Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sheer Speculation

So, it turns out that greedy speculators in oil futures may have been behind the spike to record-high oil prices in 2008, after all.

Just recently, the U.S.'s Commodies Futures Trading Commission declared that market supply and demand shape the price of oil - and gasoline - and the role of speculators in driving oil to $147 U.S. a barrel last July was overblown. But the Wall Street Journal reports today that speculators actually did it. Details will be revealed in an CFTC report next month, the Journal story said.

Airlines and aviation-industry groups such as the Air Transport Association (www.airlines.org) have been complaining for some months that the laws of supply and demand are repealed when the hustlers pile into the market.

The upshot for travelers when oil prices shoot up is reduced airline service, pared-back amenities, smaller and fewer planes and other inconveniences, as airlines - hurt in no small part by the high price of jet fuel made from oil - cut back their operations to contain their costs.

The critics may finally get some satisfaction.

The New York Times reports today that new CFTC chairman Gary Gensler, a Democrat, plans to be a more-active regulator than his Republican predecessor and quotes Gensler saying that the commission will have to seriously consider tightening regulation of individual speculators, to cap their market share and thereby limit their power.

It can't come soon enough for carriers like Delta Air Lines, the world's largest airline by passenger traffic, which describes itself as the world's largest consumer of oil after the U.S. government.

Testifying on behalf of Delta and the ATA at a CTFC hearing in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Delta senior vice president and general counsel Ben Hirst made some trenchant observations. Here are snippets from Hirst's testimony:

"In 2008 alone, U.S. airlines spent $16 billion more on fuel than they did the year before, despite the fact that we decreased our fuel consumption by more than 5 percent.''


"The speculative oil price bubble that began in mid-2007 cost Delta $8.4 billion in fuel expenses and hedge losses, compared with what we would have spent on jet fuel if the price of oil had remained at $60 a barrel. In addition, it forced us to reduce capacity by 10 percent and eliminate 10,000 jobs.''

And therefore:

"We strongly support strengthened regulation of the oil (speculation) industry.''

That day may be coming, and could arrive before the end of 2009.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Scout is Prepared: Swine Flu

The travel industry can be said to be at the forefront of monitoring and combating the H1N1 influenza - commonly known as swine flu. Airlines ping people around the planet at warp speed, hotels put travelers in close proximity with one another and with local staff, and cross-border travel advisories - or prohibitions, in severe cases - have a direct and drastic effect on travelers.

Hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, travel providers are gearing up for the fall and winter flu season. So far, the World Health Organization (www.who.int) estimates, about 430 people worldwide have died from H1N1, an exceedingly sparse number considering that hundreds of thousands of people die every year from garden-variety seasonal flu, by the WHO's own count. Still, worries persist that the flu could mutate in strange and scary ways, so preparations are afoot for an expected surge in swine flu.

According to the WHO, "Manufacturers are expected to have vaccines for use around September. A number of companies are working on vaccines, and have different timelines.''

Media reports say the UK government fears that up to one-third of the British population could come down with the bug.

In line with that, British Airways says it is monitoring its passengers for signs of the disease. BA staff are instructed to note any passenger who exhibits symptons. BA spokespeople don't say exactly how many people that adds up to so far, but allow that they have pulled aside a small number of travelers. "If they (BA staff) have any concerns about a passenger when they present for check-in, they have a 24-hour medical number to call and the passenger can then be checked,'' an airline spokesperson said.

Last month, the WHO raised its flu alert to phase 6 - a pandemic. But, as the United States airline trade organization the Air Transport Association (www.airlines.org) notes in a statement, "The definition of a pandemic is triggered by the geographical spread of disease; as WHO has explained, pandemics can range from mild to severe.''

In the meantime, WHO, ATA and major travel organizations such as the Pacific Asia Travel Association (www.pata.org) are urging travelers to use common sense and avoid traveling - especially in the confined space of an jetliner cabin - if they feel sick.

