What I Learned
On the Road in 2019
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 19, 2019 -- The moment you stop learning from business travel--or, for that matter, any travel--is the moment you stop doing it. If you're not learning, after all, why bother?

Depending on how you date it, I've been traveling for 43 (business) or 53 (leisure) years. I am still learning, so I keep doing it.

Here's some of what I learned on the road in 2019.

This was American Airlines' annus horribilis: plummeting on-time performance; appalling cancellation levels; mindless squabbles with its mechanics; deteriorating frequent flyer program; and a continuing plunge in service and in-flight comfort. And American is getting away with it. The online chatter over the future of chief executive Doug Parker was always meaningless, of course, because it is clear that American as a company will pay no penalty for its all-around awfulness. And if it isn't being penalized for being terrible, why would American fiddle with its C-suites? In retrospect, there was no reason to think otherwise. Where are we going to go when we get fed up with American? With just two other full-line competitors and a smattering of others, we don't have the luxury of choosing an alternative on most runs. American will keep serving up crap and calling it Champagne and there's almost nothing we can do about it.

You know Newton's First Law of Inertia: Bodies at rest tend to stay at rest and bodies in motion tend to stay in motion. I've long had a corollary: Bureaucracies act until they are stopped and then you can't get them to move again. As proof, I give you the Boeing 737 MAX. I thought it wrong to ground the MAX variants flown by American, United and Southwest because they had safety features not installed on the Lion Air and Ethiopian versions that crashed. But now that the FAA bureaucracy has put the planes on the ground, there's no reason to think it'll move again. Some people thought me curmudgeonly for saying the planes wouldn't fly again until the fourth quarter. Yet this week brought still another series of MAX delays--Boeing even decided to stop making and stockpiling new ones--and there's no chance the planes will fly again until at least March. And because I believe Brancatelli's First Law of Bureaucracy, I won't be shocked if the MAX is still grounded this time next year.

Everybody uses Uber and Airbnb, right? Um, no. I've never been in an Uber. And while I've used VRBO for years before the rise of Airbnb, I'm not a big fan of Airbnb's any-hovel-can-be-shared concept. But it doesn't matter what I do. The way the world is using Uber and Airbnb shows the "sharing" economy is a lie. Both companies are economic nightmares. Airbnb losses doubled in its most recent quarter and no rational person thinks it can tart up its figures if it sticks to its plan to go public next year. Uber has lost nearly $7.5 billion in the last three quarters and no one expects a profit in 2020. Uber shares closed at $29.99 today, down from May's IPO debut price of $45. How is that anything like sustainable? And this is with both companies working in a nearly regulation-free environment. Imagine what happens when governments and citizens fully rein in the most destructive aspects of these firms. Uber admits to about 6,000 incidents of serious sexual assaults in the United States in 2017 and 2018. That's more than eight a day. Airbnb finally banned party-house rentals this year, but its deleterious effect on everything from residential housing stock to sustainable tourism has yet to be addressed.

My friend Joan, an infrequent traveler, once gently lectured me about going to the same places over and over. I didn't dismiss her comments, but old (and happy) habits are hard to break. Yet this year I made a real effort to get away from places where I have frequently visited. In fact, especially in Italy, one of my favored haunts, I've gone out of my way to find places where few tourists go. It reminded me that travel is never about buildings or places--or familiarity. It's about people and the lives they live. And the best way to learn about people and their lives is to go where tourists have not warped day-to-day routines. Sometimes, it just takes moving your base of operation to a neighborhood that tourists don't favor. Or as I discovered in September, you can do it by getting off the train at a random stop.

It's hard to point to a single program more popular with travelers than Global Entry. For a fee of $100 that covers five years--a tariff frequently reimbursed by one of your credit cards--you get Customs and Immigration bypass and TSA PreCheck to boot. But getting a new Global Entry approval--or, heaven forfend, renewing after inadvertently letting it expire--has been something like a nightmare this year. First it was the government shutdown at the beginning of the year. Then some Customs agents were sent to the southern border. So many, in fact, that several Global Entry offices were shut down for months. Regardless of how you feel about the Trump Administration's border priorities, surely you'd have to agree that it made zero sense to penalize a smart, convenient program like Global Entry, which was created to help fight terrorism. Forcing trustworthy Americans into the general Customs lines and TSA checkpoints doesn't help anyone. Not us individually, not us as a nation--and not the overworked Customs agents at the airports supposedly tasked with keeping out terrorists and unsavory visitors.

This one is a late entry: Delta Air Lines this week sheepishly rejoined the ludicrously named Airlines for America trade group. You aren't likely to recall that Delta departed the lobbying organization--once sanely named the Air Transport Association--in a high-profile snit in 2015. Delta's complaint: It wasn't getting satisfaction or fair treatment. Delta huffed and it puffed and it published any number of papers explaining that it was right and A4A wrong. Other A4A members--including Alaska, American, JetBlue, Southwest and United--shrugged their collective and metaphoric shoulders and had dead-eyed leaders explain to Delta that it was the organization's way or the highway. Delta has caved--apparently learning the lesson that you just can't talk to airlines or reason with them.

A note to readers: Breaking news notwithstanding, this should be the last Brancatelli File of 2019. I wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Prosperous Kwanzaa and a Happy New Year. I'll be in Lisbon, Amsterdam and Dublin looking to learn new things and see how people there are living their lives. Let's meet back in this space on January 8.