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Friday 7 September, 2007  

Good morning

As one gets older, one of the benefits of so doing is forming long-standing associations with people, places and things; but - as many of us sadly know - the other side of this coin is feeling their loss even more keenly when they depart.

I've never considered myself one of Luciano Pavarotti's biggest fans, but even so have spent much of Thursday lamenting the loss of his talents and, yes, even the loss of his rather ambiguous personality.

YouTube is full of clips of Pavarotti and his signature song, Nessun Dorma.  This one, linked by Drudge, shows over 1.3 million views.  This one has better quality video, but I'm not sure I like it as much as the first, and records a mere 413,000 views so far.  And for Nessun Dorma addicts, this one, taken I believe from the first of what became very many 'Three Tenors' concerts, has Pavarotti and his stablemates Domingo and Carreras all sharing in perhaps the ultimate rendering of the song.

Pavarotti helped bring opera - or at least, some 'Greatest Hits' excerpts - to millions and even billions of people, all around the world.  If you in turn like this tune, you might want to treat yourself to a DVD of a real full opera - Tosca, by Puccini.

Nessun Dorma comes from Puccini's Turandot, but I'm suggesting Tosca as an introduction due to a stupendous recording available on DVD.  The DVD performance I'm recommending (available from Amazon for $21) is notable because it was filmed, not on stage, but in the actual historic buildings in Rome where the opera was set.  Superb acting/singing (with Domingo not Pavarotti in the tenor lead role), powerful music that drives the drama relentlessly forward, and the stunning locations make for a compelling experience from start to tragic finish.

The phrase Nessun Dorma means 'No one sleeps' or 'none shall sleep' (more than you might want to know about the song and words can be found here).  In closing, suffice it to say that now Luciano Pavarotti sleeps the long sleep that awaits us all, while his music lives on, continuing to enrich our lives as long as we have ears to listen with, and emotions to feel with.

And now, how to start talking about travel?  Perhaps by reminding you of a positive thing - our upcoming Christmas Markets Cruise.  There are now only limited cabins in A and B categories remaining, so please hurry to register your interest in joining us.

Another positive thing to mention is a lovely little gadget I came across recently that is easy to use, small, lightweight, functional, and inexpensive :

This Week's Feature Column :  The Quik Pod Camera Extender :  This ingenious device makes it easier to take pictures of yourself, plus helps out in other situations too.

Your Help is Requested :  I mentioned in last week's newsletter that maybe I should write an article about 'How to Complain'.  Several readers wrote in to ask I do exactly that, and I set about doing so, only to realize that the topic was wider than could be covered in a single article, and as I expanded one article to two (splitting into 'How to complain in person' and 'How to complain in writing') it seemed to me we'd all benefit if I first asked for your own success stories and suggestions on how best to complain.  I'll use these to ensure the two articles are as comprehensive and complete as possible.

So, if you've any tips or helpful suggestions on how to creatively complain and get what you feel fair in response to problems, please let me know.  Many thanks for any ideas you can send in.

Dinosaur watching :  Now that the summer travel season has officially ended with the Labor Day weekend, the statistics are starting to come in, and it is official - air travel - and airlines - is (are) worse than ever.  Fliers in July filed more complaints with the DoT than in any other month in the last seven years.  The DoT received 1,455 complaints in July, more than double the 679 received in July last year, and the highest since August 2000, which was close to the peak of the last aviation cycle.

This article reports that, in total, there have been more than one million delayed flights this year, also noting 13,400 canceled flights in July alone.

In total, during the period 1 June through 15 August, US carriers canceled more than 30,000 domestic and international flights to the USA's top 30 airports, almost twice as many as the 16,000 cancellations last summer, according to this article.

This is even worse than you might think.  With load factors on flights averaging around 85% full, the traditional solution to a cancelled flight - putting you on the next flight out - doesn't work so well for two reasons - first, more people have to be shifted from the cancelled flight, and second, there are fewer seats on alternate flights.

Look at the numbers - say a typical 150 seater plane is at either 65% or 85% load factor.  If at 65%, that means a cancelled flight has 98 people on it, and it also means a typical flight has 52 spare seats.  The passengers on a cancelled flight can be accommodated by filling up the remaining seats on the next two flights.

But if we're looking at 85% load factors, then we have 128 passengers to be reaccommodated, and only 23 seats free per flight.  It will take six flights for all the inconvenienced passengers to be taken care of - three times more than before.

Bottom line - not only are more people being inconvenienced by cancelled flights, but the alternate arrangements made for them are also markedly inferior to the 'good old days' (only a few years ago).

Some airlines are attempting to do things to respond to the problems.  US Airways has added another 30 minutes of operational time each day, and are adding more staff and spare 'hot' planes (ready to replace planes with problems).  United has changed its reservation system to automatically rebook affected passengers when flights don't operate per schedule.

