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7 April, 2006  

Good morning

I was supposed to travel to Las Vegas on Tuesday, but things didn't quite work out as expected.

Things got off to a bad start when it took 15 minutes to find a park at the airport, with a car park finally being found in the far corner of the top level of the parking building.  Usually the entire top floor is wide open, and the floor below that only half full; but I've noticed space becoming harder to find each time I visit; indeed later in the day, even the top level was full.  Perhaps this is a reason to select a discount off-airport parking lot instead.

The Alaska Airlines flight was scheduled to depart at 11.37am and we were rushed on board shortly before 11am, with the flight attendants exhorting us to quickly get to our seats, etc etc.  So by 11.25am everyone was seated, and I was doing my best to feel comfortable in a cramped middle seat.

Shortly after 11.37, an announcement was made that used a lot of words to convey absolutely nothing other than a vague sense that there'd be a short delay before pushing back from the gate; apparently there were some issues in the flight maintenance log which - for our safety of course - needed to be resolved before the flight could push back from the gate.

Shortly after mid-day, the attendants started coming down the aisles passing out drinks of water - this was not a good sign and didn't imply a pending departure.

At about 12.15pm, another announcement told us nothing much more, except to say - for our comfort - if we wished to get off the plane, we could do so.  They hoped to have the log issues resolved and the flight able to depart in less than an hour.

I got up - as did most others, took all my belongings, and left the plane.  Shortly after 12.30, airport staff started handing out $6 meal vouchers and gift certificates that could be redeemed either for 1000 miles or a $25 discount off a future flight - but the catch with the $25 discount was that you couldn't make a web booking - you had to go to a travel agent or Alaska ticket office, and you couldn't book a web based discount fare, thereby negating probably all the $25 discount.  I chose the miles.  Handing out meal vouchers and gift certificates seemed another bad sign, implying further delays.

At 1.30pm, I asked and was told they expected an update from operations in 10 minutes, and then, at 1.40pm, they finally 'fessed up and told us something close to the truth.

The aircraft had a slew of different deferred maintenance items on it, and while any one of the deferred maintenance items, by itself, was quite okay and the plane remained legal to fly, apparently in total, there were some conflicting items of the sort that 'either one of these two things can be broken, but not both' and, alas, both things were not working.

They could surely have told us this two hours ago.

We were told to expect a further announcement in about another ten minutes, and the flight was not going to be cancelled and definitely would operate.

A lady and her two children next to me in line looked quite despairing.  She had tried to travel to Vegas with Alaska Airlines just a week or so before, and had the same problems, except that the previous time, the flight ended up being completely cancelled and they were unable to travel at all.  Both this time and the previous time, Alaska was claiming it had no space on any other flights at all, and our only choice was to sit and wait for this plane to be sufficiently fixed as to be allowed to fly.

The concept of 'sufficiently fixed' rather than 'completely fixed' alarmed some of the other passengers - it is worth adding that Alaska's maintenance record and reputation in the Seattle area is currently far from stellar, and the phrase 'never going to fly Alaska again' was being muttered by several unhappy people.

As for me, I could see the writing on the wall - this flight wasn't going anywhere anytime soon, and so I simply cancelled my flight and drove back home again.  My prediction was right - it was almost another two hours before a substitute aircraft was wheeled over to replace the still unflyable plane, and the flight landed in Las Vegas at the same time my press conference was scheduled to begin.  A wasted day and considerable wasted money, all because Alaska had allowed a plane to get seriously behind its needed maintenance and apparently didn't discover that until minutes before scheduled take-off.

I sent the following email to Alaska Airlines the next morning.  An auto-reply told me to expect an answer within 60 days.

Hi

Please would you respond to the following questions about the delays and change of equipment for this flight.

1. Why did no-one know the plane was inoperable prior to after completing the boarding of passengers?

2. At what point did the plane become inoperable? Is it possible its previous flight was illegal?

3. Why did it take more than two hours before passengers were first told exactly what the nature of the problem was?

4. Why were passengers not given realistic expectations of what the delays would be, but instead were told to expect 'ten minute delays', 'short delays', and at one stage told to expect more information in about 40 minutes?

5. If there is any additional information to better understand how this situation occurred, that would be appreciated.

If it is possible to have a response by close of business Thursday, that would be much appreciated.

ALSO

I'd like to request a full refund for my ticket; as you can see from the record, I was forced to cancel my flights with you due to the four hour delay.

I'll reserve judgment until (if) a reply is received from Alaska Airlines about this issue, but at this stage it seems that a combination of poor maintenance practices and appalling management made for this completely unnecessary and extended problem.  We deserve better from the airlines we're forced to fly.

