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11 December, 2009

Good morning

Am I getting old?  I used to note, disparagingly, how old people would often chorus about the loss of standards in much of modern life, and yearn for the olden days when things were allegedly better.  I tended to denigrate their complaints as being out of touch with the modern day, age, values and realities.

But, when I look in a mirror, what do I see?  A person who makes his living in large part by complaining about things the way they are now!  It increasingly seems that every experience I have - travel related or not - uncovers more disappointments.  Am I getting old and out of touch with reality?  Should I shut up?

Which brings me to Dell.

I mentioned last week my problems with Dell.  I remain stunned that a company with the size and resource base of Dell treated me so appallingly and did nothing except offer weak apologies while doing nothing substantive to solve the problem they caused.

Readers responded by sharing other problems they've had - not just with Dell (although plenty of Dell horror stories were offered up) but also with other computer companies.  Is it possible that the slim margins on computers these days have meant that computer companies, pretty much across the board, no longer care?

Is treating customers indifferently/badly the new recipe for business success?

I think not.  It might be the way things are often now done, but that doesn't make it either right or sensible.  I still cling, desperately, to the remnants of what I was taught at business school.  Keeping and caring for customers isn't altruistic - it is smart good business.  It is much less expensive and much more beneficial for a company to resolve a customer's problems (assuming the customer is being fair and realistic and shows that they can be restored back to a position of being a loyal ongoing customer again into the future) than it is to allow the customer to walk away upset, with the attendant loss of future income, loss of image/reputation as the former customer complains about them to all their friends, and the added costs of reaching out to get a new replacement customer.

With Dell, I wasn't asking for anything other than the computer system I'd ordered and fully paid for.  I wasn't asking for anything free, or for anything special.  I simply asked them to make good on delivering me the unit they promised.  They refused to do this, choosing to lie to me about it not being possible to deliver me a replacement correctly configured unit until after Christmas, even though their own website was, at the time the lie was uttered, promising a delivery date of 11 December.

So I hope in this case I'm not being old or stupid.  It is Dell that is being stupid and short-sighted.

How is it that companies that rose to success by offering good products, good values and good service lose sight of their formula for success, and abandon the positive elements that helped them succeed?  Of course, that is a question to be asked of Michael Dell, not of you.  Except that, well, I can't.  He and all his senior executives/acolytes prefer to hide inside their headquarters fortress, insulating themselves from their customers and the world in which they seek to do business.  I've tried every possible way to contact a senior Dell official, but everyone I speak to at every phone number I call tells me that there is no way to telephone or fax to a senior Dell executive.

Eventually, through the help of a Dell employee and reader, I did speak to someone in Dell's Corporate Communications; a polite gentleman who I suspect was talking to me only because I write a newsletter and because my reader had told him I needed to be contacted.  And the best solution this person could offer me?  He suggested I go to the local Best Buy store and see if I could buy a Dell computer there!!!  Dell, a company that built its business on the basis of being the best source of computers via mail order, now concedes it is unable to provide the service it promises.  Yes, he expected me to drive to Best Buy, then walk past all the computers from competing companies, but still buy one of his computers (even though there wasn't a chance of the specific computer configuration I wanted being sold at Best Buy to start with).

The best response to his suggestion comes in the opening lines of this.

One bright ray of sunshine from my unhappy and unresolved Dell problems.  Some readers also wrote in to speak very highly of their dealings with some computer companies.  So bad/stupid customer service is not yet the universal norm.  Seek out and only deal with companies that treat you fairly.

Meantime, I'm being reminded of Dell's letting me down every time I turn my old slow laptop on, and every time I get a ridiculous note from Dell (such as the one today telling me how to return the laptop that I never received).

It took me 30 minutes to connect to the internet in the hotel I'm at in Prague, with the delays not entirely due to my old laptop.  There's a lesson in the experience worth sharing with you - always travel with your own ethernet cable.

I estimate that perhaps two thirds to three quarters of all connectivity problems I have in hotels end up being due to bad patch cables between the wall and my laptop; and so I always travel with my own known good one now.

I'm writing this from Prague, where the weather is appreciably warmer than that I left behind in Seattle.  My journey to Prague on Wednesday was with NW/DL over to Amsterdam on one of their lovely A330s (I say lovely due to them having individual seat back In Flight Entertainment units that are vastly superior to those offered in some other airlines' business and first class), and from there, after a mad dash literally from one end of Schiphol to the other, on a short and small KL flight to Prague.

The service on the flight from Seattle was embarrassingly excellent.  I say 'embarrassingly' because in the sober light of day, I rather regret having accepted quite so many of the friendly offers to replace my empty Heineken can with a fresh full one - it was explained to me as being one of the benefits of sitting close to the galley area.

Although the beer flowed freely, the food was perhaps the worst I've yet encountered on an international NW/DL flight.  Am I the only one to wryly observe that when confronted with an ability to make money by selling us food, the airlines have shown that they actually can offer some half-way decent choices; but when the food is on their dime rather than our dollar, the quality of food continues to get worse and worse.

I've already met up with several of the people joining me on this lovely cruise, including the two illustrious members of the group on their fourth Travel Insider tour.

Please note that due to being somewhere on the Danube for most of next week, with poor internet access from the river cruiser, there'll be no Travel Insider newsletter next week.

You'll recall that last week my plans to simply list some good extra programs to add to your iPhone or iPod Touch got sidetracked when my introductory notes grew to fill 3000 words and two web pages.  Well, I moved forward with renewed energy to list the programs themselves (a far from trivial task, my list has already grown to well over 100 applications) and started off the listing with a couple more comments about the potential dangers and traps to be wary of when adding Apps to your phone.

Well, you can guess what came next.  Yes, I've now ended up with another 2000+ words, this time on the topic of the pitfalls and problems that you should look out for when adding Apps to your phone.

As encouragement to continuing the iPhone software roundup this week, I read about a Consumer Reports survey that found 98% of all iPhone users are sufficiently satisfied with their iPhone that they'd choose to buy it again.  That's a stunning satisfaction level.

Of course, the largest part of this satisfaction is due to its brilliant and intuitive interface.  I marvel every time I see my five year old daughter confidently take my iPhone from me and do something with it, something she neither could do nor would want to do with my Blackberry 8900.  What a brilliant design to release a product so sophisticated and powerful, but still so simple a five year old truly can understand and use it.

And how about this to illustrate the astonishing diversity of applications to which the iPhone can be put?  What will they think of next?

But, before you go adding weird and wonderful new apps to your iPhone, you really should consider the warnings and other comments I offer this week, and so :

This Week's Feature Column :  Things to beware of and be aware of when choosing iPhone apps : Just because an iPhone program is free or trivially priced to start with doesn't mean it might not end up costing you thousands of dollars subsequently and unexpectedly. This week I cover some of the tricks and traps associated with adding apps to your iPhone.

I'm increasingly considering a Norwegian coastal cruise from Bergen to Kirkenes next late July as the next Travel Insider tour.  This is a seven day cruise/tour.

This would be very different to a traditional big ship/luxury cruise - it is on a working ferry/cruise ship that does a 'milk-run' up the Norwegian coast, stopping at many different towns and villages en route, allowing locals (and their cars) to travel for essential and functional purposes as well as providing a fascinating cruise for tourists.  Accommodations on board are average rather than deluxe, and so too is food average rather than excellent. but that's not the main reason for taking this cruise/tour.

The main reason for going is to see the Norwegian coast - its fiords and coastal villages and towns, cruising way north up where the sun never sets in the summer months (and never rises in the winter!).  The scenery and touring is excellent, with plenty of opportunities to get off the ship - sometimes getting off the ship in one port, touring around, and getting back on in the next port.

The cruise cost for a seven day cruise is $2267 or higher, depending on your cabin choice, and the shore touring might add another $400 - $500 if you want to do a lot of off-ship touring, less if you just plan to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery.  Airfare is extra.

An option at the end is to sail back down to Bergen, and if you choose this, you don't revisit the same identical places as before.  The different schedule for port calls means you see different towns and have different shore excursions.  This would add another five days, making for a twelve day cruise/tour, and would add about $1100 extra to the cruise cost and however much more to the touring cost.

You can see plenty about the cruise on Hurtigruten's website.

Does this sound of interest?  Please let me know; if sufficient people register interest, I'll get the tour/cruise confirmed.

Dinosaur watching :  None of us like paying baggage fees to airlines, because the memory of formerly being able to check luggage for free sits fresh in our mind, and there's also the notion that taking luggage is unavoidable and essential, and therefore some amount of luggage allowance should be included in the ticket price.  Very few of us can travel for a week or longer with only carry-on, and I never can due to always traveling with a Swiss Army Knife which forces me to check my bag, no matter how small/large it may be.

And then there's the fact that the fees for checked luggage is not only high, but also sometimes just plain stupid.

Here's a case in point.  I was researching the question 'Should I travel with two bags, or pay an overweight fee on one bag' for my travels this week on Northwest to Europe.  The answer may surprise you.

My options were either to pay an overweight fee that would allow me to increase the weight of one bag from 50lbs up to 70lbs, or alternatively, to pay a fee for a second bag weighing up to 50lbs.  Which do you think would be cheaper?  Adding 20lbs of weight to a single bag, or checking a completely separate second bag?

On the face of it, the first option should be much less expensive (and remember the good old days when all passengers could travel with two bags, for free, each weighing up to 70lbs)?  Most flights these days are limited not by the weight they can carry but rather by the space to carry things, and so simply adding extra weight to one suitcase does not use up more of the valuable cargo space and neither does it double the baggage handling costs and movements.

But - get this.  To add up to 20lbs to one bag would cost $150 each way.  To check a second bag, weighing up to 50lbs, costs 'only' $50 each way!  Why is the solution that is much more expensive to the airline much cheaper to its passengers?

So I'm traveling with two bags rather than one, and still puzzled as to the fairness or sense of NW's baggage charges.

Normally when you have two choices for any given thing, one ends up being better and the other ends up worse.  Even if the difference is small, you choose one over the other.

But not so with United.  Showing an impressive element of indecision, and after six months of negotiation and review, this week it proceeded to order 25 Boeing 787s, and also 25 of the competing Airbus A350 planes.

Why didn't the airline choose exclusively one or the other plane, like just about every other airline customer has done to date?  Although of course not part of the negotiations, my sense is that United could have got a better deal by giving the entire order to one company only, rather than splitting it, and with these first 50 planes being potentially the start of a total order for 150 planes, United would have still had plenty of opportunity to renegotiate each extra stage of the total 150 plane order.

Operationally, there are lots of reasons to choose only one plane type.  Less crew and maintenance training, less spare parts, more flexibility when you're short a plane somewhere and have a spare somewhere else, and so on.  A definite airline trend has been to reduce the number of different airplane types deployed.

Perhaps one clue for United's reasons is that both Airbus and Boeing are guaranteeing some/most of United's buy to make it easier for United to get favorable third party financing.  Maybe neither manufacturer was willing to risk a guarantee for all 50 planes?

It is also interesting to note what these new planes are replacing, and what United didn't order.  The 50 planes are to replace 59 747-400 and 767-300 planes, and represent a net 19% reduction in available seats in United's fleet.  This order is not United growing, it is actually the means for United to shrink yet again (even though United claims that these new planes will allow it to add more services to more cities - can you explain how 50 planes can offer more services to more cities than the 59 planes they replace?).  Deliveries are scheduled to start in 2016 and be complete by 2019.

As for what United didn't order, it didn't order any of the new 747-8 or A380 planes.  This makes the 777 the largest plane in United's fleet, and throws more doubt as to the current appropriateness of the Airbus A380 as a viable/relevant plane for the airlines and their current business models.

Talking about big planes, Boeing scored a surprise win this week when Korean Air became only the second airline to order the 747-8 plane (in its passenger configuration), placing an order for five of them.

And it seems that next week may finally see Boeing make good on its promise to get a 787 into the air prior to the end of the year.

Another airline is looking at adding surcharges to tickets paid for by credit card.  Fortunately, it is with a minor airline and limited to part of Europe only, but it is another indication of a likely future trend that will reach to the US too.

Finnair already has a credit card surcharge of 7.50 in the Netherlands, This followed a similar initiative from KLM in August. Unlike KLM, which is only surcharging cheaper, more restricted ticket types in its home market, the Finnair surcharge applies to all reservations where payment is made through the merchant agreement of the airline.

Finnair is now considering expanding the introduction of a surcharge on credit card payments for reservations made through travel agents in the first half of next year to other European countries especially Sweden, where both Air France and KLM introduced card surcharges on Dec. 1.

Thanks to everyone who wrote in supporting my comments last week about global warming.  Here's an interesting short piece signed by a huge number of scientists that provides further vivid proof that global warming is far from universally accepted within the scientific community as a valid phenomenon.

And - I don't know if you've noticed this or not, but one response by the global warming advocates has been to rename their theory.  It is now being preferentially called 'climate change' - this is perhaps a concession to the continued record cold/low temperatures being posted around the world in this and previous years.

It also is an attempt to obscure the inconvenient truth that the people now declaiming global warming as a certainty, along with the associated end of the world scenarios associated with it, are - ooops - the same people who a mere 30 years ago were just as fired up with their claims of global cooling and the end of the world that would surely follow from that.

Here's a great piece from Forbes that gently pokes fun at this massive switch from global cooling to global warming by the doomsday brigade.  Isn't it interesting how just 30 years ago we were being told of the inexorable trend over decades for the earth to cool, and now somehow that same data is being used to instead show the earth's temperature is rising - or, at least, it was rising until the additional inconvenient truth of the steady drops in temperature over the last some years.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The TSA published a copy of its operations manual on the internet, and it carefully blacked out what it deemed to be secret parts of the manual.

Except that - oops - the way it blacked out those portions wasn't really truly a true black out.  Anyone who opened the pdf file, and simply copied the text and pasted it into a new document would get all the text and none of the blackouts, and so could not only see the entire document, but also could then understand, by comparing the blacked out and non-blacked out versions, which parts the TSA thought most sensitive and important.

It included interesting information such as what nationalities are to be automatically referred for extra screening, and some classes of people who are exempt from extra screening requirements.  It also confirms what I'd unofficially understood - uniformed flight crew are also exempted from the liquid bans and don't need to remove their shoes.

More alarmingly though, one of the known vulnerabilities - terrorists hiding things inside plaster casts and artificial limbs - is confirmed as remaining vulnerable with such things being exempted from screening requirements.

Although the TSA quickly removed the manual, copies of it are now at many other places.  You can read more, and follow a link to the manual, here.

Although the United Kingdom might claim to be the original home of democracy, it certainly is no longer a very free country.  Here's a sad article about the police and their powers to stop and search people semi-randomly, and the abuse of such powers, to the point where people taking pictures of common tourist sites are sometimes having to justify why they are doing so.

One statistic suggests that only 1% of people who are stopped and searched are ever arrested for anything, and of course, most of those people arrested are not arrested for any terror related offense.

There's been an interesting story rushing around the internet in the last week about an incident on an AirTran flight.  Here's an early story on the event, alleging that the situation was much more serious - some type of a scouting/probing test by possible Muslim terrorists that for vague reasons was played down by the airline and authorities.

After this story got some exposure, a surprising twist developed.  AirTran said the man who wrote up the main story and who claimed to have played a leading role in the events on the plane wasn't even on the flight!  That is reported here.

But now the man in question, Tedd Petruna, says that yes he was indeed on the flight, as is reported in this rather hot-headed article, and more levelheadedly here.

There is also now a statement from another passenger which purports to confirm Petruna's account of things, but which is more 'hearsay' and circumstantial than an actual 'I was there' account of the main events.

The truth seems to be regularly changing on this event.  However, whether or not this was a true test by terrorists, there are plenty of other stories - few of which reach the public - of our air security being tested and probed by possible/potential Muslim terrorists.

A strange light appears in the skies in mid December at the same time that a wondrous and miraculous event occurs on earth.  The last time that happened was 2010 years ago, in Bethlehem.

This time the wondrous event - and the strange light - are both in Norway, where the latest Nobel Peace Prize winner was anointed this week.  The miraculousness of the event being - well, where to start?  Perhaps at the beginning - with his nomination for the prize being accepted prior even to his inauguration.

And the strange light?  See here.

Lastly this week, the annual Loo of the Year Award has been announced in Britain.  These awards started in 1987 and focus on 'away from home' toilets throughout the UK.

Manchester Airport was chosen as having the best loos in the UK. An army of 300 toilet attendants regularly tackle the 1,015 U-bends, 464 urinals and 1,021 sinks to keep them some of the cleanest in the UK.  The airport deals with 20 million passengers each year, who go through 43,930,000 metres (27,297 miles) of toilet roll over the course of 12 months. If "unrolled" this would stretch the equivalent distance of flying Manchester to Singapore four times.

The various categories in the competition received more than 1,500 entries, and each toilet was graded against 100 different criteria.  Secret visits were carried out by toilet-checking judges.  McDonalds was voted as having overall best toilets in the UK.

Please remember, there'll be no newsletter next week.  So the next newsletter will be, gosh, on Christmas Day.  I'm not sure how lengthy an effort that will be.

Until then, please enjoy safe travels, and, for now, Happy Hannukah (today, I believe)

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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