Friday 14 September, 2007
Another anniversary of 9/11 has come and gone; it truly was a defining moment, with still spreading ripples through our lives. One small ripple is what you're reading today - the aftermath of 9/11 made my plan to publish a book on travel ill timed and unlikely to be successful, so I started this project instead.
Perhaps because I make a point of questioning conventional wisdom, some readers write in to share all manner of 'non-mainstream' thought, and with the 9/11 anniversary, I've been getting quite a lot of material that questions much of what the official version of 9/11 would have us believe, with some of it being so far from mainstream thought as to be almost impossible to consider, with an unsettling mix of demagoguery and impassioned apparent logic to make their cases. I'm curious to know what a generally well informed, well educated, and well read group of people think about all of this, and so, if I may, here's an instant reader poll.
What do you think/believe? Do we know the full truth about who did what? Please would you click on the link below that most closely reflects your own opinion - it will generate an empty email with your response coded into the subject line. I'll tabulate and present the results in next week's newsletter.
Usually the results of our polls come as no surprise to me, but this time, I couldn't even start to guess as to the responses. Please do send in your own opinion.
Here's a bit of good news/bad news that you might be able to profit from. I've been getting in final payments for this year's Christmas Markets Cruise, and as invariably happens, we had one couple cancel. They've lost their deposit, and I've persuaded Amadeus Waterways to allow me to 'recycle' the deposit and allow it to be offset against a new booking.
So, if you'd like to come join us, there's a $200 per person credit that can be applied, meaning you'll save a lovely $400 on the cruise price. Use it to fund your gift buying (and Gluhwein buying!) in the Christmas Markets as we travel along the Danube, perhaps. First in, first served, so if you'd like to save $400 on the cruise, hurry on and choose to join us.
One other potential saving. We have a single gentleman who is looking for a companion to share a cabin with him. If you were thinking of doing the cruise alone but didn't want to pay the single supplement, let me know and maybe the two of you might agree to share a cabin.
My comments about Luciano Pavarotti last week drew plenty of positive responses. I was driving for several hours on Friday and my XM Satellite Radio opera channel unsurprisingly had wall to wall specials on Pavarotti, along with featuring some of his finest recordings, and I was reminded again of how wonderful satellite radio is. If you've been thinking of getting a satellite radio receiver, you might find my two part series on the subject helpful.
And if you'd like another Pavarotti recommendation, here's a CD rather than DVD suggestion this week. Consider his 1967 Decca recording of Verdi's Requiem Mass, with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti. This was his first ever recording of the Requiem, and only nine months after he'd sung it for the first time (under Karajan's baton). The Decca sound is superlative, as it consistently was in the 1960s. If you don't know Verdi's Requiem, suffice it to say that it is an overwhelmingly powerful piece of choral music while still being easy to enjoy - Italy's version of our Messiah, perhaps, and is very well presented here. I believe the CD to be out of print at present, but Amazon have some copies remaining on their site.
And now, to introduce this week's feature column, here's an actual letter of complaint to United's CEO, Glenn Tilton. For reasons best known to themselves, the Wall St Journal chose to reproduce it in its entirety, along with other emails between the complainer and Tilton. If you wish, read through this email, then I'll make some comments about how the writer frames his complaint and how it could have been done better.
So, what is right and wrong about this letter of complaint? From the recipient's point of view, there's very little to like in this email, which to start with is way too long. If a printed letter, it would have stretched to four or five pages. Lesson 1 - don't write long letters of complaint, particularly to CEOs.
After using a literary device - calling United Airlines Divided Airlines - which probably did not endear himself to Mr Tilton, the writer then shows himself to be an eccentric impossible to please complainer when he talks about 'While I've documented and could spend a couple hundred hours reporting innumerable incidents, issues, problems and frustrations'. Lessons 2 and 3 - don't insult or annoy the recipient of your complaint, and don't show yourself to be a difficult customer and unlikely to ever be pleased. You'll only get generous compensation if the company you're complaining to believes that, in doing so, it will convert you into a good and loyal ongoing customer. Mr Hansen gives little reason for United to ever want to see him on one of their planes again.
