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Friday, 4 September, 2009

Good morning

We are now at the end of the second week of our annual fundraising appeal.  Special thanks must be extended to Bill D, Tony R, Ken S, Tom R, Steve M, Eric K, Steve P, Joe W, and Gregory A - they join the group of elite super supporters, embarrassing and humbling me with their level of enthusiasm and support.  Thank you very much indeed.

In total, I can delightedly report that 474 readers have chosen to support The Travel Insider during these two weeks.  Our 2009 target - 630 supporters - is clearly within reach; we need only 156 more people to agree to help out.

So please do take a moment to reflect on the pleasure and value you receive from the weekly newsletter and the articles that accompany it, and then please choose to become one of the 3% of readers who ensure that everything remains online and ongoing, and free for everyone.  Your support is definitely needed, especially in the difficult times we're in at present.

One thought - might your support be a valid business expense?  If you're using the newsletter to help you travel smarter and live/work better, maybe you can claim it as an expense.  I can certainly provide you with a 'subscription invoice' to support your payment if this would help.

But, whether you read the newsletter and website for business or pleasure, and whether you donate so as to receive the special report on how to get thousands of frequent flier miles for free (applicable to US residents only) or 'just because', please do take a minute now and click over to the support page.  No matter if you send in $5 or $50 (or even $500!), your support is enormously valued, and will help what has now been an unbroken eight years of Travel Insider commentary, reviews, advice and information, to continue strongly on into the future.

Lastly, if for whatever reason, you can't contribute, you're still very welcome to remain as a reader and enjoy everything that will remain free, courtesy of the 3% of readers who do help the site remain open for all.  Sadly, each year's fund-raising drive sees a large number of readers unsubscribing; there's no need for this.

Great news.  I have now negotiated an extension of the $500 discounts for our 2009 Christmas Markets cruise, with the wonderful low rates now available through the end of September.

I will probably not be offering this tour again next year (will be offering a different tour instead), so if you'd been unsure about if you would join us or not, you can have another think about this, and hopefully choose to join us for this lovely tour.  It starts in either Prague or Budapest, then we cruise through Austria and Germany, ending in Nuremberg.

This is the most popular tour I offer, and each year the small group of people traveling with me have a wonderful time.  You too can enjoy the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of a pre-Christmas celebration through the historic towns and cities along the Danube river.  I hope you can join me and a small group of your fellow Travel Insider readers.

Dinosaur Watching :  An interesting thing happened - or, more to the point, did not happen on Tuesday.  I'd mentioned last week how Southwest was discovered by the FAA to have installed unauthorized parts on 42 of its planes.  Tuesday was the deadline for the issue to be resolved by Southwest, with the threat of having any/all non-compliant planes being grounded until such time as the unauthorized parts were replaced by officially approved parts.

Come Tuesday, and Southwest's planes were still not in compliance.  But, amazingly, the FAA decided not to restrict the planes at all, and has allowed Southwest to continue flying them, giving Southwest extra time to replace the parts.  The FAA says the parts in question do not affect the safety of the planes.

Okay, so maybe this is a praiseworthy example of common sense triumphing, and the FAA compromising so as to observe the spirit rather than the letter of the law.  But there's a strange thing - although the FAA says the parts in question don't affect the safety of the planes, it is also requiring weekly inspections until the parts are replaced.  Why is this necessary if the parts (and their failure) don't compromise the safety of the planes?

The parts are exhaust gate assembly hinge fittings that are involved in directing the hot engine exhaust away from control flaps on the wings.

This is a curious contrast to when the FAA grounded over half AA's fleet over the incorrect clamping of some wires early last year - something that seemed to be at least as 'safe' a non-compliance issue as the Southwest issue is now.

Why did the FAA ground the AA planes but not the Southwest planes?

Talking about government supervision of airlines, there's certainly a lot of talk about passenger rights, especially when flights are delayed, in the halls of Congress, but precious little action.

But while Congress can't agree on any sensible (or even a stupid) provision to protect us from being held prisoner on a plane for hours at a time, it has found the time to pass legislation that was completely unnecessary, making it illegal to use cell phones in flight.

This legislation is unnecessary for two reasons - firstly, because the FCC already prohibits cell phone usage on airplanes, and secondly, because the phones simply don't work once you get more than a few thousand feet up into the air.

What is wrong with our government when it gleefully passes unnecessary and unneeded legislation, but ignores pressing issues of the moment?

There's one more thing about this legislation.  If it were technologically possible to use cell phones in flight, is this really an issue we want our government to step into the middle of and ban?  Maybe you do and maybe you don't like the thought of cell phone usage around you on a plane, but is this something we need the federal government to legislate against?

Should we not first wait and see how the airlines themselves handle things?  Maybe they'll reserve the back six rows of the plane for cell phone users.  Or who knows what else.  Maybe due to the noise of the plane (and the fee levied by the airline to allow one to use one's phone), most people will choose not to use their cell phones, making the problem no more serious than that formerly posed by the seatback phones that used to be available (but never used) on most planes.  Is this the finest use of the federal government's powers?

And, by the way, like it or not, cell phone usage is being approved and enabled increasingly in other countries around the world, including most of the EU, and most recently Mexico.

Back to Southwest; the airline is cutting back on some of its flights, while at the same time making the interesting observation that it carries more passengers than any other airline in the US, while only serving 67 airports.  For the schedule period 9 Jan - 12 March, Southwest is eliminating 92 flights while adding 42 others (I think this is per week).  Suggestion to Southwest - why not use the freed up plane and personnel resource that these 50 flights represent for some of the new services you'd have otherwise added if you'd succeeded in buying Frontier a couple of weeks ago?

And in still more Southwest news, the 'no hidden fee' airline is adding a new service for which it charges a fee.  If you'd like to get a priority boarding position, you can do so for a $10 fee (per one way fare).  This 'EarlyBird' service will allow people who pay the $10 fee to board immediately after the Business Select and Rapid Rewards A-List passengers.

Southwest continues to get more like the airlines it used to go out of its way to be different from.

So if Southwest is becoming more and more like a dinosaur, what airline is now becoming more and more like the Southwest of five and more years ago?  Perhaps JetBlue?

JetBlue has had a bit of a rocky time the last few years (but what airline hasn't!), and conventional wisdom holds that its problems were related to growing too fast.  After founding CEO and charismatic frontman David Neeleman was more or less ousted and replaced by new CEO Dave Barger, the airline became much less prominently visible, and went through some careful growth management and consolidation.  However, it seems to be returning to profitability once more, and, best of all, seems to have preserved the best of Neeleman's passenger-positive policies, and new CEO Barger seems keen to build on Neeleman's legacy rather than destroy it.

Here's an interesting article that gives us an overview and update of JetBlue as it presently is and hopes to become.

Interestingly, Southwest and JetBlue are now finding themselves moving into direct competition, for example at Boston's Logan Airport - ummm, did I just say Boston/Logan?

Moves are (and oh so predictably) afoot in Massachusetts to rename the airport as Logan-Kennedy International Airport.  A colossal waste of time and money.  Very few people refer to Boston Airport as anything other than Boston Airport, anyway - it isn't like New York with multiple airports, there's no real need to distinguish Boston/Logan from Boston/any other airport.

My guess is that fewer people would start referring to it as Boston Logan-Kennedy International Airport than there currently are people who refer to Washington National Airport as Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (to give that airport its full formal name).

Here's an interesting excuse that is being offered by Hawaiian Airlines as justification for now charging $10 for the first checked bag on inter-island flights within Hawaii.  Senior VP-Marketing and Sales Glenn Taniguchi said 'Our costs continue to rise and fares have simply not kept pace. We've held the line on this fee as long as possible, but have to remain competitive'.  Sounds fair, doesn't it.

But let me ask Glenn this.  What period of time are you using to measure the rise in your costs (and why did you choose this timeline rather than one longer or shorter)?  With most airlines reporting lower costs for staffing, for fuel, and overall as CASM (cost per available seat mile) how is it that your costs are increasing?  And if your costs are truly increasing, why not simply raise your fares to match your rising costs, rather than introduce a new type of fee?

By the way, $10 might seem not too much to pay.  But an inter-island fare is typically only about $50 - so the cost of one bag is 20% of the fare for yourself.  Are we to believe that the airline's costs have increased by 20% or more?

And talking about fees, the United Airlines attempt to make travel agents charge passenger credit cards directly - thereby transferring both the financial risk and the financial cost from United to the travel agency and, by implication, on to you, their passenger - continues to simmer in the background.  But this is not the first or only step in this direction, there are other airline actions that are attacking the issue from different angles.

In Europe KLM has said it will add a 7.50 fee (about US$10.65) for bookings made through travel agents and charged to a credit card.  It already charges customers who book directly through their website and pay by credit card, saying that customers should pay the cost of using a credit card if they wish to benefit from the convenience of using the credit card.

So, let me ask KLM and its Air France owners - how else can a person pay for a ticket, when you require payment to be made in full within 24 hours of the booking being made, and you have no local ticket office in the person's city or nearby airport?  Isn't accepting a credit card as much for your convenience as your passenger's?

The international airline association IATA is now advising that worldwide, it seems their member airlines have managed to lose more than $6 billion in the first six months of 2009 - more than double what it had earlier predicted the airlines would lose for all of 2009.

It is bad for a business to lose money, of course.  But there are times when it can't be avoided, and it is not always a direct reflection on the competence of the business managers.  But a damning condemnation of the competence of the management is when the business(es) can't even reliably project their losses, and suffer a loss four times worse than their projection at the beginning of the six month period.

What unexpected catastrophes have occurred in the last six months to make such a huge change in results?  Nothing.  Airline executives can't even predict their losses, let alone turn them into profits.

Talking about catastrophes, did you know that September is 'National Preparedness Month'?  And a looming catastrophe that may impact on us is the Swine Flu - a challenge that has been biding its time during the summer, and getting ready to return in fall.

According to a WHO report last week, the virus is spreading four times faster than other viruses typically do.  Something to look forward to, this winter?

And talking about the future, there's an interesting new service called Flightcaster.com which predicts likely flight delays, giving people a probable delay long before the airline admits to it.

Flightcaster uses weather data, FAA updates, airport congestion, the status of a flight's prior inbound flight, historical data, and other information to project the likely delays for future flights, and boasts that it gives you information up to six hours before the airlines notify passengers.

Information is free on their website, and/or they sell a $10 app for Blackberrys and iPhones.

Here's an interesting issue - a doctor volunteers to help an unwell passenger on a flight, and by doing so, saves the airline the need to divert the plane and make an emergency landing.  His reward - a bottle of champagne (he is a teetotaller), subsequently upgraded to a $175 voucher for future travel.  His request - international roundtrip tickets for two.

Is the doctor being greedy, or the airline stingy?  I'm really not sure, and suspect the truth is somewhere obscured in the middle between the two extremes.  More details here.

Apple is expected to announce its latest generation of iPods this coming week, and Microsoft is releasing its new Zune players the following week.

And in other Apple news, MMS is finally coming to the iPhone - it will be enabled by AT&T on 25 September, resolving one of the biggest omissions from the iPhone's current feature set.

I'd obviously love to be able to comment further to you on the new iPods when they emerge, the same as I have about previous versions (multi part review series here), and even to revisit the new Zune (my review of the original Zune very accurately called it a non-contender in the MP3 player stakes).

I've already invested in both the original iPhone and the newest 3GS (bottom line - the 3GS is undoubtedly the best 'smartphone' in the market at present, and if you're considering anything other than the most basic phone possible, the 3GS is probably going to be your best choice).  There is also an intense amount of activity in the eBook reader marketplace at present, with several new 'game changing' products expected over the next few months.

But because I don't promise to recycle mindlessly positive press releases in the guise of reviews, I don't get the free evaluation samples of such things that the uncritical reviewers get.  I have to buy them at retail.  If you want to be given the real unadorned truth about these and other products, please do support this year's fund raising drive (when making a contribution, feel free to tell me if you'd like it to go to normal operations or towards a specific purpose such as hardware reviews; I can't promise to spend every penny exactly as requested, but your feedback will help me prioritize the year ahead and what I write/review).

This Week's Security Horror Story :  It is just another normal London bus.  But, as you can see here, this ordinary London bus has on it not just one or two, but - count them - sixteen security cameras.  Isn't that, ummm, just a few more than really needed?

In other UK originating news, there are plans afoot to add RFID chips to cell phones (note that these days the term 'RFID chip' is seldom used - because so many people have come to appreciate the negative security and privacy implications of having anything with an RFID chip about one's person, people advocating RFID chips now refer to them as 'contactless chips' or 'near-field communications' - much more benign sounding technologies.

Adding an RFID chip would indeed make it easier to use one's phone as a virtual credit card and payment authorizing device.  But is this desirable?  When you consider the demonstrated ability to already read, counterfeit and/or change the data on what have been described as 'secure' and 'encrypted' RFID chips, it opens up an enormous new set of new vulnerabilities to hacking.

Until now there's been little financial motivation to hack/counterfeit RFID chips.  Sure, you can be (and some people allegedly are) naughty with Oyster cards for the underground trains in London, but there's no easy way to make much money with counterfeit Oyster cards.  However, if RFID chips are going to start supporting a broader range of purchasing, it will surely motivate hackers.

And it would also have the side effect of adding a whole new dimension to the ability to track people.  Of course, few of us really think about the fact that whenever our cell phone is on (which is most of the time for most of us), it is allowing our wireless company to track where we are to within a close radius of our exact location, and not just to know where we are, but also to know when we are there, too.  And now if our phone is also used to make purchases, there'll not even be any need to try and mix and match data from different databases to get a complete story of our lives, it will all be available from the one source.

We are now being advised by, eg, the Department of State, to keep our RFID chipped passports electronically 'hidden' inside special holders for security reasons.  But you can't electronically hide your cell phone without also cutting off its phone and data service at the same time, therefore losing the ability to place and receive calls, access the internet, etc.  If having an exposed 'secure' 'short range' RFID chip on our passport is considered too risky, why should we feel comfortable allowing one on our phone?

It is, of course, the Labor Day weekend this weekend, and many of us are driving somewhere for one last summer experience.  Traditional advice about how to avoid the worst of the traffic is seldom convenient or sensible (eg 'travel on different days').

If you have a traffic data service (eg on your GPS), and are traveling somewhere with alternate routes, clearly that is helpful and can help you adjust your journey based on where the traffic is best.  If you don't, but if you have an internet capable smart phone, you can get the next best thing, and for free.

Google Maps provides traffic data as a map overlay for much of the country, and a second option is to go to m.traffic.com on your mobile browser and get regional traffic data for many major areas in the US.  Try zooming out and moving about the map to see more coverage outside of the central downtown city areas.

If you're traveling out of town and not staying with friends or relatives, you'll probably be staying in some sort of hotel or motel.  Here are some places that perhaps you might not choose to stay at.

I hope you have a wonderful long weekend, and I also hope you find the time to help support The Travel Insider.

Until next week please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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