Friday 3 August, 2007
Summer is in full swing here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. Lovely clear blue skies, warm to hot but not too hot days, no wind, everything just perfect. There's no guarantee these conditions will continue on to early October, although that is usually a nice time of year too as the 'Indian summer' reaches to a close and fall colors start to turn.
And so, with that as clumsy segue, please do consider our October Pacific Northwest Explorer Tour. It takes you to my favorite parts of the Pacific Northwest, and promises to be a lovely short vacation (although you can of course extend it as much more as you wish) for all who choose to participate.
I was pleased to be able to write about a useful $25 gadget last week, a good value Bluetooth headset. Writing about such items not only keeps my sample costs down, but are items that are as affordable for you as for me. This week, I've found an even lower priced item to talk about - a wonderful gadget currently on special for only $20 that gives you information about traffic on the freeways in your region. And so :
This Week's Feature Column : The Trafficgauge Mobile Traffic Map : This is a small palm sized device that gives you up to date and accurate information about traffic on your local freeways. Easy to use and with helpful data, if you live in one of the (sadly very few) regions it works in, you'll probably want to get one of these.
Instant Reader Survey : Confirming the TSA's bureaucratic feet dragging - obvious to some observers for some time - TSA chief Kip Hawley told Congress this week that the Registered Traveler program is not a priority item for them. He quite fairly points out that any system which allows for reduced security for some travelers would weaken security overall, and further states the obvious - it would be very easy for terrorists to pass the background check and get accepted on to one of the several registered traveler programs out there. Details here.
Meanwhile, results of a self-serving survey about passenger attitudes to the registered traveler program have been announced. The survey was commissioned by one of the companies selling registered traveler programs and conducted by registered traveler advocate, the Business Travel Coalition.
Would you be surprised to learn the results of this survey? 82% of travelers said they'd like the airlines they travel on to participate in such a program (a strange thing for the survey to ask about because these programs are not airline driven, but airport driven). 80% of respondents said they'd be willing to pay $99 a year in return for a fast lane through security (but with no reduction in security screening), and only 6% of respondents said they weren't at all interested in such a program.
Which of course begs the question - how accurate is this survey? Let's compare it with one of our own.
Here's an instant survey of Travel Insider readers - please send in your own answers. Simply click the link in the table below which best describes you and your feelings about registered traveler programs; this will create an empty email for you to send to me, with your answer coded into the subject line. Results will be published next week.
Consider yourself a frequent flier if you travel on more than four roundtrip flights a year.
Dinosaur watching : Who says lightning can't strike twice in the same spot? Or, in this case, that an airline can't lose your bag both when flying outbound and then a second time when returning? I'd mentioned last week the hassle encountered by one of the people on our Russian river cruise when trying to find out what had happened to the bags that Alitalia had mislaid. When I tried to speak to Alitalia's lost bag people in Rome, they hung up the phone on me upon discovering that I didn't speak Italian.
The tour member wrote me last week to say that Alitalia lost his bags a second time, this time when he was flying back from Moscow to London. Amazing. It took Alitalia three days to get his bags to him in London.
Talking about 'the airline that no-one wants to buy' (ie, Alitalia), their Chairman resigned suddenly just prior to a board meeting this week. After the lengthy tender process that resulted in all three potential buyers dropping out, the board has decided to defer any more action to sell the airline until the end of August. No point in rushing these things, apparently, even though the airline is losing about $1.3 million every day.
But if you think Alitalia is bad when it comes to passenger bags, you haven't seen anything yet. British Airways has been named Europe's worst airline when it comes to losing bags, and as this article reports, a staggering 3% of passengers - one in every 35 passengers - are having problems with their bags.
The article also reports that BA wins another distinction - BA is the airline most likely to delay your flight. 44% of BA's long haul flights and 36% of shorter flights arrived more than 15 minutes late in the three months to June this year.
More bad news for BA this week. The airline has been fined £121.5 million (about $250 million) by Britain's Office of Fair Trading, and an additional $300 million by the US Department of Justice. The fines relate to its role in a price fixing scheme whereby BA and other airlines sought to manipulate rates and surcharges for both passenger and freight fares. Korean Air is also to get a $300 million fine from the DoJ, and Virgin Atlantic avoided prosecution mainly due to the airline choosing to turn in BA and assist the prosecution. Other airlines are expected to be fined in the near future - by definition, it wasn't only BA that was culpable, because to fix prices, you need to be doing so with other carriers.
In the two years from 2004 to 2006, BA's long haul fuel surcharge skyrocketed from $10 to $110. But the airline maintains that, price fixing notwithstanding, it has done no wrong. BA's CEO Willie Walsh said 'I want to reassure our passengers that they were not overcharged. Fuel surcharges are a legitimate way of recovering costs.'
Not everyone would agree with him. And note he carefully refers to 'recovering costs' without limiting the costs being recovered to those related to fuel. As I've analysed repeatedly in the past, and as the airlines themselves have admitted, eg, in annual reports, fuel surcharges recover many times the actual true increase in fuel costs, and as such are gross exercises in corporate dishonesty and are nothing other than hidden increases in air fares.
Why do the airlines prefer to increase their fuel surcharge than the underlying air fare? Firstly, to prey on the gullible and ill informed. Secondly, because they usually don't pay commission on surcharges, just on air fares. Thirdly, because when negotiating corporate discounts, these usually apply only to the fare and not any surcharges. Fourthly, because commonly people flying on 'free' (eg frequent flier) tickets have to still pay for the surcharges.
It is great to see some airlines being lightly fined for their malfeasance (the UK OFT fine was about one tenth as much as OFT could have levied if it had wished to). But when will someone insist that fuel surcharges be strictly limited to the increased cost in fuel. Or, simply require all surcharges to be eliminated and folded into a single price for each ticket.
More bad news possibly to come - now that these surcharges have been deemed to be illegally set, there is the possibility that some customer groups might now bring lawsuits against BA seeking recovery of the extra amounts illegally taken. Class action lawsuit, anyone?
The last significant item in a bad week for BA happened last Friday when two of its planes collided on the tarmac at Heathrow adjacent to Terminal 4.
A Boeing 777 carrying 200 passengers on a flight to Washington reversed from the gate and went into the path of a just arrived flight from Zurich, a smaller Airbus A321. The left wing of the US bound flight smashed into the tail-fin of the Airbus causing extensive and costly damage to both planes.
BA denied the accident was caused by cost cutting, but the dispatcher who could have given the Airbus permission to go to its gate was not there and the plane had to wait on the runway until he returned.
One of the things airline pilots tell us is that if airlines don't pay the huge sums they formerly did to pilots, then no-one will choose to become a pilot.
I've never believed that. Most pilots choose to become a pilot primarily because they love flying, and only secondarily for the perks (and pay) the job offers.
Rebuttal from the market itself came this week when United announced it was accepting applications for 100 experienced pilot positions that it plans to fill by the end of the year. More than 1,000 pilots applied for the 100 jobs. Plainly the reduced wages paid to United's pilots didn't impact on United's ability to recruit new pilots.
In other pilot news, Northwest says it has reached an agreement with its pilots in a hope of reducing its embarrassing (and inconvenient) last minute flight cancellations at the end of both June and July. It will make bonus payments to pilots flying more than 80 hours a month, and pay a further bonus to pilots with perfect attendance for the next month (Aug 4 - Sep 3). The airline has also reduced its flights in August so its pilots won't have to work so many hours.
Northwest has been blaming its cancellations in part on pilot absenteeism, although it is not disclosing how many pilots have been calling in sick or not showing up for other reasons. The pilots union, having predicted summer crew shortage problems months ago, have put the blame on Northwest for understaffing and for overworking pilots to the point of fatigue by pushing them to the limits of their new, longer work hours (ie as many as 90 hours a month).
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle between what the two sides are saying, and hopefully the new agreement will make the pilots feel happier at working. The airline also says it has received applications from several hundred people wishing to be hired as pilots.
Northwest announced this week a good result for their second quarter - a profit of $273 million, up 52.5% on last year's Q2 profit. I guess that means they can indeed afford to pay their pilots a bit more.
As a counterpoint to NW's profit, US Airways had a 13.6% drop in its Q2 earnings, down to $263 million. However, CEO Doug Parker said he was 'very pleased' with the carrier posting its sixth successive profitable quarter. He said the airline continues to project a profit for the full year.
Globally, air traffic continues to grow, with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reporting a 6.3% growth, year over year, in the first six months of this year.
And, in very good news for the airlines, strongest growth was in premium cabins and high fare categories. More than 694,000 people in May bought business or first class tickets on major airlines between the USA and Europe, solidly beating the latest 12-month average of 606,432 and surpassing pre-9/11 levels by 11%, according to IATA.
Most of us are delighted that Virgin America will be starting service this coming week. There's no downside to the new airline, with the positive upside being increased competition by an airline with a reasonably good quality product, bringing lower fares and more schedule choices. As for the industry itself, if Virgin America stimulates further growth in air travel, there'll be more jobs.
But there's always someone able to find a problem, and in this case it is the flight attendants, who have asked the US Court of Appeals to review and reverse the DoT's approval of Virgin America's application.
The flight attendants say that the airline should be deemed to have failed the US citizenship tests, and they had also opposed the airline's application when first put forward.
What are they scared of? On the face of it, you'd think they'd be delighted to see another airline offering increased employment opportunities for their members. My guess is that they're terrified of a possible future, where airlines become increasingly foreign owned and operated, and were airlines start flying inside the US, but with non-US crew, and paying non-US rates of pay, in turn forcing the US carriers to further reduce their own wages and benefits to compete with the lower priced foreign competitors.
The future possibility of this scenario remains unclear, but perhaps the AFA (Assoc of Flight Attendants) has decided it is best to proactively object to every possible step down that path now, rather than react to a subsequent fait accompli.
Several readers wrote in to point out the obvious solution to my problems flying Delta through New York on the way back from Moscow. They said I should have booked my flights through a travel agent, so as to allow me to use the travel agent to get another perspective on what was likely to happen to my flight on to Seattle, and to book the JetBlue flight that I was unable to book direct with JetBlue.
Yes, of course this would have been an effective way to help understand and resolve the issues, and indeed these days it seems more and more people are realizing that websites can't replace the extra services offered by 'old fashioned' travel agents. The same industry commentators who were quick to predict (and call for) the demise of travel agencies are now telling their readers they should reconsider and return to using agents for their travel. Here's the latest article advocating we use travel agents.
Amtrak is offering $100 in free alcohol to customers of some of their new upmarket overnight trains. The offer applies to GrandLuxe trips on the California Zephyr between Chicago and San Francisco, the Southwest Chief between Chicago and Los Angeles or the Silver Meteor between Washington and Miami or Orlando. Amtrak wants customers to try out the new, high-end sleeper car service which you must purchase to take advantage of the offer. You must also be a member of their guest awards program and travel between November and January.
In a very convoluted attribution, I am quoting an ARTA newsletter that in turn quoted a USA Today article that quotes from Conde Nast Traveler magazine (did you get all of that?) as advising how to avoid ATM fees on cruise ships : Go to the casino and ask for a cash advance to be put on your shipboard account. You’ll then pay for that at the end of the cruise with other things charged.
This Week's Security Horror Story : The tougher security screening measures in British airports (in particular, the 'only one carry on per person' policy) does nothing to protect passengers, and simply creates more delays at airports.
Indeed, by adding to airport congestion, it makes airport terminals a more tempting target (as witness the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport by driving a car into the entrance, little more than a month ago).
This scathing indictment was offered by Giovanni Bisignani, head of IATA. He added that the only beneficiary of the one piece of luggage per passenger policy were the companies operating the airports, commenting that Britain's largest airport operator, BAA (the company that manages Heathrow and six other UK airports) was 'a monopoly provider out of control, making a fortune.'
More details here.
Some useless information : Recent surveys revealed that, if forced to share a hotel room, American men would most wish to share their room with Angelina Jolie. Women would be most willing to do so with Brad Pitt.
I'll confess that it is sometimes difficult, when writing and proofing this newsletter, on the wrong side of midnight, to get everything completely correct. One such example was last week, when two errors slipped into my throwaway comment about the video of a plane landing on a freeway.
The comment I offered was : "And here's a link to video of a freeway landing of a WW2 fighter jet."
It seems difficult to make two mistakes in this fifteen word sentence, but indeed I did. The first mistake is perhaps forgivable - the plane in the picture wasn't a fighter, but instead a trainer variant. The second mistake was more substantial - without thinking, I referred to the plane as a fighter jet, but instead it was a propeller driven plane, as is immediately obvious on viewing the video.
Now for the funny part. Many of the readers who wrote in with their eagle eyed observation that the plane was a trainer, not a fighter, missed the other error - that it was not a jet. Oh well....
Although I've flown to and from Russia many times, I've never flown internally within Russia. Reading this chilling article makes me think that now is not the right time to change that.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels
David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider
If this was
forwarded to you by a friend, please click
and subscribe to the newsletter yourself