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1 September, 2006  

Good morning

Labor Day weekend this weekend, and the traditional end of summer.  Where did it go?

Of course, some of us spent two glorious weeks of the summer sunning ourselves while cruising on the rivers, lakes and canals of Russia, and so far, 24 readers have joined for next year's tour.  The target group size is 32 - that's just three more couples to fill the tour.  Might that possibly be you?  Details here.

A reminder also that we have one remaining C category cabin now available again on our Christmas Markets cruise this December, too.  If you've got nothing planned early December, this would be a great treat and a way to fill the gap between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  You can be the person with the most original gifts this year after browsing through the Christmas Markets along the Danube as we travel from Budapest to Nuremberg and optionally on to Prague.

As with every other Labor Day, a lot of people will be flying.  And with the increased need to check bags rather than carry everything on with you, it seemed time to update the page summarizing the different airlines' checked bag policies.  Wow - although a very few airlines have made no changes, most airlines have changed their website urls, and some airlines have made major changes to their policies.

Most notably, Airtran have reduced their free allowance from three bags weighing 210 lbs to two bags weighing 100 lbs - that's a more than 50% reduction.  Other airlines have made smaller tweaks, but always making their policies more restrictive and the fees for over quantity, over weight, and/or over size more expensive.  So :

This Week's Feature Column :  Airline Checked Luggage Allowances : Airline checked luggage policies vary tremendously. Use this handy table to know what you can check and what it will cost you to go over quantity, over weight, or over size.

Dinosaur watching :  As predicted, the Northwest flight attendants' strike has been a total non-event so far, although for a slightly different (but unsurprising) reason - Northwest got a federal judge to step in and block the flight attendants from striking until such time as he's heard arguments from both sides and decided to either allow or refuse the flight attendants their possible right to strike.

If you live in fantasyland, you'll enjoy reading Northwest's spin on the status of talks with its flight attendants.  Remember that Northwest has consistently refused to budge from its demands, no matter what or how the flight attendants try to get the demands even slightly sweetened.

In a statement, Northwest - perhaps seeking to be seen as the injured party and as a reasonable and fairminded corporate citizen - says it is willing to talk and would consider any new proposals made by the flight attendants as soon as they are made.

Based on past actions, the subject of their talks would be 'take it or leave it' and their consideration of any proposals would result in a flat refusal.

The federal judge - unwittingly proving that you can fool some of the people some of the time - said, in justifying his interference, that 'far greater injuries exist to Northwest and the public [than to the flight attendants] by permitting the strike to commence at this point' and then said he needs more time to consider the issue.  Hmmm....

In late-breaking news Thursday evening, Northwest announced $101 million in net income for the single month of July, even after $39 million in bankruptcy expenses.

Now run this by me again - exactly why does Northwest need to screw its flight attendants out of $16 million a month?

One can't help but feel sorry for the flight attendants, who seem to be out gunned and out maneuvered at every turn - well, one feels sorry for them at least up until the point one next takes a Northwest flight....

And, yes, I acknowledge that to be an unkind and perhaps even unfair comment.  We need to all distinguish between the flight attendant enforcing company policy (eg 'No, you can't have the whole can'; 'You're going to have to check that bag', 'We don't have any more of that meal on board') and the company policy she is enforcing and which is making her unpopular.

Remember when the airlines cut back on the number of lettuce leaves in the first class salad so as to save a few dollars a year?  Delta has been coming up with some other imaginative ways to save money, by reducing the weight of their planes and therefore the amount of jet fuel used to fly them.

They're going to replace the bulkhead between coach and first class with a curtain, cut back on the amount of alcohol and glasses on board international flights, remove magazine racks, and take out some of the non-essential radio communication equipment in the cockpits.

A plane burns about 1 gallon of jet fuel every 250 hours of flying for every pound of weight it is carrying.

Old wine in new bottles?  Gordon Bethune, former CEO of Continental Airlines, has been appointed Chairman of the Board of Aloha Airlines.

JetBlue is going through another growth spurt.  Let's hope this one will be more profitable for them than the last one.  They're adding a new destination each week for the next six weeks, and by October 3, they will have added 14 new cities to their network this year.  The latest lucky new cities are Nashville, Houston, Aruba, Sarasota/Bradenton, Tucson and Columbus.

Currently, JetBlue serves 41 cities, and has over 100 planes in its fleet.  Not bad for an airline founded in February 2000.

We're already starting to learn some lessons from the Comair crash.  The reason for the crash was the plane tried to take off from the wrong runway; the runway was too short, the plane briefly got airborne, but failed to maintain altitude because it was going too slow and crashed.

So why did the pilots choose the wrong runway?  Partially because of recent changes to the airport's taxiways.

And partially because the FAA broke its own requirement to have two flight controllers on duty and only had one overly tired controller working at the time the Comair plane was departing.  It is thought that if there were two controllers, one would have noticed the plane going the wrong way.

And partly because the airline chose not to install a piece of safety equipment in the cockpit that costs a mere $18,000.

The device - a 'Runway Awareness and Advisory System' by Honeywell - uses a mechanical voice to identify the runway by number before takeoff and warns pilots if the runway is too short for their plane.  It also alerts pilots if they are trying to take off from a taxiway instead of a runway.

The system was certified by the FAA in 2003, but it is not mandatory for airlines to install them in their planes.

About 600 commercial and business-class aircraft worldwide have the device, and the company has orders for 700 more. There are about 8,000 planes in the US fleet alone, about half of which are large commercial airliners.  Only Alaska Airlines, Air France, FedEx, Lufthansa and Malaysia Airlines have ordered the system for their planes and no commuter airlines have the warning device.

It is probably unkind to observe that the two Comair pilots really had a bad day.  They started off by getting on the wrong plane before being told by a ramp worker of their mistake!

Here's an interesting statistic.  In the first half of 2006, 50.6 million people flew through New York's three airports.  17.7 million went through EWR (up 12.3% from last year), 20 million through JFK (up 1.4%) and 13 million through LGA - a 0.3% decrease.

Why the decrease at La Guardia?  LGA is operating very much at capacity in terms of flights in and out, although the terminal capacity for passengers is under utilized.  The airlines have been replacing larger planes with smaller regional jets, so while the number of flights have remained much the same, the passenger carrying capacity is dropping.

The FAA wants to rework takeoff/landing rights at LGA (so-called 'slots'), giving priority to larger airplanes.  Seems like a great idea.

One of the small treats I allow myself when returning from the UK is a visit to the 'World of Whiskies' shop at Heathrow to select a couple of bottles of unusual and duty free single malt to bring back with me.

Although the official limit is 1 litre of alcohol per person, the unofficial standard adopted by all US Customs officers I've spoken to about this is to allow 2 litres per person before starting to charge duty, so I happily buy a couple of bottles each time I'm flying back (and you can too...).

Selfishly, I'm disappointed that the new security regulations are making this impossible due to not allowing liquids onto planes - even if the liquid is fine single malt scotch whisky in a sealed bottle purchased in the secure part of the airport terminal.  But if I'm upset, imagine how the duty free stores and the airports feel.

Yes, the airports feel our pain, too.  For example, in Hawaii, in 2005, the airports there generated $263 million in revenue, of which $115 million was from the airport concessions, including $54 million from the main DFS duty free stores.  In comparison, landing fees generated a mere $35 million.

The almighty dollar almost certainly guarantees that before too long the restriction on taking duty free liquids onto flights will be circumvented.

I wrote last week about how Muzak is becoming louder and more annoying in hotels.

Helene wrote in to draw attention to the other new fad - aromatherapy, with special fragrances poured into hotel lobbies to calm, energize, clear your mind, fill your thoughts with romance, and presumably to discourage you from stealing the towels.

Helene has allergies and suffers from asthma and has problems in such hotels.  I too object to someone trying to literally control my mood and mind with these smelly trickeries.

Ah for the good old days - whatever happened to the traditional stink of cheap disinfectant and stale cigarette smoke that used to pervade hotels and their bedrooms?

I've commented before about how Boeing and Airbus strategically give away subcontracts on their planes to companies in countries they're trying to sell planes to.  Airbus has seen its shareprice lift in recent days, due to being the beneficiary of another strategy which investors feel may give it an advantage for selling planes into the huge Russian airline market.

It has been revealed this week that a major Russian bank with close ties to the Kremlin has bought an almost 5% share in Airbus; and the smart money is betting this is a precursor to Airbus winning some major Russian airplane orders that are currently being fiercely contested between Airbus and Boeing.

These days it is hard to buy an airline ticket other than on the internet or through a travel agent or the airline directly, with the latter two sources generally charging you a fee for their service.

Reader Michael feels we in the US need to copy the UK; where airline tickets are now being sold through a supermarket chain.  You buy a 19 voucher at the supermarket which can then be used as full payment for a 69 flight on Air Berlin.

Talking about travel agents, my dog wishies to thank ARTA for passing on this wonderful website - http://www.petfriendlytravel.com/ - crammed full of places where you can stay and/or eat in North America that are pet friendly.

Here's a fun competition.  But note the rules require the phone to be your own, not that of the annoying person noisily talking next to you.

And a fascinating piece of Americana in this article, with the reader comments adding to the initial story.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A passenger's iPod fell into the toilet on his flight from Chicago to Ottawa (this happens quite frequently to things in one's shirt pocket).  Rather than reach in to retrieve it, he tried to flush it away, but when a subsequent passenger found the iPod still in the toilet, it triggered a major security alert which could not then be switched off again, even once the iPod's owner embarrassedly explained the situation.

