Friday 23 January, 2004 

Good morning

After buying $2500 worth of debit cards from Charter One last Friday, I'm now eagerly awaiting their arrival in the mail so I can cash them in for money orders and repeat the process.  Of course, if I have any problems, I'll urgently email to tell you, but until then, the technique for getting nearly free frequent flier miles outlined in my special newsletter last Friday seems to apply.

As you can see, I'm making some design changes to the weekly newsletter, to make it consistent with the new look that is pervading the website, and responding to comments about my previous color choices.

There is one important element of redesigning the newsletter that I'd appreciate your feedback on.  What size should the type be?  Should it be this larger size, as you see in most of the newsletter?

Or should it be this smaller size?  I don't have a strong opinion myself, although the web designer is advocating this smaller size.  Normally I do anything she tells me (!), but I don't want to make the text too small to easily be read in your email program.

So please look at both sizes and tell me which you prefer - the large or the small size.  And of course if there are any other problems with how you display the newsletter, please tell me about that, too.  You can see the web stored version of this newsletter here - in theory it should look the same in your web browser as it does in your email program.

It is a very long time since I last came across a gadget that exceeds the manufacturer's boldest claims.  Usually, the opposite applies, especially when it comes to cell phone battery life.  So when I had a chance to test the new Cellboost emergency battery for cell phones, I very much doubted that its claim for adding 60 minutes of talk time to a dead battery would in reality be anything like that.  I was surprised, to put it mildly.  For more about this amazing and essential aid for all cell phones, read :

This Week's Column :  Cellboost Emergency Cell Phone Battery :  Plug one of these into your cell phone after the battery dies, and the manufacturer claims you'll get up to 60 extra minutes of talk time or 60 extra hours of standby. I test the Cellboost with two different phones, and get much longer life.  Read my review of this amazing $5 device all cell phone owners should have.
 

Touring Update

The Scotland tour has already half filled with people choosing to participate - but there's still room for you to come with us, too.  The complete Scotland itinerary and joining form is here.

The England tour is also now completed and available for you to join.  Among other enhancements is the addition of a truly free bonus night in London at the end of the tour (the hotel wouldn't sell us only the Saturday night, but insisted on selling us rooms for two nights, although the cost of a room for two nights was less than the room for a single night elsewhere - a bit like airlines insisting on roundtrip tickets, isn't it!).  You don't need to stay both nights in London, but if you'd like a free extra day and night in London, it is available for you.

The complete England itinerary and joining form is here.  We have one couple already signed up, and hopefully will have more of you choosing to join us in the next day or two.

The Russian tour is also now online and waiting for you to participate.  It is crammed absolutely full of amazing experiences, and while you can of course choose to opt out of anything if you want to take it easy for a day (or if there is something special you wish to spend more time enjoying), I think most people will love the tour exactly as it is.

Complete Russian itinerary and joining form here.

I've added some more information to the touring pages in general.  One thing is important and good news for you.  To arrange these tours in a fully legal and proper manner, I have now registered with the State of Washington as a Seller of Travel, and have created an official Trust Account as per their regulations and requirements.  This vastly reduces any risks that might otherwise be present when you buy these tours from me.

So, please, choose the one, two or three itineraries that you want, and come join those of us already going on what are sure to be wonderful vacation experiences.

 

Dinosaur Watching :  More airlines are reporting their fourth quarter results.  Last week Delta announced a loss of $327 million in the fourth quarter, and $773 million for the entire year.

This week, American announced a loss of $111 million for the fourth quarter, making a total loss for the year of $1.2 billion.  Last year's loss was $3.5 billion, so a loss of 'only' $1.2 billion is a massive improvement for AA.

Continental came out with a $47 million profit for the fourth quarter, making a total profit for the year of $38 million.  A lovely turnaround from 2002, which saw a $451 million loss.  But it is worth noting that included in CO's profit is a $111 million security fee reimbursement; without that it would have been in the red again this year.

Turnaround carrier America West  proudly reported a profit of $6.8 million for the last quarter and $57.4 million for the year.  Last year the company had a $388 million loss.  For 2003, America West experienced a 7.1% growth in its revenue passenger miles (a measure of the people they fly and the distance they flew).

Southwest ended its year in a triumphant manner, reporting a fourth quarter profit of $66 million and a total profit for the year of $442 million.  Last year their profit was $241 million, and this makes the 31st consecutive year that Southwest has been profitable.  For the entire year, their revenue passenger miles (RPMs) increased by 5.6%.

'For the first time in three years, we are starting the year with an improved outlook,' said Chief Financial Officer Gary Kelly in a conference call.  'We are obviously hopeful that 2004 will be a great year, with a great rebound in load factors and therefore revenues.'

In other Southwest news, a jury determined this week that Southwest was not liable in a lawsuit brought by two sisters.  After boarding their flight, they claim they suffered physical and emotional distress, were humiliated, degraded and discriminated against.  What was the terrible event that caused them such harm and made them bring a lawsuit?

A flight attendant, trying to get passengers to sit down, said over the intercom 'Eenie, meenie, minie, moe; pick a seat, we gotta go'.  The two sisters are African Americans and said it reminded them of a similar jingle that includes use of the 'n' word.

Fortunately the jury proved to be more sensible than the plaintiffs.

Another of the low cost carriers, AirTran, was also profitable.  They had a $21.7 million profit for the fourth quarter, and $100.5 million for the full year.

December was the first month to show passenger traffic levels returned to those before 9/11.  However, although each of the major carriers had reduced passenger numbers in 2003, airlines such as Southwest, America West, AirTran, ATA, Frontier and jetBlue all had large increases.

Continental's CEO, Gordon Bethune, is joining what has become a mass exodus of airline CEOs.  He'll retire, effective 31 December 2004.  This means that nine of the ten largest airlines will have had a change at the top since 2001.  The exception is UA, who have had two changes of CEO!

I wrote about the AA pilot who 'flipped the birdie' when having his immigration picture taken in Brazil last week.  He ended up with a $12,775 fine.  In case you wondered what you have to do to be fined $12,775 in Brazil, here is the offending picture that caused all the problems.

And, talking about respect (!), a survey in Canada to rank the most respected companies has just announced that in 2003, the most respected Canadian company is the Royal Bank of Canada.  Second place went to low cost carrier, WestJet Airlines.

In addition  to winning second place overall, it came top in the 'High Quality Service/Product' category and the 'Customer Service' category.  Last year, it was placed as number 7, and the year before saw it at number 147.

WestJet CEO Clive Beddoe, commenting on his company's win, had this to say, which clearly shows why his airline did so well :

Our industry has had a very sad record of abusive behavior towards their customers and I think that's a byproduct, sadly, of monopolies - they tend to not have to worry about customer service. We just think that, if people are going to pay us to fly on us, the least we can do is respect that and treat them the way we'd like to be treated and respect the fact that, essentially, they're entering into a contract with us to get them from A to B at a certain time. And if we don't do that, we've always felt we owe them compensation.

Low cost airline Frontier has announced it has capped its fares at a maximum of $299 each way.  Previously its fares went as high as $499.  They hope this will encourage more business travelers to travel more often, and with Frontier rather than its major competitor (UA and Ted).

It is interesting to see airlines that believe they can increase their overall sales and profitability if they decrease their ridiculously high fares.  Let's hope the market proves them correct.

Reader Mark was surprised, when phoning Delta's (800) reservations number earlier this week, that his call was answered by a person with very poor English skills, who Mark believes to have been an Indian in India.  Mark says

I have nothing against India or people from that country, but didn't Delta get Federal money to bail themselves out, and now they export their lowest wage, call center jobs?

Mark should call jetBlue next time he is flying somewhere. jetBlue employs only Americans as reservations agents, and they all work from their homes, rather than in big central call centers. jetBlue says this makes their people happier and more productive.

