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14 April, 2006  

Good morning and best Easter/Passover wishes

It is now nine days since I emailed Alaska Airlines asking them to explain how it was they didn't discover, until after all passengers had boarded, that the plane they planned to use to take us to Las Vegas was un-airworthy and unflyable, and asking them to further explain why it took them two hours to tell us the truth about what the problem was and four hours before they could arrange an alternate plane.  There's been no reply yet.

It seems Alaska Airlines' customer service is as bad as their airport service.

One possible answer to my first question has been offered to me from a former FAA supervisor, who wonders if the fact the flight crew start getting paid from the minute the front door is closed - pay that continues, uninterrupted, even if the front door is opened again - has anything to do with this.  One can but speculate.....

Our wonderful Christmas Markets Cruise will be closing shortly.  There are currently 32 people who have chosen to enjoy this lovely experience, and that is starting to be as large a group as I'm comfortable with.

Yes, we would still welcome one or two more couples - the private function room we'll be using on the boat for some exclusive group activities can hold about 50 people, as do the coaches we're chartering for other group activities, but I prefer not to fill things up to maximum capacity.

So if you've been thinking about possibly joining us, now would be a very good time to register your interest.  There are still both A and B category cabins available.

I bought some gas earlier this week, and I think it was the first time I ever paid over $3/gallon.  As you may recall, I predicted last year that by the end of 2006 we'd be paying $100/barrel for oil.  With crude prices now back up at historic highs, and without any special excuse such as Hurricane Katrina (which was offered as the scapegoat when prices hit $70/barrel briefly last year) it seems my $100/bbl prediction will end up more right than wrong.  Yuck.

However, for those fortunate few among us who don't even notice what they're paying for gas, for those few among us who aren't urgently considering an economical sub-compact to replace their SUV, here's the car for you :

This Week's Feature Column :  Bentley's Continental Flying Spur :  If you've decided you'd rather drive than fly for short journeys; with a top speed of 195 mph, you could theoretically travel faster in Bentley's new Continental Flying Spur than in most small planes.  Which is perhaps appropriate, because it - Bentley's fastest ever four door car - costs as much as a small plane, too.

And if (alas like me) you can't afford such a luxury car yourself, you'll have to vicariously enjoy it through my review.

Important Retraction/Correction

Last week I wrote about various things that claim to ward off 'flu and colds; things that might be useful to reduce the chance of infection when traveling.  The first product mentioned was Zicam, which was recommended to me by several readers, including one physician.

Since publishing that, several people wrote in to advise they've tried Zicam but experienced a loss of smell as a result of using the Zicam.  Fortunately that loss of smell was temporary, although also alarming.

Other people haven't been so lucky, and some people have reported long term loss of smell (and taste, which is related to smell).  In January this year the makers of Zicam agreed to pay $12 million to settle over 340 claims against it (an average of $35,000 per claim), and a further class action may be proceeding.  Details here.

Thanks to Dr David R for this heads-up.  He recommends against using Zicam and obviously I must agree with his recommendation.  If you've used it before with no problems, I'd still advocate caution before using it again, and if you haven't used it before, try some of the other remedies mentioned last week first.

Dinosaur watching :  The brewing argument between Delta and its pilots' union continues to gather momentum.  The pilots' union told its members to clear out their lockers last Friday, in anticipation of a possible lockout by management.  This is of course a remarkable flight of fancy - there is zero chance of a lockout by management against the pilots, but it adds to the public escalation of rhetoric.

On Wednesday, Delta pilots marched close to the airline's headquarters in Atlanta, and put a giant inflatable rat on a street corner to show their opinion of Delta and its actions.

The three member arbitration panel is scheduled to issue a ruling as to whether Delta can cancel its contract with the pilots no later than Saturday.  If the panel gives permission to Delta, and Delta proceeds to impose its will upon the pilots, it is possible the pilots could be on strike as soon as Tuesday.

The pilots' union boasts it has a $10 million war chest to finance a strike.  Sounds impressive?  Absolutely not.  With 6000 pilots, this reduces down to $1667 per pilot - not even a week's wages for most pilots.

And talking about Delta, they gave us an interesting insight into the utter fraud that is perpetrated on the traveling public under the name of 'fuel surcharges'.  I've shown several times - and airlines have even admitted publicly - that fuel surcharges are massively greater than the true increased cost of fuel.

With jet fuel prices climbing once more, in line with gas and crude oil prices, what do the airlines do?  You'll remember that when prices briefly dropped earlier this year, no US airline dropped their fuel surcharges, and so with prices returning back up to their earlier peaks, the fuel surcharges are simply becoming fairer once more.

Well, the concept of 'fair' isn't always understood by the dinosaurs.  Earlier this week, American and KLM announced an increase in their fuel surcharges for flights across the Atlantic and Pacific.  KLM increased its prices by 5 each way on long haul flights (ie US$6) while American increased its prices on trans Atlantic and trans Pacific flights by $10 each way.  It seems American's planes use 67% more fuel than KLM's planes.

And then Delta issues a press release obliquely headed 'Delta adjusts fuel surcharges'.  Of course, an 'adjustment' is another way of saying an 'increase', but very strangely, although Delta's trans Atlantic flights generally get a $10 increase each way (they obviously have the same type of fuel-inefficient planes as AA), some flights get no added fuel surcharge.  If you're flying Delta to France or Italy, there's no increase at all.

Are we to believe Delta's flights to France and Italy have miraculously become more fuel efficient, exactly balancing out the increased cost of fuel?  Of course not.  This simply shows that fuel surcharges are merely another way of increasing fares wherever competitive pressures allow, and have nothing to do with the underlying changes in the cost of jet fuel.

Shame on the airlines for foisting such lies on us, and shame on the Department of Transportation (Hello, DoT?  Is anyone home?) for passively allowing such behavior on the part of the airlines.

Here's a bankruptcy with a difference :  During Hawaiian Airlines' recent bankruptcy, it increased rather than decreased staff wages, it left pensions intact, and creditors received full payment of all sums due.

And, now the airline is out of Chapter 11, at a time when other airlines are cutting back on check-in staff and forcing passengers to use electronic check-in machines, Hawaiian is sending staff to Outrigger and Ohana hotels to check passengers and their baggage in at the hotel, and are sending people to entertain passengers and answer questions about Hawaii at their departure gates here on the US mainland (but not in Los Angeles).  CEO Mark Dunkerly says 'Customer service is face to face'.

This unusual approach seems to be paying off.  Hawaiian Airlines was one of only three US airlines to report a profit in 2005 (the other two being Southwest and AirTran).

While Hawaiian is spending money on customer service, also freshly out of bankruptcy US Airways is spending money on its senior executives.  CEO Doug Parker received $3.26 million in restricted stock in 2005, and their VP of Operations, Allan Crellin, got $1.2 million in cash as compensation for losing his pension plan.

As well as $3.26 million in restricted stock, Parker also received $1.8 million in 'long term incentive pay', more than double what he received in 2004.  Oh, yes - he also pulled down a $550,000 salary.  So, $5.6 million plus sundry other benefits.  About as much as would be earned by 100 extra customer service agents.

If I was Doug Parker, I'd be worrying.  Not only is Southwest and AirTran pressuring the fares US Airways can charge on a growing number of routes, JetBlue is now nosing its way into US Airways territory too.  This week JetBlue announced four daily roundtrips from JFK to both Charlotte (starting 12 July) and Raleigh-Durham (starting 20 July).  It says that its regular fares will be between 40% and 70% lower, and will be using its lovely new Embraer 190 airplanes for these two routes.

This week's Get Rich Quick award goes to a Texas woman - originally from Iran and now a naturalized US citizen - who was awarded more than $27 million in damages in a lawsuit against Southwest Airlines.  She claims she was racially profiled, falsely imprisoned, and subjected to malicious prosecution.

Southwest accused her of assaulting a flight attendant and interfering with a flight crew and has said it will appeal the ruling.

Government handouts to the dinosaurs take many different forms.  One particular form of handout was exposed this week by Congressional auditors, who said the State Department wastes tens of millions of dollars a year on premium airline tickets.  About two thirds of such tickets (mainly business class) did not have proper authorization or justification.

But wait - that's not all.  The State Department was also found to have spent $6 million on tickets that were never used.

Something to think about as you complete your taxes this weekend....

