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Friday 9 January, 2009
The new year celebration is already a fading
memory, and we're settling in for the long slog through - at least in
this area - a nasty winter.
As I write, today, 60 different roads are
closed around Washington state. This is bad enough, but what I
find truly puzzling - and frustrating - is the proclivity of the local
DoT to close 73 miles of I-90 when there is some avalanche danger on 2
or 3 miles, or heavy snow on maybe 10 miles. Most of the closed
portion is on a high plain, a long way from any mountains or avalanche
danger, and there are exits every mile or two - in other words, there is
no need whatsoever to close 73 miles of one of our only two main
I asked them about this and their answer
was, I kid you not, that they close all these enormous stretch of
Washington state's only East-West freeway 'for the convenience of
motorists' so that motorists have plenty of advance warning to plan
alternate routes (such as they are).
I asked them further 'well, what about a
person who wanted to simply travel for maybe 35 miles along the
(unnecessarily closed) part of the freeway?'. They had no answer
to that other than to suggest alternate routes that would be much longer
and not nearly as convenient to drive.
Really strange behavior. Maybe they're
being paid off by the airlines to try and force us to fly? For
sure, the airlines claim to need all the help they can get at present,
after having experienced a 9% drop in traffic this Christmas season,
making the ninth month in a row of dropping passenger numbers, an
unheard of event.
The airlines continue to prophecy gloom and
doom for their 2009 operations, although why that should be continues to
puzzle me. Their operating costs have never been lower than they currently
are. Of course, we're told the reason for their latest
projected bout of chronic unprofitability is not their fault, rather, it
is the fault of the traveling public, or - more to the point - the
non-traveling public. The reason for the
reduction in passenger numbers, the airlines tell is, is of course attributed to our current
On the face of it, this seems like a
reasonable explanation. But is this truly the case?
No, not at all. If you'd like to know the real reasons why air
travel is dropping, and to see who is truly to blame for this, then
please click to :
This Week's Feature Column :
Ten Reasons Why
Fewer People are Flying : Air travel is down almost 10%
year on year. The airlines blame the economy. I have ten other reasons
why fewer people are flying in a mammoth three part feature.
Dinosaur watching : Reinforcing
the analysis in my three part feature, in which I suggest it is the
fault of bad airlines, not of the economy, that their passenger numbers
are down, we have some December traffic figures now coming in.
AA reports a 9.6% drop in their RPMs (revenue passenger miles)
compared to December 07. CO was down 9.3%, and United
had a 9.5% drop.
On the other hand, AirTran was up 2.3%
and Southwest was up 1.1%. In other words, dinosaurs are
dropping, low cost alternate carriers are increasing.
One of the other points I make in my article
series is that the drop in passenger numbers is the result of
airlines reducing their services, and confirming this are announced
plans by Delta to reduce its capacity by 8% - 10% this year and
American to drop its capacity by about 8.5%. Talk about scoring
wonderfully clever graphic showing service cuts by state and
airport across the country. But, although this article was
published only a couple of days ago, you'll see the airlines are still
trotting out the well-past-its-use-by-date excuse about high fuel
prices. Goodness me - they're paying less now than they have
at any time since early 2005 for their jetfuel.
On the other hand, to look at a well run
airline, I mentioned last week
how wonderfully Westjet responded to weather problems in Canada
over the Christmas period. The result - their December traffic
Air Canada, that didn't treat its passengers
nearly so well reported a 6.7% decrease in its traffic.
Starting to see a pattern here?
One more comment about wonderful Westjet.
They are giving each employee a $500 travel credit to thank them for
their extra effort and help during the bad weather problems in December.
Although one senses that many Westjet employees were happy to work for
free, giving $500 travel bonuses is a lovely action on Westjet's part.
For sure, you'll likely see smiling staff on your next Westjet flight,
although I'm not sure the same can be promised of a flight on Air
Just in case you don't read the full three
page article, one of the recent events that prompted me to write it is
something that you really have to hear about :
US Airways has
removed the coat hangers it formerly had in first class to hang
passengers coats with as its latest cost cutting exercise. The
cost saved is probably too small to measure (how much does a coat hanger
cost, and how long does it last?).
That has to be the most egregious example
of excessive cost cutting I've seen all year. Oh, wait!
It is only 9 January.
What happens if you trim back the amenities
and extra features/services in first class? People stop paying
extra to travel in first class, that's what. Could that be
part of the reason why BA reported a 12.1% drop in its premium cabin
traffic, contrasted with only a 1.8% drop in its coach cabin traffic,
BA says that a major restructuring is in
the works (this is usually management-speak for 'standby for lots of
layoffs') that will be far-reaching and reshape the airline from top to
bottom (which is code for 'no-one's job is safe'). Let's hope that
part of the restructuring will be to add to rather than detract from the
service offered in the business and first class cabins, with first class
in particular desperately needing an update to get back in line with
what other airlines offer.
