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16 February, 2007  

Good morning

Unbelievably, it happened again on Wednesday night.

I'm referring to another ten hour wait on the tarmac before an arriving plane could get to a gate and unload its passengers.  This time, the offending airline was JetBlue - bad weather in New York disrupted much of their schedules during the day.

JetBlue's response was amazingly different to how American Airlines handled its Austin snafu in December.  AA had to be bullied into offering any compensation or apology at all.

JetBlue released a statement before the end of the day, apologizing for the delays, and advising that it was both fully refunding airfares and also giving free roundtrip tickets to all passengers on any of their flights who were delayed onboard for more than three hours.  And their CEO was on network television the next morning, accepting responsibility and apologizing profusely.  A very positive response.

Now for some insider scoop information.  Although JetBlue got all the bad press, my New York airport insiders tell me four other airlines also had delays of three hours or more in getting their landed planes to the gates on Wednesday night.  There's now a story published about a 10+ hour delay on a Delta flight, too.  The weather conditions were so bad - icy and windy - that a couple of planes ended up skidding off the taxi-ways (again, not JetBlue).

One more very important thing.  This was a very different scenario to American's messup in Austin.  JetBlue was far from the only, and probably not even the main culprit in Wednesday night's messups.

A truly horrific ice storm, and limitations in the availability of airport authority snow/ice removal equipment to keep runways and taxiways open caused gridlock on the ground such that there was very little JetBlue could have done differently or better, and the extreme weather conditions were so atrocious that it was not felt safe to have passengers deplane down a set of airstairs and then walk over the tarmac and into the terminal.

I say this because JetBlue's actions - and in particular, those of their CEO, David Neeleman, doubly impresses me.  They had plenty of opportunity to spread blame far and wide, but they didn't.  Neeleman (who it seems was actually at the airport on Wednesday night himself) stood up and accepted all the blame, whether it was his to accept or not.

I urge you to fly JetBlue next time you have a choice of carriers.  They are clearly a highest quality airline and deserve our support.

As for the refunded fare and free ticket for being stuck on a plane for more than three hours, is it fair that a person held prisoner on a parked plane for 2 hours should get absolutely nothing at all while the person delayed 15 minutes longer gets their ticket refunded and a second ticket for free?  Our proposed Airline Passenger Bill of Rights would provide a graduated response, kicking in ever increasing penalties as time passed, but at least JetBlue showed vastly more sensitivity and acted more quickly and positively than did American Airlines.

Could it be the airlines are sensing a major change in public opinion - passengers are no longer so willing to passively accept outrageously bad service.

And not just the airlines are sensing this.  So too are some politicians.  We need to seize this moment and push it forward.  With the growing awareness of airline service problems and our lack of rights, there will never be a better time to press Congress to pass a fair Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

I've created a dedicated website - www.airpaxrights.com - to focus on this issue.

You can help :

1.

Please - if you haven't already done so - sign our petition supporting the passage of an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.  This takes you a minute to do, and costs you nothing.

2.

Please get your friends, family, colleagues, and everyone else you know to also sign this petition.

3.

There's a lot more you can also do to help - see this article for more details.


Remember, in helping the passage of an airline passenger bill of rights, you are helping yourself!  There's no need to do this from altruistic motives.  Have you ever had a problem with an airline? Have they treated you unfairly? Maybe you've suffered inadequate compensation and poor service as a result of delayed/damaged/lost baggage? Maybe you've had a canceled or delayed flight?

The time has come to insist on airlines observing the same standards of fairness and decency as other customer service businesses. We shouldn't lose our basic rights as consumers and customers when booking flights and traveling.  So, please, join us in this campaign to bring a sense of fairness and decency to air travel.  Your first step - sign the petition, and get everyone else you know to do the same.

I first mentioned this petition last week.  Perhaps I didn't do so as prominently as I should have, because - so far - we have had fewer than a quarter as many people signing the petition as the number who sent in their preferences about duvets or blankets and sheets in hotel rooms.  A passing mention on page 3 of an article on MSNBC generated more signatures in the day following its publication than from the 22,000+ readers of this newsletter on Friday last week.

I've got to believe we all care at least as much about our air travel experiences as we do about the bedding in our hotel room!  So, to make it very obvious - -

PLEASE SIGN THE PETITION FOR AN AIRLINE PASSENGER BILL OF RIGHTS

Here are just three of the many excellent comments people added to their petition signatures

  • Although I work in the aviation industry, I don't like to fly.  The airlines and the TSA treat passengers disrespectfully.  The airlines treat us like cattle, and the TSA treats us like criminals.  We deserve better.  Thank you.
     

  • I have flown 50,000+ miles each year for ten years.  I have never seen it so bad.  I dislike government intervention in private business but the quasi monopolies the airlines have must see intervention on behalf of us - the citizens and the travelers.  Please help.
     

  • An overwhelming majority of airline employees want a law such as this enacted.

The distinctive thing about these comments is that one is from an Airport Operations Supervisor, another from an airline flight attendant, and one is from an FAA employee.  Even insiders agree on the need for a passenger bill of rights.

And now, after all that, let's talk about something nice to do with travel.  I can now officially offer our 2007 Christmas Markets Cruise to you.  Details have been finalized, and you are now welcome to join us on this cruise/tour.

This will be our third Christmas Markets cruise, and I'm sure it will be the best of all.  Suggestion - if time allows, be sure to participate in both the post-cruise extension to Prague and also (new for this year) the pre-cruise extension to Munich.  In 2008 we will be offering a very different Christmas itinerary, so if you'd like to enjoy this wonderful Danube cruise experience, come with us this December.  And so :

This Week's Feature Column :  Danube River Christmas Markets Cruise :  Click for full details of the cruise, the itinerary, the options, and the pricing, and then choose to come join us on this, the most popular of all the Travel Insider tours.

Lamar Muse :  Thanks to the people who contacted Linda Rutherford, the VP of Public Relations and Community Affairs at Southwest, after my obituary last week to tell her you feel that Southwest should name an airplane after Lamar (their founding CEO).

I'm told she is going to be writing to me to explain Southwest's attitude.  But being as how airline promises to get in touch with me usually involve many months of waiting, it is unsurprising that nothing has yet been received.

Dinosaur watching :  We've long suspected that 'me too' and 'follow the leader' are the key business strategies adopted by the dinosaurs.  We've seen it in their identical fares (and fare changes), identical rules, identical policies, and identical bad service.

The latest example of this 'leadership' is offered by US Airways' CEO, Doug Parker.  After being rebuffed in his attempts to buy Delta, there had been speculation he might try and buy Northwest instead, presumably on the basis that one bankrupt airline is much the same as another.

But he has now explained that he does not intend to make an offer to buy Northwest - unless, that is, another airline tries to buy Northwest first.

At least one analyst is projecting more merger activity this year.  Based on the current rumors flying around, that seems like a fairly safe prediction to make.

Good news for the Brits :  Their Office of Fair Trading has pledged to crack down on misleading pricing by airlines and travel companies.  The OFT wants fuel supplements and all non-optional fixed costs to be included in the basic advertised price in all advertising, and has given the industry three months to comply.

The OFT feels this will lead to less confusion for consumers, and has warned holiday and travel suppliers to ensure they are not misleading customers about prices and said it is aware that certain fixed non-optional costs are frequently excluded from advertised prices.

Wouldn't it be nice to have such a watchdog in the US, too.

Hoping-to-be new airline, Virgin America, announced an extra $30 million in startup funding this week.  While this was apparently designed to further strengthen its currently shaky claim to meeting the requirements for US ownership and control, it might also be a necessary response to some bad news.  Southwest has said it will be resuming flights to and from San Francisco in the fall - the airport Virgin America plans to use as its hub.  Southwest discontinued service six years ago.

While it is unlikely Southwest would be offering the same trans-con routes that Virgin America will be flying, the two airlines will certainly be directly competing on some of the shorter haul routes, and that's got to be bad news for Virgin America.

Or, then again, maybe not such bad news.  Southwest has always had a not entirely deserved reputation for being a low fare carrier, while its actual average cents-per-mile fares are much closer to dinosaur averages than are other truly low cost carriers.

Southwest increased its fares an unheard of six times in 2006, and this week added another increase of up to $10.  Its maximum oneway fare is now $339, a $40 increase over two years.

Outrageously ridiculous political correctness without any attendant commonsense.  How else to describe these actions by UK discount airline, easyJet?

We've seen a plethora of new low fare airlines starting service across the Atlantic over the last several years.  Is it now time for similar low fare startups across the Pacific?

A new Hong Kong based low fare carrier, Oasis has applied to the Dept of Transportation for permission to fly to both Oakland and Chicago.

The Hong Kong to Oakland service  would start June 1 with service four times a week expanding to daily service by July 1.  The Chicago service would be added at an unspecified future date.

Oasis currently flies a 747 to London from Hong Kong with fares starting at $148 for coach and $926 for business class.  The airline also plans to add flights to Berlin, Cologne/Bonn and to Milan.  It also says it is considering flights to Canada.

I've several times written enthusiastically about the free Gmail service from Google, particularly because there seem to be fewer problems sending this newsletter to gmail accounts than to other free email services.

Gmail gives you an excellent free email service with 2.8GB of free storage.  Back before Gmail first debuted, Yahoo and Hotmail were generally giving only 5MB - 10MB of storage with a free email account and charging for any extra - Google has now forced both of them to increase their free storage to 1GB or more too.  So even if you don't use Gmail, you may already have benefited from it!

Until now it has been in a limited testing phase, and you've needed an invitation to sign up for an account.  Google has now removed this limitation, and so if you don't already have a Gmail account and would like one, you can sign up now.

In some countries, you can buy data to load into your car's GPS unit that will warn you when you're approaching a location where there is known to be a speed camera.  However, if you are in Switzerland, this has now been made illegal.

Until now, when you got your passport, the only things you had to worry about were losing it or needing to renew it.  But because new passports from the US and Britain have electronic RFID chips in them, you now have a new worry - the possibility that the passport might 'stop working' during its ten year validity.

It appears that when Britain added the RFID chips to their passports, the chips came with a two year warranty, but the passports have a ten year validity.  Ooops.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A security camera in every seat back of the plane, feeding to an automated computer system that continually monitors you for signs of tension or pending terrorist behavior.

And what do you think your rights will be if the system alerts and decides you may be a potential terrorist, when in truth you're just a nervous flier, or hung over, or have something in your eye, or who knows what?  More information here.

Not such a horror story, but an unintended consequence perhaps, and a reminder of why no-one has ever been too keen to start using video phones, even in a regular office environment, is discussed in this article about new '3G' cell phones that promise to send a video as well as voice feed between the people on a call.  Progress can be a funny thing, can't it.

Now here's a big surprise.  Apparently many people are traveling with fake IDs, and the TSA has now admitted it is not picking up on this as often as it should.  They say they need another 1300 employees and $60 million so as to do a better job at checking passengers' IDs.

Talking about showing ID to the TSA, reader Chris writes

I was in the very short first class priority security line at McCarron airport in Vegas tonight (2/15).  While waiting my turn, I noticed a man on the other side of security (ie he had already passed through) yelling at TSA staffers.  He had lost his boarding pass and was complaining to three TSA personnel that they had checked him through and not returned his boarding pass.

My time to "empty the pockets" arrived shortly thereafter and I noticed a boarding pass on the pre-screening tables.  I picked it up.  I passed through the metal detector and said to the TSA agent that this is not my boarding pass but I found in on the table.  She correctly asked me for my boarding pass then looked at the one I presented her earlier and said 'If this is his boarding pass, then what did he show me?'

 If she doesn't know then who would?

The rivalry between Virgin and Qantas is deep seated, but sometimes takes a comic turn.  A bidding war between the two airlines for a vanity car registration plate in Australia promises (threatens?) to be another amusing chapter in this story.

I appeared on a CNBC program on Thursday, talking about airline passenger rights.  Several readers ribbed me that I was now a bigtime star.  I initially rejected the notion, but after giving it some thought, wondered if perhaps I shouldn't now book a flight on Qantas.

This uplifting story of excellent airborne customer service seems to confirm the research in this article.  <sigh>

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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