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30 June, 2006  

Good morning

Important notice :  I am traveling to Russia on Tuesday 4 July, returning on 21 July.  There will almost certainly be no newsletter during this period, and if you're sending me emails, it is unclear if I'll be able to receive or reply to them until after my return.

This Week's Feature Column was to be a review of the new Blackberry 8700g.  After years of looking enviously at everyone else with their Blackberries, I've finally bought one myself.

But, based on the limited experience I have with it to date, I'm disappointed.  The learning curve to make the unit (and me) productive is steep, and there are limitations I had not expected; indeed, in some respects it under-performs my earlier mobile email solution - a Tungsten T3 connecting via Bluetooth to my cell phone then through the cell phone to the internet.

This was surprising, and a Blackberry user suggested I delay my commentary until I've had a better chance to evolve into the 'Blackberry mindset'.  I'd prefer to give you a fully thought through review than a hasty one that might need subsequent revision, so no feature article this week.

But, instead, can I ask for your opinions and comments on the Blackberry (and/or other portable email devices).  I'm sure there are many of us who are curious about the best way to stay online while away from one's computer, and I'd like to put together your experiences into a general piece on this subject.

I've created a survey that allows you to answer some questions about if you do or don't have a Blackberry or other similar device, and your experiences with it/them.  I'll collate everyone's answers and report back to you when I return from Russia.

Please click here for the survey.

Dinosaur watching :  My long wait for a reply from Alaska Airlines, answering the questions I sent to them after a flight was delayed back on 5 April has finally ended, albeit in a manner than only an airline executive would think sensible.

Firstly, here's the email I sent them on 6 April.

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.

Here's the answer I received :

We appreciate your taking the time to share your comments with us. On behalf of Alaska Airlines, please accept my apology for your experience.

We did receive the email you sent in on April 5, 2006 and an email reply was sent on May 9, 2006. The agent had asked our Accounting department to process a refund of your ticket. We were informed by someone that you had never received a response. I apologize that you did not receive the original email.

At Alaska Airlines, we recognize that flight irregularities are very frustrating. In spite of our best efforts there will be occasions when mechanical problems arise that prevent us from operating a flight as planned. In those cases, it is sometimes necessary to delay or cancel a flight in the interest of passenger safety. As passenger safety is always our highest priority, it is important to understand we will always err on the side of caution.

Mr. Rowell, I once again apologize for any inconvenience you experienced. As a customer service gesture, I am including an an electronic certificate that may be redeemed for a discount off future travel at www.alaskaair.com. Complete rules and instructions for use may be found on our website. Please reference the appropriate code below at the time of booking.

David Rowell, eCert code xxx, in the amount of $100

I hope that you will accept my invitation to join us on another flight. I'm confident that we will once again live up to your expectations.

It took Alaska five weeks to send me a form letter that didn't answer my questions (if their claim about first sending a response back on 9 May is correct).

I expressed my disappointment about this form letter to some readers who had been lobbying Alaska Airlines' CEO and other senior executives on my behalf to try and get someone to respond to me.  And so a day later, I got an email from Ray Prentice, Alaska's Director of Customer Care.  Ray followed up his email with a phone call; I was too busy to talk last Friday, and he followed up with a further phone call on Monday this week.

He was a friendly, pleasant and moderately straight talking gentleman, and I was excited at the thought of getting an insider's view of their Customer Service function, and being able to pass a factual interview on to you.  I readily concede that most people at Alaska Airlines are fine people who are keen to help, and was interested to get their side of the story so we could all better understand why things sometimes seem to be so grossly mishandled.

Unfortunately, although Ray acknowledged that probably the reason he was following up himself with me was due to my being a travel writer and some internal pressures being brought on him, he then refused to be formally interviewed and declined to allow me to quote anything he said, which he said was intended as a one on one personal discussion rather than a formal communication on behalf of his company.  He said if I wanted to discuss the matter on the record, I'd have to speak to someone in Corporate Communications.

No disrespect to the doubtless very fine people in Corporate Communications, but their primary skill is in carefully saying as little as possible, with as much positive spin as they can manage, and they don't have a technical or operational background to give them the front-line experience and ability to interactively answer unscripted questions that Ray has.

So I can't tell you what Ray said to me.  He did raise some valid issues about how Murphy's Law can make simple seeming things get much worse than they first appear, and indicated sensitivity on his airline's part to these issues.

I will tell you it seemed he no more had answers to my five questions than did the person who sent me the form letter, and if anything his researching into the problem made me feel more unsettled rather than reassured about the potential of such an event re-occurring in the future - apparently the problem plane wasn't one that had just flown in from somewhere else, but had actually overnighted at the airport and this was its first flight out the next day, meaning the problems with the plane had been un-noticed and unresolved all night long, rather than being fresh problems that just happened on the last flight ending immediately before this one.

Ray's a good guy, but what idiot told him to call me while not allowing him to speak with me 'on the record'?

The person who did so doubtless now considers the matter well resolved, but being as how the primary reason I got special treatment (such as it was) is due to my writing about the problem in the newsletter, didn't they realize that resolving the problem involves passing a message on to you rather than confidentially to me?

United has increased its $10 fee for booking a ticket directly with its own telephone sales people up to $15.  Reader Pat wonders if that means United's call center staff - especially those in places such as India - are getting 50% pay rises, too.

Things hotted up a degree at Northwest on Thursday, when their bankruptcy judge gave NW permission to unilaterally rip up the contract they have with their flight attendants, and impose a new contract on them with terms the union has not agreed to, and which are estimated to save the airline $195 million a year.

Apparently labor contracts aren't worth the paper they're written on if you're the employee of a bankrupt airline, and the puzzling concept of Chapter 11 yet again harms one of the affected parties (ie the flight attendants).

The judge gave the union two more weeks to come to some sort of agreement with Northwest, otherwise Northwest can impose its will without further hindrance.  I wonder how the negotiation will go during the next two weeks, with Northwest's great big 'Get Out of Jail Free' card shining for all to see on the negotiating table.

Congratulations to JetBlue, coming top of the Skytrax survey of the World's Best Low-Cost Airlines (North American section), followed by Canada's WestJet and then Frontier.  Worldwide, the very best low-cost airline was deemed to be Air Berlin, with JetBlue coming second and easyJet in third place.

A JD Power & Assocs survey, also announced this week, ranked JetBlue as passengers' favorite low-cost carrier with Continental coming top of the traditional full-service carriers.

Southwest came second behind JetBlue, and Delta came in second behind Continental.

In a third survey, travelers rated McCarran International in Las Vegas top in overall satisfaction among large airports.

The airport ranked high in the areas of check-in and security checks as well as terminal facilities.  JFK and Philadelphia International tied for second in the survey.

LaGuardia ranked first among medium-sized airports, followed by Midway.

Among small airports, Dallas' Love Field and Houston Hobby tied for first, followed by John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif.

And segueing from JetBlue to Hobby is easy, because JetBlue announced this week they will be starting service between JFK and Hobby on 7 September.  JetBlue also announced new service to Sarasota-Bradenton and Tucson.  All three routes will be flown using A320 planes.

Every few years, a new startup airline announces its plan to offer all-smoking flights.  This time a German businessman has founded another airline dedicated to smokers.  The airline, called Smintair, or Smokers' International Airways, will cater to smokers who feel excluded now that all other major airlines have banned smoking.

The airline plans to start flying in October with a flight from Dusseldorf to Tokyo and will cater mostly to Japanese businessmen.  The founder of the airline, who smokes about 30 cigarettes a day said 'There are no laws banning smoking on board.  The airlines have made these rules themselves because no-smoking planes are cheaper.  It means they don't have to change the air filters so regularly.'

All previous smokers' airlines have vanished without trace.  There's little reason to expect any greater success for this one.

Congratulations to Virgin Atlantic.  Their annual profit doubled for the last year compared to the year before, reaching 41.6 million (US$76.1 million) before tax and special items, compared to a profit of 20 million the previous year.

Virgin Blue attributes the increase in profit to the popularity of their new Upper Class Suites in their planes, which have apparently been very successful and have boosted their higher fare paying traffic.  As a result, the year saw an 11% increase in passenger numbers, but a 17% increase in revenues.

Clearly the increased costs of jetfuel haven't harmed Virgin Atlantic at all; indeed a cynic would wonder what share of the 17% increase in revenues is attributed to the massive fuel surcharges now being added to Virgin's fares.

And talking about fuel surcharges, remember the delightful item last week about investigators raiding BA's corporate offices, seeking evidence of anti-competitive price co-ordination of fuel surcharges?  It now appears the investigators were tipped off by a person at Virgin Atlantic, who alleged that a senior BA executive contacted him to sound him out about what Virgin would do if BA were to increase its fuel surcharges.  Apparently VS may have tape recorded this conversation, and with Sir Richard Branson's blessing, tipped off the British Office of Fair Trading.

It is clear the enmity and ill-will between Virgin and BA, dating back to the early 1990s and BA's 'dirty tricks' campaign against VS, lingers to this day.

I'd been complaining, last week, that the US doesn't seem to have any watchdog oversight body to police our airlines here.  But, even as I wrote that, I felt uncomfortable - a 'more government' solution seldom appeals and rarely solves the problem it was constituted to address.

So, with delight, I can now tell you the truly American solution to such predatory pricing actions is being put in place.  Yes, attorneys have lodged a class action lawsuit against BA, Virgin, and other airlines for operating a 'global conspiracy to fix, raise, maintain and/or stabilize prices for long-haul passenger flights to and from the UK'.

If successful, the lawsuit could see the plaintiffs (and, of course, primarily the attorneys) recoup three times their losses as compensation.  Way to go!

In other BA news, six of their cabin crew are facing disciplinary action after refusing to fly a flight from New York to the UK, forcing the cancellation of the flight.

The cabin crew said they were too tired because they could not sleep in the hotel they were put up in.  They claimed the hotel was being used by prostitutes and pimps, leaving them feeling unsafe and afraid to sleep because some of the doors didn't lock.

Strangely, the nine other crew members staying at the same hotel all reported for work.  Alas, no mention was made of the name of the hotel.

Norman Mineta is finally resigning his position as Transportation Secretary.  He was the only Democrat in President Bush's cabinet, and steps down on 17 July.

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow credited Mineta with cutting regulations and red tape to liberalize the commercial aviation market, establishing the Transportation Security Administration, helping to shape the highway bill and injecting "sound economic principles" into the nation's passenger rail system.

Amtrak continues to deteriorate and decay, and lose money at as great a rate as ever.  Hardly an achievement many of us would be proud of.

As for the Highway Bill, what is that?  Legislation not even yet passed.  Have you noticed anything positive in terms of your own driving experiences in congested traffic?

Establishing the TSA is an achievement?  Presumably Mineta was proudest of his requirement that the TSA absolutely not give additional attention to young Muslim men, insisting that elderly white grannies be subject to at least as much (and probably more) scrutiny.

And, lastly, perhaps the executives at Virgin America, struggling to wade their way through the paperwork snares to get their new airline approved for operations would care to comment on Mineta's success at cutting regulations and red tape to liberalize the commercial aviation market.

I'd say we're well quit of Mineta if it weren't for the probability that whoever replaces him will be no better.

Extending the theme of political incompetents (or should that be, incompetence?), US Rep John Mica (R-Fl), chairman of the House of Representatives transportation subcommittee on aviation, was quoted last Friday as saying he wants Congress to prohibit U.S. airports from spending federal funds on upgrades to accommodate the European-made superjumbo Airbus A380.

'Until a U.S. airline chooses to acquire and operate the passenger version of the A380, foreign airlines that operate A380 passenger service to and from the United States should pay for any needed infrastructure improvements at the airports they serve,' he said in a statement.

About 50 percent of the cost for A380-related upgrades would typically be financed through federal airport grants. So far, LAX, JFK, Miami and San Francisco are preparing for A380 passenger service.  Several other airports are evaluating A380 passenger and cargo development to see if carriers they serve will fly it.

Because of the A380's size - a 262 foot wingspan and a maximum takeoff weight of 1.2 million pounds - airports, in some cases, may have to widen runways and taxiways and restructure gate areas to handle the larger plane and the extra people it carries.

And while Mica conceded his move was blatantly designed to harm Airbus, it seems he may have been too clever.  Many of the upgrades airports are considering will be required for the new enlarged 747, which will also weigh more than one million pounds.

And would such a measure, if passed, then result in Europe preventing airports from making changes to handle new Boeing planes?  And how would code share flights be considered - when a Qantas A-380, for example, also has an AA flight number on it, will that allow an airport to then invest in improvements?  What say an airport has 99% service by foreign carriers with A-380s and only 1% service by US carriers?  Do they get all, some, or none of the support they'd otherwise receive?  If an airport spends its own money and then subsequent has US carriers flying A-380s into the airport, can they then get re-imbursed?

What a stupid suggestion.

What Mica doesn't appreciate is that deploying the A-380 (or any other new plane) benefits not just the airplane manufacturer and the airlines flying the plane.  It directly benefits us - the US traveling public - as well, no matter the origin of the airplane or the nationality of the carrier.  We get better service and lower fares.

Mica's proposal will harm us as much as it will harm everyone else involved, too.  A wonderful lose-lose in every direction; only a politician could espouse such a hare-brained scheme.

