Friday 15 November, 2002
Good morning.  My comments about AA's new 'rolling hubs' last week brought many reader comments (thank you!).  Most of you liked the concept, reasoning that rolling hubs would offer less chance of flight delays due to unrealistic schedules (all those flights promising to leave at exactly the same time!) and also enjoying freedom from worrying if they would make tight connections or not.  One reader welcomed the opportunity to sit down and enjoy a beer in an airport bar between flights, while another was delighted that she might now have a chance to visit a bathroom while sprinting from one end of one terminal to the far end of another terminal.  Maybe AA are guessing right with this one.

And last week's column about the airlines' obligations to help stranded passengers after National Airlines closed prompted many anguished emails from readers who found themselves stuck with useless tickets, but with no airline willing to honor its legal obligations to help out!  This is shameful - the government passes a law, the DoT complains that the airlines break the law, but the airlines continue to ignore the law and do their own thing with no care about the general public.  Several readers also commented on the disparity between airlines transporting other airlines' passengers, space available, for $25, but charging its own passengers, who had already bought a ticket from them, $100 to standby.  Indeed it doesn't seem fair that an airline's own passengers get a worse deal.

This Week's Column :  BA Business Class :  Is BAís Business class and lie-flat sleeper bed seat worth $7500 more than coach class?  Thatís what BA would have you believe, but after flying a roundtrip to Europe with BA, I must disagree!  For the full story, read this week's column.

I'm still waiting for any response from BA regarding my lost luggage.  Reader Tom sent in this inspirational story of a traveler who took a very pro-active approach to his own baggage crisis.  I'll try the same strategy myself next time!

But not all is bad news for BA.  In a surprising turnaround, and after losing £200 million ($315 million) last year, BA announced an interim £310 million pre-tax profit on Tuesday.  Mysteriously, BA's share price, which had been in the doldrums, and dropped so far that BA was removed from the British equivalent of the Dow Jones (the FTSE 100 index) inexplicably started to rise several weeks before the announcement, and added 70% to its value prior to BA's public statement.  Allegations of insider trading are now muddying the waters of BA's otherwise excellent news.

And, talking about muddy waters, the shocking news about the bad quality of airline 'drinking' water caused one reader to incredulously ask for confirmation that this referred to the water in the drinking fountains as well as the handbasin water in the toilets.  Yes, indeed it does refer to this water.  Don't drink any water that you don't see come out of a bottle on a plane.

Maybe bad water was the problem this week on Holland America's cruise ship, the Amsterdam, when 163 passengers fell ill.  The passengers reportedly were ill from Norwalk virus, an intestinal illness that is passed by the feces of infected people.  Victims contract the virus by eating feces-contaminated food or water - yuck!  HAL had a similar problem with one of their other ships, the Ryndam, in July.

In case you haven't already read this elsewhere, AA are increasing the number of frequent flier miles you need to qualify for some of their awards.  Increases of up to 25% and up to 30,000 miles are occurring for some of their awards.  This is nothing other than shameful greed on AA's part, and is another reason to lessen your dependence on frequent flier award enticements.  You'll pay less money overall if you simply always fly on the cheapest airline available, and then buy tickets that might otherwise be earned through frequent flier miles than if you allow yourself to be fooled into paying occasionally major premiums to concentrate your travel on only one airline in the hope of getting free travel as a reward.

Last week I wrote about Boeing needing to choose between the Sonic Cruiser concept or a plane that flies at 'normal' speeds but more economically.  Apparently, after discussing the two concepts with 18 different airlines, only two (rumored to be Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways) wanted the Sonic Cruiser; the other 16 all chose the slower cheaper option.  And so, as I've predicted right from the very first announcement, it seems that the Sonic Cruiser concept will not proceed.  A shame.  The company that bet its future on two massively successful revolutionary developments (the 707 and the 747) now seems committed to a timid evolutionary crawl rather than daring revolutionary progress, while its competitor has taken the revolutionary initiative (in the form of the A380).

Bad news for travelers to Britain.  In addition to the Fire Service going on strike, workers at the main airports (including Heathrow and Gatwick) have announced a series of six one day strikes.  Stay well away from British airports on 28 Nov, 2, 10, 15, 23 Dec, and 2 Jan.

The fox guarding the hens?  Pilots at American Airlines met with senior management to try and find solutions to the airline's current problems, and say that they, ooops, want a voice in the future direction of the company - a situation that reminds me of how the pilots have 'helped' United Airlines over the last several years!  I have some suggestions for how the pilots can help AA, but I can't see them being accepted.  The two pilots of the AA flight that crashed last November had each logged only 585 flying hours in the previous year - presumably this is representative of the hours that most AA pilots work.  Being as how these pilots earn up to $300,000 a year, and noting that a standard year has 2000 working hours in it for most of us, maybe the AA pilots would like to offer to work twice as many hours each year?  That would sure help!

And have you been reading the various mutually congratulatory news releases issued by United and its pilots, recording how its pilots have contributed millions or possibly billions of dollars in salary concessions?  Just one small thing.  Most if not all of these concessions don't actually mean that the United pilots will take any cut in pay at all!  These concessions are an offer to forego future pay rises rather than to lower their present salaries.  Could someone explain to me how an airline that is bleeding itself to death with its present cost structure, can feel good about getting a 'concession' that does nothing to improve that same cost structure?

You may know of the two space tourists who each reportedly paid $20 million to Russia in return for a flight up to the international space station.  Here's a cheaper way to get a ride into space.  A Canadian organization is calling for volunteers to join its proposed rocket launch next year.  Geoff Sheerin, leader of the Canadian Arrow project says that while they're looking for special skills, normal people will also be considered for the astronaut positions.  'Your next door neighbor wouldn't have to be an astronaut to be selected' he said.

Possibly challenging news for Southwest.  At a media briefing last week, Executive VP and CFO Gary Kelly said that their unit costs, which have dropped every year since 1998 on a fuel-neutral basis, 'have hit rock bottom' and will likely rise over the next five quarters.  The reduction in their costs has been largely caused by increases in the average length of flight, which has grown 30% from the end of 1997 to now (from 563 miles to 733 miles).  During the same time, non-inflation adjusted costs per available seat mile have reduced from 7.4 to 7.38 cents.  An amazing accomplishment.

One airline's bad news is another airline's good news.  America West is now predicting a boost of about $30 million to its bottom line as a result of National Airlines' closing last week.

I've commented before about the glacial speed with which NTSB safety recommendations are implemented.  Here's the most recent example.  In 1994 the NTSB pointed out a limitation in the way that airplane black boxes record data.  The FAA indicated in 1997 that it would respond.  The NTSB's recommendation finally became an 'Acceptable Action' in 2000, but was not implemented in time for the flight data recorder on AA 587 to be upgraded prior to when it crashed a year ago.  This means that it is proving difficult to accurately determine exactly what happened in the fateful seconds prior to the plane losing control and crashing.

As you may know if you've read my series on noise reducing headsets, I'm a great fan of the Bose unit.  Sadly they are quite expensive, but Bose have a special promotion on their website at present that gives you a free companion certificate on a future flight when you buy their headphones.  Might make an excellent Christmas gift for someone.  Thanks to reader David for pointing this out.

Here's a new type of danger when booking online.  People had been going to a website and buying tickets for the Sydney Opera House, believing that they had arrived at the official Opera House website.  Although their credit cards were charged, apparently they never received tickets, and the website has no affiliation with the Sydney Opera House.  An Australian consumer watchdog organization has now secured an injunction against the New York based operator of this website, but consider yourself warned.  The man in New York apparently operates several other similar websites.

Do you subscribe to Johnny Jet's newsletter?  It is an interesting read, and he has built up an encyclopedic website full of travel resources.  In this week's newsletter he has a horror story about a booking he made on Travelocity.  I can understand how the problem occurred, but I absolutely do not understand why Travelocity has been so shamefully bad at solving the problem.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Five concourses at Miami International Airport had to be evacuated on Thursday after a TSA security guard allegedly fell asleep on the job.  Two passengers apparently went through the security post while the guard was asleep, and so thousands of passengers were evacuated and 41 flights delayed.  Needless to say, no terrorists were detected in the rescreening procedure.

The thing that horrifies me is this - when you think about all the current imperfections in the security screening system, such as the fact that most freight goes onto passenger planes with no screening at all, and the complete lack of terrorists apprehended trying to board any flights since 9/11, don't you think it would have been reasonable to recognise the no more than one in a billion risk that the two people that happened to walk past the sleeping security guard may have been terrorists and not bother to evacuate five terminals, rather than inconvenience thousands of people?

By the way, conventional wisdom has always said that 9/11 could never happen again, because prior to that time, it was legal to take box cutters onto a plane, and now, of course, it is not legal to do this.  Ooops.  That is wrong.  As this article reveals, box cutters were NOT permitted on flights prior to 9/11.  The airlines just kinda forgot to tell us that in all the analysis after 9/11.

Good news, especially for men.  National Semiconductor have announced a new type of power management technology that could extend cellphone battery life five fold!  Look for new phones with these capabilities being introduced in early 2004.  And why is this particularly good news for men?  A British survey recently found that men now spend 66 minutes a day on the phone, more than women who only spend 55 minutes.  Before mobile phones were commonplace, men spent 53 minutes and women 63 minutes on the phone.

There are times when it is hard to know whether I should be proud or embarrassed to be a New Zealander.  This story about a man in NZ's South Island and his 'Bra Fence' gives an excellent example of one such conundrum.

I commented last week about how Sioux City failed in its attempt to get the FAA to change its airline code (currently SUX).  Airport Director Glenn Januska said that the FAA's refusal did not give sufficiently strong reasons, and so they plan to appeal the decision.  What an incredible waste of money, and the decision to appeal is even more foolish than their initial application.  The good folks at SUX could take a lesson from Fukuoka, Japan, where airport officials have expressed no intention to request a change in their assigned airport code....

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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