Friday 27 June, 2003

Good morning.  I'm safely returned from my weekend off-roading experience, which was tremendous fun and held in a beautiful national forest.  I can't speak too highly of the capabilities of my new Land Rover - amazingly impressive in all respects.

I also managed to score a Harry Potter book at midnight on Friday.  This latter feat was no small accomplishment.  One local bookstore had pre-sold 3000 copies, but only ordered 1500.  Another sold 1000 copies against a shipment of 800.  Sounds a bit like airlines overselling their seats, doesn't it; but unlike the airlines, there was no apparent 'denied book compensation' and neither were the bookstores calling for volunteers to give up their confirmed copies!

Last week's column about the new model of noise reducing headphones almost set a new record for popularity.  And the manufacturer tells me that he sold the better part of 100 sets of headphones to people on Friday, and I've already received emails from a couple of you confirming my recommendation with your own positive impressions after receiving them.

In case you wondered, the most popular column of all time (in terms of number of visitors on the first day it was published) remains the column on what happens if all engines fail on an airplane.

During my offroading I realized that I had four different types of two-way radios in the car (I was one of the communication coordinators), which gave me an idea for this week's column.

This Week's Column :  FRS, GMRS and MURS : Not medical degrees or airline/city codes, but instead some of the confusing array of modern radio communication services available, with two-way handsets now as little as $15 each. This article helps you sort through the alphabet soup and understand what these things are and how - or if - they would be helpful to you at work and at home.

Dinosaur Watch Part 1 - American :  Good news or bad news?  The press releases all say that AA had a positive cash flow from operations in May, and that unit revenue was 4% up compared with the previous year.  This news was greeted by further strengthening in their share price, now breaking through $10, and one brokerage stated its 12 month target price for AMR shares is now $18 (a stunning reversal from their low of $1.28 in March).

For sure, a positive cash flow is a nice thing.  But AA also had a positive cash flow in its first quarter - the same quarter in which it registered a $1 billion loss!    So, what actually happened in May - profit or loss?  AA's Investor Relations section of its website was silent on this point on Wednesday, and Thursday evening saw much of their website completely offline - 'currently undergoing maintenance to improve your experience'.

Here's an alternate perspective on Don Carty's departure.  I'd observed, last week, that although he did not get any severance package, he did enjoy a $13.5 million payment out of the controversial supplemental retirement program that was the main factor in his sudden departure.  An AA employee replies :

In the guy's defense - he did work here for 25 years, worked for nothing after Sept. 11, saw his stock options wiped out, and didn't get the same outrageous package that James Goodwin at UA did.

Dinosaur Watch Part 2 - Delta :  Kudos to Delta.  Reader Al emailed Delta with some general complaints, and less than a week later received a sensible and contrite reply.  I'm including DL's excellent email in full, because it is an enormously encouraging indication that perhaps DL is willing to make the effort to reinvent itself the way it needs to :

I sincerely regret your disappointment with Delta Air Lines. I will not offer you any excuses for the poor service you received. We realize that over the last few years we have slipped in the area of customer service; however, improving this area is a top priority at Delta. We are working hard to rekindle the spirit which has always been a hallmark of Delta. We know that customer service must improve quickly if we are going to succeed in this tough, competitive environment.

While there are many different things that can interfere with our operation, we realize that the way our people respond is what will ultimately determine how our customers will feel about us. I want to assure you that we are aggressively trying to resolve some of the service issues your e-mail alluded to. We are increasing airport staff, especially at our hub operations. Additionally, we have increased the number of agents fielding calls in our Reservations Center. New technology will also be introduced this year which will simplify procedures for both our agents and our customers. We want our people to be available to provide the friendly, distinctive service for which Delta has always been known.

I have forwarded a copy of your e-mail to our Senior Vice Presidents of both Marketing, as well as Airport Customer Service. This will ensure proper attention to, and review of your comments, observations and suggestions at the highest appropriate levels within our company.

Mr. --, we appreciate and value you as our customer. I hope you will reconsider, and once again make Delta your airline of choice.

A mild mystery?  Last month the bankruptcy court overseeing the bankruptcy of Hawaiian Airlines appointed a trustee to oversee daily operations at the airline. Trustee John Monahan has now resigned, less than a month later. He cited 'personal reasons that require his full attention' as the reason for his departure....

The domino effect seems to work in reverse.  The phenomenon that pay rises at one airline inevitably leads to pay rises at all other airlines is now causing pay cuts to ripple through the industry, too.  Latest airline to hop on the bandwagon - Alaska Airlines, which uses the delightful term 'market-based wage adjustments' to explain what it is seeking during the course of a meeting with its labor union leaders to discuss how to 'better position the company for growth and success in the years ahead'.

Talking about growth and success, while this remains uncertain at the dinosaur airlines, the new breed of airlines continue to grow.  Airtran is the latest airline to announce aggressive expansion plans, and says that it will more than double the size of its fleet over the next five years.

What do you do if you're struggling to sell a too-high priced product that has a very low cost of sale associated with it, and which is losing out to lower priced competitors with similar products?  Well, most marketers would simply drop their price a bit to fairly compete against their competitors and to encourage more sales.  But not so the DFW Airport.  Their parking revenues have dropped off, both due to fewer people traveling out of DFW and also due to lower cost off-airport parking being increasingly appealing to travelers.

The airport had consultants review nine (!) different options.  Staff members are now recommending that all motorists be charged $1 to drive into the airport, whether they park or not, plus advocating a 20% increase in remote parking and a 10% increase in covered parking lot fees.

In justification of the $1 per vehicle fee, the airport says that drop-off motorists cost the airport $11.2 million per year in security and processing fees and contribute nothing in return.  Let's examine both halves of that statement.

First of all, how is it possible that cars that merely travel through the airport can cost the airport authority $11.2 million a year in security and processing?  What type of processing is done for a vehicle that simply drives on the public roads, pauses briefly to drop someone off or to collect someone, and then leaves again?  What sort of security is involved?

Secondly, how about the 'contribute nothing in return' statement.  How about all the passengers that these drivers deliver to the airport and collect from the airport?  Seems to me that this is a major contribution - without passengers, the airport would start to look very sick indeed!

Lastly, the stupidest part of all is a suggestion to convert some unused parking areas into retail shopping.  Who in their right mind would want to spend time before or after their flight, or to buy anything at probably inflated airport prices, in an airport parking lot!

I was complaining last week about new longer check in times for domestic flights.  A reader provided this interesting insider insight into why this is happening

I enjoy your weekly articles, but need to make a comment on the early check in. I am an 18+ year veteran of working for a major airline & I can tell you we on the ramp are working so short if you want your bag on the flight it better be checked in AT LEAST 1 hour prior. Oh & by the way I failed to mention TSA. They have to screen every bag. Where I work it is not unusual for a local check bag to ride around for 1 hour waiting on TSA to screen it. We can not touch it till TSA does their thing.

The final numbers are in for the Paris Air Show.  Airbus announced 59 firm new orders, bringing its year to date total to 215.  Boeing announced no firm new orders at all, and has a year to date total of 37.

BA have announced their last Concorde flight will be from New York to London on 24 October.  In response, Virgin (VS) mounted a last ditch attempt to revive their apparently failed campaign to take over BA's Concordes.  Sir Richard Branson increased his earlier offer (5) up to 5 million, in return for which he would expect BA to give VS the five operating Concordes, the two non-operational Concordes, plus whatever spares and other equipment is available.

He also announced that they planned to use the Concorde to fly between London and New York, Barbados and Dubai.

Almost before Sir Richard had issued the press release announcing his latest offer, BA turned it down.  VS also proposed creating a joint non-profit to care for and operate the Concordes as museum/heritage planes, and offered to contribute 1 million to the establishment of such a trust, but BA has shown little interest in sharing its Concordes on any basis at all with VS.

Although cynics would point out that this has been talked about for years, if not decades, there are signs of slow but certain progress on discussions between the US and the EU about forming a common aviation market that would replace the mess of individual country treaties currently in place.  At present both sides still remain far apart, being simultaneously protective of their respective national airlines and also greedily grabbing for as big a one-sided chunk of the other side's marketplace as possible.

The key outstanding issues are a desire on the part of the Europeans to remove the current US restrictions on foreign ownership of airlines that operate domestically in the US, and a desire on the part of the US side to have easier access for US carriers to fly between European countries.

A suggested procedural breakthrough (albeit a small one) is for both sides to create a first agreement that establishes the 'easy' issues, and then work more slowly towards a second level of agreement that resolves the harder to agree upon issues.

But whether the final result will be more competition, or more mergers (and therefore less competition) is anyone's guess.  And with the current airline 'alliances' providing an easy 'back-door' workaround to the current national issues, perhaps the need for such a treaty is no longer as pressing as it was ten years ago.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  How Wrong Can I Be!  Last week I was happily saying that airport security lines are consistently short and the hassle factor in flying has dropped down to pre-9/11 levels.  This week - newspapers across the nation were full of horror stories about my own local Seattle airport, with wait times to get through security stretching out as long as 2.5 hours!  Other stories suggest very long waits at Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver this week as well.

How can this happen?  The airlines know, hours/days/weeks - even months in advance, exactly how many flights they have scheduled at an airport, and they even know how many people are booked to depart on those flights.  This information is accurately available and would allow anyone to plan and project the numbers of passengers that will be needing to pass through security at any given time.  This can be used to then set appropriate manning levels at security checkpoints.

The TSA has gone on record as promising no more than a ten minute delay for people to pass through security.  How is it then that they are allowing delays fifteen times longer to occur?

Over a year ago, FAA Head Jane McGarvey expressed her concern about new technology that acts like comic book style 'x-ray vision', enabling security screeners to see through a person's clothes, as this picture vividly illustrates.

Those concerns seem now likely to be swept aside, as this article suggests.

I'm undecided on this issue, but being as how it is probably the only fool-proof way of almost 100% determining that a person has nothing hidden on their person (including wooden sticks that can't be detected by present technologies) the chances seem likely that a virtual striptease will form part of your future flight experiences.

Last week I wondered how it was possible for a 13 year old boy to pass through security without any government issued photo ID.  Well, the answer to that question was quickly provided, and shame on me for overlooking the obvious!  Reader (and travel agent) Laura writes in to explain

A minor under 17 years of age isn't required to show a government/federal issued photo ID or even a school ID (although they say "show it if you have it") and since there are unaccompanied minors that fly, security isn't required to check if their parent is escorting them to the gate. The credit card that was purchased for the ticket also isn't required as shown proof at check in with the airline. I have parents all the time purchase tickets on their credit card for their child or teen and nothing is asked for at check in. That's how a 13 year old is allowed to fly.

The only thing the airline should have checked for at the check in counter was the parent to sign the unaccompanied minor information form. He could have bypassed the check in counter - let's say if he printed up his boarding pass online and showed up at the gate. The gate agent could have thought he was with the adult before or after him standing in line.

This does expose an interesting loophole, doesn't it.  What's to stop someone over the age of 17 claiming to be under that age and thereby excusing themselves from the need to show photo ID?  Many girls can pass as under 17 even if in their mid 20s.

A fireball shot out of a Delta 757's right engine as it was pushing back from the gate in Tampa on Monday.  This is actually not an unusual occurrence when a jet engine is first started up, and is something akin to a car engine backfiring, but before the pilot had a chance to get on the public address system and explain what had happened, anxious passengers had wrenched open the emergency doors and started to jump down the emergency chute to the tarmac below.  As is always the case in an emergency evacuation, some passengers suffered minor injuries and 8 of the 167 passengers ended their journey at the local hospital rather than at their expected destination.

Moral of the story?  Wait till someone tells you to evacuate the plane!  If something really bad happens, you'll be told what to do in double quick time.

A word of warning.  The regular annual drink/drive blitz is starting today, and will run for 17 days through the 4 July weekend.  Increased enforcement will also spill over to areas like speeding, as police seek ways to stop drivers and check for their sobriety.  Be careful out there.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and hopefully short security waiting lines

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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