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Friday 16 July, 2004 

Good morning

This time of year always reconfirms to me why the Pacific Northwest is such a glorious place to live.  I hope your summer, wherever you are, is also proving most pleasant, and if you're reading this from downunder, I hope your winter is mild.

And, talking about 'wherever you are', this week's column derives from that concept :

This Week's Column :  How Many Bands Does Your GSM Cell Phone Need? : There are now four different frequency bands used for GSM service around the world, but only a very few (and very expensive) phones support all four bands. This week I tell you which bands you really need for your travels.

In a related item, congratulations to T-mobile.  In a recent JD Powers survey, they scored tops out of the major US phone companies for customer service, with a total score of 5 (maximum possible 5).  Verizon earned 4/5, Alltell and Nextel each received 3/5, and AT&T, Cingular and Sprint all earned only 2/5.

Continuing the mobile phone theme, AA has successfully tested technology allowing users of some types of cell phones to use them in-flight.  A very small cell station is created inside each plane, with a separate uplink/downlink between the plane's cell and the ground.  Passengers can successfully make and receive phone calls, the same as if they were on the ground.

Sounds like a great idea, doesn't it?.  A dozen people carrying on annoying conversations at the top of their voice all around you, for many hours at a time!

But this might be the least of your worries.  Alarming studies in the UK have shown that when you use a cell phone inside a metal object (like a car, bus, train or plane); because the cell phone radiation has only a few places to 'escape' much of it is contained within the object, causing greatly increased levels of exposure to what some people think could be harmful radiation.

AA plan to start offering this service on regular flights in about two years time.  No word as to how much they'll charge.

This would be an ideal environment to use either the Etymotic or Boom noise cancelling cell phone headsets, so as to combat the plane noise while trying to make a phone call.  I wrote last week about these, and commented that one of the reasons they work so well is because the microphone is positioned about half an inch from your mouth.  However, this is not a completely new concept, as you can see in this delightful scan of a (estimated) 1940s Bell brochure.

Dinosaur watchingThis week's incredible coincidence - US Airways has extended its low fares to cover travel between DC and Syracuse or Nashville.  Amazingly, at almost exactly the same time, new low fare carrier Independence Air started service between those cities.

Independence Air showed it is made of the right stuff after subjecting passengers to a massively inconvenient series of delays on Monday.  A Boston-Washington flight spent four hours on the tarmac due to a weather hold, and then returned to the gate.  Half an hour later, the flight pushes back again, only to be held for another hour by air traffic control.

While not completely the airline's fault, in a delightful change from the dinosaurs, an Independence Air spokesman made no excuses and instead said

This situation was totally unacceptable to us.  We have immediately changed our own policies to ensure this kind of thing never happens again.

Their new policy is that if a flight has been held on the ground for two hours, it must return to the gate for passenger comfort.

Even better still is what Independence did for the passengers on its Monday flight (and remember that weather delays are not the airline's fault).  Each passenger was given a credit of $525 - enough to buy four or five extra tickets!

I've several times recently said that strange things are happening at Southwest Airlines (WN).  Another puzzlement occurred on Thursday, with the resignation of their CEO, Jim Parker, for 'personal reasons'.  Parker had earned respect for his guidance of the airline through the minefield of problems after 9/11, but then became enmired in labor negotiations.  He will be replaced by the current CFO, Gary Kelly.

Southwest also reported their second quarter profit, $113 million.  Although this was lower than for the same quarter last year ($246 million), last year's profit was boosted by the receipt of a $271 million government gift (to help pay for security related costs).  So this was actually a good result, and up 9.7% on what the previous year's result would have been without the government handout.

Last week I observed that WN could increase its Philadelphia service still further, from the 28 flights a day it currently offers, to about 40/day (based on the four gates it presently leases).  Guess what?  WN announced on Thursday it will increase its PHL service to 41 flights a day, starting from Halloween, 31 October this year.  A nasty trick to play on US Airways, but a wonderful treat for PHL passengers.

Poor old United Airlines is trying to patch up a new business plan after losing out on the government loan guarantee.  However, it definitely has the leadership of its pilots' union on its side.  In a private note distributed to United pilots, union officials said

UAL has been made a victim of its own success and the ideological predisposition of those with the ability to affect the eventual outcome. Regardless, all concerned are impressed by the achievements UAL has made to date and the soundness of UAL's future plans.

and

The operational excellence of United Airlines has stunned everyone in the industry.

and

United Airlines is one of the best airlines in the world and is uniquely positioned to leverage its route structure, its alliances and its modern fleet to become one of the strongest airlines in the world.

If only the reality matched the rhetoric.  While the pilots desperately try and reassure each other that UA will not be asking for more money back from them, United is already doing things that should be alarming their employees.

United this week deferred making a $72.4 million payment to its employee pension funds, representing the first time since its bankruptcy declaration in December 2002 that it has reneged on pension obligations.

Randy Clerihue, a spokesman for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the federally sponsored agency that insures pension plans against default, said 'In our experience, it's exceedingly rare for companies that miss legally required contributions to later make up the shortfall'.

Amazingly, a pilot spokesman approved of the action, and said 'They are trying to do the responsible thing, to conserve cash and get themselves situated to come out of bankruptcy'.  As if by coincidence, of the four different pension plans, the pilots' plan is the one that is currently in the best health, and had not been scheduled to receive any of the now deferred $72.4 million payment.  The mechanics ($38.6 million due), flight attendants ($19.7 million due) and counter staff ($14.1 million due) are probably not quite so positive.

The next quarterly payment to United's pension funds, about $100 million, will come due in mid-October. Separately, United is supposed to pay about $500 million in mid-September to catch up on pension contributions that it owes from 2003, according to a spokeswoman for the airline.

Noted industry commentator Bob Mann described the pension deferment as 'a shot across the bow [indicating to employees] that we're going to have to make big changes'.

Mr. Hunter of the pilots' union remains unconcerned.  'We don't see it as a shot across the bow,' he said. 'If we're wrong, we'll find that out down the road.' He said his union's main concern was the psychological effect of the move on United workers. 'From our point of view, we see this as a nonstory except for the fact that it scares the employees,' he said.

And what of - as the pilots describe them - United's sound future plans and efforts to leverage its route structure, its alliances and its modern fleet to become one of the strongest airlines in the world?

Showing exactly how sensible the pilots are to be so confident in United's management and future, UA has announced exciting new plans to, ummm, sell cruises on its website.

More airline tit for tat.  Hot on the heels of Virgin Atlantic's announced plans to fly from London through Hong Kong to Sydney, Qantas said it will start service on the route too.  Virgin's flights will start on 7 December.  Qantas will start services just a couple of weeks earlier.

Winning this week's award for exaggeration is Roeland Vos, Starwood Hotel Group's President for Europe, Africa and the Middle East.  Perhaps in an attempt to compensate for an otherwise rather boring announcement that Starwood was opening a W Hotel in Barcelona, he said

W is the most exciting hotel brand in the world today.

Winning different types of awards are this year's winners in the annual Travel & Leisure magazine reader poll.  Strangely, W hotels don't appear in the top 100 hotel list at all.

Predictably and deservedly, Sydney was again judged the finest city in the world.  Surprisingly, Prince Edward Island in Canada was judged the world's 8th best island.  Singapore Airlines, Cathay, Emirates, Thai and Virgin were the top five international airlines; Midwest, JetBlue, Song, Alaska and Hawaiian were the top five domestic airlines.

United pilots will be amazed to note that United failed to make the top ten list.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  We sort of know (the real statistics are now classified, but from what leaks out, it is possible to estimate) that up to 20% of all guns and knives in carry on bags sneak past airport X-ray machines, but conventional wisdom reassures us this only happens when they are obscured and cunningly hidden.

Now, imagine you're a security screener watching the monitor as carry on bags are X-rayed.  Do you notice anything special about this bag and its contents?  Sadly, the person on duty did not and let the bag pass.  What you see here is an unretouched picture that was leaked to the Seattle Times by a disaffected TSA screener.

This week the Seattle Times featured a three part series on problems with the TSA.  The horror stories they advance to support their base statement that the TSA has major problems make for unsettling reading.

If people can smuggle guns in plain sight onto planes, this story of how a journalist smuggled an 8" folding Buck knife onto a BA high risk Middle East flight doesn't seem quite as sensational.

But contrast the Seattle Times exposť with this NY Times article, which includes the comment that wins it this week's prize for stupidest comment :

Air travelers find it reassuring that federal employees now guard the front lines in the war on terror

Think about that next time you're waiting an hour in line to go through security with your shoes and belt off, in the knowledge that 20% of guns in carry-ons as pictured above are slipping through.  Are you reassured?

The controversial passenger screening system known as CAPPS II may have been cancelled, according to various government statements and detailed here.  While I've been skeptical about how well CAPPS II would work, the underlying concept - of directing attention to people rather than things (ie bags, shoes, etc) is sound.

Whether we're told about it or not, my best guess is that some type of CAPPS II will indeed be quietly implemented.

There's an interesting story here about a New York building that now has security controlling who can enter the building, and X-raying visitors' bags.  But, as the author notes, the security is almost non-existent, and it turns out the only reason it is there is to get a $5 million a year break on their insurance policy.

Insurance coverage is a problem - insurance companies being very happy to take premiums from you for non-existent risks but very unwilling to insure against possible risks.  This is causing a problem in Europe, where insurance companies want to exclude certain risks from the terrorism risk insurance policies they write for airlines.

Now, remember this is insurance against terrorism related acts.  So what do they want to exclude?  Certain types of attacks that involve radioactive material, so called "dirty bombs," chemical, biological agents and electromagnetic pulse devices.  Doesn't leave much, does it.

What is a pulse device, you might ask?  Well, this device is also being proudly developed by our own police departments, as a way to kill the electronics in your car.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about adding RFID chips to luggage tags.  Here's an interesting (but not necessarily good) idea - adding Bluetooth capabilities to luggage tags.  When your suitcase gets close to you, either your phone will tell you that it has detected its paired luggage tag, or the luggage tag could start blinking to draw your attention to it.

Lastly this week, Minneapolis airport saw an interesting example of 'air rage' occur, albeit on the ground at the security screening point.  A TSA employee was wanding a passenger in the area of his crotch, when the male passenger abruptly pulled his trousers down to reveal he was not wearing any underpants.  The man then proudly asked 'There, how do you like your job?'

Airport police charged him with indecent exposure and he was released after paying $300 for bail. A police officer said 'We've never had anybody do that before. But it's not abnormal for people to become frustrated with the screening process. This person exposed himself in a public area, a clear violation of the law, and we needed to take some action on that, otherwise everybody would be dropping their pants.'

Everyone?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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