PATA, the WHO and America's Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are all posting H1N1 flu updates on their Web sites. For now, keeping close watch on ever-changing updates and carrying on with travel plans is the best approach to what the California Travel and Tourism Commission waggishly calls the swine flu "infodemic.''

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Green Shoots of Recovery?

After housing and automobile manufacturing, travel has been hit about as hard as any industry in America by the Great Recession. Airlines in particular are hurting, hammered by weak consumer demand, volatile oil prices and fears of a surge of swine flu come fall.

The most recent financial results, taken from the second quarter of 2009, show what might be - in the current phrase - the green shoots of recovery. That is to say some airlines actually made money in the generally dismal second quarter; not many, and they didn't make much, but any profit is cause for cautious optimism at this point.

Two of the six U.S. majors made money: US Airways, with a modest $58 million profit, and discount leader Southwest Airlines, with just a nudge more: $59 million. There were also money-makers among the smaller U.S. carriers: Alaska Airlines made $29.1 million, JetBlue Airways recorded a profit of $76 million and AirTran eked out a $78.4 million profit.

True, these gains were more than outweighed by losses at four of the six U.S. majors: Minus $213 million at Continental Airways, $257 million in losses at Delta Air Lines, a whopping $323 million shortfall at chronically ill United Airlines and an even more whopping $390 million loss at American Airlines, which announced nearly simultaneously that it will raise fees for checking bags for most economy class fliers on domestic routes.

Starting Aug. 14, travelers on American will pay $20 for the first checked bag, up from $15, and $30 for their second checked bag, up from $25. First-class, business-class, full-fare economy and frequent flier club members won't be charged. This fee rise is no coincidence, as loss-making airlines are finding adds-ons like these to be reliable revenue streams at a time when carriers can't raise fares as much as they'd like to for fear of further alienating customers.

What to make of this decidedly mixed-bag of financial results? Just this: Airlines have a long way to go to return to solid profits, but a start, however tentative, has been made. Air travelers have got to hope a recovery sets in and quickly accelerates, so airlines have money to restore slashed frequencies and routes, buy new aircraft and go back to bigger planes. Until they do, fewer, more crowded planes, fewer non-stop flights and ever-tinier aircraft with worrisome safety records will continue to be the new normal, with all the discomfort that implies for travelers.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sleeping in Airports

One of the funnier, and occasionally useful, Web sites out there is sleepinginairports.com, which is about exactly what the name promises: A running log of reader experiences about sleeping in chairs, on couches but mostly on the floor in airports around the globe.

The site is a novelty, of course, but an entertaining one that includes readers' photos, accounts of personal experiences and cartoons about airports. As with most collectively produced products, the results are uneven but if you are, say, stuck in an airport due to flight delays, security issues or missed connections, finding tips, commiseration from fellow travelers and dark humor can be a hoot. The site describes itself as "The budget traveler's guide to sleeping in airports'' and claims, rather implausibly, that "Airport sleeping is no longer just for the poor young backpacker. Nowadays, you'l find travelers of all ages and income brackets stretched out on airport floors around the world.''

Not because they want to, however. Only because disruptive thunderstorms and blizzards, mechanical problems with aircraft and late arrival to the airport have stranded these frustrated and angry people. The number of travelers with money who choose to sleep on the floor of an airport is perishingly small.

The site is nice to look at and smartly run in the sense that its originators have figured out how to attract attention on the Net: let unpaid readers do most of the work, post a lot of surveys and votes and make lists, lists and more lists.

The latest lists show what readers think are the 10 best and 10 worst airports to sleep in: The two best being Singapore Changi and Seoul/Incheon and the two worst Paris Charles de Gaulle and Moscow Sheremetyevo. Cleanliness, safety, physical comfort amenities like good food and the courtesy of airport staff are the leading criteria for selection, pretty much as you would imagine.

Some parts of the site are helpful. A reader suggests finding a place to rack out at no. 10-best Denver International by wandering up to the the relatively quiet mezzanine in the main terminal, for example.

