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Friday, 29 May, 2009

Good morning

Although projections were for slightly reduced traffic this Memorial Day weekend, that was certainly not the case in Washington state, with traffic on the major arterials up 10%, and delays on roads that are normally wide open extending to five hours at peak times.  Yuck.  Not a nice way to start, spend, or finish one's weekend - stuck in worse traffic than midweek rush hour.

How much nicer it will be to be idly cruising down the Rhine and Mosel rivers in almost exactly one month's time.  We have a mere six A and one D cabin remaining on this cruise; if you're quick, I can probably get the paperwork all completed and squeeze you on board.

While many of my fellow Washingtonians were stuck in cars going nowhere, I was working hard this last weekend.  Well, in this case, 'working hard' involved doing some, ahem, research on your behalf.  Yes, I was enjoying the glorious weather while visiting some more of the wonderful micro-wineries in this area (and a couple of micro-breweries too), all of course to ensure the next installment of my series on visiting wineries in WA would be as comprehensive and up to date as possible.  We don't just drink coffee in Seattle.

Were my efforts successful?  You can be the judge of that by visiting the next two parts of this series which are :

This Week's Feature Columns :  How to enjoy wine tasting and touring around Seattle's major wineries and boutique micro-wineries :  With more that 40 wineries all in a concentrated area just east of downtown Seattle, a fun day of winery visits and tastings can be enjoyed by both locals and visitors alike.  These two articles suggest which wineries to visit (and which to avoid) and also offer bonus information on where to stay, where to eat, and, to refresh the palate, tell you about a couple of nearby micro-breweries too.

Dinosaur watching :  Bookend airlines?  Two airlines that are a curious combination of some very similar and very different components - British Airways and Virgin Atlantic - provided opposite financial results this last week.  The implications of one airline's rich success and the other's dismal failure may be puzzling for the people at British Airways, while doubtless provoking much glee and deserved celebration at arch-rival Virgin Atlantic.

After a record profit in its previous financial year, British Airways announced its worst ever loss for the most recent financial year, with a 401 million loss ($640 million), surprising some analysts who had been predicting only half that amount.  BA expects to report another loss for the current year, too.

But every cloud has a silver lining.  The airline announced that it was abandoning its earlier policy of keeping its fares high; it says that selling fewer but high priced tickets was not successful, and instead it will more aggressively price to build up its passenger numbers.  Hopefully this will see some great fares very soon - I've still yet to buy my tickets to Europe for the upcoming Travel Insider river cruise.

Virgin Atlantic (VS), on the other hand, announced a profit almost twice that of the previous year.  Their pretax profit was 68.4 million ($109 million).  Doubling one's profit during what was a very difficult twelve month period (1 March 2008 - 28 February 2009) is an extraordinary result.

Interestingly, even VS is cautious about this year, saying they doubt any airlines (including themselves) will make a profit during this current year.

I'm a bit more optimistic.  I'm certain we'll see a few airlines make a profit.

One contender for a profit is Qantas, a perennially profitable airline that has been extremely well managed over the last almost twenty years.  But their latest attempt to boost revenues seems a bit rich.

We've become accustomed to airlines that charge extra for better seats in their coach class cabins, with of course exit row seats being the most desirable, and aisle seats forward also being more desirable than middle seats at the back of the plane.  Qantas has announced plans to start charging as much as A$160 (US$125) for exit row seats on its longer flights, and half that on shorter flights.

That's a lot of money.  To put this in context, the lowest airfare between the US and Australia is currently about $280 each way - $125 extra is a massive percentage extra to get a bit more comfort.  If two of you are traveling together, it might be an interesting thought to share an extra seat between the two of you, for almost the same cost.

Another airline that hopes it will make a profit is JetAmerica.  What's that - you've not heard of JetAmerica?  That's because it is brand new, and is due to start service in July, operating to start with what it describes as '34 nonstop flights a week' - in other words, not quite three roundtrips a day.

There's a very interesting wrinkle to their business plan.  They are not actually an airplane owning and operating airline themselves.  They are a marketing company, and are contracting out the operational side of their business to Miami Air International.

There's a lot to be said for this concept.  If it frees the management and customer-facing marketing functions to consider their product/service from the context of 'giving the marketplace what it wants and values' and builds its operations back from this perspective, rather than building a range of products/services up from the technical base points and constraints of operational issues, maybe we might see some more innovative and customer sensitive service.

When you consider the extraordinary profusion of code shares and alliances and regional 'partner' airlines that now add a layer of confusion such that you're never really quite sure as to which airline's plane you'll actually board and fly on (and which airline's rules for luggage, etc, that will apply) most of our current airlines have become ugly hybrids of organizations with more disconnect than linkage between the flights they operate themselves and the flights they actually market and sell.

I see the lack of planes as a positive rather than negative part of JetAmerica's business plan.  Depending on their contractual relationships with Miami Air Intl and whatever other airplane service providers they may deal with in the future, this might give them a considerable extra level of flexibility.  Why couldn't they even start selling 'top up' seats on dinosaur carriers too?  There's a lot of potential in this concept, and we should alI wish them well, even though it appears that their business model is not without its detractors and potential challenges.

On the other hand, not all airlines are rushing in to new code share and other alliances.  In a rather vague announcement, Southwest said earlier this week it was delaying its earlier plans for code sharing flights with Canadian up and coming airline Westjet.  While the ostensible reason is due to the recessionary environment causing Southwest to be short of the necessary resources to internally organize for the codeshares, and while Southwest continues to express enthusiastic confidence in the concept, it seems to me that if an idea is good and makes sense, then the 'recessionary environment' would surely encourage them to more intently focus on a positive profitable opportunity rather than cause them to back pedal.

Southwest has always struck me as being the airline that is least suited to codesharing with other carriers, particularly due to their distinctive approach to not issuing advance seat assignments, and a business ethos that is all about aggressively taking market share for themselves and adding new routes, rather than lazily erecting multi-airline partnerships that reduces their competitive threats and keeping a route system more or less unchanged.  Southwest is the competitive threat other airlines worry about!

Is it just possible that someone at Southwest might be having second thoughts about this partnership and re-evaluating their other options?

Talking about Southwest, how much does a free ticket that an airline gives away to reward helpful passengers actually cost the airline in monetary terms?  There's a reason for this question which I'll come to.

If one assumes that the free ticket is capacity controlled - ie, it is restricted to seats that are most likely to be unsold any other way, then such tickets clearly don't cause the airline to lose revenue if a regular fare paying passenger was displaced.  And if the passenger who receives and uses the free ticket uses it for an extra flight that he wouldn't have otherwise bought a ticket from that airline for, then the ticket is also not displacing income the airline would otherwise receive from the ticket recipient.

In such a case, one could argue convincingly that the actual cost to the airline for a free ticket is merely the incremental extra costs it incurs to fly that passenger - a bit of extra jet fuel, and maybe a half can of soda.  In round figures, call it about $20 for a roundtrip within the US.

And now the reason for the question.  Southwest is saying that a woman who fraudulently obtained and resold 100 free tickets that the airline had intended to be given away to helpful passengers has defrauded the airline of $20,000, an amount the woman had to agree to in a plea agreement.  Southwest is valuing these tickets at $200 each - about ten times their cost - and don't forget these are tickets that they give away for free.

That seems a bit rich.

Southwest shouldn't be pressing charges against the woman.  It should be thanking her for the $20,000 she's now agreed to pay them for tickets that the airline otherwise would have given away for free.

In terms of profiting from crime, this time it is the 'victim' - poor little Southwest - that has clearly profited, to such an extent that some of you might feel that their own crime equals or exceeds that of the original perpetrator.

More details here.  And if you do read the story, which has some delightful twists in it, marvel at the final paragraph.

How long will it be until our planes are no longer flown by two person teams of pilots in the cockpit, but instead are flown mainly by computer (well, that part has already happened), and with override human control not in the form of two pilots in the cockpit, but one pilot somewhere on land, via remote control?

While some people say 'this will never happen', people have said the same thing about every prior reduction in cockpit crew, and at every other piece of automation in the past.  There was a time when a plane was flown by a minimum crew of five (pilot, co-pilot, navigator, engineer and radioman), and while the navigator and radioman were fairly easy positions to eliminate, there was a struggle to get pilots to agree to reduce from three person to two person cockpits.

The biggest thing keeping pilots in the cockpits at present is the public perception of the need for pilots.  But this perception is based as much on ignorance as on fact, and so is vulnerable.  Few people realize that many flights are, and most planes can be, piloted by their auto-pilot all the way from the beginning of the take-off roll at the start of the flight through to the end of the landing deceleration at the end of the flight.  Pilots tend to hand-fly a plane (if indeed you can describe piloting a 'fly by wire' computer controlled plane as hand flying to start with) as much to relieve boredom and for the fun of it as they do out of any real sense of need.

And before you start to wave Capt Scully and other airplane pilot heroes at me, for every airplane pilot hero, there is, alas, an airplane pilot zero as well, as was discussed most recently in last week's newsletter.  One could argue that the crash discussed last week would not have occurred if the plane had better automation and was not being manually flown.

With modern virtual reality control systems as staggeringly sophisticated as they nowadays are, Capt Scully could have 'saved the day' just as readily from the comfort of a virtual reality remote control station, while at the same time being also on call to save the day with dozens of other flights if other emergencies might have arisen at all.

Indeed, that could be the spin about the concept of remote controlled planes that nicely rebuts the public perception of the need for onboard pilots.  A remote control center can place the very best pilots - well rested, superbly trained, massively paid, etc etc - on instant call for all flights, everywhere, any time there is an emergency, rather than limiting their availability to just one plane at a time.

There is no doubt in my mind that the future of aviation will unavoidably see a transition from the current onboard two man crews to fully remotely controlled planes, perhaps in a series of gentle stages and over many years.  I'll be delighted to see this development as it occurs.

Here's an interesting article on the topic that should strike fear into the hearts of airline pilots.  The US Air Force both wants its remote control pilots to simultaneously be operating more than one UAV at a time, and also wants the UAVs to be flown on automatic for more of the time.

The reason for wanting more automatic flight is detailed towards the end.  It seems that if a UAV lands itself, automatically, it is less likely to crash than if a human pilot is controlling it remotely.  Hmmm - food for thought.

Talking about food, remember swine flu?  For a brief week many of us were concerned with its potential to become a virulent new strain of flu, apparently combining high rates of transmission effectiveness together with a high mortality rate.

As good fortune would have it, the initial mortality projections turned out to be very much higher than they have been shown to be in reality, and transmission rates have been much lower than feared too.

As of last Friday, WHO has confirmed more than 11,000 cases of swine flu, and a mere 86 deaths.  Rates of infection seem to be stable or possibly declining, and most authorities are starting to relax some, and on 21 May the Mexico City government lowered their swine flu alert down to its lowest level.

But while most of us are no longer so concerned about swine flu, there are some notable holdouts.  Perhaps most notable would be in Australia, where a cruise ship, the Pacific Dawn, had three crew come down with some 'flu like symptoms'.  This resulted in the ship cancelling its itinerary up the north Queensland coast - not out of concern for the passengers, but for fear of infecting people ashore, with the ship being told not to dock in either Port Douglas or Cairns.

The ship then had a child who suffered an injured arm, and they decided they had to divert to Airlie Beach to offload the child and family members.  Although these three passengers show no signs of having the flu, they will be kept in isolation for up to seven days.

The ship is now returning to Brisbane and upon its arrival all 2000 passengers and 730 crew are expected to be given preventative doses of the anti-flu drug Tamiflu 'just in case'.

Commendable caution?  Or overactive hypochondria?

Congratulations, Canada.  A new Anholt-GFK Roper Nation Brand Index recently gathered the opinions of consumers from twenty nations regarding their views on fifty different countries.  The global consumer study on travel trends and planning has determined that Canada is number one amongst 50 countries in terms of perceptions that "it would make me feel welcome" and "I would visit if money were no object."

Following Canada at the top of the "would make feel welcome" category was Australia, Italy, New Zealand and Spain.  The bottom five listed were China, United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Iran.  The US ranked 25th.

In terms of "I would like to visit this country if money were no object," Canada was at the top and then followed by Italy, Australia, Switzerland and France.  At the bottom of the category were Lithuania, Estonia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Iran. The US was ranked 10th.

I wrote last week at the rapacity of airports charging us 'passenger facilities charges' to fund all manner of projects of dubious essential value.  Reader Steve sent in these examples of his home town airport, Portland OR :

Here in Portland, we have probably one of the nicest airports in the country, yet the owners - the Port of Portland - consider it to be in dire need of upgrades and expansion, even though there has been a decrease of close to 20% in passenger traffic this year alone.

For example, they just completed a widening of a mile of the road into the airport from 2 lanes to 3 (and the same going out).  This is for an airport that never had traffic issues or backups.  Add to that the additional new landscaping that widening created and it was money not well spent.

Once finished on their road project, they then began to double the number of covered parking spaces with the construction of a new parking garage, plus a place for the Port of Portland's offices to move to.  Given that current usage of the existing parking garage, at $24/day, is on average 25% full, this is a total waste of money.

Perhaps it might make sense for the 1-2 times where the garage gets close to full, which is Thanksgiving eve and Christmas week, but to spend that kind of money for an overflow lot is silly.  I just checked on their website and it shows that the garage, on the day before a big Memorial Day travel weekend, is only 3/8 full.

I won't even go into why they are lengthening the north runway and repaving.

Portland currently collects the maximum $4.50 PFC per passenger, and is approved to continue collecting it through March 1 2018.  It also has a pending application to extend this further to July 1 2020.

Here's an interesting article about tech hassles when traveling which some of us can doubtless relate to.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  All legal visitors to the US are fingerprinted and photographed upon arrival (those who come across our southern border unofficially of course don't need to submit to these ridiculous security requirements that surpass anything you'll encounter elsewhere in the rest of the somewhat civilized world).

But what happens if you've been taking a course of chemotherapy which, as a side effect, causes one's fingerprints to vanish?  A gentleman who had suffered this as a result of four years of taking capecitabine was detained for four hours upon arrival in the US, due to the border security guard (a term that used to be reserved primarily for trigger happy machine gun toting thugs in totalitarian regimes) being unable to get a set of prints from him.  All his other paperwork was completely in order.  Details here.

By the way, didn't we formerly call the people who man the arrival desks something much more friendly such as 'Immigration officers'?

Which states have the best and worst drivers in the US?  Here's one suggested ranking.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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