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Friday, 15 May, 2009
As regular readers know, I currently have my
brother staying with me, and I've felt obliged, during the increasingly
nice weather each weekend, to entertain him by showing him around the
lovely Puget Sound area.
One such pleasant activity has been to visit
some of the 600 wineries in Washington state, and to enjoy the samples
they offer (or, more commonly, sell) to visitors. In the course of
doing this, I had a sudden flash of wine-fueled inspiration - to write
an article about which wineries to visit in Washington. This would
be a helpful addition to the small but growing library of articles
already on the site about touring around the Pacific Northwest.
And so, I set about writing a short article
about wine tasting and touring. What happened next should come as
no surprise. The short article became, ahem, long.
The more I researched, the more I found that
was interesting to share with you, and so we are now looking at an
article series stretching over seven different sections. This week
I'm simultaneously releasing the first four of these articles.
They range from an overview
of the wine growing industry in the US through to what I found
particularly interesting to put together - an article about the
extraordinary variation in
cost between sometimes very similar wines, considering what it costs
to make wines ranging from the (in)famous 'Two Buck Chuck' beloved of
Trader Joe customers (myself proudly included) through to the heady
heights of bottles of wine costing up to $6000 a pop.
The 6800 words (!) in these four articles
are all merely a prelude to the actual 'here are lists of wineries to
visit' article I'd originally intended. I'll release the actual
winery touring lists in a future week, and while I don't think many of
you will choose to read through the entire 6800 words of material this
week, I thought it made sense to release it all at once for people who
did want to read it in a single session, and to hopefully have something
of interest within it for everyone. Which leads to :
This Week's Feature Column(s) :
Wine touring and tasting in
WA : In the first four parts of a new series about Washington's wine industry
and touring/tasting around its 600 wineries, I
provide some general background about the US and WA wine industries,
and ponder on the reasons for the sometimes extraordinary difference between the
selling price and underlying production cost of a bottle of wine.
Dinosaur watching : Now that the
airlines have started charging for checking bags, they're continuing to
raise these fees further and further.
Hot on the heels of the US Airways increase
is United Airlines, with an increase in their fees up to $20 for
checking a first bag and $30 for a second bag. These fees can be
reduced by $5 if you pay them online prior to getting to the airport.
Bag fees have become big business.
According to the US Department of Transportation, airlines earned an
extra $1.15 billion from baggage fees in 2008. When one considers
the steady series of increases in baggage fees between their inception
and now, it would seem possible that in 2009, bag related charges
might add close to $2 billion to US airline profitability.
While there is still one notable airline
holdout - Southwest - which doesn't charge anything for the first two
bags, all other airlines now charge for a second bag and nearly all
charge for a first bag too.
International airlines, often restricted by
complex multiple airline agreements, are moving more slowly to copy the
domestic US airline examples. But one airline has broken the mold
and come up with a truly unique charging policy and baggage 'service'.
The airline is Air Jamaica. They will
now allow one bag free of charge, and levy a $25 fee for a second bag
when flying between New York and Grenada or Barbados. Okay, this
in itself is not particularly extraordinary. But wait, there's
In return for paying $25, Air Jamaica
promises to fly your bag to your destination - okay, again, nothing
special. But, read the fine print : The airline says that
your second bag won't be on the same plane as you. Neither
will it likely be on the next flight. Instead, all they undertake
is to transport your second and extra bags within seven days of your
original flight, and it will be your responsibility to return to the
airport to collect your extra bags after they arrive.
So tell me - how does that work if you're
going for only a six day vacation? Does that mean you drop your
bag at JFK, then collect it again from JFK a week after you return to
JFK, while never having seen it at all during your vacation (and the bag
probably just sitting at JFK for the time you're away and the extra one
week waiting after you return)?
I'm not making this up. Here's
their official release on their website.
US Airways has announced a welcome change to
its previous 'reverse pyramid' boarding method. Until now, it
would board passengers starting from window seats at the rear of the
plane, and then slowly allow passengers to board in successively more
forward rows, and in middle and then aisle seats in this sort of pyramid
type shape. Time and motion studies had suggested this to be the
quickest way to board a plane.
However, in a praiseworthy flash of
sensitivity, US Airways said this was disadvantaging its best
passengers, who would typically have seats near the front of the plane,
and/or aisle seats. By the time these passengers boarded, they ran
the risk of finding no remaining overhead space for their carry on
Their new system allows higher fare paying
passengers and people who checkin online to board before regular
passengers and airport checkin passengers.
There is of course another solution to the
lack of overhead space problem. Memo to US Airways - why not
police your carryon policies and limit people to only the carryon they
are officially allowed to take on board?
There is also what, on the face of it, seems
to be a positive set of changes by AA to their Aadvantage program.
Members can now book free tickets on a one way basis, rather than in
roundtrips. Each oneway journey will require half of a roundtrip
This has two immediate benefits. For
some people who occasionally fly somewhere oneway only, they can now use
fewer miles to get a free oneway ticket (in the past, you had to redeem
enough miles for a roundtrip ticket and risk upsetting AA by only flying
half of it).
The other benefit is that if there is only a
first class seat available on one flight, and only a coach class seat
available on the other flight, you don't have to redeem enough miles for
a first class roundtrip journey, as was formerly the case.
Instead, you can use enough miles for half a first class roundtrip one
way, and then the appropriate miles for a coach class half roundtrip the
This can also be used to combine a lower
mileage requiring 'Plan Aahead' type award for travel one way and full
cost mileage travel the other way if one flight is wide open and the
other not available for the discounted mileage levels.
