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Friday 20 June, 2008
And greetings from Beijing, where the
weather is somewhat hot and humid, but our intrepid group of 'Beta
Testers' of this, our first ever China tour, are undaunted and doing a
good job of enjoying themselves and our China experience.
We've had some marvelous meals and enjoyed
some wonderful sights, including some 'off the beaten track' places that
most western tourists don't visit, and, as I commented in January, China
remains a wonderfully low-cost destination to enjoy, with food and drink
prices being very moderate rather than outrageous as is the case in so
much of Europe. The low cost of staff also means that stores and
restaurants are full of service staff ready and keen to help.
If you'd like to join a Travel Insider tour,
there's only one more chance this year - our
Christmas Markets cruise,
which is highly recommended (of course!).
I went to look up something on my website
yesterday, and discovered to my surprise that some sections of my
website now enjoy the dubious honor of being censored by the Chinese
government, including such apparently 'good' pages as the ones
describing the China tour currently underway.
So perhaps I can offer one negative comment
about the current Chinese experience - the smog is as bad as I
remembered it in January, and is even worse when one considers that the
Beijing authorities (as well as the national authorities) are already
well into their program of cleaning the air (briefly) for the Olympics
in mid August.
As soon as the Olympics are over, the
temporary smog restrictions will lift (but the smog won't) and the
already bad smog is likely to continue to get worse and worse.
And, for sure, the local Chinese have little encouragement to save gas -
the current price is just under 50c per gallon. Whereas in the US
the government taxes gas to make money, in China, the government
massively subsidizes the cost of petrol (and diesel too). Where's
the sense in that? The net result is too many more cars on their
congested roads, reduced use of public transport, and more and more
My flights on Northwest from Seattle,
through Tokyo, then on to Beijing were very good indeed, as has been the
case on their Asian services before, with lovely nearly new A330 planes
and wonderful in flight electronics which helped the time pass quickly.
Even the food was somewhere between satisfactory and good, but nowadays
they don't offer any free alcohol - all drinks are $5.
The crew were very attentive - but I guess I'm a bit biased, because for some strange reason one
of the flight attendants took a liking to me, and not only brought me
back champagne from their Business/First Class but also gave me a $10
meal voucher as well! And while NW has proudly spoken of how it
believes it might be saving money by flying its planes slightly slower
to Europe (my full cost calculation suggests quite the opposite) it
seems no-one had told that to the captain of our flight, who left on
time and got us into Tokyo 30 minutes early.
The new airport in Beijing was impressively
huge, clean, and big, and the only thing that marred an otherwise
perfect travel experience was the 45 minutes it took to get through
security at Seatac. 45 minutes, for a midweek flight in the middle
of the day - that is atrocious. As was the fact that much of the
delay seemed to be due to way too few security lanes open - there were
probably only half the lanes manned.
My comments about Emirates last week
generated a further round of emails from readers pointing out still more
reasons why Emirates is 'unfairly advantaged'. Claims ranged from
paying less interest on their loans because they were government owned
to paying less money to staff - either because they had staff from low
wage earning countries or because staff in Dubai don't pay tax, to
paying lower landing fees than other airlines using the Dubai airport,
to paying less tax on plane purchases.
Happily the emails were generally much better written than the one I
featured last week, and my new attitude is 'prove your claim and I'll
publish it' rather than 'make empty allegations and I'll refute them'.
I hope to have some interesting material on that topic for the next
But, for now, I'll leave the last word on
the topic to reader Steve, who concludes
Anyway you cut it (whether Emirates is subsidized or not), if EK
is giving better service for the money, then why not fly with them?
Wasn't British Airways owned by the UK government in the 1970s and
1980s? I never heard anyone complaining about that.
There's no feature article this week, and
less newsletter in general, due to being 'on the road' in China.
Next week Joe Brancatelli is kindly filling in for me, so he'll send a
newsletter out instead of me. The July 4 weekend will probably be
newsletter-less, and the week after that will see normal full service
Dinosaur watching : When is a
merger not a merger? When it is simply an 'alliance' or a 'code
share' operation, of course (nudge, nudge; wink, wink - definitions that
seem to fool the regulators every time they are used). Continental
has announced plans to switch from the Skyteam alliance it currently
belongs to (as has widely been expected) and will now join the Star
alliance, plus Continental has announced plans to cooperate very
closely with United on joint marketing, selling each other's
tickets, and various other ways to work together.
None of this will happen overnight - it
could take up to a year for Continental to sever its links with Skyteam
and join the Star grouping, but seems almost inevitably going to occur.
The airlines are hyperventilating with outrage and worry about the
impact of fuel prices on their bottom lines. 'We can't pass these
costs on to the public' is their cry - a claim made rather suspect by
their weekly fare increases at present.
And, for sure, when it comes to things impacting on the total cost of a
ticket, there's a lot more than just the fuel cost to consider.
Governments have gone crazy on adding taxes and fees to air fares, and
there was an interesting (albeit close to 'worst case') example offered
in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper on 14 June. They looked at
what happens to a fare that is advertised as $129 for travel from
Toronto to New York.
Advertised base fare: $129
Fuel surcharge: $50
Nav Canada fee: $7.50
Toronto airport fee: $20
Canada security fee: $7.94
U.S. transport tax: $15.69
U.S. agriculture fee: $5.09
U.S. immigration fee: $7.13
ONE-WAY TOTAL: $253.07
So the $129 fare almost doubles, and if the
fare is a roundtrip, the $129x2 becomes $471.72 in total.
Now, yes, there is a $50 fuel surcharge buried in there,
but governments have to stop treating airfares as an inexhaustible
source of revenue.
Still on the topic of fees, we know the
airlines are keen to charge for whatever they possibly can. Here's
a joke dialog that has been going around the internet recently :
NEW AIRLINE RULES
Attendant: Welcome aboard Ala Carte Air, sir. May I see your ticket?
Attendant: You're in seat 12B. That will be $5, please!
Passenger: What for?
Attendant: For telling you where to sit.
Passenger: But I already knew where to sit.
Attendant: Nevertheless, we are now charging a seat locator fee of $5.
It's the airline's new policy.
Passenger: That's the craziest thing I ever heard. I won't pay it.
Attendant: Sir, do you want a seat on this flight, or not?
Passenger: Yes, yes. All right, I'll pay. But the airline is going to
hear about this.
Attendant: Thank you. My goodness, your carry-on bag looks heavy.
Would you like me to stow it in the overhead compartment for you?
Passenger: That would be swell, thanks.
Attendant: No problem. Up we go, and done! That will be $10, please.
Attendant: The airline now charges a $10 carry-on assistance fee.
Passenger: This is extortion. I won't stand for it.
Attendant: Actually, you're right, you
can't stand. You need to sit and fasten your seat belt. We're about to push back from the gate. But,
first I need that $10.
Passenger: No way!
Attendant: Sir, if you don't comply, I will be forced to call the air
And you really don't want me to do that.
Passenger: Why not? Is he going to shoot me?
Attendant: No, but there's a $50 air-marshal hailing fee.
Passenger: Oh, all right, here, take the $10. I can't believe this.
Attendant: Thank you for your cooperation, sir. Is there anything else I
can do for you?
Passenger: Yes. It's stuffy in here, and my overhead fan doesn't seem to
work. Can you fix it?
Attendant: Your overhead fan is not broken, sir. Just insert two
quarters into the overhead coin slot for the first five minutes.
Passenger: The airline is charging me for cabin air?
Attendant: Of course not, sir. Stagnant cabin air is provided free of
It's the circulating air that costs 50 cents.
Passenger: I don't have any quarters. Can you make change for a dollar?
Attendant: Certainly, sir! Here you go!
Passenger: But you've given me only three quarters for my dollar.
Attendant: Yes, there's a change making fee of 25 cents.
Passenger: For cryin' out loud. All I have left is a lousy quarter?
What the heck can I do with this?
Attendant: Hang onto it. You'll need it later for the lavatory.
and, continuing the theme, here's an
imaginary schedule of new airline fees :
As a Courtesy to Our Passengers:
Speaking to live airline booking agent helpfulness fee: $.25 per
minute (including hold time)
Online reservation convenience fee: $5
Courtesy luggage-cuddling fee: $15
No-snooping-through-your-stuff guarantee: $3
Courtesy fee for booking a window seat, middle seat, and exit-row
seat, respectively: $10 $5 $15
Seat-sharing waiver: $25
Use of "courtesy seat" at terminal gate while waiting for plane: $.10
Courtesy passage through enclosed ramp to plane door: $.02 per inch
Courtesy smile from boarding-pass checker or flight attendant: $1.50
Reassuring head nod from pilot or co-pilot: $2.50 each
Seat-back pocket rental fee: $2.00
Motion-discomfort bag restocking fee: $5.00
Courtesy test of flaps, rudder and landing gear: $4.75
Courtesy air circulation fee: $1.50
No-snakes-on-plane guarantee: $3
Rental of light from overhead reading lamp: $0.50 per minute
Water, coffee, tea and juice: $2.00 each
Courtesy lavatory flush: $3 each
Courtesy fee for not performing a courtesy lavatory flush: $100
Ask flight attendant a question: $1 each
Cone-of-silence rental (mandatory for babies and loud talkers over
Seat cushion that sinks: $2
Seat cushion that floats: $8
Mid-flight fuel check: $4.50
Landing-at-the-right-airport guarantee: $2.50
Courtesy disembarking fee: $25
Airline CEO country club membership courtesy contribution: $6
Perhaps the most ridiculous fuel surcharge so far
is actually nothing to do with an airline, but rather a fuel surcharge
to be added to speeding tickets issued in Holly Springs, GA, enabling
the local police to recover the extra cost of fuel used to catch
I don't suppose they could be persuaded to
simply suspend their speeding enforcement programs?
One last thing about costs and savings -
while the airlines are obsessing over every possible cost saving, no
matter how small, and no matter how negative the impact on their
passengers' flying experience, there's one huge saving - an estimated
$700 million a year - that would also, believe it or not, improve the
I'm referring to adding RFID tags to
bags. According to the 4th annual SITA Baggage Report, the airline
industry handles about 2.25 billion pieces of luggage a year, and an
estimated 42.4 million bags go missing or get delayed, at a cost of $3.8
billion to the airlines.
Adding RFID enabled tags to checked bags
would increase the cost per checked bag, but the ability to more readily
track and find missing bags, and to reduce baggage mishandling to start
with, would end up creating a net saving of $700 million across the
This is nothing new. The ability to
save money by implementing an RFID type bag tag is something that
airlines have known about for ten years and more. But it seems
they'd rather save money by taking away towels and blankets, making you
pay for food and drink that was normally free, and charging you fees to
check your bags. They know best, I guess.
Talking about charging fees to check bags,
reader Candice writes :
Everyone keeps talking about AA's $15.00
first bag fee. It's not a $15.00 fee, it's a $30.00 fee, unless
people intend to only fly one way, or to come home without luggage
AA wants us all to call it a $15.00 fee
because it doesn't sound so
bad..... kind of like those tempting deals to fly somewhere for $99.
when in actuality, it's "based on a round trip fare" of $98.+ taxes and
therefore closer to $300.
Yes, I know, I know, unlike a round trip ticket, flyers
don't HAVE to pay $30.00 upfront. If one can come home with only a carry-on
bag, then indeed, it's a $15 fee, but I'm certain that 99% of flyers
who pay on the outbound, will have to pay it again on the return.
And, lastly on this general subject, thanks
to everyone who responded to the survey asking your opinion on
passengers being charged to travel based in part on their weight.
I'll collate and advise the results in the next newsletter.
here's a different set of survey results for you this week, this
time courtesy of JD Power & Assocs, and reporting on a continued drop in
customer satisfaction with airlines. Hardly a surprise.
interesting article about high speed rail, and in particular,
note the reference to Southwest's role in killing of any hope of high
speed rail in Texas. Shame on them.
This Week's Security Horror Story :
Apparently TSA officers have had difficulty getting the 'proper respect'
from members of the traveling public. So - how to solve that
problem? Give them better training, and teach them how to be more
respectful and positive to travelers? Oh no. Instead, give
them more intimidating uniforms, and now badges too, to make them look
more like police officers in the hope their uniform will give them the
respect that their personal attributes do not.
Will their new uniforms and shiny badges
actually help improve their dismal detection rates for finding weapons?
Probably not. But it will encourage them to bully us even more
mercilessly than they sometimes do already, and I guess that's a good
enough secondary objective for them. Details
In case you needed convincing, here's an
interesting article that explains how vacations are good for your
health. People who fail to take annual vacations had a
21 percent higher risk of death from all causes and were 32 percent more
likely to die of a heart attack.
So, for the sake of your health and longevity, why not consider coming
with us on this year's
Christmas Markets Cruise?
But be careful who you choose as a traveling companion. Here's an
interesting article reporting on a British study that suggests one
in five vacationers have fallen out with a formerly good friend when
Please remember that next week the
newsletter will come from Joe Brancatelli, rather than me, and then
there'll be no newsletter on July 4.
please enjoy safe travels