As an aside, I started this story off by complaining about the shortage of parking at Sea-Tac airport.  Maybe they should do what Boston's Logan Airport is about to do - charge extra to access a 'guaranteed parking' area.

Logan is to start offering a program that charges $200 for the first year and $100 for subsequent years to access a special parking area, plus an extra surcharge of $5/day on top of the regular parking rates.  In return, drivers are guaranteed to find a parking spot.

Our instant poll last week asked how important the availability of broadband in your hotel room is to you when you're traveling.

42% of readers rated it as essential, and a further 34% said it was very important.  Only 10% said they don't access the internet in their hotel room while traveling.

In total, 75% of readers rate the availability of hotel broadband internet access as very important or essential.  So why don't hotels do a better job of providing this service, and why don't hotels and internet hotel booking sites reliably advise whether each hotel provides broadband access or not?

And, most of all, recognizing the high priority hotel guests place on broadband access, why don't hotels do a better job of ensuring their access works as promised, and/or is fixed quickly when problems occur (see last week's poll results, showing three quarters of people have problems with hotel internet access, with such problems being solved quickly only one third of the time).

On the other hand, maybe the issue of hotel internet access will soon fade from importance.  Just this week came the announcement that Google and Earthlink have won a joint bid to provide city-wide Wi-Fi service in San Francisco.  Google will offer a free service running at 300 kbps, and Earthlink will offer a paid service at about 1 Mbps for around $20/month.  So, if you're a guest in a San Francisco hotel, why pay the hotel $12 a day when you can get Google Wi-Fi for free?

This Week's Feature Column : Iridium Satellite Phone Service :  I test an Iridium satellite phone and report on what it does well, and what it does poorly.  Should you own (or rent) a satellite phone?  Read the review to find out.

Dinosaur watchingNorthwest is deeming its trial of charging extra for exit row and aisle seats a success, and so will be expanding the program this summer to cover flights to Mexico, the Caribbean and Canada.

Many readers have written to tell me they think this is a bad idea, and they've offered many reasons.  But Northwest's flight attendants, who also don't like the concept, have come up with a reason more inventive than that offered by any reader.  They say it compromises safety and degrades federal safety rules about who can sit in an exit row seat.

As you will know if you've ever sat in an exit row, or observed the other people who sit in exit rows, the federal requirements for exit row passengers to be able bodied and to be able to help in the case of an emergency are often completely ignored, by the very same flight attendants who are now complaining about the potential danger of allowing anyone to sit in an exit row.

While Northwest's flight attendants worry about the safety of their exit row seating, Delta's pilots have something much more stressful on their minds.  Delta and its pilots union continue to play a game of chicken with each other.  On Tuesday, Delta's pilots voted to authorize a strike against the airline, with 95% of pilots voting in favor.  A strike may be called by the pilots if Delta wins the right, from an arbitration panel that is currently deliberating, to abrogate its contract with the pilots.

The pilots are refusing to give Delta the concessions DL is demanding, and DL in turn says it needs the extra $150 million over and above what the pilots have already agreed to in order to successfully progress its Chapter 11 reorganization.  If the airline wins the right to simply rewrite the contract any way it wishes, the pilots say they'll go on strike in protest, and Delta says that even a 24 hour strike would force the airline to close down completely.  The pilots say they won't be bullied into accepting unacceptable terms based on a fear of what may lie ahead.

So who's making the larger bluff here?  My guess is Delta.  It is inconceivable that Delta's managers would simply close down the airline (which currently has $3 billion in unrestricted cash) after only 24 hours of a pilot strike.  Let's not forget that if they close down their airline, they're putting themselves out of work, too, and this - if nothing else - is likely to encourage them to think carefully before taking such action.

Will there be a strike?  Maybe, maybe not.  If there is, what would happen?  In the past, most airlines have managed to still operate many of their flights, even with an official pilot strike, and it is likely Delta too could continue to operate some type of reduced schedule.  Would Delta close down and liquidate everything after only 24 hours of a pilot strike, as it says it would have to do?  Absolutely, totally, no way.

But - is Delta harming itself by threatening such doom and gloom?  Yes.  Reportedly, some potential passengers are now booking other airlines, for fear of getting stranded by Delta's threatened close down.  Well done, Delta; you've managed to score an impressive own goal in your clumsy public negotiations with your pilots.

Probably not going on strike are the Air Traffic Controllers - after the 1981 strike which President Reagan famously broke by firing all striking controllers, it was made illegal for air traffic controllers to strike.  However, they are probably wishing they could at present, because after nine months of negotiation, talks have broken down between them and the FAA.

The FAA says that salaries have increased 75% since the last contract was negotiated in 1998.  The FAA's Administrator, Marion Blakey, is quoted as saying the top 100 controllers are earning an average of $197,000 a year, and average compensation would rise from $166,000 to $187,000 by the end of the proposed new five year contract.  Sounds pretty generous to me, and controllers would be earning more than most of the pilots they're controlling.  Details here.

The annual Airline Quality Rating Report has now been released for 2005.  Overall, 15 of the 17 largest carriers all scored lower than they did the previous year, with only one airline showing an improvement - Comair, which, improvement notwithstanding, came in as second last.

JetBlue scored highest in service for the third straight year, followed by AirTran.  Third was Independence Air which stopped flying in January, and Southwest came fourth.  The discount carriers were at the top of the list while the dinosaurs such as Continental and American were in the middle and the smaller regional airlines ranked nearer the bottom of the list.

The biggest drop in rating was given to US Airways.

Airline ratings are based on a weighted formula using four factors as reported by the DoT :  On-time arrivals, denied boardings, mishandled bags, and customer complaints.

JetBlue scored top, and as readers know, it is currently going through some financial difficulties.  But does its top score combined with financial pressures mean the airline feels it can cut back on amenities and services?  Absolutely not.  Quite the opposite, in fact - JetBlue is adding to its passenger amenities.

JetBlue has started giving passengers on its red-eye flights a range of spa products, including eye masks, earplugs, moisturizer, lip balm and a promotional offer from a spa company.  The airline is also offering a self-serve pantry filled with snacks and hot towels on the flights - part of what JetBlue is called its 'Shut-Eye' service.

JetBlue says that the costs of these benefits are trivial and if it can sell just one or two more seats per Shut-Eye flight, it will be making extra profit.  This is, of course, completely different to the dinosaurs, who never consider that their service cutbacks may lose them a passenger or two per flight, more than negating the benefit of the service cuts.

Well done, JetBlue.

Talking about airline quality, I passed on a story of terrible service on Northwest last week.  Reader Daniel writes in to offer another similar story :

Surely you know that exceptionally rude and hostile service is not the exception for NW.  It is their culture and the norm.  Now here is rude and crude service that will really grab you - I was in the check in line for a flight to London.  I was in line soon enough to be safe for the one hour minimum check in before departure.  But the line for some reason was barely moving.  I mentioned to a NW agent that I had a flight to London, but was getting concerned that because of the slowness of the line I might not make my flight.  Her reply, "Don't worry," and she walked away.  Almost fifteen minutes later I also tried to speak to the agent at the desk, but got nowhere, just ignored.

Well guess what?  When I finally got to the desk I was told that I had missed the check in time, and my seat had been given to another passenger.  So help me God, the woman looked me right in the eye, and told me it was my fault, even though she KNEW I had been in the line for ages.  They had overbooked the flight, nothing new here, and rather than be honest, they were cheating any passengers they could by giving their seats to other passengers under the pretext that they were not checked in on time.

I then asked to see a supervisor, and one came to the desk.  I explained that I had been in line for nearly one hour, had spoken to an agent directing the lines, and had also called to the attention of the desk agent that I was on the London flight, and time was running out for check in.  He then told me, sorry you didn't make it, not our problem, but we'll get you out on the next flight. Next flight?  Twenty four hours later.

So this is the type of scam NW will pull even on a gold level flyer whenever they need some extra seats.  Do you think I am sorry they are in bankruptcy?

A new set of guidelines has been published by the UK Department for Transport, specifying allowable carry-on limits for flights to/from or within the UK.

The maximum size of a carry-on item is 22" x 18" x 10" - this is actually quite generous as the theoretical normal size limit in the US is 22" x 14" x 9".  Passengers will be limited to two items (same as before).

Airlines are being asked to enforce these guidelines more strictly - I'll believe that when I see it.

Soon to be new airline, Virgin America, has announced it will use US home based agents to handle all their customer service calls.  This is similar to how JetBlue provides its phone service, and certainly seems to work well for JetBlue.  Definitely better than choosing to outsource this work to some offshore site where the locals don't understand US geography.

United is adding more staff, and now says it expects to add 4000 new positions during 2006 - 2000 flight attendants and 2000 people for various other positions.  Between 2001 and 2006 it cut 50,000 jobs.

Prosecutors in Switzerland have filed charges against 19 former top executives and board members of Swissair for their part in that airline's bankruptcy.  Prosecutors allege the entire board defrauded creditors, falsified documents, and made false statements about the business and mismanagement.  The CEO and CFO were charged along with board members.

The airline shut down on October 2, 2001, barely a month after 9/11.  Ernst & Young was hired to report on the bankruptcy and filed a report in 2003 that said leadership errors, dubious accounting methods and lack of controls all contributed to the collapse and the board pursued a "careless" expansion strategy and approved accounts that contained "grave errors."  The report also said that the carrier's grounding was unnecessary on strictly financial grounds.  The airline became Swiss International Air Lines and was subsequently bought by Lufthansa.

Anyone care to bet if similar charges will be brought against the board members and CEOs/CFOs of any current or recently in Chapter 11 US airlines?

In among all the bankrupt dinosaurs, let's not forget the one major hold-out (yes, I know Continental is also not currently threatening bankruptcy, but they've had their share of Chapter 11 before).  That is American Airlines, and this article quotes their CFO as saying 'Bankruptcy as a solution is kind of un-American'.  It isn't clear if he means American in the sense of the country or airline, but the sentiment is to be praised either which way.  This article also offers some impressive statistics about how well AA have progressed in cutting costs over the last few years.

AA deserves our praise - and our business - for trying to succeed honorably.

I had occasion to remember my lonely crusade for a US Passenger Bill of Rights during the four hour delay for my flight to Las Vegas on Tuesday.  And if you need further convincing, read about the US Airways international flight that ended up delaying its passengers for two days at an intermediate stopover, and then offered only $200 per passenger as compensation.

Southwest is poised to add Dulles to its list of destinations.  Perhaps responding to the gap created by Independence Air's demise earlier this year, it will start with two gates and about ten (in my opinion, probably more) daily departures this fall.

This is an interesting move on Southwest's part.  It already operates 165 daily departures from nearby Baltimore; indeed BWI is its fourth largest base (after Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Midway).  Will its new flights from Dulles simply steal passengers from its existing BWI services?  That probably depends on where the Dulles flights go.

Independence, at its peak, had a 20% market share at Dulles, and Southwest probably reasons anything Independence could do, it can do better.

I wrote last week about the Greek government's inability to find a buyer for Olympic Airlines, and their plan to therefore rename the airline Pantheon Airways.  At the time I wrote it, I thought this a silly name change that wouldn't make any difference to the airline.

But maybe it will make a difference to the airline's passengers.  Reader Francisco writes from Spain :

May I make a short comment about the new Greek airline?

Pantheon in Spanish means "family's graveyard" so I hardly doubt that a significant part of the 400 million Spanish speakers in the world would rush to buy tickets of the airline.

I'd mentioned last week the inevitable cold or other minor illness that often comes after a long plane journey.  Several people, including a physician, wrote in to recommend Zicam as a way to minimize such outcomes.

[Update 14 April :  We do NOT recommend Zicam.  Please see updated information here.]

Another physician wrote in to recommend Sambucol, saying :

Dr Madeleine Mumcuoglu, who did the research, is a professor of biochemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  You can buy Sambucol at health food stores, but the best price I have found so far is at www.swansonvitamins.com.  My extended family relies on it, as does half the population of Israel.  It does not need a prescription, either.

Sambucol also seems to have a possible application in fighting bird flu.

A third preventative/cure medicine is the homeopathic remedy, Oscillococcinum.  I was introduced to this in Russia, and it has helped me head off various ailments in the past (I didn't have any with me when coming down with the flu a couple of weeks ago).

Between these three products and Airborne, it seems one can stage a fairly effective defense against most ailments.

Reader Barbara takes a very sensible approach - one which many of us might be embarrassed to adopt, but which is a sure way to keep infections at bay.  She writes

Whenever I fly, I wear a surgical mask during most of the flight.  I do this to prevent the mucous membranes in my nose from becoming dry during the flight.  The mask permits me to sleep.  I may look funny, but I figure I will never see any of those people again and I do stay well.

In addition I use a Spritzer (I recently found Jafra Stimulating Tonic Spritzer) to mist my face and neck.  I have been doing this for 10 years and have only been sick once after a flight.  Before that I was usually sick either on my trip or after I came home.

I was once escorting a group of senior citizens, ages 70's-80's on a trip to Central Europe.  I issued masks to everyone and not one got sick.  We all laughed but we had a great time and stayed well.  I donít think it is the germs of other passengers or the air on the plane as much as the dryness that makes us sick.  Anyway, try it, it works.

Someone should make surgical masks that have printed on them 'I'm not wearing this because I'm sick; I'm wearing it because I don't want to get sick'.

Reader Donna sends in this helpful warning about hand sanitizers - they don't all work.  She also offers this interesting article that suggests recirculated air in planes is not to blame.

I've been suggesting for a long time that the industry denials about possible dangers of cell phone radiation will in time be seen in the same light as the cigarette manufacturers denials about a link between smoking and lung cancer.  My belief that there may indeed be harm associated with cell phone use received strong affirmation last week, so much so that late this week the FDA finally awoke from their slumber and said they'd review cell phone safety.

Note in particular that to be a 'heavy user' of a cell phone you need to have used a phone for 2000 hours over the last ten years.  This is an average of only 33 minutes every day.  Are you a 'heavy user'?

Talking about cell phones, Air France will be trialing a plane wired for in-flight cell phone service to see if it proves popular or not.  The trial will be on an A318 next March through September.

Flights I'm glad I was never on part 1 :  The 30 March official statement of the Press-Service of Domodedovo International Airport reads

On 29 March 2006 at 20:51 an Il-62 aircraft operated by Libyan airline Jet Line, having performed a technical flight on the Tripoli-Moscow route, rolled out of the runway while landing and fell to pieces.

The mind boggles.  What a shame we don't have pictures or video.

Flights I'm glad I was never on part 2 :  Here's a flight for which we do have video.  Yuck.

Flights I'm glad I was never on part 3 :  Do you remember last year the BA 747 that lost an engine shortly after taking off from Los Angeles?  The pilot decided to fly on to London as if nothing had happened, although he subsequently ran out of fuel before reaching Heathrow and had to divert to Manchester.

The FAA has now fined BA (a mere) $25,000 for operating an unairworthy aircraft and ignoring numerous suitable airports that the plane could/should have been diverted to.

BA's response?  Instead of quietly saying nothing, or apologizing for the bad judgment on the part of its pilot, it has said it will appeal, insisting the passengers and crew were at no risk and that it was fully entitled to continue the flight.

One of the growing irritations of my life these days is problems sending the weekly newsletter to you.  So many newsletters are bounced back as suspected spam by mail servers with stupidly set spam filters.  Of course, there's nothing I can do about such things - or is there?

To settle a class action lawsuit, Verizon is now offering payments to customers who had legitimate email end up in their spam filters during the period Oct 1 2004 - May 31 2005.  If you had Verizon email service during this period, you could be eligible for $3.50/month (up to a maximum of $28) plus any cancellation fees incurred if you cancelled your service due to problems with Verizon's email.

At last, some accountability.  Let's hope it proves possible to bring a class action against AOL and Yahoo when they start deliberately filtering legitimate emails from people who refuse to pay their delivery fees.  Details of Verizon's settlement here.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The cab which Harraj Mann was being taken to the airport in had a feature enabling him to play music from his MP3 player over the cab's sound system.  He took advantage of it and played various tunes.  The cab driver liked his first choice - Procol Harum's 'Whiter Shade of Pale' but didn't so much like Mr Mann's Led Zeppelin or The Clash selections.

Mr Mann got to the airport and onto his flight to London.  Shortly before the flight was due to take off, police boarded the plane, arrested him under the UK Terrorism Act, and marched him and his bags off the plane for questioning.

It appears the taxi driver decided Mr Mann's musical tastes meant he must be a terrorist.  Apparently the police agreed.  Details here.

'Have you ever lied to the authorities?'  This is the second question that will be asked to passengers traveling through Moscow's Domodedovo airport after it installs 'truth verifier' machines (aka lie detectors).  How long before passengers will also be asked 'Have you ever cheated on your taxes?' and 'Have you ever parked illegally?' or perhaps 'Have you ever been late returning a library book?'.

If you get the four questions wrong, you will be taken by a guard to a cubicle where you will be 'asked questions in a more intense atmosphere'.  Sounds like fun.  Not.

And if you think this is just Russian paranoia, think again.  The same technology is already secretly in use by some insurance companies in Britain, who use the machines to monitor phone conversations to check for potentially fraudulent insurance claims.

More details here.

A software glitch knocked out computerized screening equipment at the Nashville Airport last Friday for five hours.  The company that supplies the software at Nashville also supplies the same software to several international airports around the country and those airports were notified of the problem.  None of the x-ray machines were working and so TSA employees to search bags by hand.

Unfortunately it is spring break time and the airport was experiencing far larger traveler loads than normal to start with. Many people missed their flights completely, even though the airlines held back many flights to allow for passengers to get through security.  Security lines stretched out of the terminal and into the parking lot.

It mightn't yet be on the TSA's banned list, but that hasn't prevented several airlines from banning this Swedish delicacy, described by the airlines as potentially explosive.

Here's a very strange concept, but which promises to make someone very wealthy.

Lastly this week, it is good to see that political correctness does not yet fully rule the airline industry in Britain.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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