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Friday 1 October, 2004 

Good morning

My plans for October changed unexpectedly this week when an old school friend (and, sadly, all my school friends are now old!) contacted me and dared me to attend our High School's centennial celebration (the 100th anniversary of the school, not our class!) in mid October.  I can resist anything except temptation, and so will be flying down to New Zealand with Qantas in eleven days time for a quick nine day visit.

The 12.5 hour flight from LAX to Auckland will be a great opportunity to listen to some of the audio books I downloaded from Audible - if you haven't taken advantage yet of their two books for 99c trial offer, you should (I reviewed Audible's Digital Audio Book service last week).

Some time back I reviewed a fancy little gadget - a SIM card backup unit for people with GSM phones.  This has proven very popular (I sell them myself); so much so that I've now switched from the unit I was reselling from an American company to a unit I'm directly importing from China (wholesale and bulk enquiries welcomed).  The new unit is simpler and better than the earlier unit, and has the compelling benefit of being $10 cheaper.  Interested?  Then read :

This Week's ColumnSIM Saver Phonebook Backup and Copy Unit :  The 'SIM Saver' is more like a life saver if you lose or break your GSM cell phone or its SIM, and a great convenience if you want to copy your phone book from one SIM to another.

Dinosaur watching :  Sometimes watching the dinosaurs copy each other is a good thing.  For example, this week Delta announced an across the board reduction of 10% in non-union earnings (yes, this includes management).  While this is commendable, it pales alongside the up to 50% give-backs it is hoping to get from its pilots.

US Airways copied, and raised the ante by announcing a 20% reduction in non-union earnings (including their management).  But they are asking for 23%+ givebacks by their union employees.

Why the discrepancy between the reductions from non-union members and union members?

Perhaps both airlines should take a leaf out of Cyprus Air's book.  This struggling airline fired one third of its senior executive staff on Wednesday.  Overall, 20% of its workforce will lose their jobs, but senior management is taking the largest hit.  Bravo.

We had thirteen good commentaries from readers about the abuse of Chapter 11 posted in our forum after last week's newsletter.  You're welcome to add your thoughts if you wish.

And on that type of topic, United Airlines showed how subjective the word 'best' can be when it said in a court filing that ending its employee pension plans is likely 'the best of a bad set of options' to help preserve the airline.  It is unlikely that present and former employees or the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp agree with this judgment.

United also claimed that terminating the pensions wouldn't have as negative an impact as originally estimated.  Both the unions and the PBGC objected to this and the bankruptcy court judge unsurprisingly rejected United's claim.

US Airways' slow death spiral continues.  They are losing two of their gates in Philadelphia, with the very painful part of this loss being that the gates are going to arch-competitor Southwest Airlines.  US Airways missed its August payment for gate rental and currently owes the airport $4 million.  It has promised the bankruptcy judge that it will 'try' and make the September payment.

Although Southwest is not officially disclosing its future plans for PHL, it does acknowledge its business is growing faster there than in any other city it has started serving.  However, a broad hint was given by Chairman Herb Kelleher, who said Southwest might lease as many as 25 gates if US Airways was no longer operating.  Southwest currently has four gates, growing to six after getting these two more now, and US Airways uses about 75 of the airport's 120 gates.

CEO Gary Kelly, while not saying how many extra flights Southwest might add, or under what circumstances, did confirm his airline has the ability to add substantial extra service.

US Airways told their bankruptcy judge if they can't impose mandatory pay cuts on their unions, they will run out of cash within four and a half months (mid February).

Many people are choosing to use up their frequent flier miles by getting awards on the partner airlines of carriers such as United and US Airways, in the hope that if the troubled airline ceases flying, their frequent flier awards on partner airlines may still be honored.

And so it is interesting to wonder what type of message Lufthansa is giving; it appears that United awards on LH can only be made 90 days in advance of travel.  Is LH concerned about UA's future more than 90 days out, perhaps?

After 18 months, Air Canada has now emerged from bankruptcy this Thursday, with recent orders for 45 Embraer and 30 Bombardier regional jets to help it transition to its new guise of being a low cost carrier.  Its old share price finally closed at 6c - more than I would have thought, but amazingly as recently as a week before it was delisted, shares were trading in high volumes at as much as 30c, and a month before, twice that much (60c) and two months before, twice again as much ($1.25).  Some people have lost a lot of money on this stock.

JetBlue was chosen by Conde Nast Traveler as the top airline for its Business Travel Award. The airline received the highest score of any US airline for the third consecutive year, and scored business traveler's best rating for value among any airline in the world. Congratulations to JetBlue.

Joe Brancatelli's subscribers will have already received his flash on Monday about amazing changes at Aer Lingus (EI).  EI announced that all economy fares would be one way, with no advance purchase requirements, and a low maximum of $503 one way.  They are also offering massive discounts of up to 60% on their business class fares.

However, the most innovative move is they will now allow you to change the name on a ticket.  For example, if your Sales Manager can no longer fly to a meeting, instead of wasting that ticket and having to buy a new ticket for someone else, you can now change the name on the Sales Manager's ticket to the other person.  The $60 fee that EI will charge for this could be saved many times over.

No name changes has been one of the universal rules imposed on us by the airlines (and the main reason why airlines have been so keen to check your photo ID).  I remember the 'good old days' before photo ID ....  Very frequent fliers (but, of course, never me) would sometimes bribe other less frequent fliers in their office to fly under the very frequent flier's name.  The benefit to the actual flier - they were more likely to get upgraded, plus whatever bribe was offered.  The benefit to the very frequent flier - he would get perhaps double miles into his account for the other person's flights, plus would keep his flown mile count high to ensure he re-qualified for the highest level of the frequent flier program for next year.

It will be interesting to see if other airlines respond to the Aer Lingus initiative.  So far, it looks like they are choosing to ignore this and hope that EI's very small market share across the Atlantic is too minor to have an impact on their own restrictive pricing policies.

If you're looking at flying somewhere in Europe, consider EI as an alternative to your other arrangements.  They offer service from Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Boston and fly first to Shannon or Dublin and then on to other cities in Ireland and Europe.

It is amazing how quickly the extraordinary becomes commonplace.  Attracting much less publicity than its first flight, on Wednesday the private SpaceShipOne successfully flew to the edge of space again.  If it repeats this performance within two weeks, it will win a $10 million prize - a nice bonus, although a lot less than the $20+ million that billionaire Paul Allen has invested into the development project to date.

There's been a lot of talk about space tourism, but apart from one or two individuals paying $10-20 million for a single flight on a Russian rocket up to the space station and back, this still seems impossibly remote.

But, whenever the word 'impossible' is used in conjunction with travel, one can be sure to find Sir Richard Branson not far away.  Sir Richard, founder of the Virgin group of companies, has had another busy week full of remarkable contrasts.  On the one hand, he has announced a new airline to be based in Nigeria, presumably to make it easier for all of us to travel to Nigeria to collect the $20 million dollars in a forgotten bank account that we've been specially selected to receive.

And, on the other hand, he is making a 14 million ($25 million) investment in a new venture, to be called, ahem, Virgin Galactic (understatement has never been one of his virtues!).  This new company will license the SpaceShipOne reusable rocket technology, and offer brief flights into space for about $200,000 per passenger per flight.  It hopes to start flying passengers in 2007.

Let's put this in context.  Boeing or Airbus budget many billions of dollars to develop a new aircraft.  Boeing's new 7E7 is expected to have its first commercial flight in 2008.  Total development costs for the SpaceShipOne project are less than the cost of buying a single new widebody airplane, and perhaps a hundred times less than the cost of developing a new passenger plane (and let's not compare NASA's exorbitant costs for its unreliable Space Shuttle program).  Plus, Virgin Galactic hopes to be offering space flights a year before the first commercial flight of the 7E7.

Sir Richard has already announced the name of his first spaceship.  It will be the VSS Enterprise (could he possibly be a Trekkie?).  For more details, and to put your name on the waiting list for a space flight, visit www.virgingalactic.com.

Travel website Orbitz has been sold to Cendant Corp.  Orbitz had formerly been controversially owned by a consortium of US airlines.  This gives the airlines a nice $1.2 billion cash sum that they desperately need, and makes Orbitz the second largest travel provider on the internet.  Expedia is the largest with 49% market share, then Cendant's combined operations with 22% and Travelocity is now number 3 with 20%.

That leaves just 9% for everyone else - so much for the internet making it easy for little guys to compete with the big guys!.

You might not be familiar with the Cendant name.  Here's a list of companies they own :  Days Inn, Howard Johnson, Knights Inn, Ramada Inn, Super 8, Travelodge, Villager, Wingate Inn, Hotel Dynamics, Fairfield Resorts, RCI, Trendwest Resorts, Cuendet, Holiday Cottages Group, Landal GreenParks, Novasol, Holiday Network, Welcome Holidays, Ltd., Avis, Budget, First Fleet, PHH Arval, Wright Express, Galileo International, THOR, Galileo International, HotelClub.com, RatesToGo.com, Travel 2 and Travel 4, Travelwire, Travelport, CheapTickets.com, Trip.com, Cendant Travel, Lodging.com, Neat Group, Shepherd Systems, TRUST International and WizCom, in addition to companies in real estate, mortgage, marketing, and various other fields.

I joked last week about retirees living permanently on cruise ships.  Reader Ed from Australia met one such lady who has lived for more than 1200 days on the QE2.  Her only complaint - the annual dry-docking when she has to leave the ship for a week or so while it is closed down for annual repairs and maintenance.  Lucky for some.

According to a UK survey, more than half of business travelers would prefer to fly on airlines that allow the use of cell phones during the flight.

While it is easy to understand the conceptual benefit, can you imagine what a flight would be like - 83% of business travelers travel with cell phones, and so if one third of the passengers on your flight were trying to use their cell phones, that would be one person per block of three seats, and they'd all be shouting to be heard over the roar of the engines and the noise of other passengers.  Yuck.

A helpful message from ARTA (Association of Retail Travel Agents) - If you have plans to enter Canada in the near future you might want to be aware of slowdowns and possibly a strike at border crossing points throughout Canada.

Those crossing the border are being subject to longer delays in inspections and increased difficulties in submitting customs paperwork.  The Customs Excise Union have announced plans for support staff to join in a Public Service Alliance of Canada strike on October 6 if the government doesn't meet pay demands.  Negotiations are currently underway to avert a strike.  Earlier this year customs agents were assigned criminal enforcement duties related to border control and they want their jobs reclassified.  Customs agents are not allowed to strike as they are considered essential personnel but they certainly know how to slow down.

If you're wanting to go for a fall vacation somewhere, and soon, perhaps you should consider Florida, where the tourism industry has some astonishing bargains. I received a fax earlier this week offering a three night hotel package, including Disney admission, for $99 per person share twin, or a combination 3 day Bahamas cruise and four days in Orlando for $149 per person.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Oakland, CA police halted DUI checking roadblocks, because their roadblocks were catching too many illegal immigrants who had neither a valid driver's license nor insurance on their vehicles.

After the suspension of the road blocks became public knowledge, they felt forced to reinstate them a month later, but now they have agreed to provide public notification of the general area of each roadblock in advance (so illegals can be sure to avoid those areas).

Question - how is it possible to catch 'too many' unlicensed, uninsured, illegal alien drivers?

If you've ever been stuck in one of those long lines waiting to go through airport security, you've probably vaguely understood that the TSA is so understaffed it can't manage to provide the level of service it promises.  But how many more screeners need to be hired to cut out the delays?  A Rand Corp study reveals that at LAX, a mere 5% increase in screeners would reduce delays by 80%.  Surely that's not asking too much?

The study also pointed out that crowded lines before security checkpoints pose their own security danger.  Terrorists could set off a bomb in this crowded waiting area.  So for both passenger safety and convenience, we need to shorten those lines.

Pilots often marvel at the idiocy that subjects them to the same screening as passengers, and many a pilot has quietly commented, after having a miniature pocket knife confiscated, that when he gets to the cockpit, he has a great big fire axe available to play with.

The reality of how dangerous a fire axe can be was vividly demonstrated this week when a passenger on a small commuter plane in Norway grabbed the axe and attacked both pilots and another passenger.  Both pilots were seriously injured, but managed to safely land the plane.

Apparently, it is not only pilots who can access such axes.

I often write about the threat to planes from surface to air missiles, but here's a new threat - laser weapons being used to blind pilots.

First it was the senior senator from Massachusetts.  Now it is the Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.  Don Young (R, AK) has been having problems flying, because he typically books tickets as Donald E Young and this name is similar to a Donald Lee Young - being the name of someone on the government's no-fly list.

We can't tell the difference between Donald E Young and Donald Lee Young?

And it isn't only our elected representatives who have these problems.  The TSA recently acknowledged that a Federal Air Marshal was having problems getting on the flights he was supposed to be protecting, because his name, too, appeared on the no-fly list.

As election season heats up, we've been hearing a lot about flip-flops.  And it was a pair of flip-flops that caused airport employees at Rochester, NH to question the identity of someone impersonating an FBI agent.

Reader Walter tells this story :

I was flying from JFK to Hong Kong with a friend who smokes.  He had two lighters in his pocket. The TSA agents at security told him he could only have one.  I was in the next line over, so he called to me and tossed me the extra lighter.  He turned and said to the TSA agent 'Now I only have one'. We both breezed through.

Here's a new cell phone innovation that under-endowed ladies might find interesting.

And thanks to Bruce for sending in this strangely familiar sounding song (best with a sound card).

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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