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Friday 25 June, 2004 

Good morning

Thanks to everyone who sent in answers to last week's carry-on luggage survey.  As you can see in the chart below, a naughty 6% of readers admit they try and sneak more than their allowance onto the plane with them, and five out of every six succeed with no problems.

This is in line with observations; gate agents and flight attendants rarely hassle anyone with too much language.  But most of my flights have more than 6% of passengers trying to sneak by with more than their fair share of carry-on.

As is also apparent from this, two out of every three passengers take some type of wheeled roll-on suitcase on board with them, with most people preferring a larger sized unit.

Another of the interesting things that have come out of my luggage research is that many so called 'carry on' suitcases exceed the maximum permissible dimensions of all airlines!  In a rare reversal of normal practices, luggage manufacturers often understate the sizes of their bags, and many luggage sellers describe as 'carry on' suitcases which exceed the maximum carry-on size.

All of which, of course, leads to :

This Week's ColumnAirline Carry-On Luggage Allowances : Know your rights, and save yourself from having a fragile valuable item gate-checked.  Find out which airlines have a weight limit for carry-on items, and which allow the largest (or smallest) carry-ons, and learn about the traps that might catch you out, even with carry-on items smaller than the legal limits.

Well done, Hawaiian Airlines!  I was researching their website to find their luggage allowances, and the web page did not completely answer all the questions I had.  At the bottom was a 'rate this page' box, and so I scored it 3 out of 5 for helpfulness.  A new page came up asking me to tell them how the page could be made more helpful, and so I told them I needed specific costs for excess baggage charges.

To my astonishment, an hour later I get an email from a real person, giving me complete and detailed information, answering my questions.  Amazing, and excellent customer service.

There is a revolution in free email services underway at present, driven by Google's amazing new Gmail service, which will give users 1GB of free storage.  In response, Yahoo increased their free service from 4MB to 100MB, and a couple of days ago Microsoft said it will soon increase its free service from 2MB to 250MB.

Meanwhile, Google's Gmail service is proving overwhelmingly popular, although at present it is restricted to a fortunate few on an invitation only basis.  These invitations are so sought after that they are even being sold on eBay.  The reason for their popularity is both that the Gmail service is excellent and free, plus a rush to get 'vanity' email addresses, a bit like the value being placed on vanity web addresses.  For example, one of my Gmail addresses is [email protected].

I was given a few extra Gmail invitations by a reader to use as a premium/incentive to encourage more support of The Travel Insider.  And so, I will give these to people who send in any donation to the website.  First in, first served, and to ensure you don't contribute too late, if you'd like one of these invitations, send me an email first to confirm there is a remaining invitation available.  If there is, I'll set it aside pending your donation's arrival.

And if you'd like the email address [email protected], make me an offer I can't refuse!  I'd be pleased to give it to a generous donor.

There's another exciting Google related development to share with you.  Most of the pages on the website now have Google search boxes added to them, partway down the left column.  These search boxes enable you to search either the entire internet, same as from Google's own site, or to search exclusively The Travel Insider website.  I'm already using it myself to find material I've written but can't remember on which page it is located.

Dinosaur watching :  What a week it has been, with new twists in the United Airlines Loan Guarantee saga every day.  As detailed in my hasty addition to last week's newsletter, UA's second application to the Air Transportation Stabilization Board, for a $1.6 billion guarantee, was quite rightly turned down, although only two of the three members voted against the application.  The loan was declined for many reasons, all of them good.

Two major reasons were 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' and that UA can probably survive without the loan guarantee.

Before any other analysis of this situation, it is worth remembering that the ATSB and its loan guarantee program was hastily convened immediately after 9/11, and was designed to help airlines that might have had financial difficulties as a result of the several day ban on all flights, followed by the drop in passenger numbers for some time following.  But that was nearly three years ago.  Passenger numbers are now at or above the levels of pre-9/11 and the vast bulk of any carrier's problems today are unrelated to 9/11.  United's attempts to secure a loan guarantee now are surely outside of the terms of reference of the ATSB, which will be disbanded as soon as it concludes the UA application.

Which brings up the surprising twist in the ATSB decision.  After turning down UA's application for clear and good reasons that are unlikely to change, they then invited UA to re-apply for a third time.  The original deadline for applications was 28 June 2002.

United's response to this decision was strange.  Their official statement declared

We are perplexed by the announcement made by the Air Transportation Stabilization Board (ATSB) this afternoon.

We have reason to believe we are in the midst of a process with the ATSB to make our application acceptable and that a decision was premature.

We do not believe that the Board was made fully aware of the important modifications United was willing to bring to the table. We are respectfully petitioning the ATSB for reconsideration of our pending loan application.

