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Friday, 17 April, 2009
Good news and bad news for me on the 15th.
Good news - I did indeed send off a tax return in the mail. Bad
news - it, ummm, wasn't this year's one. Oh well, that's what the
other 364 days of the year are for, right?
Talking about the days in the year, my
comment last week about Easter brought a lot
of replies, mainly kindly and well meaning; so many that I didn't have a
chance to answer them all. Very briefly, the Bible says (Matthew
12:40) "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a
whale, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the
heart of the earth."
I take everyone's point that "three days"
can validly include portions of the three days between and including
Friday - Sunday, and so that would qualify for the three days part.
But the three nights part is not explainable by the Friday/Sunday
The answer to the conundrum is that the days
we celebrate are wrong. Some authorities believe they should be
Wednesday and Saturday, others Thursday and Sunday.
about days and errors thereupon - but now in a much more down to earth
context - earlier in the week I started writing this
newsletter with an opening comment about being joined by my brother,
who was to have arrived on Thursday morning, after traveling from New
York to Seattle on Amtrak. I had optimistically drafted a
paragraph about that and wrote up to the point "He found Amtrak to be..."
and planned to complete that sentence subsequent to his arrival and trip
Well, I was overly
optimistic. He first took a train from New York to Chicago, which
proceeded more or less normally with no notable issues. He was
then to take a second train - the 'Empire Builder' - from Chicago to
Seattle. Alas, this train was rescheduled to
operate only to Minneapolis, due to flooding issues in Devils Lake, ND.
He only found this out a short while prior
to the train departing from Chicago, which is unfortunate and
In the mad scramble to urgently find out
what was happening and to plan an alternate route, both he and I tried
to get someone at Amtrak to give us some realistic information.
The information, when finally uncovered, was surprising and
Yes, Amtrak were operating the train only as
far as MSP. I asked what they planned to do with passengers who
were traveling further than MSP. The answer : Nothing.
Amtrak wasn't scheduling a bridging bus
service to shuttle passengers around the flooded area and onto another
train on the other side, neither was it scheduling bus service all the
rest of the way to Seattle. Instead, it was just stopping the
train in MSP, and giving passengers the option of either getting off the
train there or not boarding it in the first place, with no 'protection'
or alternate transportation arrangements offered whatsoever (other than
offering to send my brother back to New York for free, which wasn't what
he was wanting at all).
Passengers such as my brother were offered a refund on that part of
the fare they'd paid that related to the part of the trip they didn't
take (and we all know how those calculations are invariably skewed in
the transportation operator's favor).
This is disappointing
customer 'service' on Amtrak's part. Even airlines generally do a
better job of looking after passengers when they have to cancel a
flight. Sure, you might wait a day (or more) at the airport, but
they'll eventually get you where you want to go.
My brother is now taking a train first to
Los Angeles, then up to Seattle, and instead of arriving Thursday
morning, he currently hopes to arrive Friday night. I'm not going to tempt
fate by writing any more on his travels, because the big imponderable is
his luggage - where is it, and when will it get to Seattle? No-one
knows at present, because Amtrak don't scan or track passenger luggage in
any form at all, so all we can do is call the Seattle station from time
to time to see if it turns up.
Talking about Amtrak, there's great news
for us high speed train enthusiasts. Our President
promised us on Thursday that he has a plan that 'will lead to
innovations that change the way we travel in America'.
In exciting us about this big bold proposal,
he went on to compare his vision for our future with high speed rail
networks (both already in place and actively being added to) in places
as far flung as Japan, Spain, France and China. He envisions a
network of short and longer-haul corridors of up to 600 miles, served by
trains traveling at speeds up to 150 mph.
A very exciting vision, yes? No.
Alas, it is more a mirage than a vision.
Apparently Mr Obama doesn't read this
newsletter, because if he did, he'd understand that the $8 billion he is
proposing to invest in high speed rail is pathetically inadequate
to get even a single rail line established, let alone a network of
corridors in California, the Gulf Coast, the Midwest and the Northeast
as his administration is conjecturing.
As I pointed out in my
earlier comments a month ago,
the California rail project alone is currently - and optimistically -
budgeted at costing $50 billion, with the final true cost sure to end up
substantially more. The $8 billion will likely not be enough to
pay for the overrun extra costs on this project, let alone its
underlying base forecast cost.
$8 billion - while a huge amount of money
for many things - is a drop in the bucket that will do no good at all
when it comes to developing a network of high speed rail corridors
across the US. While I continue to urge we invest in high speed
rail, the $8 billion will do nothing tangible towards achieving that
We'd be better advised to spend much less on
buying more coaches for Amtrak and making relatively minor enhancements
to the Amtrak network that would have immediate benefits to people using
(and additional people potentially using) the rail system we have,
rather than spending $8 billion on who knows what, over who knows how
many years, with nothing tangible to show for it.
Far from a 'shovel ready' project, the $8
billion will be wasted in feasibility and environmental studies,
consulting reports, and other paperwork, but is unlikely to actually
lead to any two cities being connected by any new high speed service.
Back to the immediacy of Amtrak and my
brother's eventual arrival this evening, although it is something more than ten years
since I last saw him, my plan is not to spend great amounts of time
'catching up' with him but rather to, ahem, put him to work, helping me
with some of the administrivia of the website development and
We are in the process of slightly changing
the page layouts, to make them wider, allowing the necessary advertising
to blend in better with the content, and using the latest web coding and
design conventions to make them friendlier to search engines. I'm
also rejigging the site's menu structure to reflect the way it has grown
in the five years since its last redesign - with an internet year often
being equated to a 'dog year' - ie seven normal years - that's a very long time with no revisions
to the site layout or structure.
It will be nice to have someone else helping out
for a while. Alas, the site's 'revenue model' (if it can be dignified
with such a term) is so soft as to make it somewhere between impractical
and impossible to pay a 'normal' person (ie not a family member) a
'normal' wage (ie anything more than the zero payment Christopher is
getting!) for helping on the website.
I have managed to be particularly
productive this last week, and have now completed my seven part series on
London's airports, adding new pages of detail for the 'other' four
airports. I'd first released two
and a detailed page about Heathrow, and now have added pages for (in order of airport size)
London City as well.
They're intended more as reference pages rather than as captivating
reading for the sheer pleasure of it; be aware they're there, and refer
to them as needed.
Perhaps the big 'take home' point about
these airport pages is to use them to consider a possibly different way of traveling
to Britain and then from Britain on to Europe.
If you can find a great low fare to London,
and if you want to spend time in London and in Europe, consider the
possibility of simply buying your international ticket to London (which
will probably get you to Heathrow or Gatwick) and then look at buying a
ticket on one of the crazy low fare discounters (Ryanair, Easyjet, or
any of the other less well known carriers) for your travels between
London and the continent. instead of buying all your travels on the one
international ticket. In such a case, you may find yourself
flying out of Stansted or Luton.
While your airport choices when traveling
between the US and UK are probably limited, your choices when flying
from London on to Europe are much broader. Be sure to check off
the 'consider nearby airports' feature when searching for fares on eg
Kayak.com so as to get the maximum
range of options, and you might want to go check some of the discount
airlines directly because they don't all participate in the airfare
aggregator sites like Kayak.
How to find a list of European discount
carriers? One easy way is to go to the airport websites and see which airlines
fly from there.
Or - another travel concept using the extra
information on my airport pages - you could fly into/out of Gatwick then
take a train direct to St Pancras Station and connect with Eurostar over
to Paris, Brussels, and beyond.
Mmmmm - all this talk about travel to
Britain and Europe definitely makes me look forward even more to the
Europe Heartland Cruise in
June/July. I'm glad I haven't yet booked my airline tickets -
maybe I'll fly to London then through one of these other airports on my way to
Paris or from Nuremberg!
There are still some cabins available on
this cruise, and you're cordially invited to come join some of your
fellow Travel Insider readers and myself on this cruise. This will
be the only river cruise I'm offering this year - I think it is time to
take a break from Christmas Market cruises, so do think about coming
with us on this lovely cruise along the Mosel and Rhine rivers in
Completing the flood of new material
published this week is what I'll designate the feature column. It
reviews one of a series of DVDs published by Great City Guides. I
decided to review a Seattle travel guide DVD - having lived in Seattle
for 24 years now, it seemed a good one to critique.
At first I was very disappointed with the
DVD, because I was comparing it either to what I'd expect from a guide
book, or perhaps from what I'd expect if I were to write a 'What to See
and Do in Seattle' series myself (hmmm, there's an idea for a future
weekly feature....). But after thinking about this, I had a
paradigm shift and realized that the DVD shouldn't be considered as an
alternative to either a good guide book or careful online research, but
rather as a supplement to both.
So, after this change of perspective, did I
like it? I'm glad you asked that question, with the answer now to
be found in :
This Week's Feature Column :
Seattle City Guide
DVD : If you're considering a trip to Seattle, or if
you're seeking something as a souvenir of a visit here, would this 42
minute video help you?
By the way, there was a fairly muted
response to last week's review of
ingenious device for carrying a Bluetooth headset. My
perception is that many readers are likely to have Bluetooth headsets,
and, for me if not for you, the challenge of how to carry it when not on
a call is one that has been unsatisfactorily resolved until now.
Maybe there's some other way to carry a BT
headset (other than permanently in your ear)? Or maybe there's a
design flaw in these BlueClip headset holders that I haven't noticed?
If you've got an alternate solution that is clever rather than obvious
(ie don't just say 'I stick it in my pocket' please
Or if there's a reason you don't like the
BlueClip's two approaches to carrying a headset (around the neck or on a
me know about that, too, please.
But if you do have a BT headset and don't
feel you've yet come up with the best way of carrying/caring for it
between calls, perhaps consider the
if you haven't already.
Dinosaur watching : One of my
recurrent themes over the last year or so has been how Southwest
Airlines is evolving into a traditional dinosaur airline.
Little by little, all the earlier things
that differentiated Southwest from the dinosaurs are being lost, and now
we see, for the third quarter in a row, one more example of Southwest
copying the dinosaurs - on Thursday it reported a loss for the first
quarter of $91 million.
Built in to the loss was another example of
how Southwest has transitioned from being a winner to now being a loser.
In years past, it had made massive profits from its fuel hedging
programs, but now it, along with many of the dinosaurs, is losing money
from its fuel hedging. $71 million of its loss was due to bad fuel
hedging, with the other $20 million attributable to - well, whatever you
wish to blame. Tough economic times? Bad airline management?
Southwest used to boast an extraordinary run
of consecutively profitable quarters. Until these three
loss-making quarters in a row, it had not had a loss in its first
quarter all the way back to 1991 (the first Iraq war).
But Southwest still has a bit of catching up
to do before it fully emulates its hometown dinosaur, American Airlines.
AA reported a $375 million loss for the first quarter.
However, this was less than expected, so AA's share price jumped up
20% after its announcement, and continued to rise the next day,
whereas Southwest dropped 10% in the initial response to its
There are times when one completely fails
to comprehend the vicious inhumanity with which airline employees react
to human suffering. One recent ultra-appalling story is very
well told in a letter of complaint subsequently written to United's CEO
- please do read the letter and its tragic conclusion
As those of us who have suffered the loss of
a loved one already know, there are times when a final chance of
meeting, sharing, possibly reconciliation, resolution, and rapprochement
can make an enormous difference to one's ability to come to terms with
the loss. To willfully deprive this poor lady of a chance to spend
a couple of precious hours with her dying mother defies all that
makes us human rather than impersonal robots.
To be even-handed, here's an
interesting response to the situation, but I don't believe it to be
an accurate response. Yes, maybe labor laws in California (where
the people were attempting to fly from) requires UA to give their staff
a break at rigid times, but do those same labor laws threaten sanctions
against employees if they voluntarily choose to delay their break the
few minutes it would take to issue the tickets? And/or why did the
agent not arrange for anyone else to issue the tickets instead?
I'm puzzled by the complainant's reference
to spending 10 minutes arguing with the ticket agent. It would
have taken less than 10 minutes for the tickets to be issued, or for a
supervisor to appear and issue the tickets him/herself.
Here's an interesting bit of insight that
hasn't been so well offered up in the replies to the two linked
articles. It is regrettably true that some people shamelessly
invent stories of personal tragedy to attempt to break airline rules
and policies, and as a result, airlines have become less flexible and
positive in such cases.
In my own past experience as a travel agent,
I vividly remember the time I called up an airline's 'Special Services'
desk to get an advance purchase requirement waived for a client.
While this was being done for me, I was making my usual light chatter
with the airline agent, and happened to mention 'It is very kind of you
to do this and I'm sure my client will appreciate it. His father
is dying so he's in an urgent rush to travel to the hospital'. As
an aside, this was something they automatically did 100% of the time,
whenever I called and asked, but politeness required me to pretend it
was a special favor rather than an automatic response.
There was a silence at the other end of the
phone, then the agent said 'David, I'm going to pretend I didn't hear
that; we've been told we're not to make special exceptions for medical
reasons because too many people are abusing that'.
In other words, that particular airline was
more willing to help anyone for any ordinary reason than they were
willing to help people with special medical emergencies!
On the other hand, if you do have a
medical emergency that causes you to need to travel somewhere urgently,
and you're going to be seeking special favors, you should prepare for
this, as best time and circumstance can allow. Ideally, get the
hospital or funeral parlor or whoever to fax you a short note detailing
the bona fide need for you to urgently travel, and a death certificate,
if available, is helpful too. If the person you're going to see
has a different last name, some sort of documentation establishing your
relationship would help also. If nothing else, have a phone number
of someone at the hospital or wherever - someone who will likely answer
their phone! - available to share.
While airlines get roundly abused by people
trying to cheat the system here, if you're already prepared with the
documentary proof of your situation, that might help counter the
prejudice that you may have to combat, and flip the situation into a
more positive experience.
Alas, my own father's sudden death in New
Zealand occurred way too quickly for me to get back in time for one last
contact, but the terrible circumstances of my loss were extremely
classily handled by Qantas, who were kind and compassionate way
beyond what one would expect of strangers. Mercifully, not all
airlines and not all airline employees are as uncaring as the United
staff in San Francisco were.
One more thought about Qantas.
Last week I'd included a note from a
reader reporting on his 'above and beyond the call of duty' positive
experience with Qantas recently, and this prompted reader Frank to add
His article this week on Qantas is right on
the mark. We booked premium economy during their short 2 for 1 sale and
when they changed equipment, eliminating premium economy seating, they
upgraded our $2600 tickets to Business Class (more like a $19k value )
- without extra cost.
I occasionally hear from readers who have
suffered the opposite experience - being downgraded by an airline from a
premium class of service into a less premium class of service, and often
being offered no compensation or some ridiculously inadequate form of
compensation. So now, when I next get an email like that, I'll
know what to say - 'You should have flown Qantas'!
Frank's experience was very different to
that of the person mentioned in
this article who paid extra for premium seating on US Airways, only
to discover that the premium seating ended up moving them further
back in coach class to where they had been already seated.
Upon complaining about this, US Airways
staff generally agreed this was unfair, but showed no interest or
inclination in either moving them back to their original seats or
refunding them the extra money they'd been charged for allegedly better
Back to United again. They
announced this week a new seating policy for 'passengers of
size'. Basically, if you can't comfortably fit in a seat with
both armrests down, you're now required to buy a second ticket.
We'll probably have to agree to disagree
about their policy - some people are ardently supportive of the concept
that 'if you need two seats, you should pay for two seats' while others
are equally ardently of the opinion that there shouldn't be any fare
discrimination based on a person's size. But, accepting that UA
have now created this policy, one has to actually admire the almost even
handed and - dare I say it - close to fair way in which they seek to
You'll never have to pay more for a second
seat than you did for the first seat. And paying for two seats
gets you a double luggage allowance (but I bet it doesn't get you a
double frequent flier accrual!).
If there isn't a second seat available, they
won't charge you anything to change or cancel your flights, even if it
is a non-refundable ticket. But they do dubiously hide behind the
TSA by claiming the TSA won't allow them to allow you to take a double
allowance of carry-on baggage on board.
So, all in all, it is about as good a
policy as you can expect from an airline. I'm also advised by
the ARTA travel agent association that there is one exception - if
you're a couple flying together, and you're a Tweedledum and Tweedledee
couple such that the two of you together can fit into two seats, even if
one of you, alone, requires a bit more than one seat!
This reminds me - I advised my
Twitter followers about
United's move on Wednesday.
Other of the eight 'tweets' (as Twitter
messages are colloquially called) I've sent this week have included
information on a sale on a range of my
favorite Briggs & Riley luggage pieces (that's the company with the
no questions asked lifetime warranty - they'll fix or replace your
suitcase, no matter how old, and no matter if it is airline damage,
caused by a bus running over it, or anything else), information on a
tremendous Amazon sale of DVDs and Blu-ray
discs, as well as a recommendation about
what clothing you should pack if seeking permission to visit Britain
and a gruesomely awful ad full of double entendres to do with 'mowing
I'm not sure if Twitter will be a passing
fad or a lasting feature, but it is free and easy to use, and while I'm
neither the most prolific nor the best Twitter poster, you'll definitely
get another slice of your Travel Insider experience as a Twitter
follower of mine.
Reader Barry passes on another example of
airline unfairness. He was flying home on Northwest,
and changing planes in their Detroit hub. But the pilot apparently
parked the plane to close to the gate such that the jetway couldn't
reach over and match up with the plane's door. It took NW 40
minutes to get a ground tug to come and haul the plane into its proper
position so the door could be opened and passengers deplaned.
Next, what he describes as 'the baggage lift
for carryon' - I guess he is referring to gate checked pieces of hoped
to be carry-on items - had a problem and didn't work for ten minutes.
So there were 50 minutes of delay caused by
two separate examples of airline error, causing Barry to miss his
ongoing flight, and forcing him to stay overnight in Detroit.
The good news - Northwest helped arrange him
accommodation at an unpleasant downtown motel. The bad news - they
charged Barry $50 for the privilege of not sleeping at the airport due
to their mistakes.
Barry and I both wonder if the $50 fee was
actually more than the paid the motel for his roomnight.
Here's a mildly interesting
article on which airlines are most and least likely to cause you to
be involuntarily bumped off a plane.
And here's an
article about the growing numbers of planes stored in desert
locations. It goes a bit further than the regularly written and
superficial article about planes in the desert, and has some interesting
facts and figures in it too.
interesting article about a very speculative/futuristic new
technology - putting 'feathers' on a plane to improve its streamlining
and efficiency. Note in particular the comment toward the end
about possibly needing a self-cleaning system - there's a lot still to
be worked out about this.
If I may modestly comment, this technology
is remarkably like that which I speculated on, for submarines, in my
(alas unpublished) 'technothriller' novel I wrote back in 2001.
This Week's Security Horror Story :
The new 'backscatter' type X-ray screening of passengers going through
airport security is 'too good'
according to a
freshman congressman, Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). It gives too clear
a view (one TSA staffer is quoted as saying that he can tell the change
in a person's pocket). He opposes them for this reason.
Let me get this right. A screening
device that works too well? Come back to earth, Mr Chaffetz.
There's actually a massive vulnerability in
our airport screening at present. Metal detectors don't/can't
detect plastic explosive, which can be molded like kids' Playdough into
a thin sheet and wrapped around your waist or other body part - indeed,
done well, even a 'pat down' is unlikely to detect it. A terrorist
can, with a 99% degree of certainty, smuggle ten times more plastic
explosive through an airport security screening than he would need to
destroy a plane in flight. As for detonators, they can readily be
camouflaged into many different pieces of electronic equipment, and/or
improvised from perfectly legitimate electronics.
Yes, while the TSA is obsessing over short
bladed Swiss Army Knives and box cutters, there currently is almost no
way they can detect fully-lethal amounts of high explosive being carried
through security. Only if they have a sniffer station or use an
explosive detecting swab on you (and how often has that happened to
you?) will they detect explosives.
This is the largest part of the reason for
pressing ahead with these backscatter X-ray screening machines.
These new machines truly will make it very difficult for plastic
explosives, or anything else, to be hidden underneath clothing.
But Rep. Chaffetz opposes them because TSA staffers will also get to see
ghostly computer screen images of, ahem, body outlines and our various
appendages. Do any of us care what some faceless TSA person sees
in another room as we quickly walk through an X-ray screening machine,
happily without now needing to remove all our clothing and shoes first?
I wrote last
week about the unfortunate person who had a bad case of 'the trots'
and needed to urgently get to a bathroom on his DL flight, from Honduras
back to Atlanta. There was a trolley in the aisle behind him, and
the flight attendants refused to move it to allow him to get past.
After waiting in his seat as long as he could, he absolutely had to go,
and so went to the toilet up front in business class, only to have
another flight attendant bar his way. Depending on who you
believe, the passenger either stumbled and grabbed the fa's arm, or
perhaps he willfully pulled her arm down and twisted it for good
Bottom line - after spending two nights in
jail, he has
now been formally charged with a federal felony charge.
Question to the attorneys who read this - by
all accounts, this happened half an hour in to a three hour flight
between Honduras and Atlanta. How is it that US law applies when
the plane wasn't in US airspace (they were probably in Mexican airspace
at the time)? (This question of course ignores the broader issue
as to if Delta acted fairly or decently in refusing to help their
And Delta, vacillating between excusing
their actions on an FAA regulation (nonexistant) and a TSA policy is now
blaming the TSA, while offering a nonsense meaningless response saying
their flight crews 'do everything within the limits of the law to ensure
the safety and security of our passengers'.
Which is absolute nonsense and
contradicted by anyone's commonsense appraisal of the facts.
'Everything within the limits of the law'
would have meant moving the cart blocking the aisle to the aft toilets
out of the way. The flight attendants did no such thing and
instead refused to help the guy get to an aft toilet. Shame on
them, and shame on Delta's spokeswoman for offering such a stupid
As for the 'TSA policy', I also wonder what
effect that has on a plane from a foreign country that has yet to enter
US airspace, and I'd also like to see the exact wording of the policy
and understand the consequences of the policy being broken. As I
said last week, just about every flight I take has at least one
passenger straying from coach class into business or first class to use
In a related incident, here's a
story of a passenger who perhaps had been following the problems
encountered by the Delta passenger. This person took a rather
different approach to relieving their need.
Doubtless Delta would approve.
One last Delta comment to close this week's
newsletter. As you may know, pilots have at least one way of
surreptitiously alerting air traffic control to their plane being
hijacked. Unfortunately, a DL pilot apparently did this
accidentally last Saturday. More unfortunately, there was then a
'technical malfunction' which prevented the pilot from advising Air
Traffic Control that it was a false alarm. Most unfortunately,
this was on a flight that was approaching Tel Aviv.
Fortunately the Israeli Air Force, which
scrambled two fighters, were more tolerant of innocent mistakes than
Delta is with its passengers, and so did not shoot the plane out of the
sky, and instead simply 'escorted' the plane to Ben Gurion Airport.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels