Thursday PM January 10th, 2008

Alaska governor nixes ConocoPhillips pipeline proposal...Continental Airlines baggage handlers and cargo agents vote against unionization for third time...Disappointing holiday sales figures indicate shopping season to be even worse than expected for retailers...

Governor Sarah Palin has turned down a natural gas pipeline proposal submitted by Houston-based ConocoPhillips. The state submitted bids for the right to build a pipeline last November. ConocoPhillips' application was outside the scope of the state's bid requirements, but the company billed it as an alternative to the state's Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, or AGIA. Last week, Palin said Transcanada Alaska Company/Foothills Pipelines was the only bid of five that matched the state's requirements. Palin notified ConocoPhillips that she was rejecting the bid. In a letter to the ConocoPhillips' CEO James J. Mulva, Palin wrote, "your alternative does not give the state a reason to deviate from the AGIA process.'' ConocoPhillips could not immediately be reached for comment.

Baggage handlers and cargo agents at Continental Airlines have voted for the third time in about as many years to reject a union's bid to organize them. The Transport Workers Union was seeking to represent about 7,900 ground workers. Voting began in December and concluded Wednesday. The vote count was not immediately disclosed. TWU officials said the Continental ramp workers are the largest group of nonunion employees in the heavily organized airline industry. In 2006, the TWU got more than 3,300 votes but fell about 300 short of the majority needed for approval. Votes not cast are in effect a vote against the union. The TWU also lost by a narrow margin in 2005.

Continental Airlines carried nearly 3.96 million passengers in October 2007—4.7 percent more than in the same month in 2006, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines carried 8.52 million in the same month—also a 4.7 increase from the same month last year. Fort Worth-based American Airlines shuttled 8.18 million passengers.

Disappointing sales figures are showing the holiday shopping season to be even worse than expected for many of the nation's retailers. The figures are raising more concerns about consumer spending. Sluggish results are evident in retail categories across the board. Particularly hard-hit are clothing retailers including The Limited and Pacific Sunwear. Houston-based Stage Stores sales were down 3.8 percent during the five-week, end-of-year shopping period. Wal-Mart is one of a few bright spots. The company has posted results that exceed Wall Street's expectations. Shoppers have been looking for cheaper stores amid high gas prices and a slumping housing market. A retail analyst says the numbers show a definite "consumer spending slowdown'' but adds that retailers could see a boost from gift cards in this month's figures. Retailers don't record sales of gift cards until they're redeemed.

The chief executive of Blockbuster says DVD rentals should be helped early this year by everything from high gasoline prices to the Hollywood writers' strike. James Keyes said the outlook made him confident that Blockbuster can meet covenants imposed by its lenders "in the first quarter and going forward.'' Keyes also says Blockbuster is weighing whether to jump into the kiosk business, setting up movie-rental vending machines inside stores. Blockbuster investors have been a restive group. The Dallas-based company's shares have fallen in three of the past four years as it battled against cheap DVDs sold at Wal-Mart and other stores. Blockbuster's online business lost money in an effort to catch Netflix. Last month, Blockbuster raised subscription rates for some of its remaining 3.1 million online subscribers--it won't say how many. Keyes also said Blockbuster can boost its traditional in-store rental business by doing a better job of keeping hot titles in stock.

The chief executive of Best Buy says he's "nervous'' about being able to supply customers with the millions of digital TV converter boxes that will be needed in just 13 months. That's when the government pulls the plug on analog TV broadcasting. Television stations will turn off their conventional signals February 17th of next year. After that, they'll be broadcasting in digital only. More than 14 million viewers with old sets who receive their signals with an antenna instead of cable or satellite will have to buy converters. The cost is expected to be $40 to $70. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has begun accepting requests for coupons that should cover most of the cost.

With their walkout extending into a 10th week, striking television and film writers are still picketing. Hundreds of them gathered in New York in front of the offices of Viacom, including some writers who have seen their shows return to the air without them. Viacom is the owner of Comedy Central--on which Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have resumed their late night comedy shows, without their writers. Without writers, the Golden Globes ceremony has already been reduced to a news conference. And the strike has left the fate of this year's Academy Awards in doubt. One veteran writer, Terry Curtis Fox, says there should be no union waiver allowing the Oscars to be handed out as usual. He says the event is a big "marketing campaign'' that's designed to "sell movies.'' But a writer and producer for "Saturday Night Live" says he's hoping for an exception for the Oscars. Steve Higgins says it's "bigger than any strike or dispute.'' SNL cast members Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers and Andy Samberg were among those on the picket line in New York.

Dallas-based Western International plans to develop two new hotels and a restaurant in a master-planned business park near Bush Intercontinental Airport, according to the Houston Business Journal. The projects will be located at Beltway 8 and John F. Kennedy Boulevard. The projects include a 134-room TownePlace Suites by Marriott, opening this fall.

The Texas Attorney General filed court papers accusing a Pennsylvania physical therapy company of violating identity theft protection laws. Investigators say a HealthSouth Rehabilitation Center dumped about 4,000 pieces of sensitive customer information in garbage containers behind its facility in Levelland. The records included social security numbers, credit and debit card account numbers, names, addresses and telephone numbers. They contained "sensitive medical information'' and copies of checks from large corporations that contracted for employee physicals and drug tests. Attorney General Greg Abbott is seeking a fine of up to $500 for each record containing personal identifying information and civil penalties of up to $50,000 for each violation. Officials with Select Medical Corporation, the parent company for the HealthSouth facility, did not immediately return phone messages from the Associated Press. Investigators have not determined if any exposed data has been used illegally.

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