One has to wonder how this major
restructuring will impact on BA's subsidiary, Openskies (reviewed
here). Look for either BA
to switch more services to the lower cost structure of Openskies, or to
use the Openskies subsidiary as a threat to beat up on its present
unions with, or for BA to close Openskies down (okay, that's giving me
lots of opportunity to be right, isn't it!).
Meanwhile, Openskies has announced a very
appealing airfare sale on their route from JFK to Amsterdam.
$1000 roundtrip for their Prem+ cabin (ie business class in all but
name), and - get this - the $1000 fare includes all taxes, fees, fuel
surcharges, and everything. Book your travel by 26 Jan, and
complete your travel by 31 May. Ideal for, among other things, an
These appear to be desperate times for
airlines, and I've often accused the airlines of not having a single
original thought among the whole lot of them. Well, to be
fair, that is slightly overstating the situation. And not every
original thought is necessarily a good one.
As evidence of that,
a new airline that is planning to charge its passengers on a cost
per minute of air time (using standard travel times, not actual
travel times, so you won't be penalized for delays). This is
clearly a gimmick, and not a very sensible one - it makes it difficult
for the airline to charge extra for short haul flights (where the actual
flying cost is higher) and also makes it difficult to charge less on
longer haul flights.
Plus, putting the whole thing into the
'too clever' category is the airline's decision to vary the cost at
which they sell travel minutes for. In theory, this enables you to
'hedge' your future travel costs by buying up minutes whenever they are
cheap. But in reality, for most of us, it just makes the whole
exercise too hard, and probably also makes it close to impossible for
the airline to list itself and its fares in the typical online booking
But, it did do one thing well. Its
novel concept bought it a great deal of media coverage this week,
including even, ahem, here.
Reader Cary writes in with a classic
illustration of why we hate the airlines (and are trying to cut back
our travel as much as possible)
My family of five, - and four other people
too - had checked our luggage an
hour prior to departure, but were held up by the TSA lines in the
pre-holiday rush of people at LAX on Dec. 22nd. We arrived at our gate 5
minutes before departure, but were denied boarding because the United
Express jetís door had been closed. We then sat there for 30 minutes as
we watched the plane sit at the gate while the luggage people apparently
combed through the hold of the plane locating our baggage to unload. The
60 passenger jet then left 30 minute late for Vancouver with at least
our nine empty
seats, while we were wait listed for the next 12 hours as we watched plane
after plane take off until we finally lucked out and got on the last
plane of the day resulting in us reaching Whistler at 4 in the morning.
My skis didnít arrive until four days later!
It wasn't a case of the airline having
given our seats to someone else. I know the plane left approximately 20% empty, because my seatmate on
the flight back to LAX told me she had been on that very plane and
couldnít understand why it left so empty during the obvious holiday
I was told by the gate agent that every plane for the next four
days was sold out, so if they had already loaded our baggage, and knew through their
computers that we had checked in, why couldnít they have held the plane
a few minutes knowing full well that the TSA were
overwhelmed with longer than normal delays through security? Airports across the continent were experiencing delays
because of bad weather and snowy conditions that day - what difference
would five minutes have made, especially as their alternative ended up
being a thirty minute delay while they offloaded our
I've already mentioned how much I love my
new Blu-ray disc player, and if you've got a good quality new
television monitor, you're definitely advised to consider a Blu-ray
player yourself the next time you're due for a treat.
One of the Blu-ray movies I bought to watch
was a copy of Mamma Mia, and I was stunned not only at the amazingly
vivid colors and picture quality, but at the astonishing beauty of
the Greek island where much of it was filmed -
In contrast to the negligible impact that
hosting the Olympics had on Greece's tourism, the Mamma Mia movie is
materially and positively impacting on Greek tourism, with the tiny
island of Skopelos (no airport, the only normal access is by ferry)
having a huge surge in interest, and the locals have now predictably put
together a Mamma Mia tour.
Suggestion to countries - skip the Olympics.
But subsidize some movies instead.
Talking about international travel, closer
to home, if you travel to Canada or any of the few remaining other
places you can still go to without a passport, note that 1 June is the
probably final deadline (it has been put back several times already) for
needing either a passport or, in some cases, a 'passport card' in order
to return back to the US. There's likely to be another rush on
passports as that deadline approaches, so if you expect to need a
passport this coming summer, now's a good time to apply.
Build it and they will come? It works
in the movies (Field of Dreams) but not so much in real life.
There's apparently a growing glut of convention space in the US,
but that isn't stopping Seattle from wanting to expand its convention
You see, they have a 'problem' in Seattle.
There's a 7% hotel tax that is for the convention center, but they don't
need the money any more. You'd think the sensible thing to do
would be to end the tax, but the state legislature has taken the money
and re-purposed it for general spending and low cost housing instead.
So the convention center people are urgently dreaming up new ways to
spend the money themselves instead. Anything, anything at all
except end the special purpose tax that primarily impacts on out-of-staters,
that is no longer needed. Details
Talking about hotels, here's an interesting
story and pictures about an old 747 that has now been converted into
an airport hostel.
What I find most surprising about
the story is that the 747 had apparently just been abandoned at the
airport in Stockholm, like a junker old car by the side of the road.
Abandoning a 747? Surely even the oldest of them (and this was an
old one) still has some value?
Here's an exciting new year present for us
all. Apple is
removing copy protection from its iTunes music (and in many cases
dropping the price too). Let's hope Amazon will follow and remove
copy protection from its Kindle eBooks.
Here's an interesting and alarming
AT&T's wireless network. It seems they've been degrading some of
their network as a trade-off to upgrading their new fast 3G network.
That would sure annoy me if I'd just signed
a new two year contract with them, only to discover that I couldn't
reliably get cell phone service any more at home or work.
This Week's Security Horror Story :
The US State Department issued a travel advisory about London being a
dangerous place to visit, according to several internet stories this
last week such as
this one, which includes quotes from the advisory and a response
from a London travel writer.
There's only one problem with this story.
The State Department has not done any such thing, as you can see from
listings of travel warnings and travel alerts (there's actually no
such thing as an 'advisory').
You can't believe everything you read, no
matter how credible it seems.
Justice has been served for the man who was
barred from a flight due to having a t-shirt with some Arabic phrases
written on it. As reported
here, he has been awarded $240,000 in compensation, to be
paid to him by the airline (Jetblue) and TSA.
The ACLU press release which this and
various other reports are based on is curiously worded, and implies that
two individuals at the TSA were personally fined, rather than the TSA as
an organization. I asked the ACLU to clarify their press release,
but they've ignored my request. Any which way, it is a positive
I mentioned the nine Muslims taken off an
Airtran flight last week. Airtran then refused to allow them
to fly on their airline, even after the FBI had cleared the nine people
of any suspicion, then backed that up with a refusal to apologise or
admit to having mishandled the incident.
The story has received a lot of coverage,
and as a result, Airtran has now had a change of heart, and has said
sorry. One thing I've not seen in any of the official reportings
is much detail about exactly what these people did to trigger their
removal from the flight in the first place, other than simply exist, or
about the passengers who reported their suspicions. Which in turn
made me curious - a silence on these points suggests that the truth
isn't very positive.
Let's understand some things about these
nine Muslims. Three of them were children aged 7, 4 and 2 (hardly
your typical terrorists). Eight of them were American citizens.
They spoke unaccented English, and were well dressed (photo
here) and apparently conducted themselves with dignity and decorum
all the way through.
It now seems that the alarm was raised by
one or two teenage girls, who passed their fears on to the adult they
were traveling with, who notified the flight attendant, who told an
on-board air marshal, who then told the captain.
So, on the unsubstantiated word of one or
two teenage girls, unquestioningly accepted, this group of otherwise
exemplary passengers were removed from the flight, subject to
interrogation, then denied a chance to fly on that or any other Airtran
flight. Perhaps they too will end up being awarded $240,000 a
piece in compensation. I hope so - we need some sort of negative
sanction when such things happen.
These events show a scary level of
paranoia at every level, from fellow passengers to flight attendants to
air marshals to the captain to the ground authorities, and a
complete lack of proportionate response to what was, by all accounts, an
exceedingly trivial initial event that started things. Are we now
accepting teenage girls who by chance overhear and misinterpret
fragments of innocent conversation as arbiters of who might be potential
Well, there's news (not sure if its good or
bad) on that front. Soon we may find ourselves going through
security checkpoints that will 'know' our intentions, be they good or
bad, and report their findings to the security screeners. Imagine
that - 'I'm sorry sir, but our intention-detector reports that you're a
potential danger to the flight, would you please come this way.'
You can imagine how the rest of that
conversation would go :
'What do you mean, I'm a potential
danger to the flight?'
'I'm sorry sir, but I can't tell you.'
'You can't tell me? What have I
done wrong? At least, please tell me that. I'm sure
there is an innocent explanation.'
'I'm sorry sir, but those details are
classified and can't be released. And now, would you please
Details of this new technology
Let's end with some more
good economic news, this time from no less a source than the NY
Times (itself suffering from plenty of bad news, due to what
increasingly seems to be a terminal decline in traditional print
newspapers due to advertising abandoning them in favor of new media, and
readers also vanishing).
And lastly on the good economic news front,
do you realize that, from 1 November until now, the Dow Jones (and the
S&P 500 and the NASDAQ) have basically traded flat (daily variations
notwithstanding)? That's not to say we've turned the corner, but
remember that the chorus of bad news that we continue to hear is not
without its less alarming components.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels