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Friday 9 May, 2008
And hello from Barcelona, where I'm enjoying
several days of pre-cruise touring before heading over to Arles in
France tomorrow for the cruise up the Rhone river.
My BA flights from Seattle got off to an
unexpectedly good start, several days before I even headed from home to
the airport. I called BA with a silly question - I was
traveling on an Alaska frequent flier ticket, and it was so long since I
had booked it, I'd forgotten which class I was flying in, but saw I was
booked in 'P' class in my notes. Back in the 'good old days' P
meant first class, and I was fairly sure that was not the case, so I
called to ask what class I was flying (answer - 'World Traveler Plus' -
their Premium Economy class, which I reviewed some years
The call got off to a good start - no
waiting on hold, and directly connected to a nice res agent. After
having a good laugh at my silly question, and joking about what the 'X'
class could possibly mean for my second flight (automatically cancelled
class? mystery random class?) I told the agent I wasn't up to
date with BA's seat assignment policies - did they pre-assign seats or
not these days? She said she'd see what she could do, and within a
minute or two had got me good seats not only on the trans-Atlantic
flights, but on the within Europe flights too, something I didn't think
was ever done, with no fuss and no problems.
Now for the positive surprise. No, BA still
doesn't officially pre-assign seats, but this agent told me 'I've been
with BA a long time, and I sort of know how to do some things with the
computer, and so for people I like, I sometimes help out'. For
reasons that will remain forever unknown, she apparently decided she
liked me (she had no idea I write a travel newsletter) and so blessed me
with seat assignments.
I'm writing about this in such detail for
several reasons. The flip side of my currently four part series on
How to Complain (with more parts still to be added) is
how to relate to
people in general, and how to ask for favors. Similar techniques
apply, although you probably might want to be slightly less assertive
when asking for favors.
I find it very helpful, whenever calling
anyone to ask for a favor (or just in general), to start off, after the
person I'm calling has answered, by saying 'Hello (their name), my name
is David. Good afternoon (etc) to you.' The effect this
simple personal and positive opening has on people is sometimes
astonishing. You can almost hear the person do a double take, and
then they come back to you with much more life in their voice and say
'Well, good afternoon to you, David. How can I help you today?'
If they do this, you've got them half hooked. If they proceed in a
mechanical voice, and a few seconds later ask you for your name, even
though you've already given it to them, then you're out of luck and you
may as well hang up the phone and call back, hoping to get a human
rather than a robot on the next call.
The next part of a call is to make a self
deprecating joke of some sort, and then to explain how I have done
something silly and need their help. At that point, there's a very
positive chance the person will leap in to help any way they can.
The other thing this experience highlights
is that all service providing companies are defined as much by their
'front line' people as they are by their corporate policies, products,
and whatever else. The difference between the best and worst of
such companies can be found in the people they hire, the training they
give them, and the motivation and support such people have to be the
best they can be. Companies need to better empower and motivate
My positive BA experiences continued. Amazingly, there was no line
to check in at Seatac, and the plane was lightly loaded, which always
makes for a much nicer travel experience. I found myself in
business class, and had a generally positive flight experience with -
believe it or not - marvelous food. The flight left the gate 17
minutes early, and arrived into Heathrow early, getting to the gate 3
minutes ahead of schedule. Amazing. I've updated my
review of BA's Business Class to reflect
this much more positive experience.
As for transiting through Heathrow, that was a breeze. The good
news about the current situation with Terminal 5 is that BA is now split
between more terminals than normal, and all terminals seem currently uncrowded, relaxed and friendly. There were no lines anywhere and
everything worked as it should. The flight on to Barcelona was
similarly uncrowded, left on time and arrived exactly on time, too. Bravo to BA.
Oh - my bags? They too seemed to enjoy their journey, and appeared
on the luggage carousel in Barcelona within 5 minutes of my getting to
the carousel (and I was first off the plane and first to the carousel).
Another couple on the cruise also flew BA, from Phoenix, with similar
positive experiences. Interestingly, they secured an upgrade to
Business Class when checking in for a mere $500 extra each. I find
it hard to justify a $10,000+ fare to fly Business Class, but a $500
each way extra charge - ie, about $50/hr of flying time - brings this
into the realm of practicality for many of us.
Not so fortunate was that of other group members joining us from Los
Angeles. Their UA flight was first delayed and then rescheduled
for the next day, with the ostensible reason for the delay and then
overnight hold being due to maintenance issues. However, I
couldn't help noticing the surprising coincidence that the first
maintenance related delay coincided also with the flight's late arrival
into LAX from Europe, making one wonder exactly how, when, and where the
maintenance delay occurred.
Surprisingly, although the flight didn't leave at all on 6 May as
scheduled, checking both with Flightstats.com and Worldmate on my
Blackberry suggested that the flight departed on time.
Although the people arrived into Barcelona a
day later, their bags are still completely lost two days later with nothing known of
their whereabouts. It is hard to understand how this is possible
in this era of scanning bag tags as they move through the airports and
airlines, and with greater security consciousness encouraging a better
attempt at matching bags to passengers.
While changing flights at Heathrow, I came across a particularly
aggressive example of stores charging one's credit card in US dollars
rather than in local currency. Never accept this option, no matter
how hard they try to persuade you that it is a good option.
this case, the exchange rate was 2.034 for the pre-converted charge,
which compares to a current actual rate of 1.95. My credit card company
adds a 1% fee for international transactions, so my alternatives were
1.97 if converted by the credit card company or 2.03 if accepting the
store's rate. When I complained and insisted they charge me in
pounds, they pointed to a grubby printout sheet affixed to the side of
the cash register and said 'We've negotiated a special rate for you - if
you paid in cash, you'd be using a rate of 2.14'. The fact that
they'd be even more rapacious upon sighting good old fashioned cash is
no reason to accept their lesser rip-off of their 'special' exchange
The two store staff were so insistent on this point that clearly they've
either been brainwashed or get to personally share in the extra 3.25%
the store makes from this 'service'.
And talking about shopping, I went shopping for some books to read,
variously on the plane and on the tour while waiting for my flight at
Seatac. I went to the bookstore and picked out books I liked, but
then I did something different to the other people in the store. I
wrote the book names down and left the store. I sat down in the
gate area and pulled out my Amazon Kindle e-book reader and
ordered/downloaded them from Amazon instead. With books taking
less than a minute to download wirelessly from Amazon, and costing less
than in a store, there are some clear advantages to the Kindle,
especially for travelers not wanting to be burdened with a bag full of
bulky and heavy books for a long flight/vacation.
I reviewed the Kindle when it first came
out, giving it a mixed review. It was (is) good, but not as good
as it could be.
Unfortunately, while the Kindle now boasts
115,000 titles available to choose from, my top two choices were both
unavailable. I then decided to order a title from one of my own
readers, but that too was not available for the Kindle. However, I
found five titles that I did like, so within a few minutes of leaving
the bookstore, had electronically ordered them and wirelessly downloaded
them to the Kindle - all prepared for the long flights ahead.
One worrying thing. When the Kindle
was first released, the Amazon promise was that books would be available
for $9.99 or less. That's still the case, but now not always.
One title that caught my eye was being sold for $15.42. And
there's nothing special about the title - it was released last year, is
a regular fiction title of not unusual length (The Sanctuary by Raymond Khoury) and has no reason
to be $15.42 rather than $9.99 or
As I discuss at length in my
two part series
on the Kindle and in my article about
Sony's competing eBook reader too,
the economics of eBooks are enormously favorable to publishers, even at
'only' $10/title. How can they now justify $15.42? Is
Amazon, or the publisher, getting greedy and now risking killing of this
latest attempt at getting eBooks more broadly accepted by the reading
I'm very pleased with the material I'm
releasing to you on the website this week. The number of different
options when it comes to choosing Britrail passes, and the number of
different discounts that you might qualify for, continues to multiple
and potentially bewilder. I've attempted to put this all together
in a hopefully helpful format, and so here is a two part article :
This Week's Feature Column
: All You Ever Wanted to Know about Britrail Passes :
Should you buy a Britrail pass or not if you're traveling around Britain
by train? If you should, which pass is the best choice for you,
and can you qualify for any discounts off the pass? For answers to
these and many more questions, read the two part article now on the
Dinosaur watching : Another
week, another airfare increase. Wednesday evening saw Delta
initiate a $20 increase in its fuel surcharge across most of its
network. Not all airlines have yet matched, but it seems likely
they will, making this the 15th increase in fares so far this year.
There is no apparent logic or sense to when
the airlines label an increase in cost as a fuel surcharge and when they
call it a fare increase, and with fuel surcharges now running up to $130
per roundtrip ticket, there are occasions where the total cost of the
'fuel surcharge' plus other taxes and fees and surcharges now exceeds
the underlying base fare.
Are we getting to a point where travelers
are starting to cut back on travel due to the steady pace of fare
increases? The airlines clearly hope not, and continue with
their weekly fare increases, but the actual passenger data gives one
pause for thought. In April, many airlines saw strong drops in
passenger numbers. United saw a drop of 6.3% in its domestic
traffic. Delta saw a 3.7% decrease. American had a 6.6%
On the other hand, some airlines won extra
business. JetBlue squeezed out a 0.8% increase, Northwest had a 1%
increase, Alaska had a 3.4% increase, and Southwest enjoyed a massive
April in 2007 featured Easter travel, while
in 2008 Easter was in March, so some decrease in passenger numbers could
be explained by the loss of the Easter travel peak. But what a
clear difference between decreases of up to 6.6% by loser airlines, and
increases of up to 5.7% by winner airlines.
Overall, the sense is that, even after
allowing for the Easter impact, there were fewer people traveling
this year than last. More details
here, including a ridiculous statement reported without comment by
one industry analyst who claims '...no amount of yield [ie level of
fare] is enough to cover $120-per-barrel oil'.
It is impossible to fly profitably when oil
costs $120/barrel? What an absolute nonsense statement that is,
and is even contradicted within the article, in a quote from Delta's
President who says the airline may be approaching a break point on fuel,
which presumably means break even, particularly when viewed alongside
the comment by his CEO a month or so back that a 15% - 20% rise in fare
prices was needed to adjust for the increased costs of fuel. Since
that time, fares have risen close to the 15% - 20% he said was needed.
Struggling JetBlue announced earlier this
week it was shelving the startup of its Los Angeles service for an
indefinite period. The airline had intended to launch three daily
flights to JFK and one daily flight to Boston on May 21. Other new
flights scheduled for May 21 will remain. They are Burbank to Las
Vegas and Washington Dulles, Long Beach to San Jose and Seattle, San
Diego to Seattle and two seasonal flights from Long Beach to JFK and
JetBlue is now paying much greater attention
to the routes it adds, and is growing more slowly than it previously had
While JetBlue grows more carefully, their
founder, former Chairman and CEO, David Neeleman, is back in startup
mode again. He has started a new airline
in Brazil called Azul, a name was chosen from a public vote. The
losing name was Samba. The airline is
expected to start service next January.
While some airlines struggle to stay
profitable, other airlines seem to effortlessly make massive amounts of
profit every quarter and year. While some airlines are cutting
back on flights, other airlines are opening new routes galore.
While some airlines are allowing their fleets to age more and more,
other airlines are filling the order books of both Boeing and Airbus
with new plane orders.
And the one airline that most vividly
exemplifies all three of these positive attributes is Emirates,
which has just announced a record $1.45 billion profit for its last
fiscal year, up 62% from last year. Revenue increased 54% from
$8.5 billion to $11.2 billion, and the net profit margin increased from
11.4% to 13.2% - incredible figures by US standards.
During its last year Emirates added service
to eleven new destinations. Oh - one more thing. Emirates
pays the same amount for jet fuel as does any other airline.
One of the most noticeable distinguishing
features of Emirates is its smiling friendly staff. And chances
are that some of their staff will have even wider smiles at present; I
hear unofficially that there is a 14 week pay bonus being distributed as
a profit share.
Bad news for travel websites.
Orbitz reported a $15 million loss for its first quarter, up from a $10
million loss in 1Q07. Gross bookings were flat, year on year, with
an increase in international bookings (caused in part by higher US
dollar costs for international travel products) being matched by a
decrease in domestic bookings.
The big problem that Orbitz and other web
travel sites have is that their competition is no more than a click
or two away, and there's very little to distinguish or add value to
the major names such as Orbitz compared to discounter sites or the
travel suppliers directly.
Maybe it is just me, but I can never
remember whether I prefer Orbitz or Expedia, and use the two of them
semi-randomly and interchangeably. I used to prefer Travelocity,
but it now scores a distant third in my affections.
And most of the time I don't use either
Orbitz or Expedia these days, preferring sites such as kayak.com to
research fares, and then booking direct with the relevant airline to
save the booking fee added by Orbitz or Expedia to the fare. I can
understand why one would pay a booking fee to a travel agent, but
completely can not understand why you'd pay a fee to book an airline
ticket with one website when you can book it directly with a different
website for no fee at all.
Meanwhile, an investigation of travel web sites in Europe found that
three consumers is being ripped-off due to misleading ads. The Investigation
by the EU's consumer protection commissioner focused on how web sites
offered discounts, under what conditions, and at what prices, and it
revealed there were serious and persistent consumer problems with
online ticket sales in Europe.
The commissioner is threatening legal
action if airlines and tour operators do not take action to clean up
their sites and adhere to the EU's rules.
I experienced something like that myself
when booking a London hotel last week. I used Lastminute.com, a
sister company to Travelocity, and found a hotel I liked with a total
cost for my stay of £300. After researching the hotel, I decided
to book it and clicked on the 'book' button, only to get an excuse from
Lastminute.com telling me that between when I'd first requested the rate
and when I went to book the hotel, there'd been an increase in rate, and
the £300 rate was no longer available. The lowest rate was now
£357. I winced and wished I'd been quicker to book the hotel.
But then, I thought suspiciously to myself -
is this really true? So I re-requested the hotel availability and
rate, and guess what? The rate now showed as £300 again. I
instantly booked it, but there was the apology and the £357 rate once
Even at £357 it was an okay deal, so I
shrugged and proceeded to book it. And then, out of curiosity, did
another availability request, and there it was again - back at £300.
A second booking for another group member,
and different dates of stay, brought about the same result of a low
offered rate and a higher charged rate.
So what is this? Bait and switch?
Outright dishonesty? A programming glitch? I don't know,
but it sure doesn't smell right to me. I hope Lastminute.com is on
the EU list of bad sites.
Talking about bad things, the Dept of
Justice is getting very serious with its investigation into price fixing
for international air cargo rates, and in a plea agreement, a former
Qantas cargo executive will accept eight months in jail and pay a
$20,000 criminal fine for his part in a conspiracy to fix rates.
He is the first individual to be charged in
the DoJís investigation into airline price-fixing. Since August
2007, Japan Air Lines, Qantas, British Airways and Korean Air Lines have
separately pleaded guilty to price-fixing conspiracies, and each had
been sentenced to pay fines.
You might say its tip for tat (ouch). American Airlines says it will no longer
allow skycaps to accept tips from passengers checking in bags at
curbside at Logan International.
This comes after the skycaps won a
lawsuit against AA for lost tips. The airline has asked the court to throw out the
jury's verdict. AA said it banned the tipping because of the
jury's verdict, and said it is now increasing the skycaps wages to $12 -
15/hr to compensate for the lost tips.
The truth is that skycaps, who formerly were
paid $5.15, made a great deal more than $15/hr, even with the diminished
level of tips received after the airlines added $2/bag curbside checkin
fees. But the skycaps got too greedy, and now they're getting
This Week's Security Horror Story :
For a change, let's look at some non-horror stories from elsewhere in
the world and then reflect on why the opposite seems to apply in the US.
When I arrived into Barcelona and went to
the Immigration booth, the man behind the counter took my passport,
flipped through it to find an empty page, stamped it, and handed it back
to me. I had not needed to fill out any arrival form, he did not
even look at my picture, he didn't run the passport through a reader or
scanner, I didn't need to get my picture taken, and neither did I need
to give my fingerprints. Indeed, I didn't say a word to him and he
didn't say a word to me, so I didn't have to answer a bunch of questions
about why I was visiting Spain, how long I'd stay, etc. His stamp
in my passport gave me entrance to most of the EU without any further
If Spain (and most other European countries)
are so completely relaxed at allowing us into their countries, why are
we so nervous at allowing them into the US?
And while the US is tightening up its visa
and entry procedures, a country that was once one of the most unfriendly
and hardest to visit in the world is going to the opposite extreme.
Soccer fans who wish to attend a championship soccer match in Moscow
have been told they do not need to get any sort of visa at all - they
simply need to show their soccer match ticket when arriving in Russia.
If Russia can now allow soccer fans (one of
the most unruly groups of people there are) to visit free of scrutiny
and without any visa, why do we insist that Russians should wait weeks
for a visa interview appointment, be personally interviewed, pay a
massive fee for the interview and even more if a visa is granted, etc
etc, prior to visiting the US?
The US is massively out of step with the
rest of the world, and the rest of the world knows this and resents
being aggressively and rudely treated with open hostility and suspicion
by our immigration officials.
United Airlines won't let you report your
missing baggage for security reasons? So says the headline of
this horror story. This is a classic example of airline staff
passing the buck, and knowing they're not going to be accountable to
anyone for their misdeeds.
It is eerily reminiscent of what happened to
my group members with the missing luggage in Barcelona at present -
their insistence that they physically retrieve their luggage off the
cancelled United flight and then recheck it onto the alternate flight
with a different airline was greeted first with the information that it
wasn't possible because the luggage office was currently closed, and
then the next morning they were assured by both UA and the alternate
airline that there was no need to worry about anything, there were
'comments in the record' and everything would go smoothly.
Two days later and the luggage has
apparently vanished off the face of the earth, with no information about
its whereabouts whatsoever.
Something we seldom think about, when taking
off and landing, is the quality of the runway beneath us. Perhaps
this needs more attention, as
Cheese is allowed on planes, but only if it
has no holes? So reader Carol was told. She writes
I was flagged for having a piece of cheese in my carryon.
The screener asked if it was Swiss, I said it was Jarlsberg. He then
looked into the bag. He said anything with holes in it is a concern for
them. Now I take cheddar or Muenster when traveling.
article about how you actually don't need ID when traveling.
Note the TSA's strange comment that it can require you to produce ID,
but is choosing not to. What a strange situation that is.
'I'm from the government, and I'm here to
help you' is a
particularly worrying thought for women in Malaysia.
interesting idea for those of us who occasionally find ourselves
driving slightly faster than the posted speed limit.
I probably won't visit Stonehenge during my
brief time in England later this month, but here's an
interesting video about a man who believes he knows how Stonehenge
was built. Not only does he believe he knows how it was built, but
he's proceeding to recreate a Stonehenge himself, single-handedly.
My comments last week about Microsoft drew
the inevitable flurry of replies from Mac users, who, alas, missed the
point in suggesting I switch to a Mac. Will a Windows program have
a better interface on a Mac? No. Will a bug in a Windows
program disappear when layered on top of a Mac? Again, no.
But, in a lighter vein, here's an old and
doubtless apocryphal story about Microsoft.
At a recent computer expo (COMDEX), Bill Gates reportedly compared the
computer industry with the auto industry and stated,
'If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we
would all be driving $25.00 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon.'
In response to Bill's comments, General Motors issued a press release
If GM had developed technology like Microsoft, we would all be driving
cars with the following characteristics :
1. For no reason whatsoever, your car would crash.......twice a day.
2. Every time they repainted the lines in the road, you would have to
buy a new car.
3. Occasionally your car would die on the freeway for no reason. You
would have to pull to the side of the road, close all of the windows,
shut off the car, restart it, and reopen the windows before you could
continue. For some reason you would simply accept this.
4. Occasionally, executing a maneuver such as a left turn would cause
your car to shut down and refuse to restart, in which case you would
have to reinstall the engine.
5. Macintosh would make a car that was powered by the sun, was reliable,
five times as fast and twice as easy to drive - but would run on only
five percent of the roads.
6. The oil, water temperature, and alternator warning lights would all
be replaced by a single 'This Car Has Performed An Illegal Operation'
7. The airbag system would ask 'Are you sure?' before deploying.
8. Occasionally, for no reason whatsoever, your car would lock you out
and refuse to let you in until you simultaneously lifted the door
handle, turned the key and grabbed hold of the radio antenna.
9. Every time a new car was introduced car buyers would have to learn
how to drive all over again because none of the controls would operate
in the same manner as the old car.
10. You'd have to press the 'Start' button to turn the engine off.
There'll be no newsletter next week - I'll be on the river cruise boat
somewhere on the Rhone river. There may be a newsletter the
following week, when I'll be returning back from London on the Thursday
- the chances aren't very good this will occur, and if it doesn't,
for sure there'll be one the next week.
Until the next newsletter,
please enjoy safe travels