Friday 28 June, 2002
Good morning.  It was a very busy week last week, with a large number of excellent reader replies regarding the current airfare structure, and a huge response to last week's reader survey as well.

The Reader Survey was interesting.  More than two thirds of people responding had already heard of the three news stories that the survey asked about; of those that had already read the stories, 75% said they would like to see them in this newsletter (too); of those that did not already know of the stories, 85% wanted to read about them here.  And, as for the length of the newsletter, 91% said it was currently 'just right'; 8% said it was 'too short' and 1% said it was too long.

There were some excellent - and some very kind (thank you) - reader comments as well.  As best I can, and as best as the news streams will allow, I hope to continue to inform (and occasionally entertain!) in the future.  Thanks to everyone who replied.

My plan to feature reader suggestions for how the airlines should change their fares is taking second place to an unexpected crisis development in the travel field.  I'll come back to the airline fare issues next week, but for this week -

This Week's Column :  The Amtrak Funding Scandal :  Almost before they had time to ask for it, post 9/11, the government gave the airlines outright gifts of billions of dollars.  But it is refusing to give a single penny to Amtrak.  And its proud 'solution' announced yesterday will only make Amtrak's problems worse!!!  This country - and we, its travelers, desperately need a viable Amtrak alternative to the airlines for short distance travel.  Read more about the problem - and how you can help solve it - in this week's column.

In related news, Amtrak is wrapping the security blanket tightly around itself to justify a new limitation on carry-on luggage to two items, each no larger than 28"x22"x14" (about the size of a medium suitcase).  Amtrak vaguely says that 'if space allows' passengers may be allowed to have one of their two carry-on bags exceed these dimensions.  Amtrak is also requiring ID to be conspicuously placed on all luggage.

Carry-on items now have a 50lb per piece weight restriction.  These size and weight limits could be a problem for some passengers - if you're traveling Amtrak, check your suitcases and their weight and, if necessary, find out how to check suitcases for the journey.

I don't want to pre-empt any of the material that I will feature in next week's lead column about airline pricing, but this item was too good to pass up.  The spread between business and leisure fares on airlines has doubled over the last five years - 'business' fares are now five times higher than 'leisure' fares!  No wonder so many travelers are revolting (or revolted!) and are changing their business travel patterns to fit into leisure fares.  And, most amusing of all - yes, there is justice in this world - the tool that business travelers are most commonly using to fight against the airlines are the airlines' own websites!  By making available information on last minute and other special discount fares, the airlines are now finding that they can't control who buys such fares - in other words, they are shooting themselves in the foot!

More bad news for and about Boeing.  South African Airways has confirmed its order for 41 Airbus planes worth $3.5 billion. SAA used to be primarily a Boeing customer.

Long time readers of this column will know that I have regularly expressed doubts about Boeing's Sonic Cruiser and whether it will ever be developed (eg 21 December 01 and 29 March 02).  This article indicates that Boeing itself is now admitting to some doubts, and is presenting potential airline customers with a choice between similar speed planes (compared to present planes), but cheaper to operate, or slightly faster planes, but with no cost savings.  My guess is that the airlines will unanimously choose the cheaper operating cost option.

Interesting statistic - the number of idle commercial passenger planes has doubled in the last 18 months.  There are now 2000 planes sitting idle - this will act as a severe drag on Boeing's future plane sales.  With this in mind, Boeing actually considered buying some of these planes just to take them off the market, but abandoned the idea as too costly.

Stay tuned for the next big airplane sale - Easyjet is expected to announce an order for 100 narrow body planes in July.  No word yet on whether Boeing or Airbus will win the order.

More problems with Britain's expensive new Air Traffic Control system.  A trainee controller mistakenly directed two British Airways planes on to a possible collision course as they headed for Heathrow.  And so a supervising instructor acted to rectify the problem by using an override device - but, ooops, the device did not work!  Fortunately an old fashioned radio still worked and was used to urgently communicate with the planes.

A further embarrassing incident happened on 19 June.  A plane with 35 passengers on board was on a flight from Amsterdam to Bristol when it was misdirected over a military exclusion zone.  Heavy artillery guns on an army range had to be hurriedly silenced - they were shooting live rounds into the air close to the plane's flight path!  Fortunately the army spotted the plane on its radar and ordered an urgent cease-fire.

You don't get much for your money these days - Britain's new Swanwick control center cost almost $1 billion!

Here's a great idea.  Californian company SafeTzone is providing special wristband locator units at theme parks.  The idea is that parents place these on their children (and maybe on themselves, too).  If anyone gets lost, a GPS type locator system provides pin-point details about exactly where in the park that person is.

ASTA turns its back on small travel agencies?  Travel agency consolidation will continue and many "smaller agencies are going to fall by the wayside," an ASTA official said. Cheryl Ahearn, ASTA's senior vice president of market development, made the comments as part of a panel on multichannel distribution at the recent Travel Commerce Conference & Expo in New York.  Many single locations are not going to survive, Ahearn said, noting that the trend is for agencies to affiliate themselves with larger groups. Hmmm - not reported were any suggestions or practical help that ASTA is offering to its smaller member agencies!  As I've observed before, ARTA is doing all it can to help its travel agency members, but ASTA seems to be much more passive, while the travel industry changes all around it.  Yet again, I urge travel agent readers to consider joining and supporting ARTA as the industry's leading organization.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  It has happened to me, and perhaps you, too - buy a last minute one way ticket, and, sure enough, the airline computer spits out your name for a special security check.  Everyone knows that if you buy a one way ticket, or if you buy a last minute ticket, or if you pay cash for a ticket, you fit the pre-defined profile of a terrorist and are likely to receive extra scrutiny when trying to lawfully take your flight.

But - wait a minute.  'Everyone knows' - doesn't that mean that terrorists also know this?  Doesn't that mean that terrorists would be sure never to pay cash, never to buy a one way ticket, and always to buy tickets well in advance of travel?  Ummm, errr, yes, that is exactly right!  None of the 9/11 terrorists were traveling on one way tickets, none of them paid cash for their tickets, and as far as I can tell, all tickets were purchased well in advance!  So isn't this an entirely unnecessary misapplication of 'profiling' that does nothing except inflict gratuitous extra inconvenience on business travelers (the type of people that most commonly buy last minute one way tickets)?

This week's 'stupidest thing to say when selected for random extra security checks award' goes to Al Gore.  As reported last week, Al was 'randomly' selected for a full security search.  No, he didn't joke about bombs.  Instead, he said 'I am pleased that I was searched'.  My question to Al - Why were you pleased to be searched?  Wouldn't you have preferred the security people to be searching someone more likely to present a threat to the nation's safety?

Thanks to long-time reader Josť, who not only reads these columns but also reads the fine print on his Hertz #1 Club Gold renewal agreement notice!  Although, as Josť points out, there are 52 pages of verbiage, some things leap out at him.  For example, a new type of 'Super' CDW coverage that is not so super in terms of its exclusions - theft, attempted theft and vandalism.  Or how about the language that Hertz will resolve any 'conflict' if you have more than one discount entitlement applying to a rental - Hertz says it will resolve the conflict, but doesn't say in whose favor such resolutions will be applied!  Care to guess?

Lastly, Hertz seems to now wish to enter into the international currency business as well - and you can be sure that it isn't doing this for customer service reasons, but instead to boost its own bottom line.  Normally, when you incur a rental car charge (or any other type of charge) in a foreign country, the merchant that charged your card does so in local currency, and the credit card company then converts the charge into your home currency (such as US dollars).

Hertz now reserves the right to do this itself, at a conversion rate that it will choose itself, plus adding up to another 3% fee on top of its own arbitrary conversion rate.  Hertz can make even more money by speculating when currencies are trending up (or down) in value, because it won't necessarily convert the transaction on the day you signed the charge form, but instead at some other time that might be the next day or the next week or any other time, apparently without limitation.  This is just plain unfair.  Hertz' obligation is to fairly make money on its rental car services, not to unfairly make money by forcing its customers to accept less than standard exchange rate conversion procedures.

Everyone knows that wine and beer is never free, in coach class, on domestic flights in the US.  And, as I've reported before, Continental are now starting to charge for these drinks on their transatlantic flights, too.  Well, they do things differently 'downunder'.  The world's finest airline is now introducing free beer and wine for all passengers on its main trunk services operating after 4pm each day!  Maybe this is part of the reason that Qantas just announced it is increasing its target profit for the twelve months to end on 30 June 2002 - it had been projecting a massive US$315 million profit; now it thinks that its profit will be closer to $350 million!

Lastly this week, a word of caution to people planning on doing a driving tour of Austria.  Be careful of falling cows!  A 36 year old woman was hospitalized last week when a cow fell onto her car!  The cow had strayed out of its pasture and was on top of a tunnel entrance, and then fell 15' onto her car.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider
ps :  Don't forget to visit Joe Brancatelli's site for his weekly updates, too.

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