British Airways has also bravely revived their occasional 'Guarantee to Exceed Your Expectations' program (which applies only to passengers flying in their business class cabin).  If a passenger is unsatisfied, BA promises either to give them 25,000 frequent flier miles or to upgrade them to First class in one direction on their next business class flight.

I wonder if BA's guarantee extends to bag handling and delays?  A Seattle law firm has filed a lawsuit against BA, alleging that BA has been knowingly reckless in its baggage handling and so the limit of approximately $1,500 in compensation, set under the Montreal Convention, should not apply, and seeking class action certification.

Often these types of lawsuits fizzle out, but the law firm - Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro - is renowned for its ruthless pursuit of shareholder class-action suits, and it is unlikely they'd have agreed to accept the case unless their partners strongly perceived the potential for winning and the major profit that would flow through to the law firm as a result.  They have taken on some of America's largest companies and won, and so would seem to have the resources and ability to succeed with a suit against BA, too.

Some airlines have taken to more creative approaches to solving operational problems.  Nepal Airlines, for example, when confronted with a 757 that had technical problems, took a non-traditional approach and sacrificed two goats in front of the plane to appease Akash Bhairab, the Hindu god of sky protection, whose symbol is seen on the company's planes.  Apparently it worked, because the plane resumed service shortly thereafter.  Details here.

Of course, you'll read this article, snigger a bit, and tell yourself 'such things would never happen here in the US'.  Oh really?  Read on.....

The airline with the worst on-time record among the dinosaurs in July was American Airlines, with a 63.4% ontime rate.  Yes, more than one in three AA flights were significantly late in July.  And so what is American Airlines doing to improve their own performance?

The bad news is they've redefined 'on time' by simply adding 7 minutes to the schedule for their flights.  So your delayed flight won't operate any faster, but at least they're being more upfront about it.

Oh - what has this to do with the goats?  Well, as this article reports, AA's VP in charge of Planning, Bob Cordes, says he often feels powerless to remedy persistently late flights.  For one particularly poorly performing flight (AA 1659), he says he has even sought outside help :  'We went to church and lit a few candles.'

Note to AA :  If the candles don't work, try the goats.

Further note to AA :  One of the secrets of your competitor's success (Southwest) is fast turnarounds and efficient operations.  Other airlines are doing all they can to emulate this concept, enabling them to get more flights per day/week out of their existing planes, and spreading their overhead over more flights and more passengers and their ticket revenues.

Have you ever thought of not downgrading your performance (and reducing the speed of service offered to your passengers, too) but instead investing in more staff, more services, and more of everything else so as to enable you to actually meet your previous schedules, and maybe even tightening up on them?  Sure, you'll spend a bit more money, but you'll probably save a lot more than you spend.

American, in simply applying an across the board downgrade of its operational efficiency - in taking the low road rather than the high road - is providing a poster child example of all that is bad with the dinosaurs and their thinking.

Talking about bad airlines, will someone please buy Alitalia and/or put it out of its misery.  As this article reports, Alitalia is now estimated to be losing an impressive 2 million every day (which totals up to about US$1 billion a year).  Its latest bandaid on its financial wound is to cut almost half its flights from Malpensa (Milan), although this will outrage the Milan mayor, the regional governor, and the unions.

Who really cares what the mayor and governor think?  When an airline is subservient to all these non-commercial special interests, it is no wonder it can't get close to making money.

But all is not doom and gloom in the industry.  Competitive pressures in the premium cabin service across the Atlantic are encouraging airlines to lift their game for those of us lucky enough to travel other than in coach class.

Silverjet, one of the new all business-class airlines has announced it will start a second daily return service to New York from Luton beginning September 23.  The airline posted an impressive 80% load factor for August and a 76% on-time departure record.

These numbers are all the more impressive when you consider that August is traditionally the quietest month for business travel, and it seems with their low fares, Silverjet is actually getting appreciable numbers of leisure travelers who are choosing to pay a moderate price premium to travel in Silverjet's business class service.

Delta has launched a chauffeur service at both Gatwick and JFK airports, similar to that which has been offered by Virgin Atlantic and Emirates for many years.

The new service will be available to BusinessElite passengers traveling within a 50-mile radius of Gatwick and from JFK to any of the five boroughs of New York.

More airlines are 'thinking out loud' at taking advantage of the soon to be started Open Skies agreement between the US and EU next spring.  The latest example is Air France/KLM, who are thinking they might start service from LHR to as yet unspecified US cities.  Presumably they'd re-purpose some of their existing takeoff/landing slots at Heathrow, using them for higher yielding long haul flights to/from the US instead of lower yielding flights between London and Paris or Amsterdam.

Indeed, travel between London and Paris took a new turn for the better this week with the inaugural running of Eurostar on its new highspeed route to London's St Pancras Station.  Until now, Eurostar trains between London and the continent have been routed over slower track and to Waterloo, but with the massive $11.6 billion track upgrade/reroute project now almost complete, the scheduled travel time between Paris and London - by train - will drop by 20 minutes to a mere 2 hrs 15 minutes - less time than it takes to travel from downtown London to Heathrow, check in for your flight, and wait for its departure.

The special train earlier this week did the 306 mile run in 2 hrs 4 minutes.  Although in theory the train is limited to 186 mph, it was recorded at speeds of 202 mph in France and 195 mph in Britain.  Wow.  More details here.

You have to wonder what we could do with a $11.6 billion investment into some Amtrak routes, don't you.  The Northeast corridor between Boston, New York and Washington could be substantially improved, more trains operated, and travel times reduced, meaning that more people would take the train, meaning more revenue would be generated to fund more capital improvements, meaning still more people would take the train, and so on and so on.

What is so difficult about understanding that equation?  The Northeast corridor may or may not already be marginally profitable (depending on how you allocate fixed and variable costs), and further investment would materially boost its appeal to riders and therefore its profitability.  With the growing sensitivity to environmental issues, and the growing congestion in the skies, shouldn't we - for all reasons - be developing practical alternatives to air travel wherever possible?  Clean, green, quiet, electrically powered trains would seem the best option.

Jumping on this environmental bandwagon is the motorcoach industry.  The American Bus Association's president said this week that bus or coach travel was the most fuel efficient form of passenger transportation (compared to plane or car - he was silent about train), saying a coach could operate at 148 passenger miles per gallon.

That sounds very impressive, but only if you don't stop to analyze and compare that claim.  But if you've got 6 people inside your van, and if it is giving you 30 mpg, guess what - you're getting 150 passenger miles per gallon.  And even if you just have two people inside a car that is giving you 25 mpg, that is still 50 passenger miles per gallon.

Plus, the 148 passenger miles per gallon assumes a full coach (probably a 55 seater).  If the coach is only two thirds full, the passenger miles per gallon drops to 100 - the same as a family of four in a regular car at 25 mpg, or five people in a SUV at 20 mpg.

To claim a bus is more than four times more fuel efficient than a car, as did the American Bus Association, might rarely be true in some limited situations, but in normal commercial usage is wildly unrealistic.

And talking about wildly unrealistic environmental claims, reader Philip points out the flaw in IATA's logic about saving trees by no longer issuing passenger tickets.  He points out that because you no longer have a paper ticket in your hand, most people end up printing many pages of hopefully unnecessary reservation data after completing a booking, 'just in case'.  The chances are you'll use up as much tree with all your reservation printouts as the airlines ever did with their tickets.

Boeing's new 787 plane is falling behind schedule - or perhaps not, depending on how you interpret the facts.  Boeing confirmed that the plane won't begin its flight testing until sometime mid-November - mid-December (the original target was late August, then in August was revised to October), but said the 3 - 4 month delay won't impact on its delivery schedule, with the first plane scheduled to be delivered to ANA in May 2008.

Although its last new airplane, the 777, underwent 11 months of flight testing before being released to airlines in 1995, the 787 will have a greatly compressed testing timeline, with more planes flying more hours per week.

Normally this news would be commonplace, but with new composite materials being used for the first time in much of the critical parts of the airframe, creating what Boeing itself refers to as 'a continued voyage of discovery', a slower testing protocol might have been more prudent.  More details here.

Meanwhile, at arch-rival Airbus, the new A-380 is less than two months from its first commercial flight, with Singapore Airlines, between Singapore and Sydney on 25 October.  SQ has been auctioning tickets for this flight on eBay, donating the proceeds to charity, with one pair of first class tickets being sold for more than US$100,000 (one way), to an Australian businessman.

The first business class ticket sold for $15,000 and the first coach class ticket going for $5,000.  One way tickets for the flight are averaging about $10,000 for first class, $8,000 for business class and $1,000 for coach class.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Want to know how to beat the line at the TSA screening point in the airport?  Here's a trick - refuse to show ID.  Apparently, according to this article, the TSA has now clarified its policy on ID - you don't need to show any ID to go through security, but if you don't, you'll be given secondary screening.

But because the line for going through the secondary screening is usually short, you may save more time overall even though the secondary screening might add as much as 5 minutes to your time getting through security.

A shame the TSA weren't more open and consistent with their ID policy in the past, as this appalling story of TSA idiocy and bullying records.

Talking about idiocy and bullying, here's an interesting piece of speculation from Christopher Elliott.  He opines that - at least on some occasions - it seems that airline personnel will deliberately change a passenger's status so that they're required to go through secondary screening just because they don't like the passenger.

Yes, folks, here in the 'land of the free', secret informers (or, in this case, airline checkin personnel) can maliciously lie and cause you to be subjected to interrogation and scrutiny by the TSA, and you've got no recourse whatsoever against these people and their malicious lies.

Lastly this week, did adventurer Steve Fossett stumble into something he shouldn't?  Am I the only one to note his mysterious disappearance occurred while flying close to Area 51?

Let's hope he didn't meet the fate of the men in these two planes.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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