Lastly, while no US passenger airlines have yet ordered A-380s, both Fed EX and UPS have ordered the cargo version of the A380, which makes the whole proposal even more pointless and stupid (if that is possible).

I'd mentioned a statistic last week that shows 92% of business travelers and 51% of leisure travelers take a laptop with them.  Some more similar statistics today, which relate to the concept of 'flashpacking' and becoming a 'flashpacker'.  This term describes a formerly humble backpacker, who now can often be found loaded with as much tech gear as the best equipped corporate road warrior.

21% of backpackers travel with a laptop, 54% with an MP3 player, 83% with a mobile phone and 86% with a digital camera.

The term also refers to the upscaling of hostels to accommodate the flashpackers.  Hostels have been adding Internet access and extra electrical outlets in their rooms.

Apropos flashpacking, I should confess that my plan is to be traveling with five phones next week.  One will have a US number, one will have a Russian number, another will have a special international roaming number, another will be the satellite phone, and then there's the Blackberry, too.  Am I being obsessive here?

And talking about flashpacking, for many years some industry seers have been predicting that new improvements in communications will reduce the need for business travel.  Video conferencing and all the new internet technologies, in theory, can substitute for some types of business travel, particularly for internal corporate meetings.

This article, written from the British perspective, points out the continued strength of business travel that contradicts this prediction, and ends up quoting a remarkable statistic.  78% of British business travelers enjoy traveling for business.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Yes you can.  No you can't.  Yes you can.  That is likely to be the situation for taking lighters on planes.  In April 2005 (and in partial response to the shoe bomber's unsuccessful attempt to light a home made bomb in his shoe with matches way back in 2001) Congress passed legislation banning lighters as carry-ons onto planes, making lighters the only item to be banned by act of Congress rather than by administrative decision of the TSA.

A year and more later, and the TSA continues to confiscate over 30,000 lighters every day, and TSA head Kip Hawley not unfairly points out the ban does little to benefit air security, while detracting enormously from detecting other more serious items.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR, an author of the ban, said he would listen to arguments in favor of lifting it.  A shame he hadn't listened to arguments against the ban in the first place.

Of course, lifting the ban doesn't necessarily mean you'll be able to safely take lighters on board again.  For example, last year the TSA lifted the ban on scissors and tools less than 7" long, but reader Roxanne writes to report on continued problems with nailfiles being seized, albeit in Mexico.

I jut returned from Mexico and the security folks at the small Zacatecas airport wanted to confiscate my three-inch, metal fingernail file that has a small sharp point on it. I objected to three people and even though I was irritated that they took it away, they went out on to the tarmac and stuck it into my checked in luggage!

Idiocy with service!  What a combination!

Airlines are now allowing knitting needles and allowing women with large metal loop earrings to board (could certainly create a weapon with one or more of those), but they think I could hijack an airplane with a three-inch nail file!

The latest candidate for being banned from planes as too potentially dangerous?  Dell laptop computers.  Why?

Have a look at these amazing pictures of an exploding Dell laptop, taken at a conference in Osaka, and imagine what would happen if such a fireball erupted on your next flight.

Reassuringly, a Dell spokesman said it is fully committed to product quality and safety.  One can only imagine what the fireball might have been like if they were less fully committed to safety.

Democrat members of the House Homeland Security Committee are complaining because the Department of Homeland Security is spending 900 times more money on aviation security than it is spending on bus and subway riders.

It is true there are some vulnerabilities on underground mass transit systems - the confined nature of such spaces and the high density of people makes them vulnerable to attack and tempting targets, as has been seen in London and Madrid.  But it isn't clear what the solutions may be, and such measures as adding observation cameras and extra police may help in detecting and apprehending offenders after an attack, but are unlikely to stop the attack occurring.

As for spending money protecting buses, a 900:1 ratio is, if anything, slightly skewed in favor of the buses!

Here's an article on a favorite reader topic (or is it perhaps a favorite topic of mine?).

And here's a story about 'the Love Boat on steroids' - shipboard experiences on cruise ships (sailing out of Australia) that the cruise lines have been reluctant to share with us all.

Several days later, the cruise line in question responded.

I wonder what the behavioral standards will be on my river cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg next week?  I do hope the readers accompanying me will be well behaved!  Which is offered as a reminder there'll be probably no newsletters for the next several weeks.

Lastly this week, and still talking about misbehavior, here's a reason to worry if you notice your flight is being piloted by a co-ed crew in the cockpit.

Until late July, please enjoy safe travels and have a great 4 July.

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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