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Friday 15 June, 2007  

Good morning

The second week of our fourth annual fundraising drive saw the total number of contributors impressively rise from 205 at the end of the first week to 445 at the end of Thursday.  This is a much appreciated level of support - 2% of readers have helped, with special thanks now due also to Don and Allen.  And, excitingly, that means 98% of readers can still choose to join with their fellow readers and help keep The Travel Insider healthy and growing.

Contributions are already being put to good use.  I've ordered in two new GPS units to review, and also an e-Book reader (could it be that at last, after decades of false starts, e-Book technology is finally ready to go mainstream?), so look for these reviews in weeks to come.  More noise cancelling headphones, more luggage, and more Bluetooth headsets are also on the list of things to be further reviewed. And let's all pause for a moment and give ourselves a well deserved burst of applause.

You have all helped this site survive and grow for the last almost six years.  You have helped it to become recognized as an authoritative voice on travel related matters - for example, this week alone I had interview requests from the Wall St Journal and Conde Nast Traveler; the 'voice' and 'reach' of The Travel Insider and the no-nonsense message it offers about travel vastly exceeds the direct reach of the site itself.  And with some 600,000 visitors to this website alone each month, and with 22,700 weekly readers of the newsletter, we stand alone as a strong voice, even without all the extra attribution and quoting.

Please continue to read, please continue to tell your friends, and please also continue to support this project.  Like PBS, everything is open, free, and voluntary on the site, and also like PBS our freedom from the constraints of advertisers enables us to offer better quality content that isn't crippled by the need to keep advertisers happy.

Our target for this year's fundraising drive is 680 supporters - 3% of readers.  We're two thirds of the way there.  Won't you join us in this good work - the sooner we reach 680 readers, the sooner we can stop this fund raising for another year, too!

Hopefully the last year has seen you read several things that saved you money, time or hassle, several things that helped you in your travels, and perhaps even several things that made you laugh and feel better about the crazy world we live in.  Isn't this worth the price of a single cup of coffee each week, or perhaps as much as you'd pay for a single issue of a newspaper each week?  Indeed, we now have voluntary subscription options that allow you to subscribe at a regular monthly or quarterly rate if you'd find that easier than making a single lump sum contribution today.

Simply click to this page to make a convenient credit card payment (either one time or subscription), or for details on how to send a check the 'old fashioned' way.  There's no minimum or 'recommended' amount simply give what you feel appropriate and what is comfortable and easy for you.

Several people wrote in after my special newsletter earlier this week asking about my reference to getting a refund on credit card fees for international charges.  This money saving tip was given to you in this newsletter.

And here's another money saving tip today.  If you're one of the unfortunate people waiting for your passport, and if you paid the $60 rush fee and didn't get your passport in the 14 day expedited time promised, you can ask for a refund of the $60 rush fee.  More details here.

If you paid for, but did not get, expedited service, send a written refund application to the agency's refund office in Washington.  Provide your passport number (if available!) your name, date and place of birth, the approximate date you applied for the passport, and your mailing address and phone number.

This week sees the completion of my three part series on Leavenworth, WA.  You might be surprised that I've taken three full sized articles to talk about a small town of 2200 people in rural Washington, when it took only one article to talk about all of Russia's capital city, Moscow.  Trust me on this - Leavenworth is an idyllic little town that you're sure to love.  And as for what you'd do when you got there :

This Week's Feature Article :  What to See and Do in Leavenworth, WA :  Here are some of the many things you can see, enjoy and do while staying in this idyllic alpine region, two hours drive from Seattle.

Dinosaur watching :  While not the only voice or force acting to shape this debate, there's no doubt that we Travel Insiders have helped raise the airlines' sensitivity to some aspects of passenger rights.  Of course, the airlines are doing all they can to marginalize their obligations, but at least we're seeing small steps in the direction we're calling for.

The latest example of this is more protestation from United about its record for flights held on the ground.  It says they have reduced three hour ground holds by 68% and four hour (!) ground holds by 50% subsequent to introducing new operational procedures.

But note - this doesn't mean their flights are operating closer to schedule.  It just means more flights are delaying the loading of passengers and pushback from the gate.  Of course, we'd all much prefer to spend time in the airport concourse than in our airline seat, so this is a good thing.

In other United news, the airline's CFO said United would still like to find a merger partner.  CFO Jake Brace said they'd like to find a partner that had a southern hub and a strong presence in the northeast.

Gosh - I wonder who that could possibly be?  Continental or Delta, perhaps?

Airline congestion of a different kind was experienced in Hawaii earlier this week.  The latest round in the vicious airfare discounting that is going on saw new airline Go offering a $1 airfare (one way, not roundtrip, taxes extra), and the demand for these fares caused its internet reservation site overload and shut down for eight hours.

This airfare sale was, however, a sale in name only.  Initially Go offered a miserly 1,000 tickets at that price - they got more promotional value out of this sale than they sacrificed in lost ticket revenue.  Then, responding to the demand for these tickets, they released a further 1,000 tickets, giving them a second round of positive publicity as well.

With Go's flights averaging load factors in the low sixty percent range, it can safely sell tickets at very low prices and hope that the sales represent extra people traveling; for sure there's little danger that they will be filling planes with low fares and leaving no remaining space for higher paying passengers.  So these sorts of sales are good strategy for Go.

This time, neither Hawaiian nor Aloha chose to match Go's sale promotion, although on an earlier occasion, Aloha responded to a $19 sale from Go by giving tickets away completely for free.

Talking about startup airlines, here's a rather superficial look at Skybus to date.  Unlike Go's low load factors, Skybus is apparently enjoying load factors approaching 85%, and the few times I've randomly checked their airfares, I've been unable to find any of their $10 fares, which suggests to me they're actually filling their flights much better than some (including me) had originally expected.

It will be interesting to see what type of average fare yield they are getting for their flights - high loads are good, but they need to be combined with acceptable yields for the airline to make money.

The new broom sweeps clean?  JetBlue's new CEO, Dave Barger, said they are in the middle of a 'rigorous review' of their strategy, apparently initiated subsequent to his appointment last month, and following on from a review done just a short while earlier this year while David Neeleman was still CEO.

The item most obviously on the table is a scaling back of the airline's growth plans.  This would be a shame, because growth is a cumulative thing, especially on routes that feed hubs - an extra route between the hub and another city feeds not only the immediate traffic, but also flows through to connecting flights as well.

Of course no airline can afford unprofitable growth, but the calculation of new route profitability can be a complex exercise.  Not only are there the flow-on effects of a new route when people fly not just the new route but extra sectors too, but there are other effects - for example, adding that new route strengthens the entire network and makes frequent fliers feel better at designating the growing airline their preferred airline for all their flying, whenever possible, and a new route can benefit from 'economies of scale', spreading fixed costs and administrative overhead over a broader base of operations.

Adding new routes also gives one's competitors a tougher time, and in the sometimes competitive airline world, that's a good thing.

My suggestion to JetBlue? Start overbooking your flights. Some airlines get as much as 10% in extra 'bonus' revenue by overbooking flights. Even if JetBlue adopts a very conservative overbook profile, they might get another 2% - 5% in revenue at no cost or inconvenience to them or their passengers.

Southwest continues to send out some very mixed messages that hint at massive changes - or at least uncertainties - to their past management policies.  CEO Gary Kelly said they are considering possible acquisitions and alliances with other carriers, a strategy that has only very rarely been a part of the Southwest approach in the past.

With an airline that has (had?) such a clear approach to their operations as Southwest, it is difficult to see how they can easily integrate other airlines (probably with different planes and definitely with different labor contracts) into their operation, and it is unclear where the benefit lies in acquiring rather than simply expanding and competing against airlines it would otherwise acquire.

Kelly also worried aloud about 'the effects of the slowing economy' (the slowing economy seems to be the latest whipping boy for the airlines to all seize upon and blame for whatever ails them currently) and said Southwest would have difficulties increasing its fares as much as it hoped this year.  Oh what a shame.

