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30 September, 2005 

Good morning

Last week's newsletter was censored by AOL, due to containing a link to one of my favorite websites - the irreverent but surely also inoffensive Engadget blog (add a www. before and .com after the word engadget to get to it - hopefully this oblique reference won't also trip the AOL automatic censors).

This also affected people with AOL related services such as Netscape.  Bizarrely, AOL can't even be consistent in its attempts to protect its members from this newsletter and its 100% harmless link, and while thousands of AOL readers didn't get the newsletter, some hundreds did.

If you ever don't get a newsletter, there are two ways you can access it online.  First, you can type in its url, which is always in the format

     http://www.thetravelinsider.info/yyyy/emailmmdd.htm and the mmdd is the Friday date

So for example tonight's newsletter is

     http://www.thetravelinsider.info/2005/email0930.htm

The other method is to click on the [Newsletter Archives] link at the top of any past newsletter and go to the newsletter from there.  I don't update the archive listing every week, so the first method is guaranteed to always be up to date, while the second method is a bit less certain.

I promised this week's feature story would be 'a special and rather frightening article on one specific type of immediate threat to us all and the general lack of preparedness for this'.  This article, about the H5N1 influenza virus more commonly known as Bird Flu or Avian Flu, has only the very weakest link to our normal travel and travel related technology theme (one could posit that travelers to infected areas need to be aware of these issues) and is offered simply as a heartfelt bit of gratuitous advice and warning.

Writing about this immediate threat - avian flu - has a weak irony.  Perhaps because I've been surrounding myself in horrific stories of disease and death for the past week, I'm now feeling sicker than a dog (and don't start me on the related threat, even less commented on, from 'dog flu'....).  Perhaps tonight's newsletter should therefore be offered as a tribute to Immodium.  After experiencing diarrhea and vomiting so severe that I really started to worry about dehydration and dysentery, I did what I should have done at the onset and took a couple of the itsy-bitsy Immodium AD tablets.  Instant relief from the unpleasant symptoms.

I've occasionally needed to use Immodium before, and everytime it has instantly and completely ended the 'problem'.  Immodium really does work, brilliantly, and should be an ever-present part of your travel medicine kit.

Not so simple, unfortunately, is the solution to avian flu.  Please read the two parts of this article that are now available :

This Week's Feature ColumnHow to Survive the Coming Avian Flu Pandemic :  Described by the head of the US CDC (and many other public health officials around the world) as 'the biggest single threat to the world right now', Avian or Bird Flu has the potential to destroy the world as we currently know it. Here's what you need to know, and what you can do to avoid or survive an Avian Flu pandemic.

The news on Avian Flu continues to come in, faster and faster, and its all bad and getting worse.  Here's the latest piece, just released this evening, with a top World Health Organization official saying an Avian Flu pandemic could come 'any time now' and kill up to 150 million people.

Dinosaur watching :  The walking dead airline that is, alas, Independence Air, will cut more than half its flights in a desperate attempt to stay solvent.  Last October it was operating 600 flights a day.  As of this October, they will be operating 225 - 250 flights.  This is of course half way to self-liquidation; can the other half be too far away?

Airline analyst Helane Becker of the Benchmark Co said 'I don't think these changes will alter the ultimate outcome, which is a Chapter 11 filing'.  Which is about the best we can all hope for now - chapter 11 (reorganization) rather than chapter 7 (winding up).

The Department of Transportation is investigating allegations that airlines were gouging desperate evacuees on the last flights out of Houston as Hurricane Rita approached the Texas coast last weekend.

A doctor told a newspaper that her parents were charged $2,500 each for oneway tickets from Houston to Washington last Thursday night.  And I've seen printouts of sky-high CO fares, too.

The inter-island flight market in Hawaii has been chronically unprofitable for quite some time.  Until just a few weeks ago, both carriers - Hawaiian and Aloha - were in Chapter 11 bankruptcy (Hawaiian has now exited Ch 11).

But now there's a flurry of interest.  Regional carrier and consistently profitable Mesa Air, an airline that seems to be increasingly desperate to diversify and expand, has announced plans to create a new inter-island airline in Hawaii.  This new airline is projected to start flying in the first quarter of next year.

This is either very unrealistic timing or the airline is further down the track of getting regulatory approvals than seems to be the case.

Meanwhile, Aloha has become a hot property, with a competing bid for the airline being lodged in its bankruptcy court.  The competing bid is spearheaded by a former CEO of Hawaiian Airlines who also had tried to take over Hawaiian Airlines prior to its recent emergence from bankruptcy.

One would have thought that with a third airline about to start service, the other two airlines would become appreciably less valuable.

The real winners in Vegas are never the visitors who gamble in the casinos, but the casinos themselves.  And while there are plenty of losers in a Chapter 11 procedure (shareholders, employees and creditors) the real winners of a company's foray through the legal system are - surprise surprise - the lawyers and other consultants.  Newly bankrupt Delta has hired 11 law firms and consulting companies to assist with its restructuring; Northwest, also newly bankrupt, plans to hire 10 firms to start with.

DL's bankruptcy attorneys are charging up to $785 an hour.  In addition, it is paying $400,000 a month to Giuliani Capital Advisors, a company of restructuring specialists, with little apparent history, but headed by the former NY mayor.  And financial advisor Blackstone Group will get a $10.5 million 'success fee' once the Chapter 11 is completed.

Why can't the airlines do this themselves?  Oh, because they're too busy running the airline, apparently.

Northwest is finding itself in a bit of a bind with American Express.  Amex has stopped promptly passing on the funds it receives when people buy a NW ticket using their Amex card.  It is seeking to delay paying some or all of the payments received until the time the flights occur.  The ostensible reason for this is so American Express won't be exposed if NW goes out of business and Amex card holders then ask Amex for their money refunded.

Of course, the huge amount of money held on account wouldn't hurt American Express' cash flow any, either.  Northwest is suing Amex to force it to hand the money over promptly, and says if Amex doesn't do this, NW's chances of getting out of bankruptcy will be damaged.  About 30% of all NW tickets purchased by credit card are paid for with American Express.

America West and US Airways completed their merger, Monday, becoming the nation's fifth largest airline as a result.  However, it is a strange sort of merger; for the foreseeable future there will continue to be two different airlines, two different websites and reservations centers, and separate operational staffing.  It won't be until some time next year before they even start repainting their planes.

Plainly the hoped for synergy will take a little while to achieve.

Senate leaders reached agreement on Tuesday about new legislation to give airlines a break on their pension obligations.  Details are not yet known, but we do know what Senator Kennedy trumpeted triumphantly :

Now more than ever, workers deserve the support of Congress to preserve their hard-earned pensions

Translation :  We're bailing out the dinosaurs and freeing them from their obligations, while pretending we're doing it for the good of their past and present employees.

Outgoing BA CEO, Rod Eddington, had some comments to offer the UK Aviation Industry last week.  He said

America, the land of the free, is turning itself into the land of the free ride.  They, the airlines, are operating in protected markets.  They are hoovering up public funds and they still can't make a profit.  The world does not need 300 airlines.  They exist because of political demand.  We need easier rules on takeovers and open skies.

He also said America's money-losing airlines existed only for 'political vanity' and they sucked up more wasted cash than any other carriers in the world.   He called American aviation policies 'stupid' because the tactics block open-sky rules around the world and wreck fair competition.  US policy is 'offensive because its stupid, because it doesn't benefit anyone, because it encourages inefficiencies, rewards bad habits, drives out good money and replaces it with bad,' he said

Rod Eddington's very un-British outburst makes more sense when one appreciates his Australian origins.  Well said, Rod.

But maybe he just had an attack of the sulks, due to the pending commencement of a low fare competitor across the Atlantic.  New airline MAXjet (there's that stupid thing with capital letters, again) will be the first airline to offer an all business class service between London's Stansted Airport  and JFK.  Flights start on 1 November, and fares are as amazingly low as a mere $1558 roundtrip.  Regular business class fares on other airlines were formerly more than $8000, but in a clear response to the new airline, there are now fares for $3388 available.