Maybe we should start paying pilots their former ridiculously high salaries again.  One of the implications in support of their up to $300k/year salaries had always been that if they didn't earn as much, or if they had to work more than half time, they wouldn't fly as well and passengers' lives might be at risk.  As possible confirmation of what happens when pilots aren't earning as much, here is this story.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  I received a long email from a reader that I posted, in its entirety, to the user forum on security issues.  In quick summary, he is a very frequent flier, a doctor, and an invalid.  He may (or may not!) have been a bit brusque when a security screener tried to get his attention as he passed through airport security.  Assuming the worst, so, okay, he didn't snap to attention and salute the security screener.  Big deal.  He did not deserve to almost die during his 4.5 hour detention that followed.

Murderers and rapists get better treatment, and have more rights, than do law-abiding citizens who run afoul of the TSA, an agency that seems to be answerable to no-one.  The reader was refused food, water, medication, and was not allowed to call an attorney.  He was forcibly photographed and fingerprinted (while almost unconscious and in insulin shock), and although detained for 4.5 hours, was never arrested and never charged with any crime.

His complete story is here.  Read it, wonder, and worry about what is happening to our country.

Last week I commented on the Arab who managed to board a plane at Dulles with five bullets in his pocket.  Reader Mark was not surprised that the Arab smuggled the bullets through security.  He writes :

I travel a great deal internationally from Dulles, and post 9/11 I have set off the metal detectors at Dulles (going to London on Virgin, just like the guy you mentioned, not that it has anything to do with Virgin), and been waved through without any extra wanding or searching

And reader Glenn thinks that 'only' having five bullets in your pocket is nothing.  His wife flew from LAX to JFK just before Christmas, and had, in her carry-on bag, a huge big German Chef's knife.  No-one at security noticed.

In the UK, a business man decided he wanted to sneak through international airport security at Heathrow and buy some duty free booze and cigarettes, so he printed up a fake airline boarding pass on his home printer and successfully did so.  Realizing that if he could do this, so too could terrorists, he printed up boarding passes in the name of Osama bin Laden, and then with his passport (in his real name) and his boarding pass in bin Laden's name, proceeded to pass through security in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and London Heathrow before repeating the stunt for tabloid journalists.

The danger :  He could have smuggled plastic explosive into the 'secure' area of the airport (plastic explosive is not detected by metal detectors) and secreted it in other passengers' unattended carry-on bags, before then safely leaving the airport, undetected.

And, in Sydney, a man was stopped when he tried to board a flight to Los Angeles.  He had somehow passed through all the major security screening points and made it to the boarding gate with no ticket, no boarding pass, and not even a passport!

Reader Mike has come across a curious problem when he flies on Continental/Northwest codeshares that you'd probably prefer to avoid.  In a letter to CO's customer service, he writes

My experience on Continental-Northwest code share flights, where I have to check-in outside of security on Northwest is that invariably the Northwest segment shows up as a one-way flight, so my boarding pass has the dreaded SSSS security designation. That means I have to go through the hassle of having my bags completely unloaded and repacked wrong and I have to be nearly strip searched by TSA. before I can even reach the haven of a Presidentís Club to have it fixed.

I have had this happen all three times I have had the same circumstance in the past so I am sure it is a systemic problem and not some fluke. This seriously degrades the level of service I experience with Continental because you canít control your code share partnerís computer adequately. Northwest ticket agents are completely clueless and helpless when I try to prevent this while checking in.

Until you fix this problem, you might place a warning sticker on the website (like the surgeon generalís warning on cigarettes) that ďchoosing a code share flight will be hazardous to your traveling experience and subject you to being profiled as a potential terroristĒ.

Lastly this week, I've checked this story on Snopes, and don't see it mentioned as an urban legend, so it might possibly be true.  A reader passed it to me with no knowledge of its veracity, either.

After booking my 80-year-old grandmother on a flight from Florida to Nevada, I called the airline to go over her special needs. The telephone representative listened patiently as I requested a wheelchair and an attendant for my mother because of her arthritis and impaired vision to the point of near blindness.

My apprehension lightened a bit when the woman assured me that everything would be taken care of. I thanked her profusely.

"Oh, you're welcome," she replied.

I was about to hang up when she cheerfully asked, ..."And will your grandmother need a rental car?"

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

                          David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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