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Friday 18 June, 2004 

Good morning

Another of life's cycles is about to reverse direction again.  With the summer solstice - the longest day (or shortest if you're on the other side of the equator) about to occur, we'll once more have to go into that desperate mode of self-delusion, trying to pretend each day there is the same amount of daylight as there was the previous day.

It always strikes me as odd that the US defines summer as starting from the longest day.  In my home country of NZ, we define winter as starting from 1 June, not from the solstice.

I'm doing some research about luggage at present - a complex subject, especially when trying to understand what airlines will and won't accept, and what is free and what is extra.  Although the underlying objective is to review wheeled carry-on suitcases, I realized there was useful material for a couple of weekly columns as well.  And so :

This Week's ColumnAirline Checked Luggage Allowances : Some airlines give you more than twice as much free luggage allowance as others.  Some airlines refuse to carry over-sized luggage, but others will accept pieces twice the size.  With increasingly enforced luggage policies, if you're going to be traveling with large, heavy, or many suitcases, this information can help you choose the best airline and anticipate airport problems.

As has been the case before, an invaluable part of my research is feedback from you.  Please help out now by clicking the response below that best describes your approach to carry-on luggage.  This will generate an empty email to me with the email subject containing your answer (makes for a simple fast 'vote' on your part and easy analysis on my part).  Results will be presented next week.

I carry only a small amount of luggage onboard flights with me

I usually have a wheeled carry-on but one that is smaller than maximum size

I usually have a wheeled carry-on that is right around maximum size

I regularly exceed the official carry on limit and am almost never hassled about this by the airline

I regularly try to exceed the official carry on limit but am often hassled about this by the airline

Dinosaur watching :  We continue to hear dinosaurs bleating (excuse the mixed metaphor) about the impact of fuel costs on their profitability.  They would have us believe they are unique in commerce as being the only group of companies that, when one of their underlying costs increases, are unable to recover those extra costs profitably.

To look at an extreme example, oil companies themselves have no problem.  They pass their costs on to us at the gas pump, and we pay.  Your local supermarket has no problem passing on price rises on food items.  And so on.

The reality is the dinosaurs' problem is not high fuel costs.  It is better, and lower cost, competition (let's not forget their competitor's planes need jet fuel, too).  This is why they can't pass on their extra fuel costs - because there are competitors out there, happy to sell airfares below the dinosaur pricing.  What makes their bleating all the more misplaced is that, should the government choose in some way to subsidize jet fuel, then dinosaurs and new low cost carriers would all benefit.  The lower staff costs, the more efficient operations, and the better service of the low cost carriers would still give them the same edge.  The dinosaurs would still be in trouble.

This is a surprise to some of the dinosaurs - the dinosaurs that only a couple of years ago were saying 'our customers will happily pay a 30% surcharge to fly with us rather than a lower cost competitor'.  These dinosaurs believed there was no limit to how much they could charge their passengers, and allowed themselves to grow enormously inefficient in the process.  Now that the public increasingly has access to non-dinosaur airlines, they're proving how wrong these statements were by abandoning the dinosaurs wherever possible.

The other side of the coin for every dinosaur that now proudly announces that they've cut $2 billion (or however much) off their operating costs has to the question 'If you can save this number of billions of dollars a year now, why didn't you do this sooner?'

A puzzling statement from UA's CEO, Glenn Tilton, earlier this week.  He said that United is likely to emerge from bankruptcy by year's end, even if its application for a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee is turned down.

This is puzzling for two reasons.  Only a week ago, United announced it was delaying its emergence from Chapter 11 until Fall.  It seems to have slipped another three months, in the space of a week.

Also puzzling because, as I mentioned last week, these federal loan guarantees can only be given to airlines that need them as a last resort, when the airline proves conclusively that its only alternative would be to cease operations.  Taking what Tilton said at face value, his statement destroys his airline's eligibility for a federal loan guarantee.

Stop Press :  8.35pm Thursday night :  Have just received this from reader David :

June 17 (Bloomberg) -- UAL Corp.'s United Airlines failed to win U.S. backing for a $1.6 billion government loan guarantee to finance its exit from bankruptcy, the carrier's second rejection by a U.S. board in 18 months.

A majority of the Air Transportation Stabilization Board found that a loan guarantee for United `is not a necessary part of maintaining a safe, efficient and viable commercial aviation system in the United States,' the board said in a statement.

I guess we'll now get to see just exactly how essential this loan is/was for United.

Stop Stop Press :  It appears that, unbelievable as it might sound, the ATSB also said UA can make a third submission in the future if it can come up with more/better data to support its application!

When will they finally say 'enough already, no'?

