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14 October, 2005 

Good morning

Glorious fall colors are in great abundance and make up for the sadness of the shortening days and cooling weather.  It will be good to head off to New Zealand at the end of next week and swap fall for spring for almost three weeks.

One of the things I always take with me when traveling is my MP3 player.  I'd formerly packed a CD player and a folder full of CDs, but the MP3 player holds the equivalent of many hundreds of CDs, takes up less space (and weight) and the batteries last longer, too.  What's not to like about that?

My MP3 player is now over 3.5 years old and so I've bought myself a new state of the art one as a birthday present to myself (it will be my 50th birthday while I'm in NZ in a few weeks time).  If you don't already travel with an MP3 player, you really should consider treating yourself to one of these wonderful devices, and to help you with your choice, I've added a review of this new player to the already existing two articles in my MP3 series :

This Week's Feature Column :  Toshiba's new MP3 Player : Smaller than a pack of cards, but holding over 500 CDs of music, MP3 players like Toshiba's Gigabeat offer tremendous flexibility to travelers wanting to take their music with them. I review this new unit and compare it to the better known Apple iPod.

Talking about interesting things to take on one's travels, I have a couple of samples of the fascinating Evac-U8 smoke hood in the office at present.  I'll be writing about this later, but wonder if anyone owns one at present?  If you do, I'm curious to know if you've ever had problems carrying an Evac-U8 through security?  Please let me know if you can offer any comments about this unit.

Dinosaur watching :  The count down to Monday 17 October continues.  This is the date new and slightly stricter bankruptcy laws come into effect.  This article reports there's been a rush of individuals filing bankruptcies; will we see another airline doing the same?

One possible filer could be Independence Air.  One of the warning signs observers look for with any public company is a sudden change in CFO, and on 7 October Independence announced their CFO was leaving.  He was at least going to a new job (outside the industry) rather than just urgently abandoning ship, so this may not be a significant event.

I wrote last week about Delta's extraordinarily bad decision to cancel flights with little warning if they weren't sufficiently full.  Several readers pointed out this isn't just a bad decision in terms of hurting Delta's corporate image, but is also very unfair to its passengers.

If you are booked on a Delta flight and then decide you want to change your booking to make it more convenient for you, what will Delta do?  At best, charge you a change fee.  At worst, refuse to allow any change at all.  But if Delta decides to change your flight, for its own convenience, what compensation do you get?  And if this last minute change means you'll miss a connection onto another airline, or with a cruise line, or anything else, forcing you to instead book a last minute ticket on another airline at outrageous cost, how generous will Delta be then?

The answers to these questions are apparently zero and zero.  Which underscores again the need for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights - see my proposed charter.

(Note - DL have now cancelled this extremely stupid concept.  But the passenger rights issue remains for next time something like this is tried out.)

Another recent event underscores the need for this Bill of Rights.  A snow storm that hit Denver on Monday caused a terrible series of delays, sometimes as much as five hours, for planes waiting their turn to be de-iced prior to take-off.

Now, what happened?  Did the pilots of the planes say 'It is 1pm, we expect to get de-iced at 5.30pm, so we'll go back to the gate, let our passengers off, wait a few hours, then reboard and taxi out to the de-icing stand at 5.15pm?'  Oh no.  Apparently, there's no way to reserve a place in the de-icing queue.  To get de-iced, the plane has to physically join a physical line of other planes, all sitting on a taxi-way, burning jet-fuel, and inconveniencing passengers who will be spending more time waiting to take off than they will on their actual flight.

My proposed Airline Passenger Bill of Rights includes a right to not be trapped on a plane, requiring airlines to pay fair compensation if passengers if more than 75 minutes elapse between when the last passenger boards a plane and when either the plane takes off or aborts, returns to the gate, and commences deplaning passengers.

An attempt to make the trustee of a stock ownership plan accountable for its bad investing failed.  A federal court judge ruled that the trustee for a United Airlines employee stock ownership plan could not have predicted the company's bankruptcy in time to sell the stock and save the workers billions of dollars.

About 70,000 airline workers had alleged in a class action suit that the employee stock ownership plan committee for the airline and the plan's trustee, State Street Bank, were aware that United's stock was unstable. Attorneys for the workers argued that State Street could have known the company was in jeopardy as early as October 2001, and pointed out that State Street had even placed United's stock on a watch list due to its volatility.  United filed for bankruptcy in December 2002.

The judge said the fact United was on a watch list merely indicated that State Street was closely monitoring the airline; it did not mean United was facing imminent bankruptcy.  And he said 'there were sufficient indications that UAL could recover from its setbacks' and suggested the employees were using hindsight unfairly.

I don't know what evidence the employees presented to show how widely anticipated United's bankruptcy was.  But they could have referred to United's own Chairman James Goodwin who in October 2001 said in a letter to employees the airline 'will perish sometime next year'; a very accurate prediction as it turned out.

Goodwin was quickly replaced (in large part due to his letter), and the new CEO, Jack Creighton, said essentially the same thing in August 2002.  Creighton said 'Unless we lower our costs dramatically, filing for bankruptcy protection is the only way we can ensure the company's future and the continued operation of our airline'.

Another example from outside of United - in October 2002 Boeing wrote down the value of its loans to United in anticipation of the airline's bankruptcy.

A shame that apparently none of the plaintiffs, the trustees, or the judge, read The Travel Insider's Dinosaur Watch column.

While other airlines are failing to meet their pension plan payments, Continental rather proudly announced this week it had just paid an additional $84 million into its plan, meaning for the year to date it has contributed $304 million, its legally mandated minimum.  Continental's shares dropped 3.2%, apparently on the news.

One of the few currently successful airlines has announced plans for more expansion.  This time it is Hooters Air, which now serves 15 cities.  They say they seek to become a smaller scale and blue collar JetBlue (whatever that means).

JetBlue itself is continuing its own frenetic expansion.  This week they announced a new shuttle service between JFK and Boston, with ten flights a day.  These flights will be using their new Embraer 190 regional jet planes.  US Airways has been using the smaller Embraer 170 for some time now, and both pilots and passengers I've spoken with tell me it is a lovely plane, with a roomy cabin like a regular full size jet.

The 100 seat Embraer is only five feet shorter than JetBlue's fleet of 156 passenger Airbus A320s, and the seats are " wider than on the A320 planes.  Seat pitch is 32" in the front and 33" in the rear.

JetBlue ordered 101 of these planes, with an option for a further 100.  They will be taking delivery of one plane every 20 days until the order has been filled.  These planes will enable JetBlue to offer new service to smaller cities, as well as to launch this new shuttle service on 8 November.  Other cities JetBlue initially plans to offer Embraer services to are Austin, Nassau, Richmond and West Palm Beach.  Embraers will also bulk up the flights to Buffalo and Burlington.

They're at it again.  BA and AA are looking at ways to 'coordinate flight schedules and ticket pricing'.  Twice before they've tried to get together, but both times have failed to secure approval from the US authorities.

Needless to say, 'coordinating ticket pricing' sounds very uncompetitive and something that for sure would not advantage us, their customers.

Air Canada will now sell you a 'comfort zone' kit on their flights.  $2 gets you an inflatable plastic pillow and a polyester blanket.  Strangely, the airline justifies this by saying it will help reduce the weight on the plane and so the plane will use less fuel.

Supersonic flight took a step forward this week when a Japanese group successfully test flew a small model of a proposed supersonic jet at the Woomera rocket range in outback Australia.  The actual plane would carry three times as many passengers as Concorde (300 rather than 100 passengers), but is not expected to be complete for another 15 - 20 years.

Flu Focus :  European bird flu experts are to hold an emergency meeting today, following the confirmation of bird flu now having spread from Asia into Europe.  Which rather puts the lie to Health Minister Franceso Storace who was quoted at the end of this article as claiming if a human form of the disease does develop, it would take three to six months to produce a vaccine, which he said would be sufficient 'because in the case of a pandemic, it would explode in Asia and not arrive immediately in Europe'.

Apparently Mr Storace has not yet learned about a modern invention known as the airplane, which can fly an infected person from Asia to Europe in a matter of hours, not months.

A more realistic comment comes from Mike Osterholm, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Minnesota.  He is quoted near the end of this generally scary article as saying 'If you can't do it with the speed of a smoke alarm and a fire truck, you don't have a chance in hell of stopping this'.  Earlier in the piece he says 'To believe that you can contain this locally is to believe in fairy tales'.

I'd said last week that I was holding off on publishing the third part of my series on bird flu - the part which talks about how to survive the social disruption that will occur - because it was just too apocalyptic and scary to be accepted during normalcy.  But this NY Times article gives you a hint when it refers to riots, shortages, and what a report prepared for the Bush administration says would be the worst disaster in the nation's history.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt is quoted in this article as saying 'The likelihood of a human flu pandemic is very high' and in a NY Times article earlier this week, Dr. Jong Wook Lee, director general of the World Health Organization, was quoted as saying 'The burning question is, Will there be a human influenza pandemic?  On behalf of the W.H.O., I can tell you that there will be. The only question is the virulence and rapidity of transmission from human to human.'

Lastly for this week in this section, obviously some of you responded to the suggestion in my bird flu articles to stock up on Tamiflu.  As this article reports, US prescriptions for Tamiflu last week were up 713% on the same week last year.

With the threat of bird flu getting ever closer, my earlier worrying about the dangers of cell phone radiation seem laughably unimportant.  But in case you'd like something else to worry about, here's an interesting study that shows cell phone usage impacts on your brain wave patterns not just during the call but for up to 30 minutes subsequently, too.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Nine blind or partially sighted passengers were taken off a Ryanair plane because the flight already had a 'full quota of disabled people on board'.  Apparently, in justifying his decision, the pilot rhetorically asked some of the blind people how they could, unassisted, find their way to an exit if the plane filled with smoke.  The pilot plainly didn't appreciate the irony of his question - in a smoke filled plane, a blind person could find their way more readily than a normally sighted person.  Details here.

Feeling hungry?  Here's a pizza you definitely don't want to order out for, unless you're willing to pay its 100 ($175) cost.

Lastly this week, reader Norman sends in this suggestion :

Here's a little tip from me to you as an experienced traveler.  Wake-up calls are the worst way to wake up.  The phone rings, it's loud and you can't turn it down.

I leave the number of the room next to me.  It just rings very quietly and you hear a guy yell "Why are you calling me?"

Then you get up and take a shower.  It's great.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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