Anyway, should you find yourself stuck and have oodles of time on your hands, you might fire-up the laptop and check it out: www.sleepinginairports.com. The only catch: getting from one of the terrible airports to one of the good ones means you'll have to fly.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

New Travel Deals for Summer and Fall

Consumer demand for travel is still lagging, so travel-industry providers are still offering deals for late summer and into the fall in hopes of fattening their bottom line. Details on deals are changing all the time, so if you book airfare, a hotel room, a tour or cruise, you should definitely read the fine print and make sure you're up to date.

At this writing, there are some enticing deals out there. I post these with the usual proviso: I am a journalist, not a travel agent; I don't sell anything and I don't have any business connections to travel providers. I'm passing on this information in case you find it useful:

* If you move fast - by midnight Eastern Daylight Time, tomorrow, Monday, July 20 - you can save up to 50 percent off rooms at a number of U.S. and international hotels and resorts operated by Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. If you don't know Starwood, you know their brands; St. Regis, Sheraton, W, Westin and Le Meridien among them. Deals are valid for travel till Oct. 12. Go to www.starwood.com.

* The stylish boutique-hotel operator Kimpton Group continues with a three-tiered sale, offering rooms at their properties in two dozen North American cities from $129 a night, $159 per or $179 per, pending on the city, plus a choice of $30 dining credit or free parking. The deal is valid for Thursdays through Sundays and runs till Sept. 7. (www.kimptonhotels.com).

* The airline that practically invented low-fare flying - combined with folksy humor, laid on thick - is offering getaway packages to Las Vegas. Southwest Airlines is the carrier, and fares and rooms are bookable through its unit Southwest Vacations (www.southwestvacations.com). Three-night packages at participating Vegas hotels - among them Bally's, New York New York, Luxor and MGM Grand - start at $55 per night. Added inducements include a free flight for a second person when you book a flight and hotel. If you stay three nights or more, you get one free night. The catch: Your stay can't include Fridays or Saturdays, and there are some blackout dates. The offer covers travel from Aug. 17 till Jan. 7, 2010, and must be booked by Aug. 10.

As always with big sales, only a limited number of airplane seats and hotel rooms are covered by the sale prices. That being the case, being as flexible as possible - about where you stay and when you travel - will help you land a good deal.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Innocents, Again

The Marriott Corp. thought it was winding up a bad week on Thursday when the company reported that its quarterly earnings fell 76 percent from the second quarter last year - a sign that travelers continue to wait out the Great Recession by staying home. Then, on Friday, the news got a whole lot worse: Twin bombings at the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jarkarta, Indonesia, killed eight people and injured dozens more.

Both properties are run by Washington, D.C.-based Marriott, which operates under a number of brands, including Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, Residence Inn and Courtyard.

The Jakarta hotel bombings were the latest travel-related outrage perpetrated by terrorists and the first major attack since last November's seige of two hotels and a railway station in Mumbai, India. This continues a trend in which innocent people - some of them tourists - are deliberately targeted by heartless killers intent on proving a political point.

Travelers have been targeted before, of course - often in states with Islamic military insurgencies such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Egypt - and the challenge of preventing more such attacks frustrates the leaders of the hospitality industry, who, understandably, don't want to weigh down their industry by adopting a fortress mentality.

But something must be done. Terror operatives - most of them hard-line Islamicists who have intensely politicized once of the world's major religions and clearly believe the end of establishing an Islamic caliphate justifies any means of getting it - have attacked tourists at Luxor, Egypt; Bali, Indonesia (twice); Mumbai (several times) and elsewhere. The Jakarta J.W. Marriott has been attacked twice now; a truck bomb killed 12 people at the hotel in 2003.

Those of us who travel in unsettled parts of the world have seen tough anti-terror measures. I have passed through metal-detectors at the entrance to hotels in Cairo and Istanbul and seen armed men with "Tourist Police'' stenciled on the backs of their shirts patroling tourist sites in Jordan. Clearly, however, resurgent and adaptive militants continue to be a threat.