The latest person to agree that Delta might have to declare bankruptcy is none other than its CEO, Gerald Grinstein, who said on Wednesday it is 'completely clear' Delta cannot survive as is.  Describing the situation as 'extremely serious' he added that Delta's access to capital markets has 'virtually disappeared'.

Talking about virtually disappearing, Delta's Song subsidiary, which had its expansion unexpectedly placed on hold earlier in the year, will lose a quarter of its flights in September (41 of its 140 flights a day), although Delta tell us that these flights will be restored in October.

Because Song is simply an operating division of Delta, there has been no public disclosure as to how successful/profitable Song has been to date.  However, actions speak louder than words, and at this point, there's little reason to infer that Song has been a success.

Still talking about the 'b' word, Alitalia's auditors said the financially struggling Italian airline might have to consider some form of liquidation unless it took urgent recovery measures.  The auditors' assessment was contained in a statement that said they were unable to approve the airline's 2003 financial results because of significant uncertainties over how Alitalia intended to return to health.

The Italian government owns 62 per cent of Alitalia and installed a new management in early May to draw up a fresh recovery plan after labor unrest and political quarrels prompted the departure of two chief executives in rapid succession.

And what is Alitalia's innovative plan to return to health?  They say they're seeking a loan, backed directly or indirectly by their government.  If that is the best the new management team can come up with, maybe it is time for a third change of management!

Passenger lines stretched out two to three hours at Pittsburgh on Sunday.  But, this time, it was not the fault of slow security screening.  US Airways simply didn't have sufficient staff manning their check-in counters.  Ooops.  Or maybe this is part of US Airways' new recovery plan?

Some irate passengers claimed there were only two agents on duty.  US Airways said the counters were fully staffed with 13 or 14 agents.  The ticket agent union says there were only 6 agents on duty, and some of them were checking in first class passengers.

While you might wonder how it is that US Airways can't count to two (or six) correctly, and instead comes up with 13 or 14, you should also wonder what on earth US Airways was thinking, allowing check-in lines to stretch to three hours.  Needless to say, not only were plenty of passengers missing their flights, but many were unhappy.

And so, what does US Airways do to placate their passengers, who were justifiably upset at this disgracefully unacceptable level of non-service?  They call the police!

If US Airways does this many more times, they'll soon find that two agents will be more than enough to check in their Pittsburgh passengers, because they'll have no customers left.

It is hard to know which is the more appallingly incompetent - allowing passenger lines to grow to three hour delays, or calling the police to stop passengers justifiably complaining.

The rising cost of jet fuel has caused airlines to try and save fuel wherever possible.

  • United's Ted operation is saving fuel by flying their planes slower (about 14mph slower - adds about 2 minutes extra travel time per hour of flying time).

  • American has decided to half the amount of emergency fuel it carries on transatlantic flights.  Question - if AA didn't need to carry twice as much fuel as it now does on its long flights, why was it wasting all this money and fuel to do so unnecessarily before?

  • JetBlue is using only one engine to taxi at low speed while on the ground.

An interesting statistic has come out of the close scrutiny on current fuel efficiencies.  JetBlue is the most fuel efficient airline - on average, it gets 66 passenger miles out of every gallon of jet fuel.  Next best is 52 passenger miles per gallon for ATA.

The latest headline grabbing activity by Sir Richard Branson occurred on Monday when he set a record for an amphibious crossing of the English Channel, driving a new Aquada amphibious car/boat.  His 1 hour 40 minute time was more than four hours faster than the previous record.

He obviously enjoyed the experience, because he then announced that Virgin Atlantic will give their Upper Class passengers an opportunity to enjoy complimentary transfers between Heathrow and London city in the new Aquada vehicles.  In a somewhat fanciful statement, he said

Those passengers traveling by Gibbs Aquada will be met off their flights by a chauffeur who will drive them to their home, hotel or office.  But unlike our other limos when the Gibbs Aquada hits traffic on its way to or from central London the driver simply heads for the nearest slipway and takes to the Thames before rejoining the roads on the final leg of the passengerís journey.

Using the Gibbs Aquada, we will be able to cut twenty and thirty minutes off the journey between Heathrow and The City, giving our travelers extra time for meetings or relaxation.

The Gibbs Aquada is the first street legal high-speed sports amphibian.  Both a boat with wheels and a waterproof car, the Gibbs Aquada is able to drive at speeds of 100mph on land and in excess of 30mph on water, moving between surfaces at the touch of a button and taking only 10 seconds to switch from one mode to the other.  Sounds like fun.

Winning this week's 'Trust Me - I'm from the Government and I Know What I'm Doing' award is the FAA.  The DoT and General Accounting Office told a House panel earlier this week that there is going to be a shortage of air traffic controllers by 2012 because at least half of current controllers, and 93% of supervisors are expected to retire by then.  The FAA also concedes that ten airports are currently short-staffed.