Why We Hate the Airlines, cont :  Reader Victoria had an interesting experience a week ago.  She was flying first class on American Airlines out of St Louis, and was carrying with her a briefcase, a carry-on bag, and her purse.  The briefcase and carry-on bags were of ordinary size, and her purse was a petite 4" x 5" x 3/4".  A flight attendant refused to allow her on-board the plane because she had too much carry-on.

The flight attendant did, however, offer a helpful solution :  'If you place your purse in your bag, you can then come on board.'

Victoria doesn't understand the logic that allows a passenger to take a purse onboard inside a carry bag, but not outside the carry bag.  Does it magically weigh less?  Does it take up less space?

And what about all the coach class passengers struggling down the aisle with massively oversized pieces of luggage - why pick an argument with a first class passenger over a tiny purse?

Reader David, a lifetime Platinum flier with AA, writes

You mentioned the fees NWA has begun charging for exit row seating. There is one fee I would particularly like to be charged and would rush to an airline that charged it.

If I could buy a guaranteed overhead bin space for a 21" or 22" rollaboard I would gladly pay that fee to eliminate the always worrisome fear about lack of overhead bin space.  I doubt if BA with their antique and anal-retentive weight luggage weight policies would endorse this plan; but it would enable me to travel on, say, United, who punishes business travelers by boarding aisle seats last.

I am Platinum for life on AA so I will take them above all other carriers if at all possible because of the preboarding perk.  I would at least consider other carriers if I could be guaranteed overhead bin space for my carry on luggage.  I quit checking luggage in 1983 and deeply resent any airline that forces me to check luggage.  I'd gladly pay a fee to avoid being forced to check luggage.

Why don't the airlines charge for overhead bin space rather than nickel and dime passengers for soft drinks and blankets?

David raises a good point.  The most stressful part of any flight - for me when flying coach class - is the worry about 'will I, won't I, get to put my (small) bag in the overhead'.  With inflight entertainment systems taking up increasing amounts of the underseat space, even a non-supersized bag can end up with nowhere to go.

One of the other scams the airlines foist upon us is the concept of code-sharing.  This term seems to somehow prevent the two (or sometimes three or four) airlines involved in a code-share from being subject to any anti-competitive/anti-trust type scrutiny, and airlines which aren't allowed to merge are seemingly allowed, almost without restriction, to code-share (eg AA and BA).  I've sometimes been on flights that have four different airline designators on them.

The latest example of this strange immunity from oversight comes from Australia and New Zealand.  The two national carriers - Qantas and Air New Zealand - had wanted to merge a couple of years ago, but both governments refused permission, due to concerns about the anti-competitive implications of such a merger.

So guess what the two airlines announced this week?  They're going to code-share flights between the two countries.  Speaking in thinly disguised code, Air NZ CEO Rob Fyfe said 'The code-share agreement will allow the airlines to reduce cost by removing some surplus capacity and utilizing aircraft more efficiently, while increasing the number of flights available to customers'.  Translation - 'Now that we're no longer going to be competing, we can each reduce the number of flights we operate, and with fewer flights and fewer empty seats, airfares will rise.'

At what point does a code-share agreement become functionally identical to a merger?

In related news, Air New Zealand is doubling its number of flights from Auckland to London, but these extra flights will not be traveling through Los Angeles, as do the flights at present.

Why not?  Too many passengers have complained about the security checks they must go through while simply transiting through the US between the UK and NZ.  I'm sure we can all rest easier knowing that we'll have fewer Kiwis and Brits transiting through LAX and no longer potentially risking the security of our great nation while doing so.

Which provides a good starting point from which to disclose that international visitors to the US are dropping alarmingly.  While absolute visitor numbers still look good, the US is losing market share in the highly competitive international tourism market.  Between 1992 and 2004, the US lost 35% of this market, which translates to a massive $286 billion loss in foreign earnings.

The United States remains one of the few countries in the world not to have a government funded international tourism promotion office.  More details here.

Visitors to the US - except for those on the short list of countries who are on a visa waiver program - have to first travel to the US Consulate in their home country for an in-person interview with a US Consul in order to be possibly granted a visitor visa.  Would  you choose to visit a country if you first had to fly, perhaps to Washington DC, and have an in-person interview for a visa and much of a day of waiting your turn?  And, of course, the cost and time to get the visa (plus the trip to DC) would massively reduce the time and money you had available to spend in that foreign country once you finally got there.

