Friday 5 December, 2003

 

Good morning.  It is a humbling experience to be living in the generally considered to be most advanced country in the world, but to lose a basic essential such as electricity due to a simple and predictable event - a windstorm.  And the delay in restoring power is, with every passing hour, increasingly more bothersome.  But I am also secretly delighted that the generator I purchased in anticipation of the chaos that never eventuated with the Y2K bug is now actually proving useful!

Notice something new?  The logo above.  It will (hopefully) look more appropriate when integrated into the color scheme and design of the new site.  My feeling - it's not brilliant, but its not bad either, and as many of you said in response to the survey, people visit this site for the content, not for the logo.  If you have any last minute thoughts (or suggestions) you're welcome to let me know, of course.

It is that time of year again when the shops fill with increasingly desperate people, all anxiously trying to find gifts for friends and family.  I never find it easy to choose gifts, and other people never find it easy to choose gifts for me, either!  So recognizing the problem that many of us have, I've put together a list of six gadget type gifts that are on my own personal 'must have' list and which you'll probably find useful or fun as well.  I already have all six of these items myself, so this is not a big hint!  I've written about three of these items before, but the other three are new, so you're sure to find something interesting and perhaps also something surprising.

Which reminds me - thank you to the several people who asked for an address to send me a Christmas card.  One of the (many) good things about internet newsletters is the much greater feeling of community and interaction between us all - emails between you and me, and forum postings between all of us.  If anyone else wishes to exchange Christmas cards, it would be my pleasure.  My address is 17321 NE 31st Ct, Redmond, WA 98052.  Be sure that your name and address are shown so I can reciprocate.

This Week's Column :  Christmas Gadget Gift Giving Guide :  Here are six recommended gift suggestions ranging in price from free to $350 to help you choose something special for someone special.

One more thing about this week's column.  That good looking guy standing self-consciously next to the tree in the picture?  Me (last Christmas).  No rude comments, please!

Attempts to transfer my cell phone number from AT&T to T-Mobile remain unsuccessful - it is now ten days since I made the request.  The reason for the delay seems to be 100% due to intransigence on AT&T's part.  All the other major cell phone services have agreed to a common transfer protocol through an independent company in Florida, and this seems to be working smoothly.  But AT&T refuses to do this, and their alternate procedures just plain aren't working.  The FCC guideline that transfers should take no more than 2 hours is looking rather ridiculous alongside AT&T's failure to act in ten days.

Reader Mayer points out an interesting issue when transferring a number from AT&T, and potentially other carriers, too.  AT&T charge in whole months, so if you cancel your service one day into your next billing month, you pay for the full month.  Nasty.

Dinosaur Watching :  United's new low cost carrier, Ted, continues to be the subject of jokes.  Travel agents Doug and John volunteered these two - firstly, 'Ted' is United without UNI (you and I).  Secondly, 'Ted' is how you say 'debt' backwards.

Whatever Ted is, one thing is plain.  Ted is not a low cost carrier, even though this is its prime objective.  A USA Today survey showed that on eight routes from Ted's Denver hub, the airline offered the lowest fare only once!

Maybe the tide is turning - air travel is up.  Indeed, this trend is so strong that almost all airlines are benefiting from the increases in travel.  American reported a 3% increase in its November traffic (compared to last year).  Continental had an 8.7% increase.  Delta was up 3.2%, and US Airways was up 8.3%.  Strangely, Northwest had a decrease - 2.4% down domestically and 5.6% down internationally.

Southwest had an 11.8% increase, and JetBlue had a staggering 57.6% increase.  On the Sunday of the Thanksgiving weekend, JetBlue averaged an extraordinary 96.6% load factor on its flights - in other words, only one empty seat per flight!  This is all the more incredible when you remember that JetBlue is the only airline that does not overbook its flights.  But JetBlue also announced on Thursday that it was reducing its projected operating profit margin for the fourth quarter.  Its third quarter margin was 19.7%, and 16.8% a year earlier; they are now outlooking a lower margin of 13-14% for their fourth quarter.  That is certainly not something to apologize about - many dinosaur carriers would love to get even half such levels of profitability!

Although most dinosaur airlines enjoyed stronger November traffic, part of the reason for that is because the Thanksgiving weekend last year spilled over into December.  And increasing traffic is not enough by itself to guarantee profitability, if fare levels remain depressed, as is indicated by JetBlue's advisory.  This problem is particularly acute at Northwest and its two partners, Continental and Delta.  While UA, US and AA saw their costs drop in the third quarter, these three carriers saw their costs increase.  AA had the largest drop in costs - 22%, and reported a cost of 7.31c per mile.  By contrast, NW's cost is 8.69c a mile - almost 20% higher than AA's.  There's no way NW can charge 20% higher fares, so this cost discrepancy is a major problem that makes it difficult for NW to profitably compete.

NW is asking its workers to accept pay cuts and changes to working rules that would save it about 1c per mile.  Meanwhile, DL is struggling to reach agreement with its pilots.  The pilots have offered a 9% cut in earnings, but DL is seeking 30%.  Amazingly, CO, which had a 3.5% increase in costs during the third quarter, isn't seeking any givebacks from its staff at all.

The corporate governance scandal at Hawaiian Airlines continues.  Their bankruptcy trustee is now seeking to recover $28 million that he claims was improperly diverted from the airline and given to the airline's former CEO, his investment groups, and parent company Hawaiian Holdings.

US Airways scores another victim.  I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that US Airways banned for life a passenger after he became too bothersome in his vociferous complaining.  Now it appears that US Airways may have also lobbied for USA Today to fire one of their columnists - former Travel Troubleshooter, Christopher Elliott.  Click here to read about this disappointing action.  Based on what happened to Chris, I guess I shouldn't expect a call from USA Today inviting me to replace him!

Thanksgiving travel for most people went off smoothly, and with a minimum of delays, but reader Bill had strange delays that he struggles to understand.  His DL flight from Seattle to Atlanta was delayed for over an hour at the gate due to a 'miscalculation of the amount of fuel needed for the trip'.  Better than discovering the mistake halfway to ATL, of course, but still hard to comprehend, as is a one hour delay to top up the tanks.

A couple of days later, he had another delay when, after everyone had boarded a NW flight, it was discovered that a nose wheel tire needed to be changed.  Neither Bill nor I understand why the need to change the tire was only discovered minutes before the plane was due to push back.

News from Downunder :  Qantas has announced details of their new low cost airline subsidiary.  Mercifully it has been given a sensible name - Jetstar (imagine if Qantas named it with the second syllable of Qantas...).  In a blow for Boeing, Qantas (until recently a 100% Boeing only airline) chose to order 23 new A320s from Airbus for its new operation.

Qantas is also in the news for a well deserved win, being voted the best business class to Australia and NZ by the readers of Business Traveler magazine.  This award was no big surprise - it is now the fifth year in a row that Qantas has won this prize.

Talking about Boeing, the resignation of their CEO, Phil Condit, on Monday was an honorable and appropriate response to the ethical and business problems surrounding this once great company.  But has Boeing jumped from the frying pan and into the fire by appointing Harry Stonecipher as replacement CEO?  Stonecipher presided over the troubled final years of McDonell Douglas, until the time that Boeing bought the company.  While I agree diversifying into more defense related contracts is sensible, Boeing's problem (and perhaps that of MD before it) is that, in doing so, it appears to have completely lost interest in its former core business - civil aircraft building.

Airbus is eating Boeing's lunch - Airbus dynamically continues to introduce new planes, and to pick up market share everywhere to the point where it has now overtaken Boeing to become clearly the world's dominant aircraft manufacturer.  While Boeing has been making ridiculous decisions like moving its Head Office away from its main manufacturing base in Seattle, and locating management thousands of miles away in Chicago, Airbus has been simply and steadily taking over Boeing's markets and customers (and not moving its head office).

While Boeing is struggling to find a launch customer for its not yet even confirmed 7E7 plane (a plane that it desperately needs to offer as an alternative to Airbus), Airbus is pressing on at full speed with its super jumbo, the A380, due to take its first flight in 2005, and with 129 confirmed orders already for a plane that Boeing dismissed as having no market potential when it declined to extend still further its tired old 747 design.  The plane has a list price of $270 million - if all 129 orders were sold at full price, that is almost $35 billion worth of business that Boeing has conceded to Airbus, so far, on this one plane type.

Boeing's belief that there is no market for a super-jumbo is not only contradicted by the runaway sales of the A380 to date, but is also contradicted by airport planners.  At Heathrow, they project that one in every eight flights will be an A380 by 2016.  By comparison, at present, one in every nine flights is a 747.

Just how big is the A380?  Generally it has been quoted as being able to carry 555 passengers in much more spacious comfort than ever before.  But now the airlines are getting closer to actually operating the planes, unsurprisingly, the numbers of seats seems to be increasing (and the comfort decreasing!).  Airbus now concedes that it could hold 'over 800' and some reports suggest that they could hold as many as 900 passengers - twice as many as a 747 and potentially three times as many as a 777 or a 7E7.

However, Sir Richard Branson says that his airline (you know, the one that begins with the letter V...) plans to have only 524 seats in each of the six A380s they currently have on order, allowing it to remain truly spacious and comfortable - even for coach class passengers.  One of the concepts that his airline is considering is having a coach class cafeteria where passengers can go and get their meals, rather than having to eat them at their seats.

There's been a bit of talk this week about the unidentified other airplane that spotted Air Force One while it was flying President Bush to Baghdad.  Chances are we all might be seeing a lot more of other airplanes, and a lot closer than before, in the future.  The previous minimum vertical separation between planes of 2000 ft on major international routes has been reduced to 1000 ft.

Did you know that Expedia increased its booking fee?  No, neither did I, but reader Randy noticed that the normal $5 booking fee is now $8.99 - an 80% unannounced increase.

If you're going to be driving in the UK in the future, you need to be aware that it is now illegal to 'hold' a mobile phone while driving a car.  You can use a hands-free headset to make and receive calls, but you can't hold the phone while its buttons are being pressed.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Fighter jets were scrambled out of Miami last week after an elderly woman, believed to be in her 70s, 'threw a fit' on an AA flight, causing flight attendants to fear she might attack them.  Not quite your typical armed and dangerous terrorist!  But what were the fighter jets expected to do?  Were they going to shoot the plane down if the woman did indeed hit one of the flight attendants?  There is absolutely nothing else they could do, expect watch and laugh.

If you see fighter jets suddenly appear off the wing of your plane, do not feel comforted at all.  They can't protect you.  They can only kill you.

Notable also was the fact that there were no Air Marshals on this plane.  Indeed, when was the last time you heard of an Air Marshal 'saving the day' and preventing a terrorist attack?  Never.  According to Aviation Daily, over the last two years, 'air marshals have been responsible for 28 arrests or detentions' of unspecified nature, but it is not known if any of these were actual life/plane-threatening situations, and it is also not known how many of these 28 'arrests or detentions' resulted in convictions.

Let's do the math.  The number of Air Marshals is classified, but I'll guess a low figure of 2000 in the program.  At a published cost per marshal of $100,000 a year, this means we're spending $200 million a year, to say nothing of the 'cost' to the airlines of all the first class seats they've had to give for free to the air marshals.  What have we got in return for this $200+ million dollars a year? 14 'arrests or detentions' a year.

Is this money well spent?  Would our war on terrorism not progress further if we simply recruited another 2000 FBI agents, Border Guards, or even local policemen?

Or perhaps the extra $200 million should be given to the TSA.  Reader Skip reports that after he tried to unsuccessfully email a question to the TSA's email query address back in September, he now - eleven weeks later - received a response from the TSA.  They asked him if he still wanted his question answered!

I mentioned last week a rumor that the terrorists who attacked DHL's A300 when leaving Baghdad had a French reporter with them.  Yes, indeed, that was true, and pictures of the attack appeared in this week's Paris Match.  I'll be putting up a page on this attack next week.

It is distressing that terrorists view French reporters - and the French readers of their magazines - as their supporters.  I guess I'll have to extend my boycott on everything French a bit longer!

Taxi fares can sometimes seem expensive.  And sometimes they truly are.  A taxi scam at Heathrow has been preying on foreign students, with one unfortunate person paying 1650 ($2800) to be driven 68 miles to Chelmsford.

I wrote about the ridiculous ban on referring to hard disks as master and slave drives in Los Angeles as my last item last week.  Here's more on this case of political correctness run completely amok.

Lastly this week, perhaps more political correctness?  Or a case of not knowing when you're blessed with a unique feature.  Godfather movie fans - of whom there are many, all throughout the world - are often surprised and delighted to learn that there is a real town in Sicily called Corleone.  Thousands of fans visit the town each year, many even choose to get married there.  But local lawyer Antonio Di Lorenzo wants to change the town's name, because he feels that people automatically associate the town, and its citizens, with mafiosi.

I guess he's going to make the town council an offer they can't refuse.

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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