What do do? We may have to embrace security measures once considered draconian, and image be damned, to protect the lives of innocents. Erecting standard metal detectors and searching cars appears to no longer be good enough.

Investigators say a branch of Indonesia's once nearly-obliterated Jemaah Islamiyah terror group may be behind the latest attacks, which were apparently carried out by suicide bombers who booked themselves into the hotels as guests and assembled the parts for bombs inside their rooms. Why those parts weren't flagged by hotel security is unclear.

Chris Brummitt, a reporter who heads the Associated Press' Pakistan bureau and has covered terror groups for some years, wrote in an AP dispatch Friday that "Expensive X-ray machines that detect explosives and intrusive searches of guest luggage may be the only way to stop a repeat attack, but they come at a price: Making properties that are supposed to be welcoming to weary travelers feel like prisons.''

Brummitt quotes terror specialist Paul Wilkinson, director of the Center of the Study of Terrorsm and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, as saying: "The authorities are not opposed to this, because they worry about the effect of the attacks. But hotel authorities and the tourist industry are a bit reluctant because they don't want the hotels to look like bunkers. But I think the more attacks we have of this kind, the more hotels will have to think about improving the protection.''

I think so, too. The traditional response of the travel industry and various and sundry tourist boards - deploring the violence and issuing a press release saying the trouble is over and everything is fine, come on by - is not enough. None of us would like the stepped-up security measures that may be be needed, but all of us would be better-protected should they be put into place. Being attacked by terrorists can ruin your whole holiday.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Newest Travel Deals for Summer and Beyond

Because travel consumers - that's us - aren't buying enough plane tickets or booking enough hotel rooms or taking enough tours, travel-biz providers are continuing to offer good summer deals - and some companies, anticipating a weak fall season, when things typically slow down anyway - are discounting for later this year, too.

Here are some interesting new travel sales. Bear in mind that I am a journalist, not a travel agent. I don't sell or book anything and I don't own stocks in travel companies. This travel news is strictly FYI, in case you find it useful:

* Starwood Hotels and Resorts - which operates well-known brands such as Sheraton, Westin, W and St. Regis - is discounting as much as 50 percent off regular room rates at 600 of its properties in the Americas and Asia. You must book by July 20 - Monday - for travel from July 16 through Oct. 12.

* Southwest Airlines is launching another airfare sale, on the heels of a previous sale just over a week ago. Cheap rates are available for travel from Aug. 18 to Nov. 18 and are good for flying on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. There are some blackout dates. Purchases must be made by July 30.

* Fellow discounter AirTran has a good fare sale, too. For example: Atlanta to Los Angeles for as little as $119 one-way before taxes and fees, and Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Orlando for as little as $69, also one-way and before taxes and fees. Tickets must be purchased by July 28 and there some blackout dates. Cheapest fares are on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.

* The Kimpton Group's chain of stylish boutique hotels, which operates in nearly two-dozen U.S. and Canadian cities, is offering online rates at www.kimptonhotels.com on three tiers: $129 per night (at Hotel Palomar, Arlington, Va., to cite one example); $159 (Hotel George, Washington, D.C., among others); and $179 (Hotel Monaco Seattle, among others).

* The travel-deal search company Travelzoo has flagged a new deal from tour company Friendly Planet (tel. 800-555-5765) for Vietnam, stopping in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi. Friendly Planet says the six-day deal includes air from Los Angeles on China Airlines, as well as hotels and city tours. Listed price is $999 per person, before additional taxes of $95 per. I don't know the company, but Travelzoo pegs the worth of this trip at about $2,000 per person. The tour is good for travel from Sept. 15 and must be booked by July 28.

If you tap any of these deals, and have feedback about them, I'd be interested in hearing it: david@wishyouwereheretravel.net.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Safety First

What 24/7 attention is for Sarah Palin, what money is to Bernie Madoff, what hemoglobin is for blood transfusions, safety is for airlines: The essential ingredient.

On the heels of Monday's scary, football-sized hole in the body of a 15-year-old Boeing 737 Southwest Airlines plane, frequent fliers can be excused for asking: What's going on in the sky?

Southwest inspected all of its nearly 200 of its Boeing 737-300s overnight, clearing them for take-off. But this incident can't be reassuring after Southwest and American Airlines were instructed in April 2008 to re-inspect hundreds of their aircraft for potential safety violations and Southwest was fined $7.5 million by the Federal Aviation Administration. In fairness, many industry observers thought that last year's crackdown was at least in part motivated by the FAA's desire to get Congress off its back when the bill to reauthorize and fund the FAA was pending - in other words, the agency wanted to look tough - but it's still a tad unsettling.

Just a few years ago, the world's commercial airlines went an entire year without a single fatality, a remarkable achievement. Compared to other modes of travel, flying is very safe.

Still, this has been a troubling year, with a FedEx cargo plane crashing at Tokyo Narita airport, killing two people; a commuter plane crashing and killing more people in Buffalo, N.Y.; and most mysterious of all, an Air France jetliner going down over the Atlantic Ocean on its way to Europe from Brazil. Authorities recently said they are scaling back the frustrating search for the underwater site of the Air France aircraft's data-rich black boxes, so we may never know what happened. That crash killed all 228 people on-board.

Then, too, a Yemeni airliner crashed last month over the Indian Ocean, killing 153.

On July 15, things got worse: A Russian-made Caspian Air passenger plane bound for Armenia crashed in Iran. The toll this time: 168 people gone, according to Iranian state media.

The causes of the crashes vary widely, including at various times, human error, faulty and antiquated eqipment and bad weather.

According to a report moved July 10 by Reuters, there have been 12 crashes this year involving fatalities, compared with 16 for all of last year. Still, this is on track to be an average year, according to the Wall Street Journal, which cited on June 30 statistics on crashes compiled by a London aviation consulting company called Ascend. Ascend uses as its leading metric the number of hull losses - "planes that end up totalled after an accident,'' according to the Journal.

This may be a useful technical measure, but it overlooks the sheer terror of falling from the sky, and ignores the measure that most people use to judge the severity of an accident: namely, the number of human beings who perish in an accident.

Plane crashes hold a special place in the topography of fear. Auto accidents kill many more people - tens of thousands every year in the United States alone. My wife and I just last year fortunately walked away from an auto accident that nearly totalled our car, and I can attest that auto accidents can be very frightening.

And yet, despite the fact that car crashes result in far more injuries and fatalities, plane crashes command our attention even more. Statistics on hull-losses that are meant to be reassuring are cold comfort.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Continental Drift

So, Continental Airlines this week won limited antitrust immunity from the U.S. Department of Transportation so it can it can launch a trans-Atlantic marketing and code share operation with three members of the Star Alliance: United Airlines, Air Canada and US Airways.

If the hook-up works as it's supposed to, consumers could benefit from coordinated schedules and access to partner airlines' airport lounges. Fares could fall, too, provided the deal helps the airlines reduce their operating costs - and crucially, that the cash-strapped carriers pass on some of those savings to consumers. Will they? I'd say definitely maybe.

Continental, which is withdrawing from the SkyTeam alliance led by Air France and Delta/Northwest, will join the Star Alliance on Oct. 25. That will allow Houston-based Continental to cooperate more broadly with the 20-plus Star members, in addition to the deal it has cut with the three aforementioned North American members of Star.

Star and SkyTeam are two of the three global airline alliances that have sprung up over the past 15 years; oneworld, led by American Airlines and British Airways, is the third big alliance.

Why should you care? Isn't this just inside-baseball, airline style?

No. These arrangments - which allow airlines to coordinate schedules, allow passengers to earn reward points on partner airlines and share airport lounges - can benefit travelers by making travel more truly global and eliminating inconveniences, like the need to change terminals when pressed for time to make a connecting flight. Oneworld members have moved from four terminals at London's Heathrow aiport, for example, into just two, while Star carriers have moved under one roof to share single terminals - check-in, lounges and gates - at Tokyo Narita and Beijing Capital airports. This is a real convenience for air travelers.

The three major airline alliances are actually substitutes for outright mergers. Airlines have wanted to merge into fewer but stronger carriers for years. But issues of antitrust, national security and national pride have kept most mergers from happening, especially cross-border actions. A few recent exceptions: Air France/KLM and Lufthansa/Swiss.

Objections to mergers are to some extent red herrings. Governments can commandeer aircraft in time of war, and while having a high-profile national flag carrier was heady stuff in the pioneering days of civil aviation just before and just after World War II, major airlines girdle the globe now and their branded aircraft are common sights on the runways of the world.

Antitrust issues are another story. When the USDOT gave the go-ahead for a trans-Atlantic deal to Continental and its partners, it made certain to scrutinize fares on certain routes where the carriers overlap. The department also stipulated that member airlines must report on their alliance activities every year to government regulators.

As it stands, alliances are halfway measures, but they do some good things. The outmoded rules limiting foreign ownership of airlines - only up to 25 percent in the U.S., for example - should be scrapped; they are outmoded in today's globalized world. In the meantime, consumers can benefit from the increased flexibility that global alliances give to airlines. Simply put, parliaments and regulators should take the protectionist blinders off and allow airlines to operate like other modern businesses.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

San Francisco Tourism Ramps Up, Recession or No

SAN FRANCISCO - One of the planet's perennially popular travel destinations is ramping up its $8 billion-plus tourism industry, recession or no. The idea, this city's tourism officials explain, is to innovate and market your way through tough times like these.

The San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau - a century-old organization that promotes tourism in the city by the bay - allows that hard economic times present plenty of challenges, yet it managed to announce good news at today's annual luncheon for bureau members and media. Visitors' spending actually went up in 2008, the SFCVB's numbers-crunchers reported, rising to $8.52 billion, an increase of 3.3 percent. Visitor numbers crept up, too; there were 16.4 million visitors to San Francsico in 2008, an increase of 1.7 percent from 2007, a prosperous year till the fourth quarter, when the recession began.

That's not spectacular growth, but the fact that growth happened at all is remarkable given the global economic meltdown that got underway in earnest last year.

Some of San Francisco's experience is specific to this city. But the continuing success of travel and tourism here in the teeth of the Great Recession may hold some lessons - and encouragement - for other places, as well.

Marketing, along with innovation and determination, drove the growth, according to SFCVB officials, who held forth at a packed luncheon today at Moscone West, part of the city's downtown convention center.

Over beef and crab cakes and California wines, the organization's president and chief executive officer, Joe D'Alessandro, ticked off the whys and wherefores of success.

Simply put, San Francisco markets the daylights out of itself. You may have seen San Francisco's advertisements in Conde Nast Traveler, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker magazines. Moreover, San Francisco has avidly embraced social media: The city is closing in on 100,000 followers on Twitter and promotes itself on Facebook. The SFCVB also has a lively, richly detailed and easy to navigate Web site: www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com, and created targeted microsites, such as the arty site www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com/artsf.

Of course, San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area have something to sell: Good weather, excellent food and drink, a diverse and lively populace, a lovely location and striking confluence of water and hills. The city continues to undergo a building boom, sprouting new skyscrapers - nothing to rival China or Dubai, but construction is holding steady. The old international terminal at San Francisco International Airport, closed since 2000, is being renovated for reopening as a domestic terminal. The superb California Academy of Sciences opened last year in a sparkling new, eco-friendly building in Golden Gate Park. A $5 billion mass transit center is in the works on the site of the well-worn Transbay Terminal. A long-promised (and long-delayed) cruise ship terminal is in the pipeline (fingers crossed). And a new art museum is set to open in the Presidio, a former military base with spectacular vistas overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.

Some of San Francisco's success is just dumb luck - those views, that location - but some comes about through a spirit of innovation and plain hard work that can be duplicated in other places, too. To cite another example - one shared by other smart, pro-active cities - San Francisco is adroit at landing blockbuster tourist attractions. Opening a few days ago at the de Young Museum is a glittering exhibition (through March 29, 2010) of ancient Egyptian artifacts: "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs.'' Concurrently, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is another big one: "Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities'' (through Sept. 7), showcasing the work of two great American photographers.

Many elements go into making a success, and getting it right isn't easy. San Francisco does it better than most. But marketing, innovation and determination can work anywhere - and help hurry along the end of hard times.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A New Declaration of Independence, for United

On this 4th of July, long-struggling United Airlines should declare its own declaration of independence - from Glenn F. Tilton, the chief executive officer, chairman and president of parent UAL Corp.. Tilton has had nearly seven years to get United to straighten up and fly right, and hasn't done it. It's time for a change.

Last weeks' computer meltdown at the start of the July Fourth holiday weekend at United's biggest hub, Chicago O'Hare International Airport, is just the latest of a long string of errors.

Tilton, airline-industry watchers will recall, became boss at United in September 2002, coming to the airline from Chevron Texaco after a long career in the oil business. In December 2002, Tilton led United - which bled some $5 billion in losses since mid-2000 - into Chapter 11 banruptcy protection. There it languished for more than three years, finally emerging from the Chapter 11 cocoon in February 2006, having off-loaded employee pensions to the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. and squeezed remaining employees for salary and benefits cuts.

The result? A smaller, angrier workforce, one prone to taking out their bitterness on their customers. I well remember the sarcastic "mahalos'' (thank you) from a flight attendant on a trip to Hawaii and the general air of disgruntlement that United workers have shown the traveling public over the past few years. Their attitude - rooted in helpless anger at Tilton and other top managers - has turned the once-friendly skies downright hostile.

Since emerging from bankruptcy, United has lurched from one crisis to another under Tilton's stewardship. It launched and folded a discount carrier within a carrier, called Ted. It tried and failed to merge with US Airways. Now, it is trying to launch a marketing and revenue-sharing agreement with Continental Airlines, a plan that may help United but must first pass the scrutiny of anti-trust regulators in the Obama Administration.

United needs all the help it can get, especially if it can't work closely with other carriers or merge outright, which Tilton, rightly, has long wanted to do. "Consolidation is the answer'' to United's problems, Tilton told me when I interviewed him at Beijing Capital Airport, during a Star Alliance meeting in 2007. He may well be right, but if the political and business skills to close a deal aren't there, the point will be moot.

Even though the entire airline industry has been flying through turbulence this decade, United's financials are much worse than average. The carrier eked out a rare profit of $403 million in 2007, but lost a thumping $5.34 billion last year. The first quarter of this year has been more of the same: a loss of $579 million.

Late last month, UAL issued $175 million in fresh debt, on which it is paying sky-high 17 percent interest; the industry average is just a bit more than 8 percent interest, according to Bloomburg. Reports the New York Post: "UAL was planning to sell the debt at 12.75 percent interest, but was forced to sweeten things due to both a lack of investor interest and management desperation, said analyst Roger King, of CreditSights.''

I have met Tilton several times. He is affable in person, gives you a firm handsake, looks you in the eye. He is a bright man and was successful in business before going to United, but his policies have failed United's workers, its shareholders and its retirees. Indeed, retirees have simply been devastated. I saw this first-hand: I interviewed pensioners who took major hits when United shed its pensions while reorganizing in Chapter 11. One husband and wife I interviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle had both worked at United; their past and their future were tightly tied to the struggling airline. To say they were worried is to understate the facts.

It's time for Tilton to go. United's employees deserve a fresh start, its shareholders deserve to see some black ink and the millions of travelers who fly on United deserve a better airline.