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Friday 30 January, 2009  

Good morning

My goodness.  January is coming to a close already, and 2009 is racing by - as seems to be increasingly the case with all the years these days.  Perhaps it is just as well the start of the year is long gone; I must confess I can't even recall what my new year resolutions may have been, and I suspect they have long since been broken.

Last week I released the first part of what has grown to become a four part series on How to Survive a Plane Crash.  I'd originally thought this topic would be easily contained within a single normal size article, but in my usual and somewhat exhaustive (or should that be, exhausting!) manner, I've ended up with a massive 12,543 words on the topic.

That is way too many words to read in a single sitting over your Friday morning coffee, but I also think it is more to dump it all in your lap at once, because there are of course shared concepts spread/split over the four pages.  So, with some hesitation, I'm releasing the other three parts of this series all together today, totalling about 10,000 words.

I'd like to ask a favor of you in return.  If you have additional thoughts, suggestions, comments (or corrections!) after reading through all four parts of this series, please would you let me know.  While the subject necessarily involves a fair amount of speculation and guess work, I'd like it to be as helpful, complete and relevant as possible.  I know we have plenty of pilots, flight attendants, and others with specialized knowledge of aircraft operations and airplane safety reading the newsletter, and possibly they too might have some additional guidance or insight or experience to add to the series.

I'll make such changes as seem indicated after getting feedback, and then plan to also publish the article series in a pdf format that you can print out to read in hard-copy format, possibly including some 'cheat sheet checklists' for you to carry with you.

And so, for this week, here are links to all four parts of the article series.  If you've already read part one (and many of you have) you can go direct to part two and then follow the links at the top and bottom of each part to read through the rest of the series.  If you didn't have a chance to read part one last week, perhaps best to start there.  I did slightly revise/add to the first part as well.

This Week's Feature Columns :  How to Survive an Airplane Crash :  Read the four parts of this series to get a much better understanding of what to expect and how to respond to an airplane emergency and crash.  You'll get helpful information that can increase your chances of survival by an estimated 30%, and you'll learn about the errors in some key parts of many airlines' safety instructions.  The four parts are :

1. How likely are you to be in a plane crash, which are the safest planes, and when are the most dangerous times on a flight

2. The safest seats

3. Exiting the plane

4. Bracing, being a hero, and other considerations

One interesting aside to the Hudson River crash landing - this survey reports that fliers are now more confident and less fearful of flying.

Last week I asked how carefully you listen to the flight attendant's safety briefing at the start of each flight.  This generated a wonderful flood of responses from 7.6% of readers (thank you very much), and the results are shown in the table here.

It seems that Travel Insider readers listen less attentively to these briefings than do TripAdvisor visitors.  Their survey showed 30% of their visitors always listen attentively (compared to 12% of us) and 68% listen either frequently or always (compared to 46% of us).

Make of this as you will, but it does rather confirm my expectation that we, as more frequent fliers, tend to be more blasť about such things.

How about another survey, and with your participation, with even more than a 7.6% response this time.  Earlier this week an article reported how US Airways had given all passengers on the flight that landed in the Hudson an up-front $5000 payment, which was offered as an immediate payment, whether passengers needed it or not.  US Airways is not refusing to pay larger amounts for passengers who lost valuable items and who incurred other crash-related expenses (but neither is it promising to pay all claims without regard to their validity).

Some passengers responded positively to this payment, while others are complaining that it is not enough, even though it is merely a first immediate payment rather than a final full settlement offer.

So, this week's survey question asks for your thoughts on this issue.

For background, and as you probably know, after little more than a minute into the flight out of La Guardia, the plane hit some geese which caused both engines to fail.  With no spare altitude or airspeed, and being over densely built land, the pilot had nowhere to go except to land in the Hudson, which he did splendidly a short couple of minutes later.  All passengers survived, most with no injury at all, and there is currently no suggestion of any blame or contributory negligence on the part of US Airways, no maintenance issues, no piloting issues, or anything like that as factors in the accident.

Say that you were a passenger on this flight.  How much do you think would be a fair ex gratia payment to you as compensation for the 'pain, suffering, emotional distress, etc' that you experienced?  This assumes two things :

  • First - all your actual costs (ie lost/damaged luggage and carry-on, hotel stays, phone calls, alternate flight arrangements, etc) are also fully covered and fairly reimbursed.

  • Second - you were not injured.

Please click on the link below to select the approximate amount you feel fairest for the airline to pay you and each of the other 150 passengers as an ex gratia additional payment.  This will generate an email message to me with your answer coded into the subject line.

I'll report back on the results next week :

Nothing

$1000 or less per person (ie total payout of $150k or less)

$1001 - 2000 per person (ie $150k - $300k)

$2001 - 4000 per person (ie $300k - $600k)

$4001 - 6500 per person ($600 - 975k)

$6501 - 10,000 per person ($975k - $1.5million)

$10,001 - $15,000 per person ($1.5 - $2.25m)

$15,001 - $25,000 per person ($2.25 - $3.75m)

$25,001 - $40,000 per person ($3.75 - $6m)

$40,001 - $65,000 per person ($6 - $9.75m)

$65,001 - $125,000 per person ($9.75 - $18.75m)

$125,001 - $250,000 per person ($18.75 - $37.5m)

$250,001 - $400,000 per person ($37.5 - $60m)

$400,001 - $650,000 per person ($60 - $97.5m)

$650,001 - $1,000,000 per person ($97.5 - $150m)

$1,000,001 - $2.5 million per person ($150 - $375m)

$2.5 - $5 million per person ($375 - $750m)

$5 - 7.5 million per person ($750m - $1.125 billion)

$7.5 - 12.5 million per person ($1.125 - $1.875 billion)

More than $12.5 million per person (more than $2 billion total payout)

Dinosaur watching :  More financial results are being released for the last quarter.  What is truly amusing to note is how the dinosaurs all blindly copied each other (and Southwest), by suddenly and enthusiastically embracing the concept of fuel hedging - at the perfect wrong time, just when fuel prices started to plummet last summer.  Hedging has never been a 'sure thing', it has always been a gamble, where the person buying the hedging contract is betting that he is cleverer than the person selling the hedging contract.

As the billions of dollars the airlines are now writing off from bad hedging bets shows, apparently airline executives are not more clever than hedge contract salesman.

Really, the dinosaurs can't win for losing, and their herd mentality seems to blind them from each independently considering how to manage their business, and the concept of succeeding by being different is never considered.  Whether it be copying fare rises and fees, or changing policies in terms of frequent flier programs, check-in requirements, or more behind-the-scenes type things such as fuel hedging, the dinosaurs play a game of 'follow the leader', only to discover, to their inevitable cost, that their choice of 'leader' is as flawed as is their decision to follow them.

Delta has reported a fourth quarter loss of $1.44 billion, including one-off charges of $607 million for fuel hedging and other one off's for, eg, the NW purchase.  Without one-offs, they still lost a staggering $304 million for the quarter.  Well done (not)!

Continental had a $266 million loss (including $170 million of one-offs) and US Airways lost $541 million (with $321 million in one-offs).

AirTran also lost $118.4 million, although it had one-off costs of $147.7 million, meaning it would otherwise have been profitable (unlike CO, DL and US).

Not all was gloom and doom, however.  Frontier Airlines made profits in both November and December, after a loss in October, and ended up the quarter with a net $1.3 million profit for the quarter, being the first time in five years it had a profitable fourth quarter.

In these tough economic times, airlines are doing anything and everything possible to bring in more money.  Spirit Airlines, which already sells advertising on seat-back trays, overhead bins, napkins and cups, has now started selling advertising on flight attendant aprons.

Although the airline says it consulted with the flight attendants' union last year and the union raised no concerns, the flight attendants are now very unhappy.  Some of the ads invite customers to enjoy its DD's (deep discounts) and 'MILF' (many islands, low fare) specials - double entendres that also refer to, well, I don't need to tell you, do I?

Spirit Airlines refers to the advertisements as, ahem, 'small and tasteful'.

American Airlines made a slightly embarrassing announcement on Wednesday.  It appears that - ooops - its liferafts on its 55 or so 767-300s have insufficient capacity.  After squeezing more seats into the planes during cabin reconfigurations in the 2005 - 2007 time frame, the airline forgot to check if that meant it needed extra liferaft capacity, and ended up with more eight seats than life-raft spaces (the life rafts are rated for 228 people, and a full plane and crew totals 236).

This only came to light this last week.  Apparently AA (and probably all other airlines) have been doing a quick review of their water ditching procedures.

AA says that passenger safety was never endangered.  Hmmm.  It will add larger life rafts to the 767s within a month or so, and until then, is limiting the maximum people on board to no more than 228.

I've been bearish on the future prospects of BA subsidiary Openskies ever since enjoying what was actually a reasonably good roundtrip on their service between JFK and Amsterdam last year (comprehensive Openskies review here).  I've felt this way not because I dislike the airline, but simply because I don't think it is likely to succeed in its present format.

On the other hand, I've also suspected that Openskies doesn't need to succeed to succeed - by which I mean the subsidiary acts as an excellent 'threat' to bludgeon BA's unions with - 'If you don't agree to revised work practices, we'll shift more services to our non-unionized Openskies subsidiary'.  This is potentially as valuable to BA as any profit it might directly earn.

A news item this week underscores my concerns about Openskies' future.  BA has decided to delay any further expansion of Openskies, although it had earlier earmarked an additional 11 757 airplanes as possibly to be shifted from its mainline fleet to the Openskies operation (which currently has four planes and flies only between JFK and Amsterdam and between JFK and Paris).  This is being attributed to, needless to say, the 'current economic turmoil which is affecting all airlines'.

Which is not to say that there isn't some underlying truth to that statement.  By all accounts, business and first class traffic is terribly down almost everywhere in the world, and while regular airlines have a range of options open to them to try and staunch the financial bleeding caused by the loss of their most valuable passengers, Openskies has a much more limited range of options.  Perhaps it is indeed the wrong idea in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Here's an interesting article about the difficulties LAX is encountering when A380s come and go.