All of a sudden, and out of nowhere, he suddenly blurts out his Mileage Plus number. Lesson 4 - include key identification details at the top of the letter, don't hide them in the body of your letter.
Continue reading and only in what would be someway down page 2 of a printed letter (Lesson 5 - regular mailed letters work usually better than email) do we start to come to what he is actually complaining about. Lesson 6 - cut to the chase, and early on, tell the reader what your problem is. Save the lengthy narrative for later on (if at all).
He then recounts how he starts to behave as self-appointed representative for all the other passengers on the delayed flight. Big mistake. Lesson 7 - be selfish in your complaining and requests for help. Don't ask for something for everyone, because that will get official airline policy recited at you. Ask for something special for you, because you are someone special, and/or have special circumstances to justify special consideration. Mr Hansen made himself look like some sort of militant person who airline people will run away from rather than be eager to help.
He explains how he asked for free admission to United's Red Carpet Club and was consistently refused. Lesson 8 - Don't ask for things you're unlikely to get; after asking what the airline will do for all passengers, does he really expect United to open the Red Carpet Club's doors and invite in potentially 100+ delayed passengers? Of course not!
He then goes on to complain about general problems throughout United Airlines. You know, I know, he knows, and probably Glenn Tilton also knows that much of what he says is true. But does he really need to adopt a superior tone 'In my professional and personal opinion, an independent team needs to conduct a comprehensive, objective audit of the entire organization and all operations from top to bottom, inside and out.'? That just insults the company's present CEO, and is another way of saying 'I know more about your business than you do'. Lesson 9 - Stick to the issue you're seeking compensation for, and leave the rest of your letter positive and upbeat.
And now, finally, on what would be page 3 of a written letter, he states his request, which, it turns out, is nothing to do with the delayed flight he'd been writing about earlier! He says 'You will find an invoice reflecting the adverse impact of United Airlines on my business, personal life, and personal life since 2004. It would be much higher if I went back another one to five years. I expect it to be paid.' This invoice, by the way, is for $100,000. What chance do you think he has of getting this much money from United? He's more likely to win the lottery (without even buying a ticket) than he is to see $100,000 from United. Lesson 10 - Ask only for fair and reasonable compensation. Mr Hansen's request for $100,000, for unspecified vague compensation, is ridiculous in the extreme and unlikely to be treated other than with mirth and derision by United.
But wait, there's more. Much more. He then refers to copying his 'legal counsel' on his letter (and later starts to talk about class actions against the airline). As soon as you start to talk attorneys, you'll find the person you're complaining to will stiffen up and start to follow exactly the letter of the law in their company policy manual. The whole idea of a complaint is to get a special exception type something from the company, by talking attorneys, you've killed your chance of that. Lesson 11 - don't do an attorney bluff, especially with a company who employs dozens of attorneys on their full time staff and can beat you senseless at that game.
And now, the writer totally loses the plot. He suggests that maybe Tilton is Captain Bly on the Bounty, and calls for Mr Tilton to resign so as to 'save United Airlines'. Does anyone really think that Tilton resigning would 'save' United Airlines? More to the point, who, in their wildest dreams, would expect Mr Tilton to resign in response to this letter? Lesson 12 - don't go off the deep end and rant and rave - you only make a fool of yourself and alienate the person you're trying to persuade to help you.
Phew. How can a person who describes himself as a 'strategic marketer and researcher' and who says he has completed numerous courses in problem-solving and dispute resolution do such an appalling job of complaining? The answer to this question will remain a mystery, but the answer to a different question - how to do a better job of complaining, yourself, can be provided. Which leads, at last, to :
This Week's Feature Column : The Art of Positive Complaining : In the start of what promises to be a four (or more) part series, we look at some of the overarching concepts to keep in mind when planning how to make a complaint and get the most positive response from the person or company you're complaining to.
Dinosaur watching : You've probably already heard about one of Southwest's recent missteps, but have you heard about both of them? Twice, in the last few weeks, they have told women on planes that their clothing was too immodest. One of the two ladies, photogenic 23 year old student Kyla Ebberts, has been complaining about her treatment at Southwest's hands and has been delighting male viewers of various televisions shows by appearing in the outfit she wore on her Southwest flight that caused the problem. You can see a picture of her here. And here's the story about another woman being similarly hassled.
Apart from stating the obvious (that as a man I see nothing wrong with such outfits) it is interesting to note the corporate blandness that emanated when Southwest's headquarters were confronted with the details of what their silly front line staff had done. In the past, back when Southwest prided itself on being a slightly raunchy airline and a breath of fresh air, they'd undoubtedly have said how stupid their staff were and offered generous compensation to the two lady passengers, probably subject to a requirement that they again travel in their contentious clothing.
But now, corporate spokesmen were at pains to join ranks with their front line staff. It took the airline a sluggardly six weeks and two days to respond to Ms Ebbert's complaint, and in their letter back they said "there were concerns about the revealing nature" of Kyla's outfit and that the airline had the right to remove any passenger "whose clothing is lewd, obscene or patently offensive."
Do you really think her outfit is lewd, obscene, or patently offensive?
Contrast their position today with this section from the memoirs of now dead Southwest founder, Lamar Muse
And here's a video clip of a 1972 advertisement from Southwest that shows you what Lamar was writing about.
These days, Southwest would probably refuse to allow people, dressed the way their flight attendants were formerly required to, onto their planes. And you thought we were becoming a more permissive society?
One comment about this 1972 video clip. I originally received it as a 3MB .mov file, but converted it to a 580kB .wmv file. This .wmv file plays on everyone's Windows Media Player program, is one sixth the size, and the same quality. From my perspective as a webmaster who pays for bandwidth, this smaller file saves me appreciable money, and from your point of view as a downloader, you get to play the clip six times faster.
My point in mentioning this is to draw your attention to the program I used to convert the file - the Movavi Video Suite. The same program can also be used for uploading videos to YouTube or anywhere else, and for converting movies to watch on iPods and other MP3/video type players, and for many other things too. It is very quick to use, and very simple in operation, and costs a mere $59.95. If you have ever wanted to do any of these things, there's also a free trial download available - check it out on their website.
Travel agent Bob writes with news of a fare he found in his reservations computer. Looking for a ticket between Washington and Orlando, he came up with a non-refundable $51.50 one way fare for travel on US Airways.
What is special about this fare? Just one small part of the fine print. If the flight has to be changed, there's a change/reissue fee that is levied. Now see if you can guess how much the change fee on a $51.50 ticket might be?
Whatever you guessed, you're almost surely wrong. The change fee is $100, almost exactly twice the cost of the $51.50 ticket to start with. And how would you rate that on a fairness scale of 1 - 10?
An air passenger rights group is planning to hold a 'strand in' in DC this coming Wednesday. Sounds like a good idea to me - details here.
There's a second reason to click on the strand-in article link immediately above. If it has never happened to you (and I hope it hasn't) you might like to click on the video titled 'One passenger's ordeal on a delayed flight' that is offered near the top of the page. This records what happened during a seven hour ground delay on a recent Northwest flight and does a good job of conveying the terrible frustrations and apparent outright lies fed to the passengers by Northwest representatives.
Oh - did I say 'fed'? A Freudian slip, perhaps, because NW refused to feed the passengers at any time.
And here's a humorous proposed airline passenger bill of rights that would be funny if it weren't so close to the ugly reality of present day air travel. Be sure to read some of the amusing comments after the article itself, too.
With this as background, it is perhaps no surprise that Amtrak ridership is steadily rising, setting new records year after year, as detailed here.
Perhaps the most telling part of the article was the discovery, apparently surprising to some, that adding more trains with more convenient timings, will result in increased ridership. But this 'solution' is not without problems of its own - Amtrak is desperately short of rolling stock, and has no capital reserve with which to buy more.
Amtrak's problems are solvable, however - a focus on sellable routes, and new investment to make the product on those routes convenient and reliable could transform it into a highly desirable service for many of us.
One airline says they are trying to improve their customer service. United. Sort of.
They say they'll try to get bags to the carousel within 25 minutes of the plane arriving at the gate, but they get very vague as to if this is guaranteed (ie, it isn't) or what might happen if your bag takes longer than 25 minutes.
Joe Brancatelli gets it right when he is quoted in this article as saying 'This is all baloney'.
I hope you're sitting down to read this one. Air New Zealand has said it is discontinuing its in-house discount carrier that had formerly provided cheaper flights between New Zealand and Australia. Its subsidiary, Freedom Air, has been used in the past to squash other new entrant carriers trying to carve a niche. But with no low cost carriers to compete against, just other traditional airlines keen to charge premium fares, Freedom Air is being closed down.
And the reason Air NZ is discontinuing its discount carrier's flights? It says that customers want better services and not just cheap fares. Apparently my fellow NZers are unique in the world as being the only group of people, anywhere, who'll happily pay premium prices for 'better services'.
Adding to the sense of unreality, the airline added that the cost of flying has been brought down significantly and so there was no longer any need for a discount carrier.
Wanna bet how quickly Freedom Air would be revived if another true discount airline started flights between NZ and Australian?
The DoT has fined three tour operators - Trafalgar Tours, Uniworld Tours, and Viking River Cruises - a total of $185,000 for violations of its fare advertising rules. DoT rules require that prices in advertisements must include the entire cost, including such things as fuel surcharges. This can however be difficult for tour operators that print brochures months (or even a year or more) in advance - one airline increased its surcharge three times in ten days, according to the US Tour Operator Association, speaking in defense of the three companies.
To be fair to the tour operators, it is normal in the industry to get pricing contracts setting firm pricing as much as 18 or more months in advance of travel dates from most ground operators - hotels, coaching companies, etc. But the airlines refuse to do any such thing, and - as we all know - can play such games as they wish with fuel surcharges with almost no notice at all.
And to be fair to the DoT, the reason for the fine wasn't solely due to brochure price issues. The DoT was also upset that the tour operators obscured the total cost on their websites, which of course can be updated instantly. The ridiculous excuse from the USTOA? 'What they don't understand is that we're having some problems on the internet' said their President, Bob Whitley. 'They [DoT] think you can change prices instantly, but tour operators aren't, by and large, big technical companies.'
I've got news for Bob. I'm not a big technical company either. But I can change things on my website within seconds. If his members want to have websites (and who doesn't, these days) they need to commit to keeping them current.
Oh, the shame of it : Airlines have withdrawn one of the privileges they formerly offered to US senators. Formerly they were allowed to get confirmed reservations on multiple flights, due to not knowing when the Senate might finish deliberations for the week. Senators can no longer do this, because the airlines have deemed it to be a gift, it being a privilege not offered to normal passengers. New ethic rules would ban such gifts.
Needless to say, senators are dismayed at experiencing a taste of the real world. Sen Diane Feinstein (D-Calif), chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which has oversight of the issue, said 'It's really hard because if you can only book one flight, and you can't make that flight, then you're stuck'.
Hey, Diane. You're right. And welcome to the real world. Perhaps you might become more interested in some real airline passenger rights legislation now? Should we include the right to multiply book flights without cost or penalty into such a bill, perhaps?
More news about the first A380 flights, due to take to the skies in just a month from now. Singapore Airlines has disclosed its A380 cabin layout - until now a closely guarded commercial secret - will have 12 first class seats on the main deck, 60 business class seats on the upper deck, and 399 coach class seats spread over both decks. This makes for a total of 471 seats, considerably less than the 555 seats possible in a typical three class configuration, or the 840 seats in a one class configuration, and only 20% - 77 seats more - than on a typical 747-400 with 14 first class seats, 65 business class seats and 315 coach class seats.
It is also interesting to note that the percentage of first and business class seats has dropped compared to on the 747-400. All the seat growth has been in the coach class section.
The key lesson from these numbers is that the naysayers who have been ridiculously suggesting that airports will be swamped with impossibly huge numbers of passengers to load and unload from an A380 are completely wrong. If an airport can manage a 394 passenger 747, it should manage a 471 passenger A380 flight with almost no increased hassle at all - especially when you consider that only large airports can handle either plane to start with.
Meanwhile, more hubris at Boeing. In the tremendous rush to get their new 787 plane certified, they're placing much greater reliance on computer based theoretical testing rather than real world actual testing. The weakness of computer based testing is that it is only as good as the assumptions fed into the computer program. It can simulate, to a reasonable degree, known issues and known flight parameters. But, with an all new plane and largely new construction materials and methods (composites), are we sure that computer programs are adequately loaded with all variables, or are there some unknowns that will only become apparent in the real world?
This article tells how Boeing believes that dropping a 10' section of fuselage 15' gives it enough data to validate a computer model of more major crash impacts on the entire plane.
I sure hope they're right.
Cell phones are dangerous to your health, continued yet again : Here's an article that very cautiously suggests a 'hint of cancer risk' may be associated with cell phone usage for ten years or more.
How long have you had your cell phone?
Global warming, etc : Britain's Conservative Party, increasingly desperate to do anything at all to get re-elected after a long time in the political wilderness, seems to be abandoning all its historical roots and instead trying to outbid Labour for the affections of fickle voters. A new policy paper this week advocates banning big screen plasma televisions because they use too much electricity. As I said four weeks ago, there's no limit to where the concept of carbon rationing will go, although even I didn't anticipate a ban on big screen televisions.
Remember when the cure-all to carbon emissions was to plant trees? My local Whole Foods even sells coupons that purport to end up somehow causing more trees to be planted to compensate for all the naughty carbon emissions I've caused by buying their expensive foodstuffs. And then people actually looked at the hard science and found that - surprise surprise - sometimes planting trees actually results in a net increase in carbon emissions.
Now it is time for another sacred cow of the carbon emission movement to move over. You've probably seen people with aggressively puritanical bumper stickers proudly claiming that their car runs on bio-diesel, a product which supposedly will end our dependency on foreign oil, reduce carbon emissions, and even make the coffee for us in the morning (well, maybe not the last one).
Research is now suggesting that bio-fuels may actually end up with greater overall harmful environmental impacts than simply burning regular gasoline and diesel. And if you've noticed the price of beef going up in the store, and perhaps soon bread too, that's another related impact due to less grain being grown for these other uses.
And this article further counters the claim that 'everyone' accepts the reality of man-made global warming and the dangers it poses. 500 scientists in peer-reviewed literature have published evidence that contradicts at least some elements of the assertion that man-made factors are the primary cause of possible present global warming.
This Week's Security Horror Story : Six years on from 9/11/01 and we're getting worse, not better, in terms of protecting our nation from aviation based terror threats. This is the conclusion of Sen Charles Schumer (D-NY), who rates the nation's aviation security at C+ this year, down from a B- last year. Details here.
The Department of Homeland Security, in reply, said it wasn't all their fault. They pointed to being answerable to 90 different Senate and House committees and sub-committees, and said that reporting to all these different watchdog groups was a tremendous burden.
DHS has an estimated 200,000 or more employees. If even 1% of that number was tasked with government liaison, that would be 2,000 people, or 22 per committee. Surely that is more than enough people? A 'tremendous burden'? Hardly.
Tit for tat? A new US law requiring online registration of most European visitors prior to their visits to the US has spurred the EU to consider requiring all American visitors to register online 48 hours prior to departure to Europe and to provide passport details and travel plans
The proposal would be the same as the US legislation that was signed into law in August. The proposal will be discussed at a Brussels meeting of justice ministers next week.
The best city in the world? According to Conde Nast Traveler readers, it is again Sydney. Paris, New York and Rome placed 2nd, 3rd and 4th. While these choices seem sensible enough (and particularly Sydney), the list of best countries is a bit more surprising. India, Italy and Thailand came 1st, 2nd and 3rd, with Australia then appearing as number 4.
The new Hong Kong International Airport was rated the world's best, followed by Singapore's Changi Airport and Dubai International.
London won an award of a different sort. It was named the most expensive city to eat in according to a recent Zagat study. Paris comes second. Details here.
But plainly it isn't yet too expensive to stay in motels in some parts of Britain, as witness this story of a couple who have stayed continually, for the last 22 years, in Travelodges around Britain. Although they own their own home, they say it is cheaper and safer to stay in Travelodges.
Here's an interesting use of computer technology - you too can join in the search for missing adventurer Steve Fossett, without leaving the comfort of your computer chair and desk.
Lastly this week, I'm starting my Christmas wishlist early this year. Perhaps some kind reader might like to send me one of these.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels
David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider
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