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Friday, 24 April, 2009
Last week I mentioned my brother's
challenges in traveling from New York to Seattle on Amtrak. At the
time of writing, late Thursday night, he had yet to make it to Seattle.
His arrival on Friday was further delayed,
and so I decided to drive 75 miles south to collect him from the Olympia
station when the train stopped there, it being much faster to drive him
back home than for the train to travel up to Seattle.
Good news and bad news. The good news
- the train eventually arrived in Olympia, where I was waiting for him
on the station platform. Quite a few other people were there to
meet arriving passengers too, and more people were getting off the
train, so I didn't manage to spot Christopher during the brief time the
train was at the station. After its two or three minute stop, the
train moved off, and as the number of people started to diminish, I
wondered where he was - could it be I wasn't recognizing my own brother
(it was about ten years since we last met)?
My phone rang - time for the bad news.
It was Christopher, who proceeded to tell me that neither he nor anyone
else in his carriage was able to leave the train, because no-one had
unlocked its exit doors. By the time they had waited patiently for
a guard to come and unlock the doors, then realized there was a problem
and started to move to other carriages to get off the train, it was too
late and the train left with Christopher and others unwillingly still
onboard. Ooops. I chased, and of course beat, the train up
to Tacoma where he more successfully managed to get off.
As for his three bags, they eventually
arrived on Wednesday this week. This was a tremendous relief.
Prior to then, with no form of bag tracking or control at all, no-one
had the slightest idea where they were or when/how they would ever
arrive. Another reason for great sighs of relief was because
Amtrak limits their liability for lost luggage to a disgraceful maximum
of $500 per passenger - that wouldn't even replace the empty suitcases,
let alone any of their contents.
As you may recall from last week, I've been
debating how to make best use of a willing extra worker for a week or
two. Christopher assured me he could actually write articles as
well as do more trivial tasks, and so we decided on a fun idea that
involves your participation as well.
We chose a semi-random topic then each wrote
an article, and now ask you to determine which version you prefer.
To make it fair, I'm not telling you who wrote which article.
The topic itself came up as a result of
discussions while driving around the area this last weekend. A
friend of Christopher's is an avid follower of Bigfoot/Sasquatch related
issues, and was very excited to learn of Christopher's visit here,
asking him to go check out some of the local hot spots where such
creatures may have been sighted (there have been more sightings in WA
than any other state). Out of this came the suggestion that we
both write an article on that topic, and so here are two article series
for you to consider, one a three pager and the other a two pager.
We'll (I'll? He'll?) follow up next week with one more page
suggesting some specific places in the Seattle area where
Sasquatch/Bigfoot enthusiasts might wish visit as part of their own
exploration of the topic. So :
This Week's Feature Column :
Choose from two pages on
Sasquatch, or three pages on
both of which purport to tell you all you might need to/wish to know on
this ambiguous and uncertain topic.
And then, please do send in your thoughts
about the two articles - you can click on whichever link below best
records your preference, and you're welcome to add extra comments in the
body of the email response the link will create.
prefer the article on Bigfoot
prefer the article on Sasquatch
think they're both brilliant
think they're both useless
I haven't read either article, but I'm sure David's article would be
I haven't read either article, but I'm sure Christopher's article
would be better
If you send in a vote, I'll let you know who
wrote each article in reply to your vote.
May the best article win!
Dinosaur watching : My several
comments on United last week drew a range of
responses, particularly in relation to their new 'if you need two seats,
you pay for two seats' policy. Some people supported it, others
thought that if people of large girth should pay extra, so too should
people with broad shoulders or long legs, and others felt it was
United's responsibility to provide passage at the same price to
everyone, no matter their size/weight or seat requirements.
Most relevant perhaps were the people who
pointed out that Southwest's second seat policy has a major difference
to that of United. With United, you pay for a second seat, even
if the plane is three quarters empty and there are plenty of extra
seats that could be used at no inconvenience to other passengers.
Not so with Southwest, - although they also charge for a second seat if
a passenger can't fit between the armrests, they will refund that charge
if the plane doesn't fly full. They say that 98% of the extra seat
charges end up being refunded.
That is an extremely fair policy.
And talking about extremely fair
Southwest policies, Wall St beancounters have been offering
gratuitous advice to the airline about how it can return to
profitability. The helpful advice was to become even more like the
other loss-making dinosaurs (Gee, thanks for the great advice, guys) by
starting to charge fees for checked baggage.
CEO Gary Kelly refused to do this, saying it
would drive away more customers than it would create extra revenue.
He very sensibly said
Southwest is a very well-known brand and
it would be disruptive to all of the things we're doing to build the
brand. You just risk losing customers. I don't see
there's any reason for us to panic based on the first-quarter
results. Not charging bag fees is no difference than not
charging $400 Minneapolis-to-Chicago one-way. We don't want to
be another airline that nickels and dimes customers.
Amen to that.
Back to United, other comments tended to
focus on United's poor levels of customer service. For
example, John said
I started my current consulting gig on
7/24/04 and was given a choice of 4 airlines by my customer.
Living in San Antonio, US
Airways and Delta didn't work out, but United and American did.
United for 3 weeks. Out of 12 segments, only one was on time, and every
person I interacted with at United was at best distant. I will never fly
I have flown about 1.2 million miles with American, and they
have treated me very well. Granted as merely a gold level frequent
flier, they don't lavish riches
on me, but they were still courteous.
But an alternate viewpoint came from Steve,
In March, I was returning from Denver to
San Francisco on United, traveling on
miles rather than a revenue ticket, with two regular bags, a ski bag,
and a boot bag (the latter two count as one bag).
Upon arrival at
check-in in DEN, I was informed that the aircraft assigned for my
flight to SFO had not yet left ORD and a go/no go decision was expected
in an hour.
Based upon my Premier Executive status with UA, I asked for and
received confirmed protection on the next flight out to SFO (two
hours later than my scheduled flight).
When the decision on
the inbound aircraft from ORD kept being postponed, I exercised my right
to the protection I had been accorded, was moved to alternate flight to SFO, and was assigned a most comfortable exit row seat. To my
amazement, the UAL agent then asked for a description of my bags,
had them located, had them moved to the actual flight I
was traveling on rather that my original but now to be later flight, and
then paged me prior to departure to advise that the bags were with
me on the same plane.
lesson of this story is that loyalty to a carrier leading to
elite status together with treating an agent with respect does makes a
Steve's lesson is absolutely correct.
It really does pay to put all your eggs in one basket and get a
premium level of frequent flier status with one airline, because that
will hopefully transform your travel experience and give you extra help
when you most need it.
Although the dinosaurs (and Southwest) are
reporting first quarter losses, some airlines are showing profits.
Jetblue enjoyed a $12 million profit.
Tiny Allegiant Air had a $28.3 million profit, nearly three times
its earnings in 1Q 2008.
And AirTran posted a massive profit
of $28.7 million, its best ever first quarter result.
US Airways' response to its $103 million
first quarter loss is to add a new fee - you'll now pay a $5
surcharge if you don't prepay your checked bag fee prior to arriving at
the airport. There's a wonderful sort of 'vicious circle' logic
to this charge.
US Airways said it costs them time and money
to accept payment of the fees they charge for checked bags ($15 for the
first, $25 for a second). Okay, so what is surprising about that?
They charge $15/25, and have some offsetting costs, but still make a
good profit on the transaction. Most companies would be delighted
with such a situation.
Not so US Airways. They apparently
perceive it as our fault that it costs them time/money to charge us a
fee for baggage. So, they've three options to choose from.
They could absorb the costs and view them as a legitimate cost
associated with generating a new profit source. They could, ummm,
stop charging us for baggage. Or they could both charge us more
and/or subject us to more inconvenience.
With their unerring instinct, they have of
course chosen option three.
Delta also showed a first quarter loss -
in their case a sizeable $794 million, and they too have turned to
baggage as a new revenue source.
DL will start charging $50 for a second
checked bag on international flights, and expect this to earn them
an extra $25 million a quarter in net revenue. As for a plan to
address the other $769 million in quarterly losses, they'll retire some
old planes and shrink their services some more. On the positive
side, they say that their merger with Northwest is proving to be a
success. It is a good job they told us that, because with a $794
million loss in a single quarter (almost $9 million a day, every day),
this 'success' sure isn't intuitively obvious.
In other Delta news, it has announced it is
reversing its 2002 policy of outsourcing call center work to India.
It will still have some call centers in Jamaica and South Africa, but
will be downsizing those too.
In addition to trying to search out new ways
to nickel and dime us, the airlines as a whole have an even more
dysfunctional solution to their present problems.
If we are to believe the airlines, their
present problems relate to not enough people flying - the tough
financial times have reduced people's willingness to spend money on
non-essential travel. And if we are to believe economists, if you
want to increase the demand for a product and get more people to buy it;
you drop its price, then follow some fancy pricing formulas to work out
the 'sweet spot' that brings you in the best mix of maximum revenue and
The airlines have clearly understood this
simple economic truth, because they've had nonstop and wonderful
value fare sales for the last few months.
So, what do they do in an increasingly
desperate attempt to boost travel and thereby grow their bottom lines?
More airfare sales? Permanent drops in airfares? Maybe even
ease off on some of the nasty extra fees?
Nope - if you guessed any of the above, you
clearly are not qualified to be an airline CEO. The airlines have,
instead, raised their prices by $10 on most roundtrip fares.
A kind description of this would be to call
it a courageous and innovative decision. A more brutal description
would be to say it is an epically stupid decision, and one which
will grow still further the imbalance between theoretical published
fares and real-world discounted fares.
Meantime, successful Canadian airline
Westjet continues to show its commitment to providing more service
and care for its passengers, with its newly announced 'Care-antee'.
This contains a list of promises and
undertakings, including not to charge for bookings you make by calling
direct to their reservations number, a promise not to overbook flights,
and allowing you two checked bags free of charge.
More interesting is their promise
We will give you ample legroom and
overhead bin space
however the fine print states
And by ample we mean 32 inches of leg
room. We have lots of overhead storage space. Oh, and your little
carry-on suitcase will most likely fit in the overhead bin (just
make sure it weights less than 10 kg or 22 lb.) Don't worry, there's
lots of room for everyone's stuff.
Since when did 32' become ample?
That's not as extravagant a promise as it may seem.
A more generous promise is this one
We will accommodate you if your flight
is delayed - even if it's Mother Nature's fault.
Our job is to get you where you are going. Even if that means buying
you lunch or putting you up for the night.
Good for them. The complete 'Care-antee'
can be seen
Staying on the topic of providing good
service to customers, profitable airline Airtran is asking for our
input as to what extra they should include for free on every flight.
Suggestions submitted to date range from
pony rides (11% of people in Washington want pony rides) to more
sensible suggestions like Wi-Fi, food, and television. You can
vote too, by visiting this website.
This is of course the exact opposite of
the recent stunt by Ryanair which asked for advice on what new fee
they could add. The most popular new fee was a 'fat tax' (perhaps
United had a sneak preview of the results), and - getting a third round
of publicity from this stunt - the airline is now asking for advice on
how this tax should be levied, with four different proposals to choose
Is now a good time to start a new airline?
Many of us might think it a bad time, but the investors in a new Florida
based airline clearly disagree. On the other hand, they're not
launching a regular airline, as their name might imply - the airline is
called Pet Airways, and it is to
be a pet-only airline.
Initially, the airline will offer service
between five cities - New York/Teterboro, Baltimore/BWI, Paulwaukee/Chicago
Executive Airport, Denver/Rocky Mountain Metro Airport, and Los
Angeles/Hawthorne), using Beech 1900 twin turbo-prop planes.
Flights start on 14 July, and introductory fares are in the order of
$150 each way, which are competitive - and sometimes better - than
what you'd pay to have your pet on a regular airline in the cargo hold.
Initially the airline is set up to handle
cats and dogs, but plans to add facilities for other animals such as
pigs, birds, and reptiles.
At a time when airlines are reporting
disproportionate losses of passenger numbers in their premium cabins,
Air New Zealand is doubling the number of premium economy seats in its
777-200ER planes, from 18 up to 36. In addition, it is enhancing
their quality, with seat pitch growing from 38" up to 41", and a
providing a new self service bar (and that, for sure, is something us
Kiwis will much appreciate!).
Air New Zealand says the growing popularity
of its premium economy class (the airline has also twice increased the
number of premium economy seats in its 747-400s, and now has 39 seats on
those planes) is not a reflection on more coach class passengers
choosing to upgrade, but rather a result of business/first class
passengers choosing to downgrade.
This sort of confirms my feeling that the
ongoing evolution of airplane seating is such that first class is
becoming a threatened product, business class is the new first class and
is very similar to what first class used to be a decade or two back,
while premium economy is, in turn, becoming the new business class and
is also very similar to what business class used to be a decade or two
back. The more things change, the more they remain the same?
Well, actually, there is one exception to
this evolutionary simplification. While the seat comfort and pitch
of business class now is comparable to that of first class 10 - 20 years
ago and the same for premium economy vs business class, the in-cabin
service, food, drink, and general amenities is massively inferior to
those offered back then.
I've written despairingly about the
apparent willingness of our government regulators to allow airlines
exemptions from anti-trust laws that would otherwise strike down the
airline alliances that continue to develop. It continues to puzzle
and disappoint me that our regulators are so apparently gullible and
readily convinced about the alleged - but elusive - customer benefits
that such airline groupings claim will flow from their anti-trust
And so, with great pleasure, I can report
that the EU may be riding in to the rescue. They have
launched a probe into two airline alliances involving seven airlines -
AC, CO, LH and UA in one alliance, and AA, BA and IB (Iberia) in the
Of course, there's no promise that this
investigation will result in anything other than a European whitewash to
match the US acceptance of these arrangements, and the lofty language
setting out the goals of the review may indeed betray a subsequent
disappointing outcome, but we can hope.
There's also no deadline by which the review
will be completed.
Some good news - the FAA has reversed its
recently announced decision to make airplane bird strike information
secret. DoT secretary Ray LaHood says 'I think all of this
information ought to be made public and we're going to make this
information as public as anybody wants it'.
Which is the way it always should have been.
Some more good news - the competition
between major internet booking sites has just notched up another
small level, with Orbitz announcing that it will reduce its (largely
obscured) booking fees on hotel bookings and will now show, up front,
the total cost of a hotel room, including all the so-called 'taxes and
fees' that previously only appear after you've started the booking
The taxes and fees part of a hotel's total
price varies between websites, and it sometimes happens that a website
that advertises a hotel at, say, $129/night before taxes and fees might
end up charging $155 a night in total, whereas a second website that
advertises the same hotel at, say, $134/night before taxes and fees
might end up charging less in total. This has made accurately
comparing hotel prices very difficult - something that suits the
purposes of the websites, and Orbitz is to be congratulated for
introducing this new level of transparency into their site and hotel
Let's hope this will be copied by other
websites and will become ongoing standard practice for all.
This Week's Security Horror Story :
Often I write about low level incompetence in some part or another of
our nation's security services. This may sadden us, but doesn't
really surprise us. However, we all desperately cling to the hope
that, the more senior the staff member, the more sensible they become.
So, when we read this
dismaying and alas accurate commentary about the person heading up
the enormous Homeland Security Agency, Janet Napolitano, it seems that
any hope for any competence at any level is misplaced.
sobering story about a lady who broke her neck while in an airplane
toilet when it encountered unexpected turbulence (the plane, not the
toilet). Should we ask for seat belts in toilets? And, if
they are provided, will flight attendants then look in to check we've
For a more upbeat story about toilets, they
might be dangerous, but soon they may become quieter, at least on cruise
ships with vacuum operated systems, as
this article happily reports.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels