28 July, 2006
It seems a very long time since last writing. I hope you're all enjoying your summer and perhaps you even had as pleasant a time these last three weeks as I did.
And if you've been having some vacation time yourself, hopefully you didn't need to be part of the 43% of vacationers who work while on vacation. And hopefully also you're not part of the 39% of Americans who don't use all their annual entitlement for vacation each year (interesting article here).
You may remember the reason for my long silence is due to being with a small group of 'beta test' readers on a Russian river cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg. The reason for taking such a large slice of time out of my life was to check if this was a cruise I would be comfortable offering to you or not.
Well! I think it is fair to report that for all of us on the cruise, it exceeded expectations every which way. The ship was better than hoped for, the weather was close to perfect, the itinerary was interesting, and the crew were the best I've ever encountered on any cruise anywhere.
I did have one small fear prior to this cruise - I was worried I might like it, but not enough to want to repeat it again the very next year. I've never before offered the identical tour two years running. But even that concern has faded, and so with a great deal of pleasure I've decided to offer it to all readers, and with no need for cautionary warnings, in 2007.
I've also added a few unique extras exclusively for Travel Insider readers that will add to your enjoyment of this cruise even more.
Amazingly, the popularity of these cruises, particularly with Amadeus Waterways and their Russian cruise ship, the ms Tolstoy (the best cruise ship in Russia - originally built for elite members of the Communist Party and foreign VIPs they wished to impress) is such that the cruises are already filling up for next year.
And of course I've chosen what I believe to be the best sailing date, and that sailing will fill up even faster than other dates before and after. So, if you'd like to join me next year, please quickly review the information I'm presenting and choose to participate in this wonderful experience as soon as you can. I strongly recommend this cruise.
For more information and to reserve your places, see :
This Week's Feature Column : 2007 Russian River Cruise : Join me and other Travel Insider readers on this lovely two week cruise, featuring the best of Moscow and St Petersburg plus places along the 1300 miles inbetween you've never heard of but will be delighted to visit.
As for the short balance of my time and my travels, I treated myself to British Airways first class on this occasion (using up some frequent flier miles). My treatment was reasonably good, but I can't say the same for my bags - I returned back last Thursday, but one of my two bags, promised for Friday, didn't actually get to my place until Monday this week.
The exact same thing happened the last time I flew on BA from Moscow to Seattle via Heathrow, and in both cases it wasn't due to a tight transfer at LHR - I had a forced overnight in London so the bag had 24 hours to get from one plane to the other plane.
I stayed at a bizarre hotel in London on the way to Moscow. Located in Notting Hill and close to Paddington Station, Miller's Residence is a very small hotel with only six bedrooms and two suites. The interior of the hotel is crammed full of more antiques than you'd think could possibly fit into the space, and the owner is the author of the respected Miller's Antiques Guide book.
There's another distinctive feature of the hotel. It also boasts an open bar, and the hotel makes its own gin (Miller's Gin). Yes, a London friend and I did thoroughly sample the gin, and we agreed it seemed particularly nice!
Unfortunately, access to the hotel and its rooms involves climbing several flights of narrow steep stairs. There is no elevator, and so if you're traveling with heavy bags or aren't feeling particularly energetic, it may not be a good choice for you. But if you're looking for an unusual place to stay, do consider it. I booked the hotel through www.laterooms.com and got the room at a much lower than published rate.
Dinosaur watching : US Airways reported its second profitable quarter in a row, making a $305 million profit in Q2. With the typically bizarre 'logic' of the stock market, this result, which exceeded analysts expectations, resulted in a 6% drop in the company's share price. Go figure.
Apparently high fuel prices haven't harmed the airline at all. But a more serious menace is potentially raising its head - its unions, who feel that after giving a lot back to the airline, they now deserve to share in any successes. The pilots, the flight attendants and mechanics are all currently without contracts.
US Airways pilots chairman Jack Stephan was quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as saying
And it isn't only the unions that are holding their hands out for more money. American Airlines' CEO Gerard Arpey has just been given a 23% pay rise, taking his base salary up to $650,000, with options and incentives on top. Other AA executives also received increases in long-term incentives. Being as how AA is about to start negotiating with its own pilots, it will be interesting to see how their pilots feel about this.
Are the airlines and their unions reverting to their former strategy of paying higher and higher wages without care or concern for the future?
JetBlue also announced a profit for its second quarter - a moderate $14 million, but heartening to see after two bad quarters, and up $1 million from the same quarter in 2005.
And Southwest announced a second quarter profit that was more than double that of last year. It reported a $333 million profit for Q2 2006, compared to $144 million in Q2 2005. A 15.3% increase in passengers with only a 7.2% increase in capacity saw load factors rise to a very high 78%.
Here's an idea that is unlikely to happen in the US, and not all that likely to actually occur in Europe either. The European Union has proposed a new law calling for airline tickets to be priced in such a way that consumers will be able to compare like-for-like prices.
The bill would require all charges, including airport, wheelchair, baggage fees, insurance and fuel surcharges, must be included in the advertised price. The EU Transport Commissioner said passengers are currently often confused by low fares that end up being much higher when it actually comes time to pay for them.
Virgin America's application to start flights in the US has moved a small step closer to completion. If all proceeds smoothly, it might get approval by October 2006. Does this mean we could see the first flight before the end of the year? We'll have to wait and see on that.
In related Virgin America news, a study conducted by aviation and economic research firm Campbell-Hill Aviation Group concluded that Virgin America could save passengers $786 million a year, or an average of $88 roundtrip in reduced fares once it is certified and flying, and would create 3.3 million extra passengers a year.
The study was presumably commissioned by Virgin America, although I can't see anywhere in the report that discloses who paid for it, and is peppered with assumptions and guesses. And while the report talks about savings to travelers, nowhere does it clearly indicate whether Virgin America could actually trade profitably on the basis assumed.
As such it seems like a great public relations tool, but otherwise does little to enhance our understanding about what might happen when Virgin America starts flying.
The UK based Virgin Group said it was on track to launch the world's first tourist space flights in 2008 and has already sold 150 tickets to the first passengers.
The tickets went for $200,000 each and $15.6 million has been collected in deposits. Among the 150 tickets sold is one to an unidentified member of the British Royal Family. The flights will launch from the Mojave Desert near Los Angeles before moving to a permanent base in New Mexico in 2010.
Surely some honest oversight? Air France-KLM have been formally been placed under investigation for alleged money-laundering and illegal employment practices at a bankrupt airline security company.
Judges are looking into contracts between the airline and Pretory, a company which supplied security agents to travel undercover on their planes from 2001-2003. Its alleged that Pretory paid some of its staff via companies set up to avoid various taxes and surcharges in France and that ten million euros can't be accounted for.
And talking about honest French mistakes, Airbus chief Gustav Humbert resigned over the delays to the A380 program, and parent company EADS had their co-CEO Noel Forgeard resign in the wake of an insider trading scandal, alleging that he dumped shares shortly before they dropped in value when the A380 delays became known.
No-one was very surprised about either announcement, and also unsurprising was Airbus' official announcement about an improved version of their lackluster new A350 plane. This is the plane that competes directly against Boeing's successful 787 design; the first version of the A350 had few improvements over other planes in the Airbus range and was greeted with disinterest and disappointment by the airlines.
The new A350 has a wider fuselage and offers better fuel economy than before, allowing it to be more comfortable for passengers and more economical for the airlines.
Talking about planes, I've sometimes been criticized about my preference for four engined planes over two engined planes (as expressed in the article about what happens when all engines fail on a modern passenger jet). Some experienced pilots have told me that these days jet engines fail so incredibly rarely that two engines is more than enough, and this allows ample safety margin (especially because - in theory - a twin engined plane can fly sustainably on one engine for several more hours).
Although I know of very little experience flying a regular ordinary airplane for an extended time after the inexplicable failure of one of its two engines (as opposed to a flight test of a well maintained plane and a controlled shut down of an engine), I do know that airplanes continue to have engine failures, and so I continue to prefer four engined planes for long-haul over the water flights. A case in point was earlier this week when an American Airlines 777, flying from Los Angeles to London lost power in one engine.
