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29 September, 2006  

Good morning

It has been a difficult week; I say this more to explain why I've been bad at replying to emails than to seek sympathy.  Some quick highlights (or, should I say, lowlights) include computer problems with the main production server (with a miraculous save by virtue of its RAID array, but some viral and other issues to be resolved); a replacement desktop machine to now be configured, optimized, and brought on-line, and regrettable personal challenges spilling into my business life.

Add to that an average of more than 400 incoming emails every day (yes, some are unwelcome spam, but many are important emails, eg, from you) and there just haven't been enough hours for everything, and so the feature story on BA's First Class and first class in general will have to wait another week.  Meantime, many thanks to all who wrote in with as yet unacknowledged comments on this topic.

I'm promising myself a 'chill-out' weekend away with no computer, and hope to be able to regroup and move ahead next week.  But I will of course be traveling with my Blackberry 8700, and if you're like me and overly connected to your email, I urge you to consider a Blackberry or similar unit.  The convenience of almost always being online and able to send and receive emails anywhere and everywhere is tremendously appealing to some of us (but horrifying to others of us with perhaps more balance in their lives).

I have a recent two part review and discussion on Blackberry type phone/PDA units here.

Possible good news if you're considering joining our Russian River Cruise next July.  In a very complicated bit of horse-trading, I've managed to get a brief option on two cabins on the vessel - a bargain priced D cabin and a higher priced but great value C cabin (this is the category I'm traveling in myself).

If you were to ring Amadeus, they'd tell you there are only B and higher category cabins remaining for sale - I've secured a short and exclusive option on these two cabins before they are passed on to people on the general public waiting list.

Our group is almost full (we already have 26 people participating) but we will grow our numbers ever so slightly over 30 so to qualify for some extra benefits and inclusions.  Please do consider joining us accordingly.

Dinosaur watching :  Is it merger madness time again?  United - an airline renowned for its past failed merger attempts - has hired Goldman Sachs to explore various strategic options, including a possible merger with another airline.

The potential recipient of United's affections has not been named, but Continental and Delta have been mentioned.  Merging with Continental would be difficult, because Northwest has a 'golden share' in CO which gives it the right to veto any merger between CO and another carrier.

Would NW willingly allow UA and CO to merge?  Almost certainly not, but equally certainly, its concurrence could doubtless be secured with an appropriate incentive.  However, this added complication (cost) may end up making a CO merger less attractive than a DL one (although a UA/CO merger has been rumored for some time already).

A merger between two large carriers such as UA with either CO or NW will not be beneficial to us as travelers.  The net result is almost sure to be less capacity, less competition, and higher fares.  Fortunately, any such merger would need to be formally approved before it could be concluded, and for sure the other dinosaurs will be quick to offer objections (unless they are developing merger plans of their own).

On the other hand, these exact same market dynamics - less capacity, less competition, and high fares - provide fertile breeding conditions for low cost carriers such as Southwest and JetBlue.  With both these two airlines being larger and stronger than they were five and ten years ago (especially JetBlue, a mere 6 years young) they are better able to withstand the usual 'squeeze them out' tactics of the dinosaurs and increasingly must surely be forcing the dinosaurs to moderate their price gouging for fear of encouraging a low cost carrier to start service on any over-priced route.

One immediate example of reduced competition would be the current intense struggle between four dinosaurs - UA, CO, NW and AA - to get the rights to operate a new route between China and a US city (being respectively proposed as Dulles, Newark, Detroit or Dallas).  The Chinese government restricts flights from abroad, so there are currently only three cities with nonstop service to China (New York, Chicago and San Francisco) with flights offered by four airlines.

The great interest in China is due not only to the restrictions on competition imposed by the Chinese, but also by the huge future potential on these routes.  Both passenger numbers and cargo shipments are growing in double digit percentages annually at present, and surely no reader needs to be reminded that China is our largest Asian trading partner.

The Chinese government is predicting a doubling of air traffic by 2010.

There was a 21% growth in US passengers flying to China in 2005 compared to 2004.  While this sounds huge, and definitely confirms the prediction of a doubling in traffic in a mere four years, China was only the sixth fastest growing destination last year.

Fastest growing destination was the Dominican Republic (up 50%), followed by Japan (up 40%), India (33%), Hong Kong (25%) and Costa Rica at 24%.

Over 28.8 million people traveled internationally from the US in 2005, with the most popular destinations being UK, France, China, Italy and Germany.  This was, in total, a 3% increase over 2004.

Interestingly, travel to Canada dropped almost 5%, but travel to Mexico increased by a similar amount so perhaps the increasingly onerous border security can't be blamed for this drop.

So far this year, it looks certain 2006 will see even more international travelers than did 2005.

And talking about border security, the many times delayed requirement for all travelers to have passports or 'border cards' when entering the US via land border points as of 1 January, 2008, has been delayed another 17 months.  The new deadline in mid 2010 seems ridiculously far out - we can scramble to ban liquids off planes in about 17 seconds, but requiring people entering the US via land border posts has now been deferred for another almost four years.

But, this delay for people crossing the border by land notwithstanding; if you're planning to fly into the US (or arrive by ship) you must have a passport (and, if necessary, a visa too of course) as of 8 January, 2007 - less than four months away.

I wonder why people driving across the border are deemed safer than people flying into the US?

When thieves fall out?  Bad news for Delta passengers.  Delta has said it is ending its interline agreement with arch competitor and low cost carrier, AirTran on 8 October.  This means the two airlines will no longer handle each other's baggage, and also means they won't conveniently accept stranded passengers from the other airline.  Delta said the arrangement was not cost effective and also says it no longer needs AirTran's help.

54,656 Delta passengers might disagree with Delta's analysis.  That is the number of DL passengers who were transferred over to AirTran flights in the first eight months of this year.  Perhaps 'not cost effective' means 'we were spending way too much money using AirTran's services'?

For the record, AirTran was also transferring passengers to Delta flights in significant numbers - 20,337 in the first seven months of the year.

Let's hope you don't book a flight on Delta and find yourself stuck at the airport waiting for your delayed or cancelled flight, while watching AirTran planes come and go....

Talking about AirTran, they announced on Wednesday they are delaying the delivery of eight new 737s.  AirTran is deferring these airplane deliveries for two to three years, but is still adding 14 other planes this year and 15 more next year.

This announcement underscores their earlier advice three weeks ago about reducing their third quarter revenue forecast due to softening travel demand.

Northwest's flight attendants don't seem to be making much progress with 'negotations' with their employer.  Earlier this week they asked the National Mediation Board to declare an impasse in their talks with the airline, which is the first step in the traditional process to striking after a 30 day cooling off period.

The NMB refused and ordered the flight attendants back to the bargaining table for still more talks, which have been continuing on Wednesday and Thursday.

Noting Northwest's reluctance to negotiate at all from their unilaterally imposed pay cuts, one wonders what the delegates are talking about.  The weather, perhaps?

Why we hate the airlines part number next.  This article tells the story of a passenger who was not allowed to check in for her American Airlines flight from Newark to Miami.  She was told she had to check in three hours prior to departure, because she was on an international flight.

The lady's flight was at 7.20am and the American Airlines counter didn't open until 6am; the lady was attempting to check in at 6.05am.  It seems the checkin agent thought the passenger should have been waiting at the counter at 4.20am, even though there wouldn't have been any AA staff to check her in for almost two hours.

The lady also pointed out her flight from Newark, NJ, to Miami, FL, wasn't normally considered an international flight.  But because she was connecting on from Miami to the Turks and Caicos Islands (after a four hour layover in Miami), the check-in agent deemed the flight to Miami to be international.

Question to American Airlines :  How exactly could this passenger have checked in three hours prior to her flight to Miami when your counter doesn't open until 80 minutes prior to departure?  Why did you accept her booking if you made it impossible for her to fly?  And .... oh, why bother....

Talking about AA, they are planning to trial a new a la carte buy-on-board food program, for passengers flying coach.  The one week trial will be in addition to the airline's existing complimentary drink service.  The airline said a survey taken of  passengers showed they would like to be able to purchase items individually, rather than in a snack box, and so passengers on certain flights will be able to purchase Klondike Movie Bites ice cream, Otis Spunkmeyer Chocolate Chunk Cookies, Lay's Stax Crisps or Twix 4 To Go candy bars for $3, and Dannon bottled water for $2 during the trial.

Hmmm - note how they slipped in bottled water for sale as part of the trial.....

Here's a rather incomplete article about Virgin America.  The article seems to imply the airline's 27 month delay - so far - in getting themselves off the ground is somehow not the airline's own fault.

Virgin America has no-one to blame but itself, and their claim of waiting 27 months is specious, because for most of those 27 months, the thing it was waiting on was for itself to create a business plan and get funding.  If anything, you think Virgin America would be embarrassed about this.

I'd ridiculed their earlier promises to be flying by the first quarter of 2005 and on Feb 11, 2005, said I'd take bets with anyone who believed their claim to be flying by the end of that year.  In January this year I expressed similar doubt about them starting service this year, something they themselves apparently continued to publicly hope for until June.

Strangely, the article linked above makes no mention of Virgin's earlier broken promises for when it would start service.  Their timelines for securing regulatory approval and starting operations were simply unrealistic, and my suspicion is their promises to sell tickets for 30% - 50% less than their competitors are similarly unrealistic.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle article, they're now hoping to start flying in the first quarter of 2007.

Let's hope, whenever they eventually do start flying, their on-time departure record is more accurate than their start of business projections.

The promise of a different new Virgin aerospace venture is apparently becoming more substantial.  Sir Richard Branson unveiled a mockup of the interior of a new Virgin Galactic passenger rocket, and said test flights will commence in twelve months time.

But, puzzlingly, this article first reports Branson's reference to test flights commencing in 12 months, then only a couple of paragraphs later says test flights are due to start by early 2008, with operational flights due in 2009.

Whatever the dates, could it possibly be that it takes Virgin Galactic less time to start business than it takes Virgin America?  Including the time to develop and test a brand new passenger spaceship?

Amazing.

In other Sir Richard Branson news, this week he kicked off a campaign to reduce Carbon Dioxide emissions from his Virgin Atlantic airline by 25%, with a pledge to invest as much as $3 billion in the program over the next ten years.

This is of course an action not entirely free of self-interest.  Reducing CO2 emissions by 25% is a fancy way of saying 'reducing the fuel his planes burn by 25%', which is an oblique way of saying 'reducing his fuel costs by 25%'.  A large part of his plan seems to involve encouraging airports to tow his planes out to holding areas by runways, so as to delay the time at which a plane needs to start up its engines and start burning its own fuel.

The concept seems sensible, but is not without its critics - for example, delaying an engine start until perhaps 15 minutes away from the gate and in a 'no man's land' holding area would be a major inconvenience if an issue arose at engine start that required the plane to be brought back to the gate for a quick maintenance check.

US airlines seemed to be unimpressed by Sir Richard's call for a worldwide industry forum on how to save money, ooops, conserve fuel, ooops, reduce CO2 emissions and said they were already working on such issues.

Media magnate Ted Turner described Sir Richard's pledge as a 'brilliant move,' adding, 'He'll probably make more money off of this than he would off the airlines themselves.'

In doubtless unrelated news, Sir Richard has also recently invested $400 million into a biofuels investment company.

It all sounds a bit like the little messages in hotel rooms asking you to protect the environment by reusing your towels, doesn't it.

But kudos to one of Sir Richard's companies with a generally poor reputation.  Virgin Trains in the UK set a new speed record for a nonstop journey between Glasgow and London, completing the journey in just under four hours.

Amazingly, the last time the journey was done nonstop was back in the steam train era in 1949.  Progress is a funny thing, isn't it.

Talking about trains, in a survey of over 167,000 registered travel agents and professionals,  Canadian Pacific Railways' Royal Canadian Pacific train was chosen as the world's best luxury train service.  The train won the "World's Leading Luxury Train" award at the 2006 World Travel Awards ceremony, beating five other nominated luxury train services.  The other five are The Blue Train, The Eastern & Oriental Express, Pride of Africa-Rovos Rail, Palace on Wheels and the Venice-Simplon Orient Express.

One always wonders, with such surveys and awards, whether the winner triumphed due to being the best, or simply being the best known.

And talking about delays, here is an interesting article giving more insight into delays with the Airbus A380 project.  The article is not without its errors - especially the way the writer falls into the all too common trap of equating the A380 project with the completely different Boeing 787 project, but is still an interesting read.

Moderate kudos to the Department of Transportation.  After considering public submissions, they have refused a request by the airlines to list fuel charges separately from fares in their advertisements.

The DOT has had the present rules, requiring airlines to show the full fare but allowing government taxes and fees to be listed separately, in force for 22 years, and was considering either a tightening or relaxing of this requirement.  After considering four different options, it decided to - ummm - do nothing and maintain the status quo.