So US based MAXjet is costing Rod's airline a great deal of profit.

Investigations are continuing into the cause and cure for the stuck nosewheel problem that affected a JetBlue flight last Wednesday.  One thing is for sure - barring criminal negligence or sabotage, no-one's likely to be going to prison for this, even though at least seven other A320s have apparently had similar problems.

But the French are continuing their desperate quest to blame and punish someone - anyone - for the crash of their Concorde in July 2000.  In addition to issuing an arrest warrant for a Continental Airlines employee, they've now placed the former head of the Concorde program under investigation on a charge of involuntary manslaughter.  76 yr old M. Henri Perrier was the engineer involved in the first Concorde flight in 1969, and subsequently head of testing then director of the Concorde program, but retired in 1994.

A rather unlikely sounding suspect, you might think.

Meanwhile Airbus is actively at work developing a replacement to Concorde.  Its new plane would have 250 seats and a range of up to 6000 miles, flying at up to 1500 mph (Concorde had only 100 seats, a much too short 4400 mile range, and flew at 'only' 1350 mph).

This vastly improved successor to Concorde could be in service within 10 years.

No word on what its fuel consumption may be; although as I analyzed here, fuel consumption was not the problem it was generally believed to be on Concorde.

Besides which, what do the airlines care about fuel consumption and cost?  They can simply add still more of a profiteering fuel surcharge to their fares.  Here's an interesting article on the topic; note in particular the quote that while fuel prices increased 6% since Katrina, fuel surcharges increased 20%.

If you live or drive in Connecticut, as of 1 October you'll need to use a hands-free device when talking on your cellphone, or face a $100 fine.  CT joins NY, NJ, DC and Chicago in enacting this requirement.

Many of us are alarmed at the open check-book approach to post Katrina disaster recovery.  Here's one incontrovertible example of the Federal Government irresponsibly wasting money in its rebuilding process.  Instead of temporarily boarding refugees on moored cruise liners, the government could spend only half as much money by sending them on Caribbean cruises.

The government, needless to say, is paying a ridiculously inappropriate over-market rate for chartering these ships.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The TSA added the name of an Afghani man to their No Fly list.  All they knew about him was that he was from Afghanistan, male, and used the alias of McPhee.  They didn't know what first name he used, or anything else.  This scrap of data was apparently sufficient for the TSA to add him to their No Fly list, however.

Unsurprisingly, other people with the far from unique last name of McPhee found themselves being hassled when attempting to fly somewhere.  But what is truly astonishing is the nine month saga of suffering by one such McPhee, resolved only when this person's employer used his connections to directly access the White House and get his employee's name removed.

This particular McPhee was a 62 year old Dominican nun (as in, female not male).  Not even a deaf/blind/mute could confuse Sister McPhee with any Afghani male.  But for nine months, the TSA and numerous policemen suffered no end of difficulty comprehending the difference.  Details here.

Sue the government, get placed on the TSA No-Fly List?  That's sure what it seems like to this pilot.

These days, after 9/11, our government subjects potential visitors to the United States to a modern day version of the Spanish Inquisition, even to the point of - in many countries - requiring potential visitors to travel possibly hundreds or thousands of miles to visit a US Consular Office for a personal interview prior to granting a visa.

These requirements are bolstered by demands that other countries adopt new passport standards to meet our government's requirements, and by vastly increased budgets for 'border security'.

But a new study shows that illegal immigration levels are now higher than they were before 2001.  The onerous 'security' measures seem to have had no effect at all on illegal immigrants, while discouraging many perfectly law-abiding people from visiting.

Lastly this week, in Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, the heroine utters this memorable phrase

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

But apparently all roses, these days, no longer smell as sweet as they formerly did, with their scent being lost as a trade-off for a broader range of intense colors.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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