Friday 5 July, 2002
Good morning.  I hope your 4 July holiday was enjoyable, and how wonderful that it proved to be unmarred by any terrorist incidents, (apart from an unrelated event at LAX).  Due to the holiday, there is no column this week and - as you can perhaps tell - the newsletter is going out late.

While many of us either attended a major fireworks show or let off a few smaller fireworks in our backyard, internet sites are developing electronic firework shows to enjoy on your computer screen, for example at http://www.aristotle.net/july4th/fireworks and http://members.aol.com/rivfs/July/4th.html!

This week also sees another important anniversary and celebration.  Frontier Airlines - 'the little airline that can' - celebrates its eighth anniversary.  While we hear a lot about Southwest and JetBlue, don't forget Frontier - an airline that is making money while competing against United out of Denver - something that no other airline has succeeded at!  In its eight years Frontier has grown from 180 to 2959 employees, and from 400,000 passengers in its first year to 3.1 million in the last twelve months, and from two aircraft to 33.  Let's wish them continued success.

Another alternative carrier - National Airlines, based out of Las Vegas - announced that it has abandoned the traditional airfare model of high priced last minute fares.  In the best case scenario (or worst, depending on your perspective!) a traveler can save as much as $2600 on a first class coast to coast flight compared to what they'd pay on a 'traditional' airline.

And if your travels are taking you across the Atlantic, the latest $99 companion fare deal from Virgin Atlantic might be of interest, but note that it does not apply to passengers traveling on discounted/coach class tickets.  If you're looking at their website for more details, you'll be out of luck - although announced on Wednesday, there is no trace of it today (Friday).  Their press release suggests contacting your travel agent!

Are the traditional airfare structures crumbling such that the major airlines will have no choice but to completely rewrite their own airfares, like it or not?  Too soon to say, and in a countercurrent, the major airlines are trying - yet again - to increase their fares, but the success of this latest attempt is not yet a done deal (if even one of the major airlines refuses to increase their fares, the other airlines will then typically back down).  Stay tuned....

As most readers know, I'd love to see a huge increase in short-distance (under 300 mile) Amtrak services - this is the 'sweetspot' where Amtrak really can provide a viable option for travelers.  Sadly, it is unlikely that Amtrak can actually do this (it doesn't have the money to buy very expensive new trainsets, and often doesn't have necessary access rights on the track either) but a new luxury busline is trying to come up with a similar option.  ExecConnect America plans to target business travelers with luxury bus service between 54 cities nationwide, and is inaugurating service between Pittsburgh and Cleveland (approx 135 miles) with four services a day, $74 oneway and $129 roundtrip.  Good luck to the bus company, but I'd still prefer a train!

Talking about Amtrak, in a move that recognizes the reality that there is nothing sadder than an empty unsold seat on a departed train (or plane) Amtrak have introduced a series of very heavily discounted internet only fares.  For example, $5.30 to go 283 miles between St Louis and Kansas City, or a $4.30 fare which surely doesn't even cover the administrative costs of handling one more passenger to travel the 176 miles between Grand Rapids and Chicago.  It is good to see Amtrak trying to be entrepreneurial, but with typical daily sales of only 381 tickets on these specials, and at these low prices, it is unlikely that the extra revenue so generated will have any noticeable impact on its billions of dollars of financing needs!

Although these tight economic times have seen cutbacks in service by many travel providers, there are some exceptions where standards remain at the highest levels.  One of the truly reliable guarantees of quality is to search out a hotel that belongs to 'The Leading Hotels of the World' group.  They recently announced their 2002 'Commitment to Quality Awards', where hotels were judged on what they claim to be 1200-1400 individual quality criteria!  Regional winners were : Europe - Hotel Sacher Wien in Vienna and The Milestone Hotel in London; Africa/Middle East - Burj Al Arab, Dubai and The Oberoi, Mauritius; Asia/Pacific - The Peninsula, Hong Kong and The Oberoi, Bali; United States/Canada - The Peninsula, Beverly Hills and Campton Place Hotel, San Francisco; Latin America/Mexico/Caribbean - Las Ventanas, Los Cabos and Cotton House on Mustique. The award for best score overall was presented to The Oberoi, Bali.

Although there is no column this week, I do have a new page that contains a letter received from the President of ASTA, who objected to my comments about ASTA last week.  Fairness demands that I allow ASTA the 'right of reply', although sadly they haven't responded any further to the email I sent back to them a week ago (which is also included in the new page).

Here's an interesting idea - although developed in Australia, the service works well for people everywhere in the world.  www.OzEmergency.com will print special laminated emergency detail cards with medical and personal details on them that you can carry with you at all times.  For only approximately $13 to get a set of four, it sounds like a very inexpensive form of insurance.

Another loss for Boeing.  Air New Zealand - until now an all Boeing airline - has announced an order for 15 Airbus A320s with options on another 20.  They are to replace a mix of old 737s and 767s.  While Boeing continues to talk about futuristic planes (the latest being another incarnation of the 'flying wing' concept), does no-one there not see that if they don't fix their current marketplace problems, there might not be any future for them?  Boeing delivered 527 airplanes in 2001, expects to deliver about 380 this year, and between 275-300 in 2003 - they desperately need to reverse this terrifying trend.  Airbus plans to deliver 300 this year, and 300 next year.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Passengers were boarding a plane at Bradley Airport, Windsor Locks, CT, carrying tennis racquets.  But when a 43 year old lady tried to take her boomerangs onboard, and then argued the point with the security screener, she ended up being arrested!  The lady is an attorney (which makes me think we haven't heard the end of this story just yet!), a three-time member of the US Boomerang Team, and a former world record holder for boomerang throwing.  She says that she tried to point out that her competition boomerangs are light (1-2 ounces each), small, and fragile, and contrasted that with a girl walking past carrying on two tennis racquets, but got arrested for her troubles!

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this horror story is that anyone noticed the boomerangs in her carry-on luggage.  A recent survey revealed that screeners are missing, on average, 25% of all fake weapons that are attempted to be smuggled through security during tests.  Worse still, these screeners don't find weapons on people even after the metal detector has gone off.  And, still more bad news - the testers have been told NOT to conceal the weapons!  If the screeners can't detect 25% of obvious weapons, imagine how easy it is for a terrorist to smuggle a carefully concealed and disguised weapon!  Our obsession with searching former Vice Presidents and disallowing boomerangs is blinding us to the huge gaps in our current security.

In some good news on the security front, the TSA has removed the ability for airport security managers to stop flights and evacuate concourses on their own authority.  Now they need to get their supervisor's permission, first.  There is a hope that this might see a slightly more rational and consistent approach to determining when such actions should be taken.  The procedures, outlined in TSA memos dated May 23, call for airport security managers to obtain permission from their supervisors before evacuating concourses, and also require airport security managers to talk with airlines and local law enforcement before stopping flights from taking off.

Managers are urged to balance security "against the strain that it can cause on the airport and airline operating systems."  This is clearly a step backward from the 'zero tolerance' policy announced by Transportation Secretary Mineta after 9/11, but may also allow for a measure of common sense to now be included, because 'zero tolerance' has been shown to be entirely different from '100% secure'.  Since the TSA took over aviation security  on Feb. 17, there have been evacuations at 124 airports (almost one a day) and 631 flights called back to terminals so that passengers can be searched again.

Lastly, although I've expressed my concern about the health safety issues surrounding cell phone usage, I'm the second to agree that they have major benefits as well.  And who is the first person to agree?  Probably the hiker who was stranded in South America's Andes mountains, 12,500 feet up, in a blizzard, and tried to call for help on his cellphone.

The interesting twist on this story is that he discovered his prepaid minutes were all used up and he was unable to place an outgoing call. He was saved from certain death when he received an incoming call (which was free) from, of all people, a telemarketer trying to sell him additional airtime!  "We thought it was a joke [that he was stranded], but he insisted, and it was true," said the Bell South representative. She and other operators kept ringing him to keep him awake and ward off hypothermia thereby keeping him alive for the 7 hours needed for rescuers to reach him.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and be sure to keep your cellphone account up to date!

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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