Shooting the Breeze:
Tales of Travel Now
THURSDAY, AUGUST 12, 2021 -- This is not the travel summer we expected.

Asia remains mostly closed. New Zealand said this week that we shouldn't expect its metaphoric doors to open until sometime next year. Australia locks down faster than the airlines raise prices. Florida and Texas are in the grip of ferocious new Coronavirus outbreaks and the respective governors seem intent on making sure you have the freedom to die for want of a mask or an ICU bed. The West is burning due to the extended drought. Europe? Yes, it's open, so long as you don't mind the flash floods, wildfires and 100-plus-degree days.

So while we wait for the numb nut politicians and Mother Nature to calm down--It was 120 degrees in Sicily one day this week!--consider these three tales of travel right now.

It is not the summer on which we were counting. But maybe it's the summer we should have guessed was coming.

SHOOTING THE BREEZE ABOUT BREEZE
When David Neeleman starts an airline, attention must be paid. After all, he launched JetBlue Airways, WestJet of Canada, Azul of Brazil and even bought into and revived the left-for-dead TAP Air Portugal.

And attention was paid to Breeze Airways when it launched 11 weeks ago. But let's be honest, Breeze has little to excite travelers--or generate publicity--beyond Hey, David Neeleman started a new airline! Its aircraft--Embraer E190/E195s mostly repurposed from Azul and other carriers--have neither WiFi nor entertainment systems. The fare structure is larded with ups and extras. Its route structure is built around nonstops between secondary and tertiary markets.

In short, Breeze is essentially the anti-JetBlue: unsexy, dull, derivative and working in backwater towns. And whenever you query Neeleman about this, the stock answer is: Wait until our new planes [Airbus A220s] arrive.

With so little to discuss 11 weeks in, Breeze hopes to generate attention with an old standby: a gigantic fare sale. It has revived its launch price of $39 one-way on dozens of routes, including Tampa-Louisville; Charleston-Columbus; Hartford-Pittsburgh; and New Orleans-Tulsa. You must purchase tickets by end of day August 16, but you can travel in a wide window (September 9 to February 14). Sale prices are not available every day, of course, but if Breeze's nonstops appeal, the base price is certainly right. Tickets are available at the Breeze Web Site.

Meanwhile, nothing else left to do but wait until Neeleman's A220s arrive ...

A SHERATON BY ANY OTHER NAME ...
Hanalei on the North Shore of Kauai is real South Pacific stuff. No surprise since much of the gorgeous 1958 flick was filmed there. The nearby Napali Coast was the craggy oceanfront star of the first Indiana Jones film. The beaches are rated among the loveliest and cleanest in the country. And Hanalei Bay is a jaw-dropping Hawaiian setting.

What doesn't belong in this contemporary paradise? A Sheraton hotel, of course. Therein hangs a long and costly tale.

Back in 1986, Sheraton opened the Sheraton Princeville Resort, a big, ugly, gawky property built into some of Hanalei's prime and prettiest Pacific perches. Still, quipped Los Angeles Times travel editor Jerry Hulse in a contemporaneous review, "I had a hard time deciding whether this was Princeville or Pittsburgh."

As the 300-room property cycled through owners, the name changed to the Sheraton Mirage and then just the Princeville Resort, Princeville being the name of a 9,000-acre community at the tip of Hanalei. In 2009, another new owner and Starwood Hotels, then the parent of Sheraton, spent $100 million and reimagined the resort as the St. Regis Princeville. The now 252-room resort was "an awful architectural execution that did not take advantage of its natural setting," carped Barry Sternlicht, who had created Starwood.

Sternlicht, who left Starwood Hotels and then created Starwood Capital--naming isn't his strong suit--bought the eyesore in 2018. He pulled the now-dowdy St. Regis out of the Marriott system--Marriott bought Sheraton and Starwood in 2016--and once again dubbed the property the Princeville Resort. (Like I say, Sternlicht really isn't big on names.) The property closed last year and is undergoing what Sternlicht claims is a $250 million transformation. The goal? Scrap the "stale chrysalis of the past" and turn it into a wellness resort as part of Sternlicht's 1 Hotels brand. (Honestly, Sternlicht is dreadful with names.)

Will this Sheraton-by-still-another name get better? Well, it could not get worse although transforming a Sheraton into something grand is no easy task. We'll know when it opens next spring as the 1 Hotels Hanalei Bay. Don't hold your breath, though. It may just all be another costly coat of lipstick on a very ugly Sheraton pig.

THE VARIANT AND THE VOLUME
If you have cancelled or deferred a trip lately, you are not alone. Despite the earlier whistle-past-the-graveyard confidence of the travel industry, the Delta variant is beginning to put a noticeable dent in travel volume and travel plans.

Exhibit One: In an SEC filing this week, Southwest Airlines says it shaved three to four points off its third quarter revenue projections issued just three weeks ago. The cause? Delta, the variant not the airline. The airline explained it "has recently experienced a deceleration in close-in bookings and an increase in close-in trip cancellations in August, which are believed to be driven by the recent rise in Covid-19 cases associated with the Delta variant."

Exhibit Two: a notable decline in U.S. hotel occupancy. Having reached a pandemic high above 70% late in June, average nationwide lodging occupancy fell to 68% percent for the week ended August 7. Average daily rate and the all-important revPAR (revenue per available room) are falling, too.

Exhibit Three: About a month ago, the TSA said that 2.2 million people passed through U.S. airport checkpoints, a one-day record for pandemic travel, which had fallen below 90,000 one day in April, 2020. Now travel is falling off again. This week, for example, checkpoint volume fell below 1.8 million for two consecutive days, the first time that's happened since mid-June.

And guess what? Travel will continue to slacken. Some of decline is seasonal--travel traditionally slows in late August--but some of it will surely be the Delta variant hammering an expected autumn revival of business travel. Many major corporations have slowed or delayed their return-to-office initiatives. That will crimp business travel and send lots of us scurrying back to Zoom instead of the airport.