Incredibly, while the government makes it as unpleasant as possible for lawful short term visitors to come and enjoy a vacation here, illegal immigrants stream across our southern border and subsequently have the gall to parade through our streets demanding their 'rights'.

As a legal immigrant myself; one who spent many years and thousands of dollars to go through the due process, it seems to me that surely their only right is to be speedily imprisoned and booted back to where they came from; but our government is too pre-occupied with making it much more difficult for bona fide short term visitors to pay any attention to the many millions of other 'undocumented visitors' we're receiving, some of whom are probably bona fide terrorists.

One example of the value of tourism to local economies is the 'Tutankhamen and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs' exhibit, due to close its showing in Fort Lauderdale next weekend.  In the four months it was open, it is estimated to have generated $150 million in extra revenues for the city; a lot of which is due to people traveling from out of town and staying overnight.

With our terrible trade deficit, we need all the foreign tourists we can get.  Losing out on $268 billion in foreign exchange (heck, that's enough to pay for another medium sized war - or generous tax cut) is a terrible price to pay for no measurable increase in security.

Perhaps all the tourists who aren't visiting the US are going to Croatia instead.  I'd written about Croatia's appeal back in January, and now the European Tour Operators Association has joined Croatia's growing number of advocates.  Values in Croatia are excellent, with almost 19% of ETOA's members saying Croatia offered consumers the best value for their travel dollar.  25% of members rated it as the most exciting country to visit.

Loser country?  Britain, with more than 50% of members feeling it offered the worst tourist values in Europe, although (if money was no object) members voted London the best city to visit.

Maybe this is an example of the poor values on offer in Britain (or perhaps a reason to visit London).

Since 2001, European airlines have achieved a 9% reduction in aircraft operating costs, a 24% reduction in distribution and back office costs, and a 14% increase in pilot productivity.  But they're feeling a bit miffed at what IATA's CEO describes as 'out-of-control monopolies' - no, not the airlines themselves, but the airports they fly in and out of.

He points out that while some airports such as Manchester, Rome and Birmingham have achieved double digit reductions in per-passenger fees charged to the airlines, 'many more airports are moving in the wrong direction, with double-digit increases between 2001 and 2004'.  He cites Aeroports de Paris, up 44%; Amsterdam, up 34%; Stockholm, up 35%; Spanish Airports, up 24%, and Munich, up 26% and called the situation 'an embarrassing example of airports living in the dark ages.'

Here's a proposed new hotel with a difference.  Mohamed al Fayed, controversial owner of Harrods, plans to build a luxury hotel complex comprising a 50 bedroom country house style hotel, plus a shop and restaurant for day tourists and a visitor center.

The $20.2 million project is projected to open in 2008, and boasts a unique location.  It is to be located on an unused oil rig, in the Cromarty Firth in north eastern Scotland.

I've been reading an excellent history of Boeing recently.  The book was written back in 1991 and so misses out on what has been happening there the last 15 years, but provides a wonderful account of the company up until its publication.  The book - 'Legend & Legacy - The Story of Boeing and Its People' is written by Robert J Serling.  Does that name sound vaguely familiar?  Not only has Robert Serling had several other works published, but he is also the older brother of Rod Serling, of 'The Twilight Zone' fame.

The book is out of print, but can be purchased on Amazon - currently for as little as 1 used and 97 new.  For an excellent read, and a 480 page hardcover book that listed new for $24.95, this is an unbeatable value and highly recommended.

Boeing has always fascinated me as a company, and in late 2003 I wrote a series of articles about its history, its present challenges, and its future opportunities.

One very strong theme that ran through this book was the impeccable integrity of Boeing's management, and the company's unswerving insistence on the highest standard of ethical behavior from its employees.  On several occasions, Boeing unquestioningly sacrificed its own opportunities for profit in return for the national good (in defense related projects and during the Apollo program).

So how to reconcile Boeing's proud past with its shabby present This article highlights one element of Boeing's regrettably diminished integrity today.

And talking about Boeing, Airbus has at last recognized the ugly reality that its A350 has underwhelmed the marketplace.

In a much needed about-face, Airbus is now indicating a willingness to invest further in the plane's development so as to make it a stronger competitor to Boeing's 787, which currently is winning the lion's share of orders for that category of plane.

