Friday, February 22, 2002
Good morning.  I hope some of you had Presidents' Day off and enjoyed a nice break somewhere.  I'm taking a three day weekend myself this weekend - we're up to Victoria, BC.  Although both my wife and I would like to visit Las Vegas (it has been over a year since we were last there) neither of us could stomach the thought of struggling through 'security' lines and so we ended up choosing to limit our choice of vacations to somewhere we could drive.

We'd also considered doing something very different - going somewhere by train.  But, alas, that proved to be a very difficult thing to do, which got me to thinking, and brought about this week's column.

This Week's Column :  Amtrak Answers :  Congress are going through the latest round of Amtrak bashing, castigating the organization for losing ever greater amounts of money, while Amtrak in turn is threatening to cancel all long distance train service if it doesn't get more funding.  Who's at fault?  What is the solution to the 32 year problem that Amtrak has represented?  Read this week's column for the answers!

Priceline - the 'name your own price airfare' website that has had its ups and downs seems to be moving back into expansion mode again.  It is now offering cruises on its site, but not at 'name your own price' rates, but rather at rates that, while generally lower than brochure rates, do not seem to be unbeatable deals, and with almost no details as to the type of cabin you'll get for the rate you pay.  Cruising is a complex area full of semi-hidden discounts, and if you're thinking of going on a cruise, without a doubt, the best thing to do is to speak to a travel agent that specialises in selling cruises - ask if they have an 'MCC' qualification, and tell them that you expect to get a rate much lower than the brochured price.  A good agent will not only save you money but might also save you a lot of heartache by helping you to choose the cruise that is best suited not only to your budget but also to your lifestyle.

If you're looking for the ultimate in cruise experiences, check this out.  A live-aboard cruise ship, where you can potentially live year round, in suites as large as a big house (3000+ sq ft).  For some years now a lady passenger has lived permanently on the QE2, but this is an entirely different concept.  I'm envious!

More cruising news.  Alaska is trying to get its hands on more money from cruise ship tourists.  Never mind that cruise ships and their tourists are already a hugely profitable business for the state and its residents.  Governor Tony Knowles has now submitted legislation to the assembly to enact a $30 per cruise ship passenger tax, and, just in case the passenger tax is ruled illegal (there is some doubt about this!) the bill also includes a provision that would place a corporate income tax on the cruise industry should the passenger tax be struck down by the courts, the governor's spokesman said. 'There have been some rumblings that a passenger tax would.  The governor's spokesman said 'We feel that this sector of the Alaska industry should not be exempt from paying their fair share.'

Ah, but just how much is a 'fair share'?  John Hansen, executive director of the North West Cruise Ship Assn, said he couldn't comment on the proposed corporate tax, but added, 'We're looking at the total amount of economic benefit that the cruise industry brings to Alaska -- about $700 million per year -- and we don't feel the additional head tax is justified.'  Seems to me that $700 million is a pretty fair contribution to the local economy already.  I don't know about you, but I'm getting increasingly frustrated at this 'tax the visitor' concept that adds as much as $100 to an airline ticket, and which adds major surcharges to rental car hires, hotel stays, and just about anything else involved in traveling away from home.

Back to the subject of good travel agents, here's a tip that I received from an ARTA travel agent member in Wisconsin this week.  This agent told me about a curious situation for people with WI driver's licenses, indeed, I think that Washington does the same thing, too, now, and possibly other states might as well - if this applies to you, consider yourself warned!   WI offers the option of renewing driver's licenses via mail, and sends you a sticker to put on the license to show it has been renewed. This sometimes causes problems with car rental companies, because the actual license has expired and only the sticker shows it was renewed; some rental companies have not been accepting the stickers. And now the stickers are presenting a problem with airport security, too.  Last Friday, a passenger (a sheriff in WI) was denied boarding because the sticker on his license was 'difficult to read'.  He also had a Photo ID issued by the state showing he was a sheriff, and a birth certificate, but these were not accepted!

What is happening at United Airlines?  The good news is that they settled with their mechanics, averting a strike that could have started this week.  The bad news is that their labor costs just went up!  And now they have other unions lining up for raises, too.  A recent statistic showed that, in order to break even, United has to average a 92.2% load factor on all its flights - folks, that's just plain never going to happen!

More good news of sorts for UA and its employees - they're bringing back 1200 flight attendants that they had furloughed after 9/11.  And lastly, some 'interesting' news :  they are bringing on board the head of the bankruptcy practice at Kirkland & Ellis (the law firm United uses as its outside counsel). This same person was lead counsel for TWA last year in its bankruptcy and eventual sale to American. According to United, bankruptcy is not imminent or inevitable, but also not impossible!  Maybe now is a good time to use up some of those Mileage Plus miles.....  Lastly on the subject of United Airlines, this article is a 'must read' for any of you interested in an in-depth look at some of its problems and their origins.

Not all is gloom and doom in the airline industry.  Industry maverick Southwest announced plans this week to hire another 4000 staff in 2002.  These are all new hires, not laid off people being brought back.

Looking for a totally different type of vacation?  Check out GreatEscape2002: The Global Scavenger Hunt.  Fifty people (25 teams of two) will circle the globe while visiting four continents and at least ten countries in a travel adventure rally-like competition, with $100,000 in cash and prizes being awarded to participants.  More details on their website.

This week's security horror story :  Now that the 'feds' have taken over security screening at the nation's airports (effective last Sunday), you might think that we can stop this weekly feature!  Uh, no.  It is still the same people on the machines as before, and so it comes as no surprise that the same problems continue.  How about the screener at Louisville International Airport who fell asleep on the job, causing an unknown number of passengers to walk past unscreened!  Or, how about the flight that had to turn around and return back to LaGuardia, to land at a concourse that had been closed, all because a 'total misunderstanding' occurred such that somehow a passenger failed to have his luggage checked by hand.

The system worked!  Two Qantas jets found themselves assigned the same flight level by an air traffic controller in Tahiti last week.  The problem was that the two planes were flying towards each other!  Qantas is one of the few airlines to have installed the latest type of automatic collision avoidance system in its fleet, and the result was that the warning systems operated, automatically directing one pilot to fly higher and the other pilot to fly lower.  There's a reason Qantas boasts a perfect safety record - while other airlines are penny pinching and arguing about the latest safety features, Qantas quietly presses on and installs them.  If your travels ever have you going where Qantas flies, I hope you'll choose them.  They're my favorite airline for both safety and quality of service reasons.

Here's a great idea.  Baltimore-Washington Airport says it has a solution for those who have trouble finding parking spaces in the parking garage with the introduction of "Smart Park." Travelers who drive to the second level of BWI's daily garage will find, at the beginning of each aisle, an electronic display indicating the number of empty spaces in that aisle.  The airport has been testing the system for the past year and is expanding it to all six levels of the garage. Outdoor lots will not have the system. The lights have sensors that are supposed to detect whether the spaces are filled and the failure rate has been minimal. The system is used at many foreign airports but this is the first time it has been used in North America. Let's hope we see other airports adopting this system.

Lastly, some great news for all frequent fliers.  Ending what has been more than a decade of uncertainty, interlaced with some worrying rulings, the IRS have finally issued a formal clarification on its approach