Apparently reading from the same page, Continental said it plans to delay the delivery of six new 737s by a year, due to facing a slowing in demand as a result of the economy slowing down, making it difficult to raise fares.  Continental also said it may try and sell five of its older 737s.

Good news at the gas pump.  At least here in the Seattle area, petrol prices seem to have stabilized and even reduced by as much as 10% over the last few weeks.  But bad news at the BA ticket office - BA said it is increasing its long-haul fuel surcharge from Wednesday this week due to increasing oil prices.

The surcharge increases from 33 to 38 each way for flights under nine hours and from 38 to 43 for flights over nine hours (double the pounds to get dollars).  And showing, yet again, that fuel surcharges have nothing to do with oil prices, BA said there'd be no change at all on its short haul fuel surcharge, which will stay at 8 each way.

I'm a big fan of R&D into new forms of air transportation, but here's a boondoggle that even the most enthusiastic aviation booster has to feel repulsed by.

On a more positive note, progress continues on the development of a 'super-Concorde' with the hopeful test of a scramjet in Australia today (Friday), weather permitting.  Scramjet powered planes could fly at about 5,000 mph - less than an hour across the Atlantic, less than two hours across the Pacific.

But until a scramjet powered plane makes its debut, the best solution to long distance traveling is to do it as luxuriously as possible.  And so it is with considerable envy I note this article, about an unnamed buyer who has ordered their own personal A380 super-jumbo, for an estimated $475 million.  There are interesting graphics showing some of the interior, designed by a New York industrial designer.

More achievable for most of us is perhaps a flight on Emirates, which announced this week a major upgrade program for its already lovely airplane interiors.  Upgraded 777 planes will have lie-flat massage seats in business class, first class 'suites' with dine-on-demand 'room service', an in-suite personal mini bar, and sliding doors for the ultimate in privacy, and, for the hoi polloi, extra legroom in economy class, an articulated seat bottom, and a leg rest, plus the biggest video monitors of any airline in all three classes.

Emirates also announced some details of their planned seating layouts for the 47 A380s it has on order, with three different cabin layouts for different routes, with capacities ranging from 490 seats, to 514 seat, and two class layouts with 644 seats.

I asked an Emirates insider for more details, and he replied 'We are not revealing the class split on the A380 configurations at the moment nor the seat pitch.  But given we are a high quality carrier,  you can be assured we will not compromise our standards.'

All the airlines are being coy with releasing details of how they will lay out their A380s, but in this rare case, I think I will indeed allow myself to be reassured.

The 787 vs A350 battle continues, with Boeing continuing to be a massive winner, and the expectation is for at least one new major 787 order to be announced at the Paris Air Show next week.

Boeing's critics are reduced to desperately hoping for some production line delays to surface that might embarrass Boeing, but so far, about the most major item that has surfaced, apart from some probable delays in getting components from some of Boeing's contractors, is this item about an apparently minor mismatch in joining parts of the plane together.

Reader Fred forwarded an interesting article with this cover note : 

Is it just me, or are most of us a card short of a full deck after flying?  I often feel slightly stupid after a long flight.  Stupid and disoriented.  Is this a partial explanation?

I wonder if contaminants in the air might also explain some of the air rage incidents out there?  As this article reports, there has been a massive rise in reported air rage incidents in recent years, although doubtless many of them are the result of ordinary people responding to the rudeness and indignity of modern day air travel.

And here are two airline managers and one pilot at Italian airline AirOne who definitely qualified as targets for justifiable air rage.  Instead, they received jail sentences, which were, alas, suspended.

All of which supports this article showing the results of research in the UK that advocates taking the train rather than flying.  The journey might be longer, but it is better and potentially more productive, according to the researchers.  A shame that such an option isn't open to most of us in the US.

And here's a story about an alternate way to get to wonderful Key West from Miami - there's a new jet-propelled catamaran service between Miami's Seaquarium and Key West.  The journey takes four hours and costs $49 each way, and the schedule allows you to go to Key West for a day trip from Miami.

I'm sure it is a lovely ride, but who would want to miss the delightful drive through the Keys?

Oops!  A builder in Rome, working on an underground parking lot, damaged a 2,000 year-old water pipe that supplied water to the Trevi Fountain and several other small fountains in the city.  He then tried to repair it but managed to fill it with concrete instead.

Water had been flowing through this pipe - 'The Aqueduct of the Virgin' - since 19 BC.  Many fountains have been affected by the shut-down and repairs are expected to take a couple of months.

In the meantime the water company will divert water from another, younger pipe - 'The Aqueduct of Paul', which has been bringing water to Rome from a lake north of the city only since 2 AD.

Perhaps this new development might have given the builder a better understanding of where the pipes were?

This Week's Security Horror Story :  One of the big problems with airport/airplane security is that the metal detectors we walk through at the airport don't detect plastic explosives.  A suicide bomber could have several pounds of this material strapped to his body and safely smuggle it onto the plane, completely undetected.

This does make obsessing over pocket knives a rather misdirected use of TSA resource, and so it was with great pride, three years ago, that the TSA unveiled a new device that used jets of air to sample the materials on a person, enabling them to detect the characteristic odors of explosives.  A $30 million pilot project saw 95 units deployed to 38 airports.

There's only one problem.  It seems the machines don't work.  Details here.

RetractionLast week's security horror story was apparently completely not true.  See this article for more details.

How many people are on the various 'Do Not Fly' and Watch lists in the US these days?  There are a number of different lists, maintained by different agencies, making an accurate total difficult for anyone to establish.  But sometimes we get glimpses of what the numbers might be, as was the case with a perhaps inadvertent referral to a massive 509,000 name database maintained by the FBI.  Details here.

Careful what you wish for, because you might get it.  Back around 9/11, it suited the airlines' purpose to complain to the government about the cost of security measures imposed on them.  About a week after 9/11 Delta's CEO Leo Mullen told Congress that airlines spent about $1 billion annually on security.  The airlines were seeking reimbursement of these costs, of course.

But instead the government created the TSA and said 'give us what you've been paying yourselves for security and we'll give you the TSA at no extra cost'.  So - guess what....  All of a sudden, Leo Mullen's claim of an annual cost of $1 billion was urgently restated down to $300 million, so as to reduce what the airlines had to pay the TSA.

The TSA agrees the actual figure, in baseline year 2000, was not $1 billion, but neither was it $300 million.  They're saying the cost was $448 million, and so they're now seeking the difference still outstanding from the airlines.  According to the TSA, the biggest offender is Southwest, owing $54 million.  American owes $40 million, Delta $32 million, US Airways $18 million, United $15 million, Continental $14 million, Northwest $9 million and America West $8 million.  Other airlines owe less than $5 million apiece.

Canadians decided they wanted to identify the Seven Wonders of Canada and the results were announced earlier this week.  Niagara Falls came in first followed by Old Quebec City, Halifax's Pier 21, and the Rockies in place four.  More interesting choices follow - the Prairie Skies (yes, the sky over the prairies) was deemed number five, followed by the canoe and the igloo taking up spots six and seven.

You might think this list indicates great difficulty in finding seven wonders in Canada, but apparently there were 52 contenders to start with.  Details here.

A survey of more than a million cell phone users in Great Britain found that the single biggest way to lose a mobile phone is by inadvertently flushing it down the toilet. Almost 900,000 cell phones were lost that way, beating the 810,000 that were left behind in bars, the 116,000 that went through a laundry cycle, and the 58,000 that were chewed up by pets.

Lastly this week, long time readers will know that I like to see as many engines as possible on the planes I fly long distances over the water.  Four are good, and more than four would be even better.

So imagine my delight at this possible prototype of a very safe new plane.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, no matter how many engines are on your plane - and if you haven't yet done so, please consider sending a contribution this way.  It truly is needed.

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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