The article also casually tosses out some other fascinating statistics, like an estimated $152 cost per minute of delay for a small plane with 150 passengers (A320 or smaller, or small 737), and the fact that LAX has seen its flight numbers drop from a high of 2,150 takeoff/landings per day in 2000 to a current level of only 1500 at present.

Did I speak too soon?  I recently compared/contrasted the inappropriate response of airlines to tough economic conditions - ie, the cutting back of services and amenities - to the response of hotels, which in some cases have boosted the 'frills' associated with a hotel stay to encourage more people into their establishments.

News this week from Marriott indicates that they have decided to copy the 'success' of the airlines' strategy instead.  Hand lotion is no longer to be included in the rooms, but instead, if you want some, you'll have to ask for it at the front desk.  Oh wow - saving 50c on a little thing of hand lotion (does anyone ever use the hand lotion in their hotel room?) will surely turn around the profitability on rooms they sell for $150/night, won't it.

More to the point, if this results in even a loss of one extra room night out of every 200 room nights, the 50c saving will actually cost them money rather than make them more profit.  Which is exactly what the airlines are finding.

Other cut-backs being introduced seem to include fewer towels in the rooms, fewer coffee packets (or charging for the use of more than one a day), smaller buffets, and no longer delivering 'free' newspapers to your room but instead leaving them in the lobby for collection.

Here's a fascinating idea for a trip to Europe with a differenceCompetitours - as you can see from their website, which is truly awful, but persevere through it as best you can - you and your traveling companion go on a 'blind' tour across Europe, competing against other couples in various interesting ways that might add to your travel experience, and, if you win, you get a massive grand prize crammed full of free hotel stays, air travel, and, best of all, cash.

Sounds like fun, sort of, perhaps; and certainly it is unlike any other type of European tour I've come across before.  Some of the competition tasks seem a bit, well, let's just say, 'not my thing'; but if the thought of arranging for 15 tourists randomly found on the top of the Eiffel Tower to do a 30 second 'rousing rendition of the Can can' on video interests you, or the thought of  visiting a Torture Museum in Prague, choosing three instruments of torture and creating a 45-60 second video explaining how each could be used as a non-lethal household item appeals, then it might well be something you'd enjoy.

Competitours is a bona fide company and this seems to be a genuine offering that actually has had a great deal of behind the scenes thought and planning put into it.  National Geographic Traveler describes it as the  Amazing Race For Regular People.  The owner, Steve Belkin, has done other innovative travel things in the past and seems like a fair and decent person.  Amazingly, they allow you to pay after you've completed your tour as a way of guaranteeing their bona fides.

Flyertalk are so enthusiastic about this concept that they are sponsoring a team to participate in the first Amazing Race (details on the Flyertalk site).  Alas, my budget and business plan don't allow for me to sponsor a team too, but if any couple wishes to go under the Travel Insider rubric, let me know!

Global 'warming' claims another victim.

Amazon's Kindle eBook reader was introduced in November 2007 (click link for my review).  It was (is) a game changing product, and with Amazon's strong and continuing corporate support, makes eBooks closer to becoming a reality than they ever have been before.  But the device itself has some limitations, such as any first generation new product is likely to have, and industry commentators were surprised/disappointed that a second improved version of the unit didn't appear about a year later, and in time for Christmas sales in 2008.

Instead, the Kindle mysteriously went onto back-order in about November last year, and is still on back-order now (with a 4 - 6 week lead time promised).  I've speculated on Twitter about the meaning of this, and now the probable answer is apparent - there will be a new Kindle device, to be announced almost certainly on 9 February.  I've even seen some alleged pictures of the new device, and as best I can uncover, it seems to have some significant improvements on the original Kindle.

I believe there's a short term 'can't lose' opportunity for you if you think you'd like to get a new improved Kindle.  Go and order an original Kindle now.  One of two things will happen - either you'll get an original Kindle, or you'll get a new one.  If you get the original Kindle, simply return it.

But, if you get a new one, here's where the real magic kicks in.  What price will the new one sell for?  If it sells for more than the current $359 for an original Kindle, you'll have received a new Kindle at the lower price.  And if it sells for a lesser price, you can be sure you'll either get a credit back, or else you simply return the Kindle and then buy it again at the lower price.

Hence my description of it as a can't lose opportunity.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Actually, it isn't really a horror story at all, but rather a familiar story with an unexpected twist.  An American passenger expressed concern, upon boarding his flight, that there were some 'Arab types' on board.

Now normally this would result in the expulsion/arrest/questioning of the 'Arab types'.  But this time, the opposite occurred.  The man was on a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to New York, and he was thrown off the flight!

Readers will know I'm fascinated with the extraordinary development that is Dubai.  But apparently, in a country where hotels think nothing of spending untold millions of dollars to cool the sand in front of their resort, some more basic issues are being regrettably overlooked.

Lastly this week, here's a fascinating time-lapse video taken out an airplane window.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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