The Mid-Summer Ketchup Catch-Up Column
THURSDAY, JULY 22, 2021 -- It's mid-summer and that means another epistemological debate over whether Hunt's or Heinz makes the best ketchup.

Wait a minute, I think I've gotten my notes mixed up. That's from my food file. Let me grab my business travel file ...

Ah, here it is. I'm writing a catch-up column to bring us up-to-date on all the important business-travel stories that have piled up these last few weeks.

Okay, okay, maybe that isn't as sexy as the ketchup thing, but I assure you that the items are things you'll need to know before you hit the road again.

Alitalia dies on October 14. But why should this shock you? Alitalia has already died twice before only to return the next day, helpless, hopeless and rudderless as ever. Perhaps some background would help explain the weirdness that will be Alitalia IV, due to launch October 15.

The original Alitalia was founded in 1946 and never made money save for one quirky year. It eventually collapsed under its own weight--and the weight of preening politicians and featherbedding unions--in early 2009. The second Alitalia, merged with equally bankrupt Air One, launched the next day with a new corporate structure. It even suckered Air France-KLM into taking a 25% stake. But Alitalia II never made any money, either, and collapsed on December 31, 2014. But on New Year's Day, 2015, Alitalia III launched, this one 49% owned by Etihad Airways of Abu Dhabi. This version crashed into bankruptcy in 2017. Etihad disappeared and the operation continued to be propped up by the Italian government.

Alitalia III will die on October 14. The next day, a new airline momentarily called ITA (Italia Trasporto Aereo), will launch. Although it's all a little hazy now, this new public company will almost surely buy and adopt the Alitalia name and take some of its planes and operations.

But Alitalia IV seems as doomed as its predecessors. Political pressures force it to hub at Rome, Italy's capital. That's good for politicos and tourists, but there's no profit there. The money is in Milan, Italy's fashion, financial and industrial capital. But Alitalia IV won't be operating from Malpensa, where long-haul flights can operate. It'll start a secondary, regional hub at Milan/Linate. Overall, there'll be many fewer employees, many fewer aircraft, many fewer domestic flights--Ryanair, EasyJet and Italy's high-speed rail network dominate that market--and many fewer international routes. Flights to New York, Boston and Miami will survive, but Alitalia III's other U.S. gateways are surely gone. Also gone: The MilleMiglia frequent flyer program and, possibly, Alitalia III's membership in SkyTeam.

I warned you last week that the airport club landscape was shifting quickly. I also told you that Plaza Premium was the operator to watch. Just like that I'm looking good: Virgin Atlantic this week finally reopened its Clubhouse at New York's Kennedy Airport and the new manager and operator is Plaza Premium. When Virgin Clubhouses in Boston, San Francisco, Washington/Dulles and Johannesburg reopen, Plaza Premium will also be in charge. What's it mean? Hard to say, but chances are Clubhouses eventually will open to day-pass buyers and Amex Platinum Cardholders during non-flight hours. And Virgin has so few flights these days, there are a lot of non-flight hours. Stay tuned.

I'm not old enough to remember Beirut when it was the Paris of the Middle East. I missed Tehran and Damascus, too. When was the last time you were in Moscow? And, man, I regret not going with Travel Insider David Rowell when he organized a trip to North Korea. All these places seem lost to us. And now, I fear, so is Hong Kong.

Astonishingly, traffic at Hong Kong International remains down nearly 98% from pre-pandemic times. Cathay Pacific's passenger volume was off almost 99% in June compared to June, 2019. Yet travel is not the main threat. It's China. The Chinese government is studiously dismantling the "one country, two systems" arrangement that was supposed to guarantee Hong Kong's social freedom for 50 years after the 1997 handover. Dissent is now classified as a "security threat" and the free press is being silenced. This week China went even further: It arrested the top editors of Apple Daily, the independent paper it drove out of business last month. And a new brain drain looms as Hongkongers of means and with the right passport flee the city.

I'm really gonna miss Hong Kong. It was one of my favorite cities.

No comment from me. Just read this astonishing report from Dr. Brytney Cobia of Grandview Medical Center in Birmingham, Alabama.

"I'm admitting young healthy people to the hospital with very serious COVID infections," she writes. "One of the last things they do before they're intubated is beg me for the vaccine. I hold their hand and tell them that I'm sorry, but it's too late."

The Department of Transportation wants you to know average domestic airfares in the first quarter fell to $260, down 50.9% from $530 in the first quarter of 1999. Of course, the DOT doesn't mention "fares" no longer include two checked bags, free seat selection, complimentary in-flight meals and padding on the seats. And, of course, coach today has as little as 29 inches of legroom compared to 34 inches back in the day. If you want 34 inches of space now then you must pay for premium economy. But, you know, "fares" are down, so all must be right with the world, right?