-congestion issues. But Airbus has admitted the aircraft could never make money, the airlines didn't really commit and airports tied themselves in knots to accommodate a relatively small number of these unique planes. The essential problem with the A380 was its major selling point: It could move 500-to-800 people at once from one place to another. That's a laudable strategy, but, tactically, nothing in our business travel infrastructure was prepared for it.

Several years ago, an airline executive told me he was retiring because he didn't want to work in an era where narrowbody aircraft flew 4,000-mile routes. "These new aircraft change everything and not for the better," he explained. On a superficial level, he's wrong, because smaller aircraft like the Airbus A320neo series and the MAX versions of the Boeing 737 allow airlines to offer hub-avoiding nonstops on "long, thin" routes. (That's airline jargon for connecting two points that don't have enough demand to fill a widebody.) But my now-retired friend was looking at the obvious: 200 or so people stuffed into a smallish, single-aisle plane that flies for eight or nine hours. The future is not a spacious one in the skies, unfortunately.

Sometimes it takes 18 years to see the obvious: There I was last Thursday, at Paris/CDG, in a holding pen for priority passengers. I looked to my left and there were four or five other holding pens of less-privileged flyers waiting to board the same aircraft. We weren't moving, just standing in line, herded into pens, waiting for a higher power to allow us to proceed. "We've become sheep," I scrawled on the back of my boarding card. "We've allowed ourselves to be shepherded to an arbitrary spot. We stare blankly ahead, waiting." This, sadly, is business travel in 2019.

Before I dragged out the trash 18 years ago, I wrote a batch of words that became the first Brancatelli File to post here. I am insanely self-critical of my work, but I am intensely proud of those words. And it pains me deeply to know that we've made so little progress these past 18 years.

I will repeat now what I said then: All we have is our diversity--and our allegiance to a set of beliefs. We are free only because we are all free. We are equal only because we are all equal. We are Americans only because we say we are.

If Joe Sent Me has stood for anything these past 18 years, it has stood for those words, scribbled in the middle of the night during some of our darkest days on the road.