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9 February, 2007  

Good morning

Thanks to the several couples who joined the waitlist for the Black Sea Discover Expedition this October.  Although the ship is completely sold out, we do hope there may be one or two cancellations, and our people are on the top of Amadeus' waitlist if any cabins come free.

This cruise set a new record for being the most popular cruise/tour offered yet.  Travel Insider readers are becoming increasingly keen on river cruising, and with good reason.  It is a wonderfully convenient way of traveling and sightseeing through Europe.

Our Russian River Cruise in July is again in a sold out status, too.  There are no cabins remaining on the ship, although one deluxe suite is still open.

So it is now appropriate to mention this year's Christmas Markets cruise.  I'm still perfecting the final details of the special unique inclusions that only you - Travel Insider readers - will get during, before and after this cruise, and this year we'll be doing some things differently than the previous two cruises.

We will start in either Munich (for an optional pre-cruise extension) or Nuremberg, and cruise to Budapest with an optional extension to beautiful Prague at the end of the cruise.

Last year's cruise was loved by the 42 people who traveled with me, and this year should be even better than last.  You're welcome to go take a preview look at the cruise details here, and you can pre-register for the cruise too (as have several couples already).

Thank you to everyone who sent in suggestions about how best to get an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights enacted.  The situation at present is untenable - we as passengers have fewer rights buying a $1000 airline ticket than we do buying a $2 loaf of bread.  As for the airlines, they often stand to profit from their bad customer service, and so they have no motivation of any sort of act more fairly and appropriately.  We really do need an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights - not to give us any special rights or protection, but just to give us the same ordinary balance we have at present with most other providers of goods and services.  And so :

This Week's Feature Column :  Help Pass a Passenger Bill of Rights :  After passengers were trapped for 10 hours on a parked plane in December, it is time to say 'Enough, already' and to insist on an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.  Here's how you can support this grass roots initiative and make it succeed.

Who first managed Southwest Airlines and created its distinctive and wildly successful business plan, including things such as fast turn-arounds, irreverent marketing that challenged the dinosaurs, low fares, and good relations with both staff and passengers?  Chances are you either don't know the answer, or will suggest it to have been Herb Kelleher.

Not so.  It is my sad duty to record the passing on Monday night of one of the airline industry's least appreciated legends, Lamar Muse.  By his own admission, Herb Kelleher (originally Southwest's general counsel) learned about the airline business from Lamar while Lamar was running Southwest and Herb was just the corporate attorney.

In his eight years heading Southwest as President and CEO, Lamar pioneered all the things I mentioned above, and helped Southwest grow from an underfunded struggling carrier to the success it was when he left and continued to subsequently become.  Always one to speak his mind, and after a bruising showdown with the Southwest board, he left somewhat rancorously in 1978.

The issue that caused his departure was whether or not Southwest should expand to Chicago.  Lamar advocated yes, the board chose no.  It was twelve years before Southwest finally moved to Chicago - Lamar was always ahead of his time.

Lamar subsequently founded his own airline, Muse Air, in 1981, but it was not the success he hoped it to be, and it was eventually bought by his now arch-rival, Southwest, in 1985.

When Lamar joined Southwest, the struggling airline had a little over $100 in the bank and past-due bills of more than $133,000.  He welcomed the challenge, raised $1.25 million in funding (including $50,000 from his own pocket) and in just 120 days, renamed the company as Southwest Airlines, hired and trained pilots, hostesses, mechanics, station personnel, marketing staff and completed negotiations for space at three airports, and completed the purchase of its first 3 Boeing 737 aircraft (with a 100% credit loan from Boeing).

The rest - Southwest's steady success, relentless growth and consistent profitability - is now history.  But one needs to remember the adage that 'the victor writes the history', and Lamar lost his boardroom battle.

For whatever reason - the board room battle that lead to his departure, his actions as a competitor with Muse Air, his forthright manner that up until only a few weeks before his death had him still bluntly commenting on the industry with passion, clear good sense and no sugar-coating of his criticisms, or perhaps because of Herb Kelleher's own undoubted and charismatic successes extending the airline Lamar birthed and grew - the role of Lamar Muse at Southwest has been little understood and little appreciated.

Regrettably, Southwest never named a plane after him (they've named planes after seven other people, including Herb Kelleher and one of the airline's original mechanics) even though without Lamar, there would be no Southwest.  Lamar's family and other supporters (count me among their number) have asked Southwest to now name a plane in his honor.  Providing an unusual insight into an ugly side of Southwest's generally positive public persona, the airline says there are no plans to name an airplane after him posthumously either.

And last year, in Southwest's magazine commemorating its 35th anniversary, Herb Kelleher and co-founder Rollin King, along with various others, were lauded with the credit for Southwest's success.  Lamar earned barely a passing footnote.

Shame on Southwest for being so ungracious.  What a massive rewrite of history this is, and what a contrast to the way things were 30 years before.  Back in the mid 1970s, Lamar was the public face of Southwest Airlines, and as CEO and president, he trumpeted Southwest's achievements in a two-page spread at the front of its 1977 annual report, accompanied by his photo superimposed over a Southwest jet, while Herb Kelleher appeared only in a small group photo on the last page.

We all owe Lamar a debt of gratitude, whether we fly on Southwest or not, and not just because Southwest is keeping airfares down across the board.  Lamar was also an early advocate of deregulation, and at a time when other airlines were lobbying as hard as they could to preserve regulation, he spoke to Congress in favor of deregulation.

Lamar wrote a wonderful book - Southwest Passage :  The Inside Story of Southwest Airlines' Formative Years, published in 2003.  It is currently out of print, and copies are selling on Amazon for up to $450 each.  I'm keeping my personally endorsed and autographed copy as a treasured reminder of a straight talking highly principled aviation visionary - a man sorely needed at the helms of the dinosaurs today.

Lamar died in Dallas after a brief battle with lung cancer, aged 86.  We are diminished by his loss.

 

Oh, by the way - if you feel Southwest should name a plane after Lamar, why don't you let Linda Rutherford, their Vice President of Public Relations and Community Affairs know.  You can call her at (214) 792-4625.

Dinosaur watching :  Here's a fascinating table that shows how airlines try and get consensus among themselves for air fare increases.

This table tracks how the airlines initially started raising fares, and copied each other, and then how they successively started returning their fares back to the previous levels when not all airlines matched.

Thanks to Neil Bainton at Farecompare.com for this table.

Date

Time

Carrier

Increase

Fares

Markets

Feb 1

8 pm

Delta

$5

37,192

8,639

Feb 2

10 am

American

$5

23,792

5,324

Feb 2

12:30 pm

Alaska

$5

1,314

350

Feb 2

12:30 pm

Midwest

$5

3,304

718

Feb 2

8 pm

United

$5

40,703

9,170

Feb 2

8 pm

Continental

$5

11,670

2,584

Feb 2

8 pm

US Airways

$5

14,030

3,021

Feb 3

5 pm

Northwest

$5

5,016

953

Feb 3

5 pm

US Airways

$5

6,341

1,448

Feb 4

5 pm

United

($5)

39,464

8,890

Feb 4

5 pm

American

($5)

6,604

1,478

Feb 5

10 am

Delta

($5)

36,690

8,360

Feb 5

10 am

US Airways

($5)

20,376

4.476

Feb 5

10 am

Continental

($5)

5,284

1,261

Feb 5

10 am

Northwest

($5)

4,052

809

Feb 5

10 am

Alaska

($5)

435

172

Feb 5

12:30 pm

American

($5)

16,634

3,393

Feb 5

12:30 pm

Continental

($5)

6,382

1,320

Feb 5

12:30 pm

United

($5)

1,463

322


When you look at this table, you'll probably be as amazed as I am at the incredible coincidences as to how airlines choose to raise and lower their fares in almost identical fashion.

You have to feel sorry for the shareholders of bankrupt Northwest Airlines.  At this stage it seems likely they'll lose all their money when NW emerges from bankruptcy.

Frustrated by the various rumors they've heard about potential mergers and buyouts, and noting that such deals are expected to occur after the airline's reorganization (ie after current shareholders have been zeroed out), they're wondering if it mightn't be fairer to have the airline sold before rather than after it emerges from Chapter 11.

And so, in an attempt to cut through the rumors, a group of NW shareholders have filed subpoenas on United, Continental, Northwest bankruptcy consultant Seabury Group, The Blackstone Group (a private equity fund that is a financial advisor for Delta), Lehman Brothers Inc. and Deutsche Bank (both of which have been buying Northwest debt), and Northwest's committee of unsecured creditors.  The subpoenas demand documents about Northwest's value and any potential mergers.

The Department of Transportation released year-end service figures earlier this week.  Southwest had the best on-time performance of all the carriers during 2006.   US Airways was in second place and JetBlue came in last - but remember, JetBlue rarely cancels a flight, and so while it may have more delayed flights, overall you still have a good chance of getting where you want to go, and sooner, with JetBlue than most other airlines.

JetBlue had the lowest rate of involuntary denied boardings (unsurprising seeing as how it doesn't oversell its flights) followed by AirTran.  Continental had the highest number of denied boardings.

The worst carrier for mishandled baggage was US Airways and the best was AirTran, followed by JetBlue.  Southwest came in first with the lowest number of filed complaints followed by JetBlue, while US Airways had the highest number of filed complaints.

Overall, things got slightly worse in 2006.  Ontime performance dropped - from 77.4% to 75.4%; mishandled baggage rates rose - from 6.64 per 1,000 passengers to 6.73, and involuntary denied boarding rose from 0.88 per 10,000 passengers to 1.01.

Look for this deteriorating trend to continue in 2007 - unless or until we get our Airline Passenger Bill of Rights passed.

After more than a year of negotiations, JetBlue and Aer Lingus have now agreed to work together to provide JetBlue's route network to Aer Lingus customers and Aer Lingus' international routes to JetBlue customers.  They don't intend to codeshare (how refreshing and honest), but will allow bags to be checked between the two airlines without passengers needing to claim and recheck them.

This is the first time an agreement has linked a low-cost carrier on each side of the Atlantic and could lead to further expansion of the low-cost airline model, which until now has typically seen low-cost carriers operating either an all domestic or all international network, weakening them compared to the dinosaurs who can provide both the domestic feed and the international routes.

Good news for discount European airline, Ryanair.  Notwithstanding higher oil prices, a massive 21% growth in their flights, and increasing competition, Ryanair managed to increase their third quarter profit by a massive 30%, up to 47.7 million ($62 million), and they are projecting net profit for the full year to reach 390 million ($507 million), also a 30% increase on the previous year.

Part of this massive profit was attributed to their new per piece fee on checking baggage.  Apparently someone at British Airways must have noticed this, because BA announced on Thursday that they would start charging passengers who want to check more than one bag.

Fees are based on the distance the flight travels, and range from 30 per bag each way for domestic flights within the UK, 60 for short-haul internations flights (eg from Britain to much of Europe) and a massive  120 ($235) per bag each way for long-haul flights (eg from the UK to the US).  Fortunately - so far - passengers buying tickets for travel to/from the US, Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico, Brazil and Nigeria can still take two bags.

But unlike BA, Ryanair only charges 7 per bag (albeit with a lower weight limit, and for the first bag, too).

This is starting to happen in the US, too.  Spirit Airlines announced that starting from Saturday, February 10,  it will charge $10 for a second checked bag, and $100 each for a third and subsequent bags.

In positive BA news, today (Friday) is the last day of a three day sale BA currently has for travel from the US to Britain and Europe prior to 31 March.  There are cheap coach class fares, and sizzling hot bargains for their lovely 'World Traveler Plus' Premium Economy class cabin.

But today is the last day to buy.

One other piece of information tangentially related to BA.  Here's an excellent article on an amazing flying experience when all four engines on a BA 747 failed.

France kept its title as the world's top tourist destination in 2006, attracting 78 million visitors, up 2.7% on the previous year.  Tourism accounts for 6.5% of the gross domestic product in France, the euro zone's second biggest economy.

One of the much less popular countries for visitors is that fascinating but troubled country, Russia, where they have passed yet another new law affecting how visitors have to 'register' their stay in the country.

Until now, the hotel you stayed at simply stamped your visa card to show you were officially registered at their hotel, but now the hotels have to get special snap-apart tokens that become the only valid form of proof that the tourist is legally in the country.  Before leaving, the visitor has to return his part of the token to the hotel, and the hotel has to get the complete token back to the Migration Service by mid-day the next day.

This bizarre and cumbersome process is made unworkable due to the Migration Service only working four days a week, and only 2 - 4 hours a day, with a single employee, in Moscow, being tasked to work with these new records.

Jamaica is developing a new tourist attraction,  The site on where Christopher Columbus was marooned on his ill-fated fourth voyage will be undergoing a $1 million renovation this year.  Local artisans will sell their crafts at kiosks inside the upgraded Seville Heritage Park.

Even though we have heard flight safety demonstrations countless times, do you really know what to do if your oxygen mask drops down in front of you?

Apparently a lot of us don't, as an incident onboard an Australian flight proved.  When the masks dropped on a flight over New South Wales in November, only half the passengers responded quickly and donned their masks.  The rest only did so when instructed through an announcement over the public address system.

No one was injured during the flight and it was discovered that a pair of incorrectly adjusted cabin air pressure valves were to blame.  The cabin pressure was okay.

Winning this week's award for Nanny State legislation is a proposal to outlaw the use, while on the road, of cell phones, iPods, and Blackberries.

But what makes this legislation special is that, in New York, they are proposing to define 'on the road' as meaning 'when crossing the street'!

This Week's Security Horror Story :  We're not the only ones unhappy with the Department of Homeland Security.  The annual Office of Personnel Management's Federal Human Capital Survey rates the DHS dead last out of 36 different federal agencies in terms of how employees rate their employers in terms of job satisfaction and as places to work.

NASA and the National Science Foundation, on the other hand, both ended up in the top ten, scoring highly in job satisfaction, leadership and knowledge management, results-oriented performance culture and talent management.

Maybe the DHS really does need some rocket scientists.

In fiscal year 2008, the federal government is proposing to budget $6.4 billion for airport security alone (up 7% from this year).  This $6.4 billion is in addition to the security fees (up to $10) and taxes we pay on our tickets, and the amounts the airlines contribute too.

To compare, there were probably slightly less than 800 million airline passengers in the US in 2006, with a total airport/airline security budget in the region of almost $20 billion.

All this money doesn't buy much security though - leastwise, not if you're the Speaker.

Citing security concerns, Speaker Pelosi apparently needs to be able to fly from her Californian home to her Washington DC office on an Air Force jet, and furthermore, and again citing security concerns, the plane has to be able to fly nonstop without needing to refuel on the way.

Have you ever got on the wrong bus?  Chances are, if you did, you didn't have quite the same problems, or for quite as many years, as this lady did.

Lastly, next Wednesday is Valentine's Day.  If you haven't yet decided what special gift to give that special Valentine in your life, how about this - surely the ultimate in 'His and Hers' experiences, which, as the descriptive material aptly explains, allows couples a chance to share some of their most personal time, together.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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