According to published reports, the pilot was able to divert and safely land at JFK less than half an hour after the emergency occurred. But there's something very mysterious about this.
If the plane was able to land at JFK within half an hour of the engine failure, it seems reasonable to assume the plane was no more than 200 - 250 miles from JFK at the time the engine failed. But flights from Los Angeles to London don't get any closer than perhaps 1000 miles of New York. Why was the plane so far outside the usual air route to London to start with?
Flying in and out of LAX is going to get harder as the airport is closing down a major runway for a reconstruction that will take two years. This is the first major reconstruction in more than 20 years and it will begin at midnight, July 29.
The runway is being moved 55 feet south and heavy machinery will block 25% of the airport's capacity. The FAA has suggested that airlines try to cut back peak-time flights to help ease congestion during those times. The project will improve safety at the airport and get the airport ready for the coming A-380 superjumbo jets.
Unfortunately the timing couldn't be worse as the airport enters its busiest summer season ever.
While I was away, oil broke through $78 a barrel. My $100/barrel prediction by year end continues to look increasingly realistic.
Hyatt has been fined $139,000 and must start special employee training because it allegedly overbooked hundreds of hotel rooms in Monterey last summer on the weekend of a world-class motorcycle race.
The hotel was sued after many complaints by race fans and participants whose reservations were cancelled, or who said the hotel was charging exorbitant rates during the event. Two other hotels are still under investigation.
In the settlement the hotel admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to pick up $10,000 of the investigation costs and will improve its web site information about reservation practices. The hotel, which has 500 rooms, had accepted bookings for 780 rooms.
Cell phones are bad for your health, part number next : This latest study isn't about brain damage or cancer, but simply about the way that, when speaking on a cell phone and driving, the distraction of the phone diminishes your driving skill. Alarmingly the study suggests that using a hands-free device doesn't really help. The study's conclusion - 'Driving while talking on a cell phone is as bad as or maybe worse than driving drunk'.
Another distracting element with mobile phones is their growing complexity.
But some of this extra complexity is actually a very good thing. Here's a wonderful new application from Google - you can now get real-time freeway congestion maps on your cell phone for over 30 different metro areas in the US.
This is the sort of service that only a few years ago would have required a dedicated device and payment of $20/month subscription fee, and now it is free and works on many modern cell phones. Amazing.
Here's a very clever new software product that helps you to delete unwanted people from your digital pictures.
Unfortunately I can't use it to retroactively delete pictures of my ex-wife from pictures taken long ago, but if you're taking pictures of the scenery next time you're on vacation, by taking multiple pictures of the same scene but with different mixes of people obscuring the view, the service can work out which bits are people to be removed and which bits are the attraction you most want in the picture and 'average' out the results of the several different pictures.
More drunk pilots.
This Week's Security Horror Story : Massive billions of dollars are being spent on improving the security of our nation's air and sea ports. So how difficult is it now to enter the secured areas of the Seattle and Long Beach sea ports?
Easier than you'd ever think, alas. Read this article for more details, and note the lack of concern on the part of Port authorities.
A passenger was heard asking a fellow passenger (by the name of Hazem El Masri) 'Have you got the bombs strapped on' shortly before the plane was due to take-off.
So what did the airline do?
Fortunately, the airline was Qantas, and like any other sensible Australian, Qantas staff know a side-splittingly funny joke when they hear one. So after having airport security staff interview the two people and others traveling with them, cabin crew simply gave a 'verbal reprimand' and proceeded to get the plane underway, complete with the two jokers still on board.
Note - you may not be so lucky. Best not to try this joke yourself on your next Qantas flight. The Australian government - notably unhumorous - is already complaining that Qantas should have notified the authorities.
And talking about humor, is this the world's funniest joke? Note that many of the jokes offered in the reader comment section underneath the article are funny, too.
Lastly this week, it mightn't be the world's funniest joke, but it is one of our more common closing topics.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels
David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider
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