A 60 year old women has filed a lawsuit against American Airlines alleging she was disfigured when a poisonous Brown Recluse spider repeatedly bit her on a flight from Germany to DFW in September 2005.

She was taken to hospital upon landing and has undergone reconstructive surgery for the bites.  The woman's lawyer claims the airline knew about the spider problem but did not try to eliminate them or warn passengers.  The spiders are found mostly in Midwestern states and south towards the Gulf of Mexico.

And talking about 60 year olds, the government is considering raising the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots from 60 to 65.

The FAA said the change is prompted by the United Nations organization that governs aviation, the International Civil Aviation Organization.  ICAO will increase the international standard to 65 on November 23.

By a thin margin, ALPA, the largest pilots' union, opposes changing the mandatory retirement age, although some pilots want the retirement age raised because they've lost their airline pensions.

Currently, foreign pilots older than 60 can fly into the United States as co-pilots.  When the ICAO change takes effect, foreign pilots will be able to fly to the United States up to age 65, as long as they're accompanied by a co-pilot under 60 and undergo medical testing every six months.

And talking about lawsuits, there's an interesting new lawsuit where a couple are suing Holland America Line.  The couple claim they were defrauded, saying Holland America Line collected a $1200 'federal fine' from them which it never then remitted on to the US government.

The 'fine' related to an involuntary violation of the Jones Act - this penalizes passengers who board a cruise ship in a port that was not the original departure port and who pay for excursions while on board.  The couple were delayed flying into Seattle to join the cruise and so flew up to Juneau, AK, to join their cruise there.  HAL said this meant they had to pay the $600 per person Jones Act Penalty.

This may have been correct, but the suit alleges the cruise line never remitted the fee to the government and the government never asked for it.  In other words, HAL simply pocketed the $1200.  Surely this can't be so?

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A surprisingly common occurrence at airport screening stations is to discover handguns in carry-on luggage.  Most of the time, it transpires these events are nothing more than forgetfulness on the part of the gun owner - they forgot they had a handgun in their carry-on piece.  (In case you think this is impossible, I'll confess that one time I got almost to the metal detector myself before realizing I still had in my possession the concealed weapon I'm lawfully licensed to carry - I had to make a most undignified exit out of the line and rush out of the airport in a great hurry!)

The TSA deserve praise when they find such objects, and the gun's owner ends up with a mess of probably deserved complications.  Such events don't even make the papers much these days, although here's a slightly more sinister event that was reported on Thursday, and which the airport handled in a simple matter-of-fact manner.

But how then to explain what happened at BWI last Friday?  After discovering a pistol in a passenger's carry-on, the TSA closed down two of the airport's terminals at 7am on a Friday morning and required passengers to go through re-screening.  No other weapons were found (of course) while thousands of passengers and many flights were inconvenienced and delayed 90 minutes.

Is it possible the TSA over-reacted?

In good TSA related news, the TSA has now relaxed their ban on liquids still further.  Small sized (under 3 ounce) portions of most liquid toiletries are now permissible, as long as they can all fit inside a single one quart sized plastic bag.

Canada has adopted a similar measure, and Britain is now allowing regular sized carry-ons back on their flights (max size of 22" x 18" x 10"), although they have yet to relax their liquid restrictions.

The clever Koreans have developed an automated sentry robot, and plan to buy 1,000 of them to protect their borders, coastal regions and military airfields.  The units cost a mere $200,000 each and combine surveillance and voice recognition technology with the ability to track and shoot at targets with a fully automatic weapon.

With their lethal capabilities, I hope the robots don't run on the Windows operating system.

This may truly be 'tomorrow's technology today' but I find it alarming rather than reassuring.  Click here for a video clip of the robot's capabilities - go to the bottom of the page and click on the right hand most image to see this unit at work.

$200?  Too much?  How about $30, then?  Throwing some doubt on the method used to calculate the original sum, the TSA is now backing down on its plan to charge travelers who join the Registered Traveler Program a fee of $200 a year (in addition to the approx $80 fee charged by the private Registered Traveler company to join their program).

The TSA dropped the fee from $200 to $30 after hearing from several companies who opposed the amount of the fee.  So why did they first set the fee at $200?  And what changed to reduce it down to $30?

So you're on your plane, getting ready to depart when first one of its two engines makes a strange sound, then the pilot gets up and leaves the plane, making a most peculiar statement as he does so.

What would you do?

Lastly this week, here's a suggestion for those of us who work from home but need to occasionally video conference.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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