Details here.

An Iraqi architect was refused permission to fly on a JetBlue flight due to wearing an 'offensive' t-shirt.  Now we've probably all chuckled at some very offensive t-shirt designs in tourist stores, but guess what this t-shirt had on it that was offensive?

The phrase 'We will not be silent' in both English and Arabic.

This is America - land of the free and home of the First Amendment, but an otherwise ordinary passenger was not allowed to fly until he removed a t-shirt that said 'We will not be silent'?

And what does JetBlue have to say about the situation?  They say they're still investigating the incident (it happened on 12 August). 'We're not clear exactly what happened' said a spokesman, who perhaps should adopt a similar motto, 'We will not be quoted'.

Have you ever locked yourself out of your car?  I bet you didn't feel as annoyed as this pilot did.  And still on the subject of statements from airline spokespeople, Air Canada assures us 'At no time was the safety or security of passengers compromised'.

Some security good news.  Air marshals can now wear regular ordinary casual clothes, helping them to better blend in on the flights they are serving on.  It only took almost five years for their administrators to see sense over this issue.

Reader and very frequent flier Randy is puzzled by the supposed blanket ban on taking liquids onto planes.  He writes

I flew from Amarillo Texas to Dallas last Friday on an American Eagle Regional Jet.  Like most other airports, you are supposed to dispose of your liquids prior to going through the TSA checkpoint.

While waiting in the gate area for our plane to arrive, I observe two Rent A Cops in the area in addition to the gate agent. I spot a group of females leaving Amarillo on their way to San Antonio for a Bachelorette Party with several bottle of Nestle Water in their hand.  I think to myself, this is going to be interesting.

Upon boarding, I am directly behind the group and in plan sight, all three hand their boarding pass in one hand to the gate agent while keeping their water bottle in their other hand.

The gate agent waves them on without a comment.  The Rent A Cops did nothing.

I ask the gate agent what is she doing as I don't have toothpaste, shampoo, hairspray or anything but she just let three passengers in a row on with bottles of water. She looks down the jetway and says "did they have liquid" and I said "YES!" She says not to worry, the Flight Attendant will get them to throw the water bottles away.

So down the jetway I go. Of course, there is the usual traffic jam in the jetway - and I find there are not three girls with bottles of Water - but seven passengers in a row - with 4 bottles of Water, 1 bottle of Orange Juice, 1 bottle of Apple Juice and 2 32-40oz Styrofoam cups with lids on and straws coming out of them (TSA was clearly WIDE AWAKE THIS MORNING).

One by one the stew looks at them and asks their seat number - giving them directions to their seat.  I just shake my head in disgust.

So we are all on the plane - and then they make an announcement - "If someone came on the aircraft with liquid, we need you to bring it back to the gate agent"......not the person who brought on liquid; or the people......but IF SOMEONE....

Unbelievably all seven people got up and one of the women collected all the bottles/cups and brought them up, which in itself was a scene worthy of Seinfeld or SNL.

When we got to I was riding alongside a TSA Instructor on the tram and so I asked him if he's going to the upper A Terminal Gates. He says he is. I ask can he call and get me the person in Dallas who heads the TSA security.

He asks what its about and I say a major security breach.

So he makes phone calls - and it seems no one at DFW wants to talk to me (so much for contact a TSA agent if you see someone or something suspicious).

They eventually say they can get me a Supervisor at the screening area which is down from my gate and I tell them this happened in Amarillo so I need someone senior with the TSA as the issue isn't about Dallas.

Finally, they have the Manager of Screening at DFW come to talk to me. I tell him the story and he says "First, it didn't happen in Dallas so he can't do anything; second, the whole think is a joke - they have put in rules and policy that are unenforceable - we cannot enforce it."   He asks me "If a person does carry a drink on board, is the stewardess supposed to take it out of their hand?" (am I stupid or is the answer to that question 'Yes!'?) then went on to state "Even in Dallas, I can't tell you we are 100% in compliance - most people have been cooperative - but we are only at 99% at best.  I can never assure you with what we have that even here we do not have people boarding without liquids"

And again he told me "the rules they have put in are totally unenforceable".

I was dumbfounded. Simple math tells me that 99% means that the 1 Al Qaeda member on a MD-80 with 130 passengers will have no trouble. Or the 3 on a 777.

I am still speechless about the whole thing...especially the comments of the Manager of Screening at DFW. If that is his attitude in DFW, how much better can it be elsewhere - and we know how his workers will no doubt pick up on it....

Lastly this week, here's a helpful list of what not to call people.  I hope none of you will use it in the opposite manner.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and a pleasant long weekend

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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