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Friday 12 March, 2004 

Good morning

There can be no doubt that spring is here.  The lawn has started to grow again, and soon I'll be unable to postpone its mowing any further.  When I lived in New Zealand, we considered winter/summer was from 1 December through the end of February, not from winter solstice to spring equinox (approx 21 Dec through 21 Mar).

I gave a presentation to the Austin Business Travel Association on Tuesday that made for a very pleasant short trip out of town.  Austin is a lovely city and with a very nice nearly new airport.  On my return back to Seattle, it took less than 15 minutes from dropping the rental car off to being seated on the plane.  Amazing.

On the sector from Dallas back to Seattle, I was sharing a row with an off-duty pilot - a senior four striper.  I was interested to note that he turned his cellphone on several minutes before we landed at Seatac.  One law for pilots, another for passengers, perhaps?

It had been my intention to recycle some of my presentation and offer it to you as this week's column, and early on Thursday I was feeling well pleased with what I had prepared - an advocacy piece for more investment in our nation's rail network.  While buying lunch, the server commented on the horrors in Spain, and my face fell, not just upon learning of the dreadful atrocities there, but at the realization that my article, which included the smug statement that rail is safer and less susceptible to terrorism dangers, was probably the wrong concept to advance today.

And so, drawing on another part of my Austin travel experience, here instead is :

This Week's Column :  USB Flash Drives : Half the size of a pack of gum, but packing up to 2GB of data, these devices are a new and inexpensive way to store and transfer data between computers.  Ideal for road warriors wanting a backup copy of an all-important presentation.

One more comment about Austin.  The ABTA arranged an Enterprise rental car for me.  I've never used Enterprise before and had a mental image of them being rather second rate - slightly better than 'Rent a Wreck' but definitely not in the same class as Hertz or Avis.  In case you've thought the same thing, I must tell you how very impressed I was with Enterprise.

I spent time with three different staff members, none of who had yet looked in their computer and so had no knowledge of me being any type of VIP.  They were all friendly, personable, and helpful, and I ended up driving off the lot in a nearly new Town Car.  I didn't know that Enterprise rented such up market cars, and that night at dinner, their Area Manager, upon learning of my love of Jaguars, expressed regret that he hadn't sent one of their fleet of new Jaguars out to the airport for me!  Wow.  I'd thought only Budget rented Jaguars.  Enterprise is becoming more aggressive at getting corporate and leisure business and is definitely a company to consider next time you're renting a car.

Another car comment.  If - like me - you hate being subjected to the usurious and unfair collection of airport fees, taxes, surcharges and everything else that are piled on top of your rental when collecting cars from airports, I was reminded of a great strategy by the local Hertz manager in Austin the next day.  He struggled to keep a smile on his face as I told him how much I was enjoying my Enterprise experience, but then told me of the Hertz program where they'll deliver a rental car to you at your hotel for no extra charge.

His suggestion :  If you're renting a car for more than a day or two, and particularly if you can get a cheap shuttle to your hotel, then wait until when you need to start using your rental car and arrange for Hertz to deliver it to you at your hotel.  You'll save all those airport surcharges (that can run up to 30% or more of your bill!) and possibly save a day or two of rental cost as well.

A reminder to all who coordinate meetings and look for interesting speakers to provide a draw for their event.  I'm available to talk on travel and technology related topics.  Whether you're putting together a travel or non-travel themed meeting, a presentation on a travel topic is always something that attendees enjoy and benefit from.  Contact me any time to discuss how I can help your meeting.

Thanks to everyone who answered the question about RSS/XML.  As you can see from the chart, very few of you know what it is, only 2% use it and like it, and another 1% use it but find it complicated.

This result is interesting.  Based on earlier surveys, Travel Insider readers are more technologically sophisticated than most people, and with such a low awareness level, plainly RSS/XML is a technology that has not yet made the mainstream.

What is RSS/XML?  It is an interesting new way of having websites automatically send new information to you.  You'll find some progressive news type websites now displaying a little logo, perhaps a bit like this

indicating they offer this service.  If you have a reader program (they can be found on various sites, for free - for example http://www.rssreader.com ) then it is generally a simple matter to arrange for your reader program to automatically talk to the websites you select and get the new stories or other content that they are publishing, and present it to you in a similar format as how you get emails.

There are a bunch of websites that I like to regularly visit, but often forget to; using this new technology means I don't have to remember - the websites will automatically send me their new articles when they publish them.  I've been thinking about implementing this technology here, but with so few readers currently using RSS, there is not much reason to do so (it makes life more complicated for me to add the technology!).  Maybe in another 6-12 months.

They say that any joke you have to explain is not a good joke, and by that measure, for at least a few of you, last week's prize winning BA joke was a failure.  The pivotal part of the story - that 2+2+3=8 - was a deliberate mistake that not only poked fun at the sometimes disappointing incompetency of highly paid consultants, but also (I thought) added a delightful touch to the actions that followed.

One of these replies was from a gentleman who describes himself as an executive with 'the best trans-Atlantic carrier' (hint - begins with 'V') who pointed out

My math gets me 2+2+3=7 therefore BA+7=BASEVEN or with a southern slur BA is Heaven.

He apparently thought this statement both so funny and so outrageous as not only to incur the wrath of terrorists but also not to need any further punchline.

Dinosaur Watching :  It seems the airlines are returning back to their bad old tricks of 'pay rises for executives, pay cuts for staff'.  US Airways - struggling to survive - has deemed that up to 3100 of its people are eligible for a 4% merit pay raise, based on each employee's experience.  Of course, the well-worn excuse about needing to maintain competitive pay rates to retain key staff was trotted out in feeble justification.  Meantime, the airline remains in talks with its pilots about pay cuts, and says that it needs to slash $1.5 billion from its budget.

Last Friday saw the Chief Executive of Allegheny County (PA) say 'We have no confidence they're [US Airways] going to survive and we don't want to risk public money.'  Pennsylvania's earlier offer of $269.3 million for capital improvements as part of a package to keep US in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh is now 'off the table'.  Beaver County Commissioner Chairman Dan Donatella added 'The only way for them to survive is to do a merger.  All confidence, obviously, is lost.'

Meanwhile, inbetween negotiating simultaneous pay rises and pay cuts, US Airways has been taking decisive action to turn itself around.  They have - wow - discovered the internet (only a decade or so after the rest of us).  To commemorate this startling discovery, they plan to paint ten of their planes with the slogan 'No booking fees No brainer' and 'usairways.com' shown prominently on the sides.  They hope this will encourage people to book their travel directly on the US Airways website.

Well, they certainly got the 'No brainer' part correct.  Is there a single person with an internet connection who doesn't know it is possible to book airline tickets on the internet, either directly through the airlines' websites or any other way they choose?

February was a good month for JetBlue.  Their traffic increased 48.8% compared to Feb 2003.  And fellow discount carrier ATA reported a strong 23.6% increase.

Expansion is also being considered by Hooters Air.  The airline, which now includes flights to the Bahamas as well as domestically, is looking to add more planes to its fleet to allow it to get larger.  I'd comment further, but don't want to trip everyone's spam filters....

Boeing has changed the specifications for its 7E7 as it continues its desperate search to find an airline willing to buy their 'make it or break it' plane.  The plane's range has been increased from 9000 miles to 9800 miles.  Senior VP in charge of the 7E7 program, Mike Bair, remained (of course) confident that the plane will sell well, and said he expects a launch order 'sooner rather than later' this year.  I'm sure Boeing will succeed and get orders for this plane, but I'm also sure it isn't going to be the Airbus-defeating super-plane that Boeing is touting it as being.

And, talking about defeat, back on 20 February I disbelievingly quoted Boeing's head of their 717 program, who said that the 717 program was 'alive and well'.  Now, this article refers to Boeing's SEC filing that talks about 'if they scrap their 717 program' - hardly the sort of talk that meshes in with a claim, barely a month ago, that the program is alive and well?

Also mentioned in this article is the 767 Air Force tanker deal which remains in play.  I've thought this deal suspect and strange right from Day 1, and pose this apparently unanswerable question :  Why would the Air Force choose to buy 100 planes of a model type that is obsolete and which will almost certainly be discontinued if they don't buy the planes?  Why not become the launch customer of the 7E7, and get 100 new state-of-the-art planes that are massively more fuel efficient?

This is not just a rhetorical question.  Precedent exists - Boeing's 707 program evolved out of an earlier Air Force contract.  Why aren't both Boeing and the Pentagon actively trying to use this massive plane order to accelerate the development and launch of tomorrow's plane with tomorrow's technology, rather than using it to perpetuate the life of a plane design that has passed its 'use by' date?

Boeing's situation at present is ugly :

  • 717 :  They're now talking about ending this product line

  • 737 :  Latest models still selling reasonably well, but under strong competitive attack from newer and probably superior Airbus designs

  • 747 :  Only recent sales have been for the freighter, not passenger, versions

  • 757 :  Discontinued last year

  • 767 :  Will probably be discontinued if the Air Force tanker order isn't received

  • 777 :  Continues to sell, but under strong competitive attack from Airbus

  • 7E7 :  Still no launch customer

Conceivably, Boeing could soon be reduced to two models only - the 737 and 777.  Meanwhile, Airbus is offering its A300, 310, 318/319/320/321, 330, 340 and 380 families of planes.

I wrote last week about Visa giving free car insurance when its cardmembers rent cars.  Sue and David both wrote in after studying the fine print.  Sue wondered why these countries were excluded :  Israel, Jamaica, Ireland and Northern Ireland.  I can think of plenty worse places than any of those four, but apparently Visa can't.  And David wanted to point out that this deal applies only to US card holders.

A different David (good name, that) wrote in wondering when and why the on-time ratings that used to be shown in airline schedule displays on Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz disappeared.  Could it possibly be because, as airline traffic steadily builds up again, getting closer to pre 9/11 levels, delays are embarrassingly also returning back to the 'bad old days'?

So much for the internet age promising more information to allow people to make more fully informed decisions.

There is one piece of good rail news I can happily pass on - Eurostar, the train that travels between Britain and France/Belgium, reported record passenger numbers in January and February.  They have reduced their fares, now starting as low as $106 roundtrip, and with the faster journey time due to new high speed track in Britain, 1.02 million people chose Eurostar in these two months alone.

This is the equivalent of about 225 fewer flights, every day, during these two months.

Reader Dan had a different interpretation on why US passports are being issued in greatly increased quantities (discussed last week).  He says

We in Michigan have a different view.  Many folks here vacation, shop, and gamble in Canada which is a 15 minute drive from my office in Detroit.  In the past, you could get over the border with only a driver's license.  Lately however, Customs has been "suggesting" that people bring their passports with them.  I know several folks who are getting a passport simply to avoid a potential hassle at the Canadian border.

Now that the political attack ad season is getting underway, it seems the cruise lines are adopting a similar strategy in their attempt to fill their ships.  Even though last year saw the industry with an average 103% occupancy, the continued delivery of still more and more large ships has the cruise lines worried about getting passengers.

And so, Princess Cruises has been making some none-too-subtle digs at its competitor, Royal Caribbean/Celebrity, in ads that say 'the only true Royal experience in the Caribbean' and 'if you want to be treated like a true Celebrity, cruise with Princess'.

In case you're wondering how a cruise ship can have a 103% occupancy, there are two factors that allow this to happen.  A few passengers - people who cancel their cruise at the last moment and don't get a refund - have their cabins resold to other people, meaning that those cabins have been sold twice.  And, secondly, the cruise lines calculate occupancy on the assumption of two people per cabin.  If a third person is squeezed in to the cabin, then the occupancy rate goes above 100%.

Our readers are definitely eloquent and opinionated.  In this New York Times article, all but one of the quoted sources are Travel Insider readers.

An interesting experiment on selling hotel rooms is underway in Britain.  Travelodge is now pricing all its hotel rooms at rates that start as low as 25/night, year round.  Rates start at the lowest possible price, and then gradually move higher and higher, the closer to travel date the booking becomes.

My prediction?  This is a stupid idea that won't work.  This pricing is exactly the opposite of the level of desperation that the hotel feels to get your business.  Six months in advance, the hotel doesn't really worry if you choose its room or not.  But six weeks in advance, it starts to get a clear feeling for how many unsold rooms will remain, and six nights (or six hours) in advance, it very definitely is staring at the worry of empty rooms.

Websites like www.lastminute.com have responded by contracting with hotels and offering very inexpensive rates on rooms that hotels think will remain unsold, and which are only offered for sale in the last three weeks until travel.

Of course Travelodge would love you to commit for their rooms as early as possible.  But it doubly wants/needs your business when it is staring at the virtual certainty of the rooms otherwise going unsold.  Accordingly, I don't expect this new pricing model to last long.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A passenger at JFK sparked an airport terrorist scare at JFK when his name showed up on an FBI most-wanted list of terrorists.  Airport security personnel frisked him, closely searched his luggage, and carefully interrogated him before allowing him to fly back home to Britain.

Why is this a horror story rather than just a commonplace event?  Because the suspected terrorist was a 12 year old boy.  He had been visiting the US with a group of fellow school students on a winter skiing trip.

Here's an amusing story of how one man's attempts to spot the air marshal on his flight between Chicago and DC turned out.  However, he surely deserves a prize for most honest explanation for his stupid acts.

If you've been to Rome, has it ever troubled you that the Colosseum suffers from a substantial part of its exterior being missing?  Italian architect Carlo Aymonino has suggested that it would be a good idea to replace the missing parts of the exterior wall.  And, he has an idea about how to cover the costs of such construction.  He is suggesting that this could be sponsored by a company such as Coca-Cola.  A Coca-Cola logo in bright red would definitely add an element that is presently missing from the Colosseum.

Lastly this week, here's a sight you probably don't want to see when you look outside the window on your United Airlines 747 flight between Sydney and San Francisco.  I am, yet again, reminded of why I never like long over the water flights on planes with only two engines.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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