United's response raises some obvious questions, including

  • If the board was not made fully aware of what UA was willing to do, surely that is UA's fault?

  • How can a decision, reached on a second application, and after seven months of deliberation and interaction, be premature?

  • What type of intelligence level must UA have if they were perplexed by the simple decision by the ATSB.  Maybe they don't agree, but what is there to be perplexed about?

Fortunately for UA, it isn't what you know, it is who you know, and their good friend, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), has been doing all he can to help United's cause, and his actions were probably the reason United won an invitation to resubmit their application a third time.

However, Hastert's colleague, Senator Peter Fitzgerald (R-IL) is taking a different view.  Speaking in Chicago, Mr. Fitzgerald said he would write to the Inspector General of the Treasury asking whether 'any undue political muscle is being applied to members of the board from anyone in the Treasury Department or in Congress' to reverse the rejection.

Mr. Fitzgerald said he also was considering asking the General Accounting Office to investigate.  'The statute and the regulations have very specific loan criteria, and they do not include what the speaker of the House thinks about the matter,' Mr. Fitzgerald said in a telephone interview.

Best commentary on the whole sorry affair also comes from Fitzgerald, who said loan guarantees would only hinder the company's ultimate recovery. 'The problem with a federal subsidy,' he said, 'is that it could delay the sorts of pruning and cutbacks that United may continue to need to make.'

The bottom line is simple.  Nothing United can offer in a new application will address one of the core reasons the ATSB declined their last application.  The ATSB simply said that our aviation system can survive without United.  As indeed it can, even though United is the country's second largest airline.

There is no legitimate reason for taxpayers to bail out United, and were they to do so, it would - as Senator Fitzgerald aptly says - delay the changes United must make, and it would interfere with the free market forces that are currently reshaping the airline industry (and generally for the better).

United submitted a new application on Tuesday which is believed to ask for a lower sum of perhaps $1.1 billion, with the $500 million reduction to be sourced by a new equity investment in the company.

Whatever else you might think about US Airways, it is possible to admire how they've put a positive spin on adversity.  Recognizing the unavoidable need to drop fares to compete with Southwest in Philadelphia, they announced this as if it was all their own idea, rather than a desperate move forced on them.  And at the time of their announcement, they implied these fares would spread further throughout their system.

Well, guess what.  In an amazing coincidence, two things happened last week.  New low cost carrier Independence Air started service at Dulles, and US Airways announced it was introducing new low cost fares on selected routes from Dulles.  Not as another defensive measure forced on them, of course, oh no; but instead as a bold and visionary act on their part.

Meanwhile, on other parts of their system, you can pay as much as $1000 for a walk up fare on a short flight.  Care to bet how long it will be before these fares in less competitive markets also collapse down to similar levels?

When America West decided to become a low fare carrier, it changed all its fares, all at once, and has benefited strongly by it.  US Airways, on the other hand, is clearly an unreformed high fare airline, reluctantly changing its fares only when forced to do so.

While some airlines are adding all business class services across the Atlantic, American has taken the opposite approach, and has started the first all-coach scheduled service across the Atlantic, between Boston and Manchester.  The airline is using a 757 - but the first-class seats are still in place.  Elite travelers will have priority for those seats but will get economy service and food.

This is unlikely to be a successful measure.  Look at how the numbers add up :  On a typical three class plane, eg a 767, there would be 18/46/154 passengers in first, business and coach class.  If airfares are $9000, $6500, and $1000 for a flight across the Atlantic, then, with say a 80% load in all three cabins, this plane would generate $129,600 from first class, $239,200 from business class and $123,200 from coach class for a total of $492,000 in revenue.

Changing this to a two cabin configuration with 24 business and 245 coach class seats would reduce the plane's revenue down to $320,800, and selling all 271 seats as coach class seats reduces the revenue still further to $216,800.

These numbers are approximate, and depending on your assumptions, you could vary them significantly, but they accurately show the most profitable part of any airplane flight is the business class cabin.  Successfully filling the business class cabin means the difference between profit and loss for any airline.

So what does AA know that I don't know?  Let's wait and see how long this all coach class service remains in operation!

JetBlue has now identified 38 cities it wants to add to its network when it starts taking delivery of its Embraer 190 aircraft, commencing in 2005.  Five of the cities are in Canada (Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax).

They do things differently in Europe.  In this country when there are allegations of an airline being anti-competitive, the Justice Department brings a lawsuit that takes years to go through the courts before (alas) ultimately failing.

In Norway, the Competition Authority raided the offices of SAS Braathens on Tuesday, brandishing a search warrant that empowered them to search through the corporate offices for up to ten days, in a search for evidence that the airline may be illegally undercutting a competitor.  Much more pro-active.

A twenty year old Virgin (bet that upsets a few spam filters!) :  Happy birthday to Virgin Atlantic Airways, with Tuesday this week marking the 20th anniversary of its first flight, between Gatwick and Newark.

To celebrate 20 years of steady expansion, they chose to announce the official launch of their new service flying London to Sydney via Hong Kong, with the first flight scheduled for 7 December.  But, while their announcement was official, the flight is - ooops, not quite so official.

Although the service has been approved by the UK, Hong Kong, and Australian governments, apparently that isn't enough.  The European Commission also wants to participate in the ratification of the flight, but, alas, it is backlogged with applications, with hundreds of different flights as yet unreviewed and unapproved (but operating every day, nonetheless).  An EC review is unlikely to be complete before September.

The new route will initially be operated with A340 planes, and then upgraded to the new A380 super-jumbo in 'a few years time'.  Earlier this year Virgin delayed its deliveries of A380s, citing problems with LAX being able to handle the large plane - a problem that LAX denies and which would not seem to impact on a service between London, Hong Kong and Sydney.

This new service not only threatens the BA/Qantas partnership on the London to Sydney route (operated mainly through Singapore not Hong Kong) but will also directly impact on Cathay Pacific's routes through Hong Kong.  Unsurprisingly, a Cathay spokesman complained about Virgin announcing the new service before the EC has completed its review, and then a day later, as if by coincidence, Cathay announced it would be adding more flights between Hong Kong and Sydney.

The EC is also about to get another airline matter to review Last week I noted that Alitalia's business plan to get out of its present problems featured in largest part a request for a 500 million ($650 million) loan from the Italian government.  The Italian government has now agreed to this, calling it 'the first significant step to reach the important goal of restoring the finances of Italy's flagship airline'.  Others might call it 'increasing the dependency of the cash addict'.

The Italian government most recently gave Alitalia a 1.43 billion grant in 2002.  Alitalia has only made one operating profit in the last eleven years, and in the first three months of this year, lost 190 million compared to a 173 million loss in the first three months of last year.

But the Italian government can't make this loan to Alitalia (which it owns 62% of) without getting the permission of the EC.  National sovereignty is increasingly a thing of the past in Europe.

Good news for Boeing :  THY Turkish Airlines is expected to place an order for 'up to' 21 737-800s shortly.

Bad news for Boeing :  The airline is also expected to order 36 Airbus planes.

One has to feel sorry for THY Turkish Airlines, which will find itself in the ridiculous position of operating a mixed fleet of similar Airbus and Boeing planes alongside each other.  The airline was pressured by the Turkish government, which in turn was under great pressure from both the French (to buy Airbus) and the US (to buy Boeing).  Hence the compromise.

In 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space when he rocketed up to an altitude of 115 miles, on a journey that lasted 15 minutes, with a project cost of umpteen billion dollars.  Another milestone occurred forty years later when Dennis Tito became the first ever space tourist, paying $20 million for the privilege.

And now, another milestone - the flight of SpaceShipOne earlier this week, marking the world's first privately funded trip to space.  The successful flight, at a total project cost of about $20 million, took 62 (!) year old astronaut/test pilot Mike Melvill 62 miles up on a 88 minute flight.

It is hoped that SpaceShipOne will soon win a $10 million prize for being the first ever space craft to fly into space with three people on board, return to earth, then turn around and repeat the flight within two weeks (Space Shuttle flights were taking close to four months to turn around).

In the foreseeable future, recreational space tourism will become possible, at costs of around $20,000 - $100,000 per passenger per flight.  A Space Shuttle flight costs in excess of $500 million.

Thanks to reader Jack for pointing out an item in a blog about the (non)privacy policy Hilton Hotels offers to its web visitors and guests.  You can see the entire Hilton document on their website, but here is an excerpt to save you reading the entire thing [my emphasis] :

You agree that HHC shall own all Information.

By accessing the Site, you voluntarily, expressly and knowingly acknowledge and agree with all of the foregoing and further agree to each and all of the following: (i) such Information belongs to HHC and is not personal or private proprietary information; (ii) such Information, wherever collected, may be processed, used, reproduced, modified, adapted, translated, used to create derivative works, shared, published and distributed by HHC in its sole and absolute discretion in any media and manner irrevocably in perpetuity in any location throughout the universe without royalty or payment of any kind, without, however, any obligation by HHC to do so; (iii) HHC does not represent, warrant, or guaranty the Information or its processing, use, reproduction, modification, adaptation, translation, derivation, sharing, publishing or distribution, including without limitation the accuracy, reliability, security, or any other feature relating thereto or its processing, use, reproduction, modification, adaptation, translation, derivation, sharing, publishing or distribution;

How do you like the concept of your personal information, complete with errors, being shared 'in perpetuity in any location throughout the universe'?

