Friday 7 November, 2003

Good morning.  Was it Dorothy in Wizard of Oz who said 'There's no place like home'?  Being now returned to Seattle, I surely echo those sentiments, and also wish that traveling between Moscow and Seattle was as quick and simple as clicking my heels together three times!

But, having said that, my return flights were remarkably pleasant, and in particular my BA flight from London to Seattle, in an almost completely empty business class (even though the coach class cabin was 100% totally full) was entirely satisfactory.  Best of all, a combination of an early arrival and no delays for Immigration, bags or Customs, meant that I was driving out of the airport prior to the scheduled arrival time of the plane, instead of 1+ hours after its arrival as per normal!

Alas, while on my travels, my trusty Palm III PDA failed.  A hotel bellhop did something while transferring my bag from the hotel lobby to the trunk of my rental car so that its screen was smashed to smithereens (I suspect he put a heavy suitcase on top of the soft sided carryon bag).  This saw me buying a new state of the art PDA upon my return, and then spending literally all day today from 9.20am until now mastering the complexities of the new gadget.  On a 'waste not, want not' basis, this quickly became the basis of this week's feature article :

This Week's Column :  Palm Tungsten T3 Review :  I review Palm's latest PDA and contrast it with my ancient Palm III.  It has a fancy color screen, and many more features.  But is it still as easy to use and truly functional for the road warrior?  Read my surprising findings.

The combination of jet lag from the eleven hour time difference and a full day wrestling with this new PDA is this week's excuse for a shorter newsletter than normal.  :)

Last week I commented about the lack of London hotels with in-room broadband service.  That brought about a rush of emails from people advising of hotels that do have broadband - most of them being rather expensive and predominantly five star.  And then, when I arrived at the four star and moderately priced $110/night Thistle Lancaster Gate on Monday this week, I discovered to my delight that it (and 12 other Thistle hotels in London) also has broadband.  Bravo!  A good hotel at a great price and in a convenient location, and with broadband, too.  Guess where I'll be staying on future visits.  :)

In response to a reader suggestion, I'm now creating a page listing hotels with broadband.

Last week I also featured a poignant letter from a reader complaining about airline change policies impacting on her husband's vacation home from Iraq.  This prompted a wonderful letter in response from AA's Customer Service Manager at Reagan National Airport, Marshall Jackson.  He writes

I'm writing because I was a tad disturbed by the note from the lady about DL and AA charging some kind of fee if her husband missed his flight due to his military charter being late.  Reservations knows one line.... fare rules. That's essentially all they can say, because it's all they know.

While I'm sure that out of our 90,000 employees, there might be one or two who would attempt to charge this gentleman a change fee, the truth is, I do not believe anyone will.  Our Customer Service Agents are empowered to make decisions even if they don't feel like they are sometimes...and I can assure you that I (and my counterparts at BWI) are sure as hell empowered to do the right thing.  Now, I'm not even sure if her husband is booked on AA.  But if he is... and runs into trouble, all he needs to do is ask for a Customer Service Manager at BWI if he has any difficulty with alternative travel arrangements.  And if you have a name, I'll call BWI on his behalf if needed.  I know some folks. :-)

Bravo to Marshall and his colleagues at AA.  Attitudes like that are what it takes to turn around public perceptions of airlines from being thought of as customer-hostile to being understood as customer-friendly.  American is very fortunate to have such people on their team, and in critical front line customer service roles.

We've been asked to help the NY Times again.  One of their business section reporters writes :

David - Thank you for your help on Houston. The folks who responded were very nice and very helpful.  Could I impose upon you one more time? This time I am writing about business travel to Honolulu, and seeking tips and suggestions on hotels, restaurants and entertainment there.

If you can offer any suggestions, please write to me with your name, phone number, how it is you are a Honolulu expert, and your recommendation.  I'll pass your emails on to the NY Times, and they will get in touch with you directly.

Dinosaur WatchUA continues to press on with its plans for its latest low cost airline subsidiary.  And in a truly bizarre type of marketing, it is attempting to build up a swell of pre-launch publicity for an entity known as 'Ted' (please tell me this won't be the name of their new airline!).  A series of publicity stunts about a mysterious Ted are being staged in Colorado, and a stupid website also exists.  How exactly this will tie in to their new airline is far from obvious, and the secret that 'Ted' is their new airline is known to just about everyone.  Hardly an auspicious start to a new venture that many commentators feel has little chance of success.

At least Delta's Song operation has solid strong product features to promote, but it would seem that United's Ted has nothing good at all that they can think of to talk up.

I find it hard to speak negatively about AA after the lovely letter above, so let me just quickly observe, without comment, that they too are starting to talk about creating a lower cost airline.

Increasingly it seems that air travel is picking up and improving.  But not all carriers are out of the danger zone.  The latest carrier to be placed on the deathwatch list is Italy's troubled airline Alitalia.  CEO Francesco Mengozzi, adopting a favorite tactic of other airline CEOs, said on Monday that it could face a 'deep and possibly irreversible crisis' within the next 18 months if it fails to cut its costs.  Alitalia is projecting an operating loss of about 410 million ($460 million) this year.

The same drama between established dinosaur airlines and new lower cost carriers is being played out on the international stage as it is domestically within the US.  While Alitalia is projecting massive losses, low-fare Ryanair has just announced a record profit of 176 million ($200 million) for the last six months.  What makes their result truly astonishing is that their average fares were 12% lower than the same time last year, but their profit - based on an increase in total revenues of 28% - has grown by 16% compared to last year.

Their latest promotion is selling one million tickets at 1 ($1.70) each.

It seems that several of the airlines are tightening up on their frequent flier programs.  Perhaps the most contentious changes have been at Delta, and this protest website now claims to represent some 6700 Delta very frequent fliers (with an average of 595,000 miles earned per member) who are upset about the changes.  If you're a Delta Skymiles member, you might want to support these people.

Have you ever wondered what makes an airline choose where it will add new flights?  Well, usually the reasoning behind such decisions is impenetrably obscured and complex.  But low cost airline AirTran is adopting a different approach.  As it extends its role as the number two airline at Delta's fortress Atlanta hub, it is now inviting the public to vote for where they'd like to see AirTran next add new service.  Go to their website and give them your opinion.

One factor, for sure, that airlines consider when choosing where to add service is the cost of flying in and out of the airport in question.  Here is an interesting table of the ten most expensive airports for airlines to fly in and out of :

IATA's 10 Most Expensive Airports
#1 Osaka  Kansai International Airport
#2 Tokyo  Narita International Airport
#3 Newark  Liberty International Airport
#4 New York  Kennedy International Airport
#5 Athens International Airport
#6 Moscow  Sheremetyevo Interntl. Airport
#7 Sao Paulo  Guarulhos International Airport
#8 Vienna International Airport
#9 Washington  Dulles International Airport
#10 Toronto  Pearson International Airport

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago a potentially urban legend about hotel key cards storing personal information on them such as credit card numbers.  Thanks to all the many people that wrote in with rebuttals to this allegation.  If you're interested, the excellent website snopes.com has a page about this, and another site - truthorfiction.com also has a page.

BA have announced where they are donating their seven Concordes.  They are being sent to these locations :

  • Airbus U.K., Filton Bristol, England
  • Manchester Airport, England 
  • Museum of Flight, near Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Heathrow Airport
  • The Museum of Flight, Seattle
  • The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, New York
  • Grantley Adams Airport, Bridgetown, Barbados

Talking about BA, Sir Richard Branson, head of Virgin Atlantic Airways (which I'll refer to by their abbreviation VS to avoid porno filtering), has made an interesting challenge to BA.  He challenged them to a 'bed to bed' competition to see which airline has the better service.  Twenty frequent flier business passengers would sample both VS's Upper Class and BA's equivalent Club World, and the airline judged to have the poorer service would be required to pay $1.65 million to a charity of the winner's choice.  And then, in a gutsy move, he added a second challenge - the same rules, but this time comparing VS's Upper Class (which is marketed and priced as a business class product) against BA's First Class (a very much more expensive product), for another $1.65 million wager.

Virgin Atlantic's challenge is inspired by what they see as overwhelmingly positive public response to their new Upper Class Suite - an innovative twist on the now well established lie-flat sleeper bed seat.  VS's innovative twist is literally that - the seat flips over so that there is one type of surface for maximum comfort while sleeping and a different type of surface for maximum comfort while seated.  In addition, VS's beds are much longer and wider than both BA's business class and first class sleeper beds, all seats face forward, and all seats have direct aisle access (two common criticisms of the BA business class sleeper seats).

No word yet from BA if they'll accept the challenge (which would be managed by an independent research company for fairness).

An earlier Branson challenge, and extraordinary photo, can be seen here.

And in related proof of the popularity of VS's new service enhancements, VS reported a staggering 10% increase in premium traffic for the three months August - October, compared to last year.  This 10% increase is all the more significant because it is with business travelers paying high priced fares, and at a time when BA is reportedly giving up on premium fare business and focusing instead on low fare leisure travelers.  Sir Richard, never one for understatement, says 'Our new Upper Class Suite is now flying daily between New York and London and with the retirement of Concorde we expect Virgin's Upper Class to be the natural replacement for Concorde travelers as well as BA's and other airlines' first and business class passengers.'

Did you know that in the UK, over 600,000 cellphones are dropped into toilets each year?  This would suggest that probably 2 million phones suffer a similar fate in the US.  Normally such events are of small consequence (except to the phone's owner) but unfortunate Edwin Gallart of New York got his arm stuck while trying to retrieve his phone from a toilet on a commuter train in New York last Friday.  After a fellow passenger heard his cries for help, the train was stopped, and after two hours, a blow torch was needed to cut the stainless steel toilet away from his arm.  Ouch!

Assuming you still have it, here's a fun new trick to play with your phone.  Bluetooth, the wireless technology most commonly found in mobiles and PDAs, looks like it could be spawning a new craze due to it enabling devices within about 12 feet of each other to exchange information.  Some clever phone users are making the most of this technology to send text messages to strangers anonymously - a technique known as 'bluejacking'.

The motive behind the craze is to freak out other Bluetooth users that one might encounter in public - for example, a bluejacker will check out other Bluetooth users nearby and drop them a message that only someone in the same place will appreciate, for example, their choice of newspaper or color of their top or just a message to let them know that they've been bluejacked.

How do they bluejack?  The following information is for, ahem, educational purposes only.  Save a message in the 'name' field of your phone's Bluetooth configuration, for example, 'Nice short skirt', then send it via Bluetooth - a list of enabled hardware in the vicinity should appear on your phone (or on your Tungsten T3 or whatever else you're using).  Select the most likely recipient device and off you go.

Find the Boeing?  Here's a peculiar and probably nonsensical website, presented without comment, other than to record that a thin aluminium cylinder full of jet fuel, crashed at high speed into an immovable object, would unsurprisingly leave little trace of itself.

Lastly this week, here's John Travolta's one up on the concept of a home on the golf course.

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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