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SMALL AIRPORTS, PLANES AND PERKS
By Chris Barnett
June 17, 2010 -- A stew always warms the innards, so here's a crock pot full of small morsels to go with your soft drink, salted peanuts and pretzels--unless, of course, your airline of choice has scrapped all snacks to lighten its load and save fuel.

Thanks For the Memories
The fastest, cheapest flights between the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California are still Southwest Airlines' service between Oakland and Burbank (which has been called Bob Hope Airport since 2003). So cost-conscious business travelers in the California Corridor were bummed when Southwest recently said it was cutting service by 12 percent at the end of August. It turns out the Oakland-Burbank route only loses one of its 15 roundtrips daily. But Southwest is also dropping one nonstop each from Bob Hope to San Jose, Sacramento, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

The quick-in, quick-out Los Angeles regional airport still has just seven carriers: Alaska; American; SkyWest, flying regional jets as Delta Connection and United Express; US Airways; Southwest; and JetBlue, which offers three daily nonstops to New York/Kennedy. No new destinations have been added in some time and the last airline to join the Hope roster, Skybus, didn't last long. Still, the airport has its charms: Parking starts at $9 daily for an economy lot; valet service, with front-door drop-off and pickup, costs $30. Hope's TSA staffers are exceptionally friendly and a lot of showbiz heavies pass through security every day.

A United Squeeze Play
If the United-Continental merger clears the hurdles, you have to wonder if the "new" United will morph into an all regional-jet carrier domestically. It's no secret that the combined carrier's bigger aircraft will be dispatched on longer, more profitable (and mostly international) routes. After all, who would have thought Airbus A320s would be flying 2,500-mile non-stop transcons until United from Washington's Dulles Airport and JetBlue Airways from New York/Kennedy proved it more than a decade ago. Now, even smaller Boeing 737s are common on transcon runs, including by Continental from its Newark hub.

Still, an all-RJ domestic environment remains a scary thought. A few weeks ago, I was booked on a United Express flight from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. It was a 50-seat CRJ-200 operated by SkyWest--and it was delayed three hours. The lone ticket agent, who doubled as the gate agent, was snippy and annoyed when asked when the plane was arriving. "I have no idea," he huffed.

Ten minutes later, he said we could stand by for a wide-open flight to Salt Lake City that had 20 more seats. It was leaving in 10 minutes--from 10 gates away. An angry woman asked if her bag would be switched to the new flight, particularly since she paid $25 to check it. The gate agent/ticket agent didn't know.

A pack of us dashed for the new flight only to be told by another United Express gate agent that our original flight just taxied up to our old gate. We'd have a better chance of getting on that flight since we had reserved seats, we were told. Whaaaat?

Like a scene straight out of the Keystone Kops, we thundered back through a crowded terminal, our carry-on bags flying. And since a regional jet deplanes fast, our flight was already loading with United Global Services and 1K flyers getting the supreme privilege of boarding first by walking across the remnant of a red carpet. I couldn't resist asking the original ticket/gate agent how he could have no idea when our flight was arriving, yet 15 minutes later he was loading the plane.

His deadpan, unapologetic answer? "High winds in Denver."

Speak Low When You Speak Compensation
The return flight from Salt Lake City was five hours late, but it was on a roomier Delta Airbus A320, so at least the lost time wasn't followed by a couple more hours in super-cramped coach class. And here's a tip that makes being stranded at least bearable: Quietly ask for some compensation for your delay.

I waited until the Delta gate agent was alone and politely asked her--in barely a whisper--if the airline had a meal coupon. She smiled, walked me to another gate and pulled out a chit worth $12. The chit underwrote a California Pizza Kitchen chicken Caesar salad at the terminal's Wasatch Bar, which has several AC power outlets. It was manned by Kristina Nelson, a computer savvy bartender "studying to be CFO." Nelson helped me log on to the airport's free WiFi and then mixed, stirred and poured a powerhouse Manhattan.

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ABOUT CHRIS BARNETT Chris Barnett writes about business-travel tactics and strategies that save time and money and help minimize hassles. He is based in San Francisco and has written for a wide variety of major newspapers and national magazines. Barnett on Business Travel is syndicated by Creators Syndicate.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Chris Barnett in the spirit of free speech and to help encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Chris Barnett.

This column is Copyright © 2010 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.