Were fond of beating up on the airlines for being lemmings, matching each other, marching in lockstep, boring us with sameness.

Weve hurled the same accusations at a few cruise lines, too. Some ships look an awful lot like a lot of other ships, inside and out -- and so do their itineraries.

And in the hotel business, its still possible to march blindfolded into a standard double, take off the blindfold, and have no clue whether youre in big chain like Hyatt or an even bigger chain like Marriott.

Fortunately, some of the big names in hotels figured out a while ago that they were getting boring. Maybe it started with Starwood and its Heavenly Beds or Kimptons understanding of style. Whatever the catalyst, there seems to be a frenzy of product differentiation going on in the lodging business. Its done wonders for the manufacturers of upscale bedding, high-fashion lighting fixtures, ergonomic chairs and flat-panel TVs, not to mention the well-being of hotel guests.

At the same time, consolidation is allowing the industrys big franchising firms to find new niches. Just in the last few weeks, Cendant acquired the Wyndham brand, giving it a foothold in the upscale category, while Choice acquired Suburban, giving it a leg up in the economy extended-stay segment. And thats just last months deals.

New brands have been sprouting all year. Horst Schulze, the former Ritz-Carlton CEO, is starting two.

As a result of all this activity, hotel companies are getting bigger, extending their reach and becoming more profitable. Its an exciting time for hoteliers.

And here is the really good news for hotel guests and believers in capitalism -- the U.S. hotel product, despite consolidation and homogenization, has been steadily improving. Its never been easier to find a decent hotel in the U.S. Thats something we could easily take for granted, particularly the younger generation of todays travelers.

As you travel the interstates or make your way between various cities and their airports, notice the choice of accommodations.

Even in small cities and out-of-the-way places, youll see nationally recognized name brands, new structures and clean and secure facilities, with amenities and technology that often go well beyond basic. Its getting harder and harder to find the nasty surprises that previous generations of motel patrons used to dread.

This may be one reason for the hotel industrys recent focus on lifestyle issues and personalized amenities: Its ready to raise the bar because everybodys got the basics down pretty well.

If only the airlines could follow.


In the previous century, Delta was ready when you are. A more recent version might have said Delta is ready when you are -- if there are enough of you, but we barely had time to crack jokes before Delta wised up and dropped its experiment in ad-hoc scheduling.

Aside from the obvious lessons this episode offers to aspiring public relations professionals, Deltas actions offer a glimpse into a fundamental dilemma of airline operations: the indivisibility of airplanes.

If you have a 100-seat airplane and five passengers (or 105), you cant roll out the mini-version because there isnt one. Youre stuck with 95 empty seats or five unhappy people (or both).

We cant blame Delta for trying to find a way out of this jam, but we can blame Delta for botching the effort.

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