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6 May, 2005 

Good morning

To my delight - and massive appreciation, contributions continue to come in - we have broken through the 400 supporters mark.  And, as hinted to mysteriously in last week's newsletter, we have now extended a special 'thank you' offer to our contributors - a free cellphone and Mobal international SIM.

Our good friends and supporters at Mobal sent us a shipment of refurbished ex-rental Nokia 5110s and their Mobal global SIMs to help us in our fundraising, and we still have a few left over after offering them first to current contributors.

If you have any plans to travel internationally in the next year or so, maybe you'd like to send in a contribution and get a free cell phone and SIM in return.

The kits comprise

ē A refurbished Nokia 5110 (formerly one of their rental phones)
ē Two batteries
ē Multi-voltage charger and plug adapters
ē Instruction manual
ē Mobal SIM

The 5110 is neither the newest nor smallest phone Nokia has, and it is a single band 900 MHz phone.  This means it works in most of the rest of the world, but not everywhere, and it will not work at all in the US.  It is locked to only work with Mobal SIMs, and out of fairness to Mobal (who obviously hope youíll use their SIM to generate some airtime revenue), I wonít be unlocking them.  Because they are both used and free, the phones have no guarantee, but were tested by Mobal before sending them to me.

The Mobal SIM gives you a UK based phone number that works in over 140 different countries. There are two distinctive and positive features of these SIMs.  Firstly, the phone number is yours for life.  You donít have to pay any sort of monthly fee, and it doesnít expire, even if you donít use it for a year or more.

Secondly, rather than having to pre-pay money onto the SIM, you are conveniently billed to a credit card each month you use the SIM.

Airtime rates arenít enormously cheap, but neither are they enormously expensive.  If you expect to use a cell phone, internationally, for only a limited amount of calling, the Mobal SIM might be a good solution because of its great convenience.  If you visit a few countries a lot, you should use pre-paid SIMs for each specific country, but when visiting other countries, you will find the Mobal SIM handy there.

The Mobal SIM works in any unlocked GSM phone, so if you already have a GSM phone, you can use the SIM in that, too.

If youíd like one of these phone and SIM kits, email me and Iíll set one aside for you, pending receipt of your donation. Iíll reply, confirming there is one available, and will ask you to send me a donation of more than $15 :  $10 to cover the shipping, and $5 or more as a contribution to The Travel Insider.  Your phone kit will be shipped priority mail to you as soon as the donation comes in.  Don't send a donation until after I've confirmed a kit remains available for you.

Noise reducing headphone wars :  The last couple of weeks have seen generous Travel Insider supporter,  Pro Travel Gear, offering a 25% discount off everything on their website, including their top of the line Solitude noise reducing headphones (now expired).  On Thursday we received a customer newsletter from Travel Essentials advising of a 30% discount of the Solitude noise reducing headphones.

While this 30% discount (the $200 list price drops to $140) was not offered directly to Travel Insider readers, there's no reason why you can't take advantage of the discount coupon code if you wish.  Here is the link to their site, and the discount code is MAMA.

It's Happy Birthday time to some of the world's leading tourist icons.  The magnificent QE2 is aging gracefully, and turned 36 earlier this week, with some 795 Atlantic crossings and 23 round the world cruises to her credit so far.  She celebrated the event with a special party in her home port of Southampton, with nine of the ship's present and past captains attending.  On 4 September she will become the longest sailing of any/all Cunard's ships.

Las Vegas is commemorating its 100th anniversary on 15 May - details here.

And Disney launched its Golden Anniversary celebration on Thursday, marking 50 years since their first theme park opened in Anaheim.  Disney being Disney, and like most of their celebrations, this is not just for a day or week or month.  It isn't even for a year.  It is for a full eighteen months.  And so, to commemorate an event that reshaped the theme park industry for ever :

This Week's Feature ColumnHidden Mickeys : A Hidden Mickey is a subtle Mickey Mouse silhouette/image, somewhat hidden and not immediately obvious, located variously throughout the Disney theme parks.  Finding Hidden Mickeys has become a popular pastime, and can be both challenging and fun.  This book tells you all you need to know about Hidden Mickeys in Walt Disney World, and can give you a whole new way to experience and enjoy a Disney visit.

Dinosaur watching :  About the only thing more predictable than United seeking another delay in its Chapter 11 exit are its unions threatening industrial action.  This week, both the flight attendants and mechanics are making their usual rumbling noises due to United's plan to renege on its pension plans.  United's response is its equally predictable claim that any such strike would be illegal.  *Yawn*  Someone wake me when something actually happens.

In related United news, its April domestic traffic was down 11.3% compared to April last year.  On the other hand, Delta reported a 6% increase, and JetBlue a 26.6% increase.  But United's decrease is not as surprising as it may seem - the primary reason is due to them simply operating fewer flights - the 11.3% decrease in passengers was more than matched by a 13% decrease in available seat miles.  Both Delta and JetBlue, on the other hand, increased their capacity.

As always, United's 'plan' to return to profitability - or at least that part which is obvious to us - remains puzzling.

On Friday last week, US Airways admitted to a $191 million loss for its Q1 2005, up 7.9% from its loss in Q1 '04.  But then, on Wednesday this week, it confessed to having made a slight mistake in its sums.  Its real loss was, it now turns out, $282 million.  Oh well, when you're losing so much money, what's another $91 million here or there, after all?

Meanwhile, no more news on the possible merger between America West and US Airways.  While analysts have pretty much universally panned the idea, this does not seem to have deterred either airline from rushing to the altar.  There does remain the issue of the bride's dowry, however.

It appears as much as $500 million in additional external financing will be needed to make the union feasible.  US Airways' largest creditor, GE Finance (GE is also America West's (HP) largest creditor) has however agreed to allow US Airways more time to file an exit plan from Chapter 11.  Their deadline has been postponed three times, and amazingly, the latest extension, granted after the 30 April deadline expired, is for an undisclosed time period.

The Arizona Republic speculates that Air Canada might be seeking to play a role in a US/HP merger, with the idea being that Air Canada would handle much of the international traffic currently operated by US Air, while US/HP focus on the domestic side of the operation.  This would be an interesting divergence from how United is restructuring itself - United is cutting back on domestic flights in favor of international services, which it sees as more profitable and less competitive.  Either United has it wrong, or US/HP has it wrong.  Or maybe the AZ Republic has it wrong.

I'd been guessing Delta would be the next carrier into bankruptcy, but the storm clouds are gathering above Northwest at present.  Their CFO suddenly resigned last week with no reason being given, and was immediately replaced by Neil Cohen, a former US Airways CFO who was involved in that airline's first bankruptcy.  He has also taken another company through bankruptcy and has a reputation as being a hard liner when dealing with labor.  Just the sort of person NW needs?

Northwest has made more changes to its ticketing policies this week.  Described by NW in positive terms (of course) their new 'FlyNow' option allows you to make a confirmed same-day change to your domestic flights for a $25 fee.  Sounds good?  Well, maybe.  This is nothing more than that which the airlines used to routinely do for free, back in the good old days.  And now they want us to feel good about paying for it!

Important note - they'll still allow you to standby for an earlier or later same day flight.  But if you want your seat confirmed, reach for $25.

Here's an excellent article by Dan Reed in USA Today about why it takes the dinosaurs so long to die.

While we know that the dinosaurs will be (and have already been) a long time dying, this is not so much the case for the newer startup carriers, and speculation continues about the future of Independence Air.  Last Friday, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. analyst Jamie Baker said in a research note the airline is expected to run out of cash by the end of the year, and has few or no remaining financing options.  That would be a great shame, because it is a nice little airline struggling to succeed in a difficult environment.

The airline has just launched a marvelous new promotion.  They promise your bags will make it with you to your destination.  If your bag is lost or delayed, they'll give you a credit good for a free one-way flight on the journey you had just taken, with the credit valid for one year.

This is a very positive and fair move on their part.  If you travel plans see you flying a route served by Independence Air, why not give them a try and help them grow into profitability.

Talking about Customer Service, there's an interesting development obscured inside a Travelocity announcement this week.  They have a new 'Customer Championship' program that is designed to minimize problems before, during and after your travels.  The most significant part of this is their attempt to get the airlines to give them a pool of funds to spend, as they see fit, on resolving customer service issues.

This would be a valuable service offering, but as this article notes, they have yet to secure this agreement with any airlines.  Good on them for trying, though.

This Week's Get Rich Quick winner is Tina Streeter.  In August 2001 her ex-husband chartered a private jet to fly him and their two children to Egypt. at a cost of $160,000.  In October 2002 Ms Streeter was awarded custody of the children by an Egyptian court, whereupon her ex husband fled with the two children.  He was eventually found in Cuba and after Ms Streeter appealed to Fidel Castro, he was arrested and the children returned to Ms Streeter in June 2003.

There seems no suggestion that her ex-husband and their children did not have the correct immigration paperwork for entering Egypt.  Nor is there any suggestion the children experienced anything negative at all, and it is far from clear whether they were pleased or displeased to leave their mother.  But that didn't deter Ms Streeter from suing the charter airline, and neither did it deter a jury last week from finding in her favor.  They awarded her $17 million for the not quite two year loss of companionship with the children, plus an extra $10 million for out-of-pocket expenses and emotional hardship.  A cool $27 million in total ($35,000 a day).

It is a funny old world when a woman can consider herself lucky to get a million or two if her husband or child is killed, but can get $27 million from a charter airline who accepted a lawful charter to properly transport her ex-husband and their two children, causing her to be without the children for not quite two years.

After an apparently successful maiden flight of its A380 super jumbo, disappointing news from Airbus this week.  They are delaying the delivery of their first planes - originally hoped for first quarter of 2006, then revised to June, and now expected to be September, with the first flight (by Singapore Airlines) probably in October.

This will likely delay deliveries to the second and third airline customers (Qantas and Emirates) as well.  Which means it will be a long time between now and then, and doubtless QF's chairwoman, Margaret Jackson hopes her words this week will be forgotten by then.  She said the lower operating costs of these planes could lead to lower airfares.

Being as how Qantas is the world's most profitable airline, with ever higher profits each successive year, it is plain their airfare levels are entirely disconnected from their underlying costs.  Qantas simply and sensibly charges 'market pricing' for its flights, and if their costs drop, it is very unlikely their airfares would also drop, indeed, they'd be reneging on their responsibility to their shareholders if they used their huge investment in new planes simply to lower airfares rather than to increase shareholder returns.

I wonder why Margaret Jackson didn't think of this before uttering this nonsense statement?  Could it possibly be another example of Qantas' desperate lobbying to keep Singapore Airlines (and possibly a Virgin airline, too) away from its massively profitable US-Australia routes?

Who are the worst offenders when it comes to talking on cell phones in picture theatres This article's revelation, from New Zealand might surprise you.

As long time readers know, I sell very handy little emergency phone battery rechargers.  Are these soon to become obsolete?  They will if the new technology featured in this article gets to market.  Until that time, however, my $10 solution might be a prudent investment.

If you're in the market for a new cell phone and can't wait for these windup phones, here's some exciting news - Amazon.com have just announced a promotional special, selling the lovely new Razr V3 for only $99.99 after rebates.  This requires you to sign up for Cingular service.  Amazon also have a discounted Bluetooth headset for $29.99 that can be ordered at the same time.

I've had a Razr for several months now and am very pleased with it.  It is fully featured, with all four GSM bands so can work everywhere in the world (the phone will be supplied locked to Cingular, but we can unlock it for you), has a camera and camcorder function built in, a large bright color screen and good battery life, all combined with attractive design and in a very slim sized unit.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  An FBI agent was allowed to take her personal concealed and loaded firearm onto a plane with her.  But the TSA officials wouldn't allow her to also carry a nailfile.

This staggeringly stupid scenario is part of a massive list of idiocies chronicled this week in an On the Road column in the NY Times by Joe Sharkey.

What happens if your ID is stolen when you're on holiday and you can't get a replacement ID before your flight home is scheduled to depart?  The answer to that question seems to be 'it depends'.  Discussed in this article.

But who really cares if you have a 'government issued photo ID' or not.  As this article points out, police have just closed down an operation that sold over 2000 Florida drivers licenses to anyone prepared to pay the cash for them, whether or not they could drive, and absolutely without regard to their real ID or lawful status in the US.

Perhaps in recognition of that fact, the TSA is hoping to compel us to give our full name and date of birth every time we book a flight, so as to be able to more accurately match us up against their various databases.  In a phrase reminiscent of the way that shoe removal is optional, the TSA says that passengers will be 'encouraged' to give this data, but will not (yet) be required to disclose it.  More here.

The parent of the TSA, the Department of Homeland Security, got a slap on the wrist from Congress this week.  Extraordinarily, the DHS has ignored requests to explain and justify why they need $800 million of extra funding and what they'll spend it on.  Accordingly, the House Appropriations Committee has decided to cut the DHS' budget by $485 million and withhold another $310 million until they receive the information that is variously required by law and/or requested by Congress.

Is the DHS totally out of control?

Perhaps they need some of that money for staff training.  A new report released by the GAO on Monday shows that TSA staff are not getting the necessary training to enable them to effectively spot guns, knives, and explosives, and says there is no way of determining how many staff have completed the required courses.  The report echoed the common finding that detection levels are no better than they were prior to 9/11, even after a $10 billion spend in so-called security upgrades.  Amazingly, the DHS said it generally agreed with the report's findings.

I mentioned approvingly last week that the government was taking a step back from the full implementation of its poorly thought out plan to place RFID chips into our passports.  One interesting statistic was that the State Dept received over 2400 responses opposing this measure, which shows how important it is for each of us to take action on things we feel strongly about.  Our individual voices are a large part of a small group of 2400 - we really can make a difference.

Sadly though, it seems the largest part of the government's revised strategy towards RFID chips is to simply change the name from RFID chip to 'contactless smart card'.  The key issue, as I said last week, remains completely unresolved :  There is no valid reason why our government should ever need to be able to remotely snoop on people and see if they have a US passport in their pocket, and, if they do, what its details are.

Congratulations to the Fort Smith Regional Airport in Arkansas.  They have won this year's America's Best Restroom Award.

Lastly this week, perhaps the Best Restroom Awards need to open up a new category to allow this place to win the award that it definitely deserves.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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