Friday 24 October, 2003

Good morning, where I'm writing to you today from a lovely castle hotel in Scotland.  Last night I enjoyed a stay at a regular favorite - Culcreuch Castle, and tonight I'm experiencing Glengarry Castle for the first time.  Earlier in the day I looked for monsters on Loch Ness, but alas, none were to be found.

Another short newsletter this week, caused by the outrageous costs of phone calls from British hotels.  The disappointing hotel I stayed at in London - Melia White House -  deserves to win a place of honor in the Hall of Hotel Shame by charging 0.95 per minute for local calls from their phones - just over $1.50!  In less than an hour and a half, they make more profit from me using their phone than sleeping overnight in their room!

After reading a couple of posts on the user forum in reply to last week's column, I added a final section to my travel agent article of last week.  Simply stated, if you want a travel agent to work well for you, you need to encourage and motivate them to do that, by making them realize that you will, in turn, reciprocate by booking and buying your travel through them.  If you make it obvious you're just a price driven shopper and unlikely to actually reward them with any business, then of course they're not going to waste much time with you.

There were also some other messages from travel agents, posted on the user forum (here and here) that had me cringing with discomfort.  I can understand why travel agents don't like to discount their commissions, and agree that most of the time, travel agents earn a very meager income in return for their hard work.  I am totally supportive of paying a good travel agent a fair fee for the work they do.

But a key fact remains - sometimes, travel agents earn big commissions for little work, and some travel agents willingly discount their commissions in such cases in return for incremental profitable easy business - it is my job to report on this, whether other travel agents like the fact or not.  Travel agents that disagree with this discounting should not 'shoot the messenger' but instead, redirect their ire to their colleagues who discount.

Today is a very sad day in commercial aviation history.  It marks the last flight of Concorde.  My own Concorde flight, almost 20 years ago, was undoubtedly the most exciting and memorable experience I've ever enjoyed in a plane, and my sadness at seeing this beautiful plane withdrawn from service is compounded by anger at BA and AF's refusal to sell their planes to Virgin Atlantic Airways.  I wrote about the possible real reasons why these planes are being taken out of service when the announcement was first made in April.  Since that time, matters have only confirmed the inappropriateness of what BA/AF have done, and so with minor changes, I offer up to you again, in memory of the most fantastic passenger plane ever -

This Week's Column :  Concorde - An Untimely and Unnecessary Demise :  Concorde flights are profitable, and the plane is certified for continued regular flying through at least 2009.  So why then have BA and AF jointly decided to withdraw them from service?  Read my analysis and surprising conclusions.

The NY Times Needs Your Help (again)

Looks like word is spreading at the NY Times.  A few weeks back, some of you responded with excellent stories about your recent travel experiences, in response to a request from a NY Times reporter.  Now a second reporter has asked for help.  He writes

For an article I am writing on business travel to Houston, I was wondering if you knew of frequent business travelers to that city who might be willing to talk with me about their favorite hotels, restaurants and entertainment spots.

If you can help, please email to me and advise your name, contact phone numbers, and a quick one para summary of what you would recommend.  I'll pass all emails on to the reporter.

Dinosaur Watch :  What's up with United Airlines?  Is it short of money (okay, so that is a stupid question to ask of a company in Chapter 11!)?  It sold four landing slots at Heathrow to BA.  It is selling its share of Orbitz and Hotwire.  It had a promotion for elite status where participants had to pay $100 cash as well as make the necessary qualifying flights.  And this last weekend it ran a short term airfare sale.

Interesting developments at Southwest Airlines.  A couple of weeks ago I mentioned they are considering advance seat assignments.  Now, this week, they mentioned that they are 'casually looking' at smaller 100 passenger regional jets to supplement their existing fleet that comprises exclusively 737s.

This is long overdue.  While there are obvious operational advantages to having all flights served by one type of plane, there are equally obvious massive disadvantages.  Plainly, the type of plane needed for a short 300 mile flight between two minor airports, with a light load of passengers, is very different to the plane for a 3000 mile trans-con flight between two major airports, with a potentially very large load of passengers.

If Southwest purchases smaller capacity RJs, they'll be copying JetBlue, who decided on a 'two plane' strategy a couple of months ago.  Interesting to see Southwest switching from being an innovator to being a copier.

Southwest also announced their third quarter earnings.  Their net income for the quarter was $106 million, an 89% increase on the third quarter of 2002.  Revenue passenger miles increased by 7.7%.  Operating expenses increased 1.8% and are now 7.51c per available seat mile.

JetBlue, which has reported a profit each quarter since its public offering in April 2002, reported its third-quarter net rose to $29.0 million, or 39 cents per share, up from $12.2 million, or 18 cents per share, a year earlier.  Its shares have nearly tripled in value in the last six months.

And American Airlines reported a third quarter loss of $23 million (after one-off items).  This is actually very good news for AA, and is a huge improvement on the same quarter last year.  Revenue per available seat mile was up 8.1% and there was a decline of 8.6% in per-passenger costs.  Looks like some of their cost cutting is starting to have an effect.

Here's a heartwarming story of an airline that cares.  A colleague of mine was on a business trip, hopping from one city to another, and he was keeping all his receipts in a plastic zip pouch so he could do his expenses when he got back home to Britain.  He left the zip pouch on a plane, and resigned himself to never seeing it again.

A week later, one of the other people in the office was called by the airline.  The pouch had been found, the contents carefully examined, and in with the receipts was a boarding pass stub belonging to this second person.  The airline traced that back through their computer history, found a phone number, and called, asking how to get in touch with the actual owner of the receipts, and where to send them.

Amazing service, isn't it.  And - the most amazing thing of all?  My colleague lost his receipts while flying between two towns in Russia, and the airline in question is Aeroflot.

Talking about Aeroflot, I was booking a roundtrip ticket between London and Moscow a couple of days ago.  Both BA and Aeroflot over nonstop services.  One airline offers a $350 fare, and the other offers a $450 fare.  But - no, Aeroflot was not the lower priced airline.  The cheaper fare was from BA!

I had earlier predicted that Boeing might close down its 757 production line, and Boeing has now confirmed this.  After 22 years, it will cease production of the 757 in late 2004, due to lack of market interest in the plane.  More than 1000 have been produced, but in recent years, expanded 737 models (and Airbus equivalents) have eaten into the 757's market.

The last Boeing passenger plane that was withdrawn from production was back in 1984, when the 727 ceased production.

Good news at Amtrak.  For the twelve months ended 30 September, it had a record 24 million passengers, a 2.7% increase on the previous year's number.  The largest increase was in the west, and surprisingly, its showcase Acela Express service had a 4% drop in riders.

I wrote about an exciting new type of phone service a couple of months ago, and am presently evaluating a competing product that I'll review in a future article.  One of the features of this 'VOIP' phone service is that it avoids the myriad state taxes and surcharges that get added to regular phone bills, making its low cost even lower.  Of course, the states are trying any which way they can to tax VOIP service, but Vonage just won an important victory in federal court that should discourage the states from pressing their case further.

Is it time to finally bury the dated image of the 'ugly American tourist'?  A recent study would suggest so, and finds that 75% of American tourists are environmentally conscious and that 38% of them are willing to pay extra for their travels if, in doing so, the environment will be better cared for.

I received an interesting email from reader Lee.  I am rather skeptical about this, but perhaps one of our hotelier readers can comment :

I just got an e-mail from our New York office that cautioned us to not return the plastic hotel room keys to the front desk upon checkout. Evidently many of these keys are coded with guest information, including name, partial address, check-in and departure dates and credit card number and expiration date!! These cards can be scanned away from the hotel. Best advice is to take the card with you and destroy it when you get home. There is no charge for not returning the card. Thought you should be aware of this--FYI

I mentioned above having to spend $1.50 for every minute of local calling from my London hotel.  As a possible solution, I experimented with using my cellphone as a modem, but its 9600 baud speed and incredibly long latencies made this absolutely impractical - many websites and my email server would repeatedly time out due to the massive delays in 'handshaking' and transferring data.

After a lengthy discussion at one of their stores about my needs, I signed up for GPRS digital cellphone service with UK provider Orange.  Alas.  The salesman's glib assurance that it would be easy to use this service was contradicted by the inability of their support people to actually achieve this.  After several hours of phone calls (at $1.50/minute!) to both Orange and Nokia, I gave up this attempt and remain stuck paying whatever the hotels choose to charge.  Using state of the art cellphone service is as complicated in the UK as it is in the US

Here's a surprising twist on booking through the internet.  Some people have been building websites with names that are very similar to those of major travel suppliers.  If a person types in the similar name, they end up on a website that they might think belongs to the supplier, but which actually has nothing to do with the supplier.  This means that the type of product they end up buying may be totally different to the product they thought they were purchasing.  For example, airfranceairlines.com and holidayinnhotels.com are a couple of these bogus sites.  Read more here.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Reader Kathy writes :

I traveled back from Perth, Australia to San Francisco last month, inadvertently with a sharp 4" pair of scissors in my carry on luggage. I had no idea they were there until arriving home and unpacking. I went through five different security screenings during this journey, and no-one noticed them.

You've probably heard about the 20 year old student who hid boxcutters and other items in a couple of planes.  He then wrote to the TSA, telling them what he had done.  The TSA ignored his letters!  And then, when the items were found, by chance (apparently many weeks after they were hidden on board), there is a major panic with the FBI and TSA deciding to urgently search every US passenger plane (5800 of them) within 24 hours.  The student is now being charged with various crimes that could see him in prison for up to ten years and/or fined up to $250,000.

Of course, the real 'crime' this hapless fool committed was embarrassing the TSA.  But there isn't a law against that - yet.  It also seems unlikely that the student will get to achieve his career goal - he wants to join the FBI.

Winning this week's prize for 'money wasted on a trivial security threat' is the $9 million given by the TSA to Greyhound for enhanced driver protection and communication systems, so as to 'make intercity busy travel safer in the post-Sept 11, 2001 world'.  To the best of my knowledge, the number of people killed by terrorist attacks on buses remains at zero, while the number of people killed in bus accidents is appreciably higher than zero.  Surely money would be better spent on general bus safety systems and accident survivability aids?

Amtrak has also received $55 million to upgrade its security.  Again, the number of people killed on Amtrak by terrorist attacks is zero, and indeed the potential danger posed by a hijacked train is low.  But the number of people that die on level crossing crashes between trains and other vehicles is way too high.

This is, of course, the very big paradox of most of the tens of billions of dollars now being spent on anti-terrorist activities.  The cost, per life saved, is vastly higher when spending on anti-terror measures than if spending on simple ordinary things like public health and road safety.

The pilot training instructions in last week's newsletter proved popular, and so here are ten more.

11. Stay out of clouds. The silver lining everyone keeps talking about might be another airplane going in the opposite direction.  Reliable sources also report that mountains have been known to hide out in clouds.
12. You start with a bag full of luck and an empty bag of experience.  The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck.
13. If all you can see out of the window is ground that's going round and round and all you can hear is commotion coming from the passenger compartment, things are not at all as they should be.
14. In the ongoing battle between objects made of aluminum going hundreds of miles per hour and the ground going zero miles per hour, the ground has yet to lose.
15. Good judgment comes from experience. Unfortunately, the experience usually comes from bad judgment.
16. It's always a good idea to keep the pointy end going forward as much as possible.
17. Keep looking around. There's always something you've missed.
18. The three most useless things to a pilot are the altitude above you, runway behind you and a tenth of a second ago.
19. There are old pilots and there are bold pilots.   There are, however, no old bold pilots.
20. If a crash is unavoidable, pick the softest and cheapest thing you can see and aim for it.

Lastly this week, thanks to reader Peter for coming up with 'another reason to use a travel agent'.

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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