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Friday 9 January, 2009  

Good morning

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 arterials.

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 economic problems.

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 'own goals'.

Here's a 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 increased 12.8%.

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 Canada.

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, for December?

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 Amawaterways discounted Tuliptime cruise.

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, here's 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 services.

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 rush.

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 luggage.

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 - Skopelos.

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 center.

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 here.

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 story about 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 their 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 outcome.

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 terrorists?

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 bend over.'

Details of this new technology here.

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

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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