All in all, a generous and very fair
change to American's program policies.
Good news also from AirTran.
In contrast to other airlines such as DL and
UA that have been rolling out onboard Wi-Fi at a glacial pace,
they announced on Monday that every one of their 136 planes would be
equipped with Wi-Fi by late July. And, yes, that is July 2009!
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the
propensity for US airlines and their captains to turn on (and leave on)
the Fasten Seat Belts sign at the slightest hint of potential
turbulence. Dan - a reader and pilot - writes in with this
fascinating account of more than you ever wanted to know about the
topic, including some rather graphic material in the last paragraph that
hopefully never applies to ordinary air travel....
As a former airline Captain, I pride myself on being sensitive to the
needs of the passengers. At United Airlines, when I was hired in 1978,
the general philosophy was that the seat belt sign should be OFF as soon
as possible, unless you were aware of known turbulence during climb-out.
And it should be kept off during cruise until well into the descent,
unless turbulence was encountered.
The pilot's flight operations manual told us it was only mandatory to
turn the seat belt sign on during MODERATE or greater turbulence -- it
mandatory (but most pilots turned it on anyway) during LIGHT turbulence.
As the years went by, lawsuits happened. Southwest Airlines had
classic case (lawsuit), and Southwest OVER-reacted with the seat belt
sign ON all the time now, unless a), In cruise, b) absolutely smooth
air, c). Its been smooth for about 20 minutes, d) no other aircraft is
mentioning turbulence on the radio, e) approximately 10 minutes BEFORE
top of descent f) ALL the above! Shame on them!
As you probably have noticed, FAILURE to turn the seatbelt sign OFF
a) Passengers getting up anyway -- they have needs.
b). Loss of respect for the sign -- it is now meaningless.
c). No credibility for the Captain.
d) Flight attendants don't care -- in fact, they prefer the seatbelt
sign be on the entire flight so they can get their work done without
those pesky passengers getting up to go to the bathroom!
I see that happen on Southwest, US Airways, Allegiant, and Delta all the
time -- failure to turn the seat belt sign off during smooth air results
in passengers ignoring it -- it (and the Captain) loses all credibility.
As to your question below: (What are you to do?) Just get up and GO
anyway! Most airlines have a policy that if a Flight Attendant sees you
get up, she is supposed to warn you that you do so at your OWN RISK.
That's fair. Shame on the F/A's who make a blatent PA to embarrass you,
and basically try to show the rest of the passengers that they are in
charge, not you.
Bottom line: IF you have to go, and the seat belt sign is on, you CAN go
(they don't want you to soil your pants or your airline seat!) -- but
you just have to realize it will be at your own risk... don't you DARE
contemplate suing the airline if you should be injured when the
turbulence tosses you and the 'blue water' to the ceiling while you're
[Just a little humorous side note... well... kind of... During 1981-1984, I flew as a test pilot on a US Navy Convair 880 (that's a 4 engine jet). Most of the time, it was just 3
pilots and no passengers. We flew the plane much like a fighter jet. If
one of us got up to go to the 'blue room' (aptly named in this case), it
was common for the remaining pilots to nose it over a bit, just enough
to go 'negative G', such that the blue water would float UP out of the
toilet, and so would your own pee! At zero G, it wasn't so bad, but at
negative G, sometimes the fluid would hit the ceiling! You can imagine
the blue stains all over the lavatory on that plane!]
Do you think we should be able to travel
to Cuba? If you do (and apparently 67% of Americans feel this
way), why not sign a petition being coordinated by Orbitz that advocates
lifting the travel restrictions currently in place. If you do so,
and if travel to Cuba becomes legal, Orbitz will give you a $100
discount on a four night vacation package to Cuba.
Here's a wonderful new website -
www.voyij.com. It approaches
the concept of good deal travel from a new and very relevant perspective
- rather than telling the site where you want to go, you tell it where
you are, and it tells you all the deals it can find from your home city.
The site is still a bit rough around the
edges, and is limited currently to offering deal only within the
US/Canada and to the Caribbean, and it seems to have just airfares and
hotels - no cruises or other travel deals, but I played with it a while
and found several mouth-watering travel deals from Seattle that I didn't
Definitely worth a visit.
This Week's Security Horror Story :
Have you ever stopped to wonder just how much the government is spending
This article reports the Homeland Security Department is being given
$55 billion in the latest federal budget - with this amount not
including user fees from airlines and passengers.
If you see your glass as half full, you're
appreciative that this annual expenditure has won us almost eight terror
free years. If you see your glass as half empty, you wonder where
all the terrorists have gone and worry about government audit reports
that claim our system is almost as vulnerable to terrorist attack today
as it was on 9/11/01.
Three things to close the week with.
Firstly, readers know I continue to advocate using a good travel agent
to help you with your travel planning. There's still an important
role for 'bricks and mortar' travel agencies in this internet age.
Such as, perhaps,
Secondly, Southwest isn't the only airline
to promote its policy of no hidden passenger fees. Another airline
trying this strategy is my home country airline, Air New Zealand, which
promotes the concept they have nothing to hide, by showing, well, staff
members who are, ahem, hiding nothing... Video link
In related Air NZ news, they are offering a
'Cupid' flight to New Zealand in October - they claim this to be
the world's first matchmaking flight.
And lastly, birds aren't the only
foreign object that airplane engines apparently sometimes attempt to
ingest (I've seen similar pictures in the past relating to other similar
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels