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25 December, 2009
And a Very Merry Christmas to you all.
I hope you were generously visited by Santa Claus, and that your holiday
season is filled with happiness and joy.
As this is the last newsletter of 2009,
may I also wish you the very best for 2010. It was an interesting
year this year, and I think I speak for most of us when I say that it
ended up being not as bad as we feared, while also not being as good as
we wished for. Let's hope that 2010 sees more improvements and few
problems for us all, in our professional and personal lives.
And talking about Christmas, I'm now
returned from this year's Christmas Markets cruise. As in all
previous years, it was a wonderful experience, and the distinctive
feature of this year was the prevalence of snow and the sometimes severe
cold weather experienced.
The snow - mainly on the ground, with
only occasional snow falls to freshen it - was
beautiful and added immensely to the beauty of the vistas we enjoyed
while traveling through Austria and Germany. And the extreme cold
resulted in a very unusual event that neither I nor any of the crew on
the boat had experienced before - the Main-Danube canal was lightly iced
over, forcing our ship to do double duty not only as a luxury cruise
boat but also as an icebreaker too. This was a fascinating new
experience - apparently the canal sometimes might ice over in February,
but never in mid December.
With record cold temperatures all around the
world wreaking havoc on pre-Christmas travel, the irony of the global warming conference in Copenhagen seems to
have escaped the awareness of its attendees.
The cruise was good and everyone enjoyed it,
but I did notice some disappointing areas in which Amawaterways had cheapened their product compared to past years. And the
most surprising part of the journey was not the snow, but rather an
interaction with the boat's glorified bus-driver in the fancy dress suit -
otherwise known as the ship's captain, in this case a dour Dutchman.
For the third time in a row, I had chosen
steak for dinner, and asked it to be medium well done, cooked right
through with a bit of pink in the middle, and for the third time in a
row I was served a rare steak. Indeed, on this occasion, three of
us at the table had ordered steaks, two of us wanting medium well done
and the third wanting rare, and our three steaks were all cooked
identically. I expressed frustration and disappointment to the
waiter, asked for a replacement steak, and asked for a chance to speak
to the ship's cook (who literally went into hiding after I raised the first steak
debacle with him on the first night). The cook refused to come speak to me,
and continued to hide in his kitchen rather than make the triumphant
tours around the dining room as is customary.
But the captain, who was seated at the next
table, leaned over to me and said 'David, you shouldn't always be
complaining. My steak was perfectly good. You should eat and
enjoy your steak, too.'
Yes, apparently there's a new standard by
which we should judge food onboard Amawaterways ships. If the
captain likes his food, then we must like our food too, and not complain
but rather should sit down, shut up and eat up.
One last Christmas thought. As always,
some companies fail to understand that the holiday on 25 December is
actually to celebrate Christmas, and they send out various greetings and
wishes that refer to the 'holiday season'. Each year some
companies stand out more than others in terms of corporate hypocrisy as
between their eagerness to profit from Christmas while pretending it
doesn't exist. This year's example is Viking River Cruises, a
company that derives a fair measure of its income from selling Christmas
Market cruises in Europe. When selling these cruises, it doesn't
refer to holiday markets, and neither does it refer to 'Winter Solstice'
markets - it refers to Christmas markets, which is absolutely what they
But the card they sent me wished me a happy
winter solstice. Nowhere did they acknowledge Christmas on the
card at all. Why not?
Weekly feature articles will return in the new year. This is a
short Christmas version of the newsletter and with no associated feature
article this week. Instead, can I use an event this last week as a
prompt/reminder/encouragement for you to visit/revisit an article series
I wrote earlier in the year.
There was good news and bad news for passengers on AA flight 331 to
Jamaica on Tuesday. The bad news - the plane overshot the runway
in Kingston while landing in heavy rain, crashing off the end of the
runway and breaking into three pieces. 92 of the 148 passengers
and 6 crew were taken to hospitals, with 13 admitted. More details
The good news - no-one was killed. It is helpful, in a slightly
macabre sort of way, to read several of the different news accounts of
what happened in the flight and its crash landing, to better prepare
yourself for such an eventuality yourself. A couple of key points
to consider from the accounts that have been published so far - first,
it happened 'all of a sudden' and unexpectedly. Consider the
implications of that - you never know when an ordinary flight might not
suddenly transition into a disaster, and you need to plan and anticipate
these issues. When they actually happen, it is too late.
The second point is that it happened in the dark, in driving rain.
Want to guess how many of the passengers were wearing or holding
cold/wet weather gear? Probably very few.
And so with that as introduction, please do
read my four part article series on the complex topic of
How to Survive
an Airplane Crash.
Dinosaur watching : The Department
of Transportation offered us an early Christmas present this year,
when on Monday they announced a new rule that requires airlines must
allow passengers the choice of deplaning if they so wish after having a
plane operating a domestic flight stuck on the tarmac for three hours.
A myriad of exceptions apply, so it remains
to be seen how useful the rule will actually prove to be. The rule
- which unfortunately doesn't come into effect for 120 days (although
the airlines of course wanted even more delay) - also requires airlines
to provide adequate food and drinking water within two hours of a plane
being delayed, and to maintain operable lavatories. Here is the
release announcing the new rule and here is a link to the
lengthy formal document (the actual new regulations start on page
At the same time that we're finally getting
some limited relief from being trapped on planes, two other stories
broke last week about other trapped scenarios - one about
passengers trapped on Eurostar trains (extreme cold caused the
trains to fail in the tunnel under the English Channel) for up to 15
hours with no food or water (or power or heat) and the other about
passengers on the
Island RR stranded for six hours.
The Department of Justice also offered a
weak Christmas present to us by objecting to the proposed alliance
between AA, BA and Iberia. It said the alliance would cause
fares to rise by up to 15% on at least six routes. It recommended
that the DoT require the airlines to give up slots at Heathrow and/or
impose other conditions if approving the airlines' request, and the DoT
in turn has extended the time it will accept comments on the proposal.
Look for a decision no sooner than April
2010 on this. But even though both DoJ and DoT are showing some
signs of waking from their slumber, don't expect anything too special.
Another alliance is nearing possible
approval - this time an alliance between Delta and new Australian
airline, V Australia. Both the airlines started flights between
the US and Australia this year, and now they've decided to join forces
into the future. The Australian government gave approval to their
alliance request last week, the US approval has yet to be granted but is
likely to be issued, particularly when one considers the mammoth nature
of Qantas' current dominance on those routes.
This is actually a 'good alliance' because
Qantas needs to be confronted with a strong competitor.
The airlines have come up with a new excuse
for why they are losing money. Well, actually, it isn't a new
excuse at all, it is an old excuse, and is trotted out from time to time
in rotation with all their other 'it isn't our fault' excuses.
Glenn Tilton, CEO of United Airlines and chairman of the airline
lobbying group Air Transport Association suggests a reason for the
airlines' chronic unprofitability (US airlines have lost a combined $27
billion since the start of 2008, and $60 billion since 2001) is due to
them paying too much tax.
Of course, what he actually means is that we are paying too much tax -
we, the passengers, are paying too much tax on the tickets we buy from
the airlines, and what he further means is that if there were fewer
taxes on tickets, then the airlines would raise their prices.
Tilton quotes the example of a $300 ticket which can include up to $60
of taxes, and says that in general, taxes on air travel are higher than
sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco. While this might be a
mathematically correct statement, it ignores the fact that the taxes on
alcohol and tobacco basically just go direct into the government's
general fund, whereas air travel taxes go primarily to support
government provided services such as the TSA and the FAA.
Tilton also displays the airlines' 'we want something for nothing'
approach to business. He (quite sensibly) advocates accelerating and
funding the deployment of improved 'next generation' air traffic
control, but how does he expect this to be paid for if, as he also
advocates, the government reduces the tax collection on air tickets?
These and other comments by Tilton are quoted
The bottom line of Tilton's comments puts us in a difficult position
when choosing which side of this equation to support - would you rather
pay money to the government or to the airlines?
Virgin America announced its first ever
'operating profit', earned during its third quarter this year.
But note that an 'operating profit' for an airline is a massive misnomer
- it is akin to other businesses claiming to have made a gross trading
profit, but in both cases, all the overhead and sundry costs still need
to be figured in to reach the net profit figure. They claimed a
$5.1 million operating profit, but a net loss of $5.9 million for the
quarter. However, this is both close to break even and also
amazingly better than their result for Q3 last year - a $59 million net
So it is great to see the airline's
financial picture improving, but they are still a distance away from
making a real profit.
Boeing's long delayed 787 finally made
its first flight on 15 December, with no major problems. A
second 787 also took to the air a few days later; Boeing will now be
working through a very intensive series of flight tests in its attempt
to get the plane certified and deliverable late in 2010. Boeing
says it will have six 787s flying almost round-the-clock during a nine
month testing period.
Although the plane's development schedule
has been delayed for more than two years and the first flight postponed
six times, it has definitely been outstandingly popular, with about 850
units being sold so far.
This Week's Security Horror Story :
A reader who for prudent reasons wishes to remain anonymous writes :
I have now been through four airport
terminals on two roundtrips carrying a 4-inch
The first trip to Detroit from JFK in early October, I
carried it inadvertently, having forgotten that it (in a sheath) was
attached to a shoulder strap of my backpack following a hike some weeks
before the flights. On the second trip at Thanksgiving, I left it in
place as a test. The TSA failed the test. Going out of another terminal at JFK, I
flew unfettered to Fort Myers and back.
So on four different occasions, in four
different airport terminals, the TSA and their security screening
procedures have completely failed. Bottom line - don't think
you're safe out there.
He concludes by saying he doesn't plan to
continue his testing any further.
Lastly this week, here's a Christmas time
story to chill the heart. There was a growing mess of angry
passengers at Delta's JFK terminal, frustrated by delayed and cancelled
flights. Instead of handling the situation positively and
proactively, and addressing the problems and concerns of their
Delta called the police in to control the angry crowd.
Perhaps they shared the outrage of reader
Larry, who writes
My flight is cancelled as I type this
while other planes and other airlines are flying to my destination
and all they can tell me is because of weather...REALLY?
Marvelous, isn't it. Mistreat your
customers so badly, then don't do anything fair or appropriate in
response, but instead call the cops on them. I wonder if Glenn
Tilton could see beyond his claims of the airlines being unfairly taxed
and see any possible lesson in this as to why the airlines truly lose so
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels
and a wonderful Christmas/New Year festive season