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Friday 9 April, 2004 

Good morning

One of the themes of last week's newsletter was April Fool's Day.  I should point out, in reply to the several people who thought I didn't realize this, the news about Virgin now employing hypnotherapists on their flights was indeed a joke, and, yes, I did know this myself!

Not quite such a joke was arriving into the office on Friday morning to see my email inbox gone berserk, with almost 100MB of returned newsletters, (dis)courtesy of AOL, who decided to censor the newsletter and not send it to any AOL subscribers, but instead to return every copy, in full, back to me.  If you want to try and work out what they considered so objectionable, you can review last week's newsletter here.

As I write this, it is a week later, and despite regular calling to their special email help center (with a half hour wait on hold each time), and their initial undertaking to find out within 24-48 hours why the newsletter was rejected, no answers have been received, and I have no idea if AOL readers will get today's newsletter or not.  Perhaps this is part of the reason why AOL is suffering a mass exodus of users deserting them in favor of better service providers.

A reminder - you only have until midnight, Sunday 11 April, to get your entries in for the 'win a pair of one carat opals' competition.  Simply think up a humorous reason why any celebrity should buy the Virgin Rainbow, a massive 72 carat opal recently discovered in Australia.  More details and entry form here.  Entries are free, and you can enter as many times as you like.  Some lucky reader is going to end up with two lovely Australian opals - it could be you!

In anticipation of the long flights to London and back for our Scotland Tour in May, I've been searching for anything that might make the journey more comfortable (short of a $9000 upgrade to first class!).  Yes, I already have a pair of Plane Quiet headphones in my carry-on bag, of course, and an MP3 player, and now I've discovered (and tested) a wonderful new comfort aid, which brings me to :

This Week's ColumnFirst Class Sleeper (in a coach class seat) : Here's a $40 item that can transform your coach class seat into a much more comfortable flying (and sleeping) experience.

Dinosaur watching :  Italy's state-controlled airline Alitalia has 'no more than a month of life left' if the government does not intervene to help it, Chairman Giuseppe Bonomi was quoted as saying on Monday.  Alitalia posted a Ä373 million ($455 million) operating loss for 2003 and is currently attempting to develop a plan to return to profit, at which point it would then seek to join the now merged Air France and KLM.

At present the largest part of its rescue plan seems to be publicly angling for government assistance.

Meanwhile, KLM management is meeting with union officials to try and explain why it makes sense that senior managers should get hefty bonuses as a result of the merger with Air France, while workers have been giving back pay and making productivity concessions.  Good luck on that one.

Closer to home, Air Canada's situation is going from bad to worse.  On Friday last week, they announced a loss of C$1.87 billion for 2003.  And then, on Monday, Trinity Time Investments - their potential investor who was to pay for their exit from bankruptcy - pulled out of a C$650 million funding deal.  Trinity said this was because of the airline's unexpectedly large losses, and union opposition to further pay and pension cuts.

Next development was on Wednesday, when AC's second most senior executive, Calin Rovinescu, resigned unexpectedly for undisclosed reasons.  He had been in charge of the restructuring team charged with getting the airline out of bankruptcy, and told the NY Times he decided to hand over the reins to allow a fresher face to try and complete the process.

Air Canada is looking for other investors, and there is of course a possibility that Trinity's pull back is merely a bargaining ploy to encourage the unions to give more concessions.  Already the pilots' union has indicated they're prepared to rethink what they could do.  Air Canada is not only by far the largest Canadian airline, but also the world's 11th largest.

It seems very unlikely the Canadian government will just let AC close and disappear.  That would leave Canada without a major international flag carrier, and surplus domestic aviation capacity from competitors such as WestJet is almost certainly insufficient to absorb the extra passengers that would come from AC's closure.

Three of the top four airlines in 2003 were low-cost carriers, with JetBlue coming top of the list according to an annual study released Monday.  The study's authors say the report showed why low-fare airlines are gobbling up market share from traditional network carriers: They're on time more, they bump fewer passengers, they mishandle less baggage and they generate fewer complaints.

To be eligible for consideration, an airline had to carry at least 1% of the 587 million passengers who flew last year.  Four low cost airlines met this criteria for the first time - AirTran, ATA, Atlantic Southeast and JetBlue.  When the survey was started in 1991, low cost carriers carried only 4% of total traffic.  In 2003, they carried 25%, and this is expected to increase to 40% within two years.

Based on DoT figures, the top four of the 14 airlines surveyed were JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, Southwest and America West.

And there's a new low cost carrier getting ready to start operations.  Independence Air - the new name for Atlantic Coast Airlines - has now severed its regional service agreement with United, and Delta has also cancelled its similar contract, leaving Independence Air ready to start flying under its own new name from this summer.  Independence will be based at Dulles.

Another low cost carrier, USA 3000, announced it will start flying to Bermuda, offering fares as low as $158 roundtrip from Baltimore.  A couple of days later, UA announced flights from Chicago to Bermuda, with fares starting at the not quite so low figure of $398, from Chicago.

March passenger numbers have been coming out, and they are sharply up on March last year, adding further confirmation that the pendulum is swinging strongly from 'bust' back to 'boom'.  Even dinosaurs had increases in passenger numbers - for example, United with 10%, and American with a stunning 21% increase in international traffic (and a 7% increase in domestic).  Low cost carriers did even better.  JetBlue had a 39% increase, Canadian WestJet had 32%, Frontier had a 50% growth, and Southwest 15.2%.

A worrying heads up :  At an industry conference this week, speakers were predicting that the airlines might soon seek to pass on credit card costs to companies that resell their tickets (and therefore to us as passengers, too).

Here's an interesting innovation.  Airbus has developed a new seat for economy class which they say will improve boarding times by 40%.  The new seat is cinema style - the base flips up, making it easier for people to move to the inner seats.  Expect to see planes with the new seat in as little as two years, appearing first on A320s.

A more futuristic aerospace development also occurred this week, when the FAA issued its first ever sub-orbital manned rocket license to a private company that hopes to launch a rocket on sub-orbital flights.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.  Or, in this case, the Consumer's Union is taking an advocacy position on the subject of locked cell phones.  In a letter to the FCC, the CU asks that it be made illegal for wireless companies to lock the cell phones they sell/give away to their subscribers.

On the face of it, this is a fair and sensible request, although government regulation over free market activity is seldom desirable or essential.  But the immediate result of forcing wireless companies to make their phones unlocked is that they'd stop subsidizing the phones and there'd be no more free phones, and/or much longer contract periods.  Personally, that doesn't strike me as much of an improvement!

The CU really loses the plot when they claim that Americans discard millions of useful phones each year which would not be disposed of if the phones were unlocked and could be used on other wireless service providers.  Surely, most people replace their phone because they want a new and better phone, not because they're forced to.

CU then shows an inability to manage simple arithmetic when they say that these alleged millions of phones equal 65,000 tons of trash a year.  My cell phones range in weight from 3-5 ounces, but let's say the average older phone weighs 7 ounces.  This would suggest that 297 million phones are being trashed each year that otherwise would be kept and used by their owners if they were unlocked.  Absolute nonsense.

CU lastly displays their ignorance of how cell phones work.  They say if unlocking were prohibited, phones would be compatible on all networks.  Again, complete nonsense.  There are at least four different and incompatible types of wireless broadcasting service (TDMA CDMA GSM and iDEN plus various others), and a mix of different frequencies that have nothing to do with locking.  A CDMA phone will never work on GSM, just like an FM radio will never pick up AM, and an 850MHz phone will never work on a 1900MHz service.

It is regrettable that an influential advocacy group is taking an ill-advised position on a topic it clearly fails to understand, and it is puzzling that CU would adopt such a strident position before doing the simplest of research on the underlying issues.

Cunard Line announced on Monday it was transferring the ship currently being built and designated to be the Queen Victoria, and will now operate it, with a different name, under its sister P&O Cruises brand.  This is good news for lovers of luxury cruising, because the announcement goes on to state that they are instead commissioning the building of a newer larger ship, to become the Queen Victoria when it enters service in January 2007.  Apparently the Queen Mary 2 has been so successful that Cunard have decided to build a bigger ship with a higher percentage of suites and mini-suites.

Conventional wisdom continues to proclaim the demise of travel agents.  Here's an interesting article that makes some valid points to illustrate how travel agents can continue to add value in the new internet driven world.

San Francisco city has been caught with its hand in the till.  US DoT auditors determined that San Francisco city illegally diverted $12.5 million in revenues from SFO International Airport to the city's general fund by overcharging for various services and overhead costs.  This was in violation of the lease agreement between the city and airport and the auditors are saying that the money, plus interest, must be repaid to the airport.

It seems that if our municipalities can't legally take money from travelers, they'll take it illegally instead.  No word as to how the $12.5 million will now be spent by the airport.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Thanks to reader Peter, who passes on this amazing tale of TSA incompetence.

I was returning from Atlanta last week. At the security line, I pulled out my INSPASS (PortPASS) card, because it's the first thing out of my wallet - my license is behind a plastic thing. Besides, being from NYC, I'm in the minority of having a license, anyway. :)  Here's the actual conversation :

Me: Here you go.
Security: We need a government issued photo ID.
M: This is a government issued photo ID.
S: No it's not.
M: Yes it is. See right there? US Department of Justice - Immigration and Naturalization Service.
S: But that's not the Government.
M: It's not? Who does the DOJ and INS work for?
S: Hold on.

She goes over to a supervisor. The supervisor looks at my ticket, looks at my INSPASS, looks back at the ticket, and hands it back to her. The security agent walks back to me.

S: OK, sir. Go ahead.
M: Thank you.

I walk through the elite line, and happen to look at my ticket - and what do I find, written IN PEN, which wasn't there when I handed over my ticket to the security agent?

SSSS

Sure enough, secondary screening, cavity search, the whole nine yards.  I was not pleased. Because the security agent didn't know which government the INS works for, (the Brazilian government, perhaps?) I was to be subjected to a secondary.

Postscript: I get to the gate, and ask the gate agent, "I've an SSSS, where should I go?"

She replies, "Oh, the security people never get here in time to do that. Just board."

I feel safer every day.

Long anticipated, the ACLU have now filed a challenge to the government's 'no fly' list.  The ACLU contends, unsurprisingly, that some people are wrongfully on the list.

In addition to the 'no fly' list there is also a second list, called the 'selectee' list.  If you're on the 'no fly' list then, obviously, you don't get to board a plane, no matter how much you're searched, whereas if you're on the 'selectee' list, you may be allowed to fly after an extensive screening.

The TSA concedes that 'name matching technology' (which in this brave new world actually does quite the opposite) means that some ordinary people with names similar to people on the 'no fly' list are denied permission to fly.  Although the TSA suggests getting off the 'no fly' list is easy, several prominent cases (such as this one) contradict their claim.

Confirming this, the ACLU have seven plaintiffs, all of whom are on the 'no fly' list and now have been compelled to bring a law suit in a desperate attempt to resolve their incorrect listing.  The seven people include a college student, a woman in the military, and a retired minister.

Surely, if it is easy to correct being wrongly on the 'no fly' list, the TSA would resolve this before the ACLU had time to file its suit?  The lawsuit claims the list violates constitutional rights of due process and against unreasonable search and seizure.

In other security news, the US is broadening the tracking program that requires foreign visitors be fingerprinted and photographed before entering the country.  The expansion of the program will include millions of travelers.  Newly affected countries include Britain, Japan, and Australia.  Previously citizens of these countries had been allowed to travel within the country for up to 90 days without a visa.

Canadians and Mexicans are exempt from this program.  Mexicans presumably have the choice of either having a border crossing card or visa (allowing them to stay up to 3 months), or alternatively, simply entering the country illegally!

Will someone please explain why Brits and Aussies need to be fingerprinted while Mexicans and Canadians don't?  Seems to me there aren't many Canadians or Mexicans fighting alongside our troops in Iraq, while both Britain and Australia have bravely contributed men and blood to the conflict.

Reader Dick has also been investigating the TSA's shoe removal policies, discussed in last week's newsletter.  He wrote to the TSA, asking why their website says it is not mandatory to remove shoes, but when he went through security at LAX, with no alarms sounding, he was still pulled over for detailed secondary screening, apparently because he was still wearing his shoes.

The answer back from the TSA said

We are sorry you were unhappy with your travel experience.

Security requirements issued by the TSA establish a security minimum for adoption by air carriers and airports.  Air carriers and airports may exceed those minimum standards by implementing more stringent security requirements.

The translation of this carefully worded statement seems to be 'even though we say you don't have to remove your shoes, in reality, you probably do have to remove them'.  Or, in more general terms, 'don't believe a word we say, because we can contradict ourselves at any time and have a blanket excuse for what would seem to be blatantly lying to you, due to more stringent security'.

Reader Jim writes in with an interesting experience.

I was connecting to a Delta connection flight in Cincinnati last week.  I showed my id and boarding pass and the machine said I was already on board.

I told the agent that I couldnít be on board because I was standing there with her.  She tore off part of my boarding pass and let me proceed.  I thought this would be interesting - Iíve never boarded a plane to find myself already seated.  Sure enough, there was a gentleman sitting in my seat.

I asked him if he had a boarding card.  It took him a moment to produce a document - that had my name on it.  I asked if that was his name as well and he said no.  I politely took the boarding pass from him and he relinquished the seat to me.  He eventually ended up with a seat on the plane but never received an accurate boarding pass in his name.  As far as we knew, he was not on the manifest.

I ask myself, in this post 9-11 travel era, how can this happen?  Apparently, he asked to change his seat.  The agent made a mistake and re-printed my boarding pass instead of changing his seat.  But CVG still checks id at the gate.  How could this person show his id with my boarding pass and be allowed on the plane?  I guess it illustrates what we all think - some agents aren't really checking, they may be looking, but are they making sure the names match.

How secure are we really?

There is another question this incident raises. If the man who checked in as Jim never officially checked in as himself, what happened to his luggage?  And, if he was flying outbound rather than on the return leg of his journey, were his return flights then cancelled automatically due to his apparent no show for the outbound flight!

It has been a while since one of these stories surfaced :  A screener at BWI spotted what he thought was a knife in a bag that was passing through the X-ray machine.  But before he could react (I guess these people don't have very fast reflexes) the owner of the bag had reclaimed it and walked off, merging into the rest of the people in the terminal.  And so, the terminal was evacuated and searched, and all passengers had to pass through security again.  Apparently the 'knife' was never found.

Lastly this week, in a heartening example of good sense, the man who filed suit against US Airways after he fell down an escalator at the Fort Myers airport last week (due to drinking too much) has decided to drop the suit, and instead apologized to the airline.  Buy that man a drink!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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