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Friday 19 March, 2004
My comment last week about needing to soon mow the lawn drew a reply from a reader who lives close by. He pointed out he has mown his lawn several times already this year. And, as I look at the relentlessly increasing length of mine, I should urgently start playing catchup. But, instead, it's off to Victoria, BC for a three day weekend this afternoon.
Last week's article on USB flash drives had a timely postscript this week when the people that make Swiss Army Knives announced a new model that will include a portable computer memory card. Another company plans to mount a micro-camera on a USB flash drive stick - there's an annual high tech/gadget show underway in Germany at present and all sorts of new devices are being previewed.
One of the other fascinating gadgets is a new PenPhone from Siemens. In the shape of a pen, it has all normal cell phone features, plus some unique extras. To dial a number, you just write it with the pen!
Usually I'm pretty enthusiastic about the products I review, but this week I'm having to choose my words a bit more carefully. Which is not to say the product is bad; and the ultimate measure has to be 'is it fair value for money'. And so
This Week's Column : Mini Digital Camera : Described as the world's thinnest camera, it is the size of a credit card and not much thicker. The camera is easy to use, but the picture quality is not high. However, at $45, it is probably fairly priced for what it is.
Also new on the website this week is a page that answers just about every question you might have about how to unlock a GSM cell phone, including the question about why you'd want to do that in the first place, and what a GSM type phone is.
Developing the website has taken several surprising turns over the years - for quite a long time, the most popular page on the site was one I never expected anyone to look at it, summarizing the key differences between different airplane types. It continues to get 150 or more visits every day.
At the end of last year, I added a page that allowed people (primarily with Nokia GSM phones) to get their phones unlocked, and that page now has almost 300 visits every day. And so, recognizing an apparent massive amount of interest in cell phone issues, I'll be adding more pages about cell phone related topics over the next little while. I hope you find it interesting and helpful.
A World Travel and Tourism Council report is similarly optimistic, forecasting a 5.9% overall growth in worldwide travel and tourism this year. The countries enjoying the most benefit from increased tourism this year will be Montenegro, India, China and Vietnam.
Meanwhile, bad news abounds.
United is now seeking to delay its emergence from Chapter 11. It is currently unable to do much until its application for a $1.6 billion government loan guarantee is resolved, and that is perhaps dependent on United first getting relief - via government legislation - from its pension fund obligations. Adding to United's woes is the complaint by its retired staff about United's attempt to cut back on their benefits, and a potential dispute with its ordinary creditors about United's renegotiation of airplane leases. Other creditors feel that this plan would be unfair to them and too generous to the airplane lessors.
United does not feel able to meet its 30 June emergence from Chapter 11 and is asking for more time, saying that it expects to complete matters by some time 'later in the summer'.
US Airways managed to renegotiate the terms of its $1 billion government loan guarantee. US Airways presumably hopes this will give itself enough time to successfully continue its attempts to reform itself. US Airways also disclosed that its 2003 annual report will include a 'going concern' objection from its independent auditors, in which the auditors say they have 'substantial doubt about (US Airways Group's) ability to continue as a going concern.'
Air Canada's investor that they hope will bring them out of bankruptcy, Trinity Time Investments, said it was reviewing its planned investment into Air Canada because of AC's unions refusing to discuss changes to their pension plans. Trinity has said previously it would withdraw its offer if the unions didn't accept their terms. Someone is bluffing in this high stakes game, but who?
The worst kept secret of the last few weeks has now been confirmed. Fred Reid, formerly President of Delta, is leaving and will become CEO of a new Sir Richard Branson/Virgin USA airline. In related Delta news, Delta said that it expects its first quarter loss will now be $400 million, $50 million more than earlier predicted.
This week also saw Standard & Poors downgrade DL's creditworthiness by two steps. This significant revision is all the worse when you appreciate it is the second time this year that Delta has been downgraded. 'Delta's prospects have gotten significantly dimmer,' said S&P airline analyst Philip Baggaley. He called Delta's downgrade 'an unusually steep slide.'
Notwithstanding a doubtless large and highly paid team of both investor and public relations staff, Delta had no comment to make.
And a hint of good news for American Airlines. This sympathetic article interviews CEO Gerard Arpey, and quotes him saying a mix of encouraging things. Amusingly, Arpey keeps a dinosaur on his desk - but not for the reason you might think.
In contrasting news, UBS have just upgraded their rating for Southwest Airlines, becoming the third brokerage to do this in almost as many months. This shows, yet again, that the dinosaur problems are not an industry wide problem, but merely apply to one sector of the overall airline industry.
And while the dinosaurs are finding it tough going, that has not daunted a rush of new airlines starting up. 53 new airlines have been launched since 9/11, mainly in Europe and Asia. Strangely, the dinosaur problems have created opportunities for start-ups, who see the chance to create an airline with lower operating costs and access to inexpensive good airplanes. No word as to how many of the new startups have already failed - in the US the failure rate is about 97%!
In a statement eerily reminiscent of the famous 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help you', Tom Anderson, chief marketing officer for Spirit Airlines announced that they were reducing their ticket change fee from $75 per ticket down to $25. He said
The justification may sound a trifle over-done, but the policy change is certainly welcome, as is the fact that it applies to all existing tickets as well as to new tickets.
This week's bad news for Boeing. The Chinese government has ordered a feasibility study into building their own large (ie 150+ seat) passenger planes, with an objective to have planes commercially operational in 14 years. China represents a potential market for 1400 of such planes in the next 18 years, a fact that has been exciting Boeing, but which is now encouraging China to consider doing its own thing.
Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs? A demonstration by residents of Key West was staged to protest the growing number of cruise ship visitors. More than one million cruise ship visitors are scheduled to visit from 525 cruise ships this year, bringing the city almost $10 million in docking fees and passenger head taxes, and countless more millions in retail sales. Not a bad income for a city with a population of 25,000 - most people would be only too delighted to have such a massive boost to their economy.
The Key West item was sent to me by reader Peter, who was writing from the Queen Mary 2. Lucky Peter. I'll confess that if I was on a QM2 cruise, I'm not entirely sure I'd be swapping emails with travel column writers!
Reader Jonathan cites cruising and Caribbean travel as another reason for the upsurge in passport issuances. He says
I mentioned, above, Warren Buffett's advice not to invest in airlines. Perhaps you'd prefer to sink some money into a hotel, instead? British media are reporting their first 'buy-to-let' hotel, which gives investors the chance to pay £235,000 ($430k) for a 99-year lease on one room in the new Guesthouse West Hotel in London's Notting Hill district. In return, you can stay in the room for up to 52 nights a year plus receive a 7% return based on the room's rental on the other nights.
This Week's Security Horror Story : Last Saturday another woman passed through security at LaGuardia with a stun gun and a knife in her purse and neither were detected. The woman realized she was carrying the items and reported them to a flight attendant. The pilot of the Spirit flight alerted Denver airport and police met the woman at the gate.
She was questioned and released and not charged. At no time was she considered a threat.
Reader Mark sent in an item about a passenger on an El Al flight getting home to find, inside his suitcase, a replica pistol. El Al personnel had placed it into his suitcase as a random test of their security measures.
It would seem that the famous El Al security measures failed.
While El Al was losing a replica pistol, Delta managed to lose a passenger - an 80 year old man with Alzheimer's who was supposed to be escorted between flights in Atlanta. He was discovered nearly 24 hours later, as this article reports.
Actually, the man should count his blessings. Note at the bottom of the article the reference to the mystery missing woman who was lost from an AA flight in 2001, and who has never been found!
That elusive element - justice - has shown its inconsistency yet again. An airline pilot was found to have been drinking after some of the passengers on his 737 complained about his erratic flying style while he was taking them from Morocco to Duesseldorf. And so, a German court fined him $1850.
Meanwhile, the ex(!) Virgin pilot who was charged with being drunk on duty back in December has been told he must remain in the US pending his trial in August. His wife and two children live in the UK.
Angry passengers were reported to be in a state of near-mutiny on a flight that started in Edinburgh and which was supposed to travel only a very short distance to Nottingham, but it wasn't because their pilot was drunk. More details here.
To make up for the pilot stories immediately above, here's an 'I was there' story by reader Tom, set back in the good old days when passengers sometimes got to enjoy time on the flight deck. Tom writes
Kissing may become a very ill-advised activity in Indonesia. A new anti-pornography bill proposes a ban on "kissing on the mouth in public" and on "public nudity, erotic dances and sex parties". The suggested jail terms for these offences range from three to 10 years. Passionate kissing would carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison or a $30,000 fine. These moves are seen as an alignment more closely with the principles of the Islam religion.
I wonder what the Indonesian authorities would think of the unusual porcelain receptacles in the Men's, at the new Virgin clubhouse at JFK? Here's more information about these distinctive things.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels
David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider
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