My surveys the last two weeks on broadband in hotels brought some interesting responses.

Louisa points out that many corporations do not allow their employees to use Wi-Fi when traveling due to security reasons.

Bill writes in with an interesting story about how important Wi-Fi was to one hotel guest.  He wanted it so badly he paid for a Wi-Fi system and installed it in the hotel himself.  So if you're ever in Waxahachie, TX, go stay at what Bill describes as a 'quaint, historic, period Texan hotel' - the Rogers Hotel in downtown - and say a quiet thank you to your fellow guest who provided the Wi-Fi.

The presence of Wi-Fi isn't necessarily the end of one's problems, as reader Fred discovered at the Sheraton Palace Hotel in Moscow.  To get an account to access the hotel's Wi-Fi service, he had to go down to reception and fill out a form, rather than simply register online.  This was inconvenient but acceptable, but at midnight, his access stopped.

He discovered that he needs to sign a new form for each 24 hour day of access.  So, shortly after midnight, he went down to reception to sign up for another day of service, only to discover that the person who handles such things finishes work at 11pm!

Meanwhile another city announces plans for free city-wide Wi-Fi; this time it is Portland, OR.

The impacts of increased flights on our global environment and their contribution towards global warming are being increasingly talked about.  Some groups are advocating limits on the growth in air travel, and others are advocating the imposition of environmental taxes on tickets (as if paying a tax might somehow reduce the harm being done).

These days it is hard to turn around without confronting yet another headline talking about global warming and the catastrophic effects this will have.

So how then to explain this article, which reports a marginal decline in average temperatures over the last eight years, and a sustained period of cooling between 1940 and 1965, at a time when carbon emissions were skyrocketing?

Perhaps this article has the explanation.

Here's a new reason to ban cell phones on planes.  A pilot caused a four-hour delay for 150 passengers after he lost his mobile phone in the cockpit.  He admitted over the intercom that he had dropped the phone down a gap the floor while it was still on, and aviation rules require electronic equipment to be switched off during flights to avoid interference with instruments.

The Thompson Holiday flight was leaving Doncaster Robin Hood International Airport in England, bound for Tenerife.  Once the phone was retrieved, a new problem arose - passengers next had to wait for a replacement crew because the first crew had exceeded their working hours.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The TSA's security is 'overly rigid, static and predictable'.  Well, yes, that's probably true.  But what is new is the identity of the latest person to make these criticisms.

As this article relates, it is none other than Kip Hawley, the Director of the TSA.

Terrorists are getting more and more imaginative at how to improvise weapons from ordinary objects.  But here's the description for a missile and launcher assembly, taken from its US patent application, which I bet not even the most imaginative terrorist has yet considered.

Frontier Flying Service, an Alaskan Regional airline out of Nome not only flies passengers and freight around the state.  It has also become the pizza delivery man.  Airport Pizza teamed up with the airline to deliver its pizzas to remote Alaskan communities by air.  It's definitely more expensive but also the only way the villages would be able to have pizza once in awhile instead of whale, walrus, reindeer and berries.

The carrier volunteered to fly the pizzas from Nome to every village on its regular flight schedule at no charge.   Prices for the pizzas start at $16 for a small one up to $32 from a large specialty pizza.  The carrier says it helps in its marketing and benefits the customers.

I started off this newsletter by comparing the Bentley Continental Flying Spur to a plane.  But how about the opposite comparison?  Would you end up with something like this, perhaps?

A flight to Britain was told it could not land at Cardiff Airport because an air traffic controller was having his tea break.  The pilot was forced to circle the airport for 25 minutes before landing.  The captain of the plane told passengers he was sorry but the duty controller wasn't authorized to land them and they would have to wait for the other controller to come back from his tea break.

The pilot said he first thought it was a joke because it occurred on April Fool's Day.   A National Air Traffic Services spokeswoman said they regretted the delay and the incident is under investigation.

We hear a lot about call centers in other countries taking jobs from American workers.  These days, you never really know where the person at the other end of the phone - or intercom - actually is.

Lastly this week, I'm surprised this computer billing system was designed with the ability to handle fifteen digit numbers.  Not as surprised as the recipient, however.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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