It takes three years to train a controller to basic proficiency, and considerably more time for them to become a supervisor.

So far this year, the FAA has hired one new controller, and they have no plans to add any more through the end of 2005.

Thanks to reader Randy for passing on the deal of the decade.  Well, okay, so maybe I slightly exaggerate.  But if you've been thinking of getting a pair (or another pair) of the Plane Quiet noise reducing headphones, Randy advises that their normal price - $79.99 plus shipping - is currently reduced down to $60 including shipping if you use the coupon code 'fathersday' (without quotes) on their website when ordering.

As longtime readers know, I rate these headphones very highly, and at this incredible price, the offer is almost too good to overlook.

Talking about bargains, do you subscribe to Gary Leff's 'View from the Wing' newsletter?  This fascinating short newsletter comes out most days each week, and in addition to sensible commentary, often has amazing and unusual bargains highlighted.  You can (and should) sign up here.  It is free.  Scroll down a couple of screens to see an amazing offer on newly launched Independence Air, and, as you scroll down, you'll get a feeling for the other things he sends out each night as well.

Good news for Boeing :  The US Navy has awarded a $3.9 billion contract to Boeing for a fleet of 150 modified 737-800s to replace their aging Orions.

Inflation at Boeing :  Last week I reported a Boeing statement that they are in discussions with 20 airlines representing a potential total of 500 orders for their new 7E7 plane.  This week, they are saying they're in discussions with 30 airlines representing a potential total of 600 orders.  How many next week?

Bad news for Boeing :  Canadian company Bombardier is expected to shortly announce plans to develop a 110-135 passenger plane, which would represent unexpected additional competition for Boeing's nearly moribund 717 and also for their 737-600/700.

Taking a leaf out of Boeing's 7E7 book, Bombardier says that the two models (one at 110-115 pax and one at 130-135 pax) would offer airlines extra efficiency and operating savings of about 15%-20% compared to current planes out there.

I wrote glowingly about VoIP phones last week.  Apparently sharing my enthusiasm is British Telecom, which announced, at the same time, plans to replace their entire traditional phone network with a new VoIP type broadband internet product.  This £10 billion project is expected to be largely complete in less than four years.  Details here.

Maybe McDonalds are on to a good thing in deciding to add Wi-Fi to their stores.  In Austin, Schlotzsky's has added Wi-Fi to all their fast-food restaurants and report that their business increased 6% as a result.

Texas is increasingly Wi-Fi friendly.  Their Department of Transportation trialled Wi-Fi in several freeway rest areas, and after successful testing, plan to add it to 84 rest areas and 12 travel information centers.  A justification for this service is improved safety.

'Knowing free Internet service is available at our rest areas will get drivers to make regular stops,' says Andy Keith, Safety Rest Area Program Manager for TxDOTís Maintenance Division. 'Since fatigue is a factor in 1.5 percent of all crashes, anything we can do to get people to pull off the road and take a break is going to make our highways safer.'

This Week's Security Horror Story :  This week's horror story is a picture.  No further comment necessary.

I'd reported early this year about corruption allegations being made about TSA staff at Seattle Airport.  Some six months later, an investigation into allegations made in a petition presented by TSA employees to senior management has resulted in eight people who had been promoted to supervisory positions in dubious circumstances having their promotions rescinded and being returned to their previous jobs.

But, this is the government, after all.  Although they've lost their promotions and been returned to their previous jobs, guess what they get to keep?  Yes, their new supervisor level salaries!

Here's an unsettling story about six Continental baggage handlers at Newark who used their access to passenger luggage to smuggle cocaine into the country and cash out.  While we're making passengers take their shoes off, what are we doing to police all the other insecure parts of our air transportation system?  Cocaine today, who knows what tomorrow...

Possibly answering the 'who knows what' question is a fascinating story spotted by reader Mayer.  Several passengers have reported opening their suitcases at the end of a journey, only to find wire cutters or knives in their bags that weren't there at the start of their travels.  In at least some of the cases, there are also notes from the TSA saying that their bags had been opened and inspected.

What gives?  TSA spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan said the reports mystified her. 'If I could answer that question, I'd be rich. They could have been honest mistakes. Perhaps the bags somehow popped open during their travels, and someone dropped something inside. I honestly don't know.'

Bravo for at least one person at the TSA who can tell the truth and answer a question directly.

Winning a prize for 'most politically correct way to say "no, we won't give anyone a discount"' is this statement on a hotel's website :

We welcome members of the American Automotive Association (AAA) and the American Association of Retired People (AARP), and have set our rates with you folks in mind. We do not offer additional discounts.

Lastly this week, how do you know when it is time to replace your trusty old cell phone with a nice new model?  Maybe if something like this happens, you know it's about time.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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