Yes, Hilton could print posters listing the places you've stayed, the people who shared rooms with you, mistakenly claim that you watched X-rated movies nonstop, detail your mini-bar bill, your credit card number, your Hilton Honors number, your social security number, and anything/everything else you can imagine.  And this is what they call a privacy policy?

Think about this next time you're considering a stay in a Hilton or associated hotel such as Conrad, Doubletree, Embassy Suites and Hampton Inns.  You might prefer to stay somewhere else.

This policy is a total disgrace.  Shame on Hilton for being so extraordinarily offensive.

Compare Hilton's (non)privacy policy with the much fairer policy offered by Hyatt on their website.  Here's just one excerpt [again, my emphasis] :

Except as otherwise disclosed in the policy, personal information will not be shared with or sold to third parties outside the Hyatt family of companies (including our service providers and travel partners) without your permission unless it is done on an aggregated basis for statistical purposes without any information that could be used to link that information to you.

Perhaps Hyatt would be a better choice for your next reservation.

And with that in mind, do you know about their wonderful promotion running until 30 September?  You'll get a free night at any of their 210 properties, worldwide, for every two stays you make during this period.

You need to be a member of their frequent guest program, and must pay for your stay with a Mastercard.  That's a great deal - full details here.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Teacher's aide and cruise ship passenger Hope Clarke, 32, was taken from her cabin in handcuffs and leg shackles at 6.30am by federal agents after the ship returned to Miami from Mexico.  After spending nine hours in detention, she appeared before a judge to answer for her crime.

It was alleged she failed to pay a $50 fine at Yellowstone Park the previous year.  Her name appeared in a federal wanted persons database when the ship returned to port.

Even if you think this is an appropriate way to treat a person with an unpaid $50 fine (got any unpaid parking fines?) it appears that - ooops - the fine had been paid before Ms Clarke even left Yellowstone.  And although the judge saw a copy of the payment in the file, Asst US Attorney Peter Outerbridge was not so easily convinced, only conceding that there were some 'discrepancies' in his case against Ms Clarke, and asking that she return to court at a later date to resolve these problems.

The judge was more sensible, and instead apologized to Ms Clarke.

Do you still feel good at having the US authorities check your name against federal databases every time you enter and exit the country?

If such things happen again in the future (as, regrettably, they are sure to do) it seems that people won't even be able to sue to recover damages.  The Department of Homeland Security has announced it plans to grant liability protection from lawsuits triggered by acts of terrorism for selected companies developing anti-terrorist measures.

Although described as a measure to ensure that 'technologies to protect the American people are deployed' by a DHS spokesman, some people might think this a measure to remove an incentive to developing bug-proof and fool-proof reliable solutions.  Part of the protection will be a prohibition on punitive damages and limits on the amount that plaintiffs can recover in court actions.

The authority comes from a law approved in 2002 called Support Anti-Terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies (SAFETY) Act.  Safety for us, or safety for badly designed unreliable system providers?

I have a GPS unit in my car.  Small in size, and not very expensive, it tells me exactly where I am, to within about 50', anywhere in the world.  I use it when driving so as not to get lost.  The technology is not new.

So how then to explain this story?

On Saturday flight NW 1152 landed at the wrong airport - Ellsworth Air Force Base instead of Rapid City, SD.  Ellsworth AFB is 7.03 miles NNW from the correct airport.

But this is only the start of the strangeness.

5 minutes after the plane landed at the wrong airport, passengers on board were told to close their window shades and not look out.  Why not?

The plane was then held at Ellsworth for more than three hours while the crew were interrogated.

Intriguingly, Ellsworth controls all airspace for a 40 mile radius around itself, and clears landings at both the commercial airport as well as at its own base.  Which is perhaps why a Northwest spokesman gave a less than detailed explanation.  He said the crew made an 'unscheduled landing' (a lovely way of saying 'landed at the wrong airport', don't you think) and when asked further, said 'The situation is under review and we have nothing further to add'.  He would not identify the cockpit crew or say if the pilot made an error.

Alarmingly, an Ellsworth spokeswoman said that the NW flight had to descend through a layer of clouds before landing (at the wrong airport); as if this would explain how both the Ellsworth Air Traffic Control and the pilot got lost and landed at an airport seven miles away from the correct airport.  Doesn't Ellsworth have radar?  Doesn't the plane have any on-board navigation aids (let alone a simple GPS)?

Next week will of course be the July 4 weekend.  Expect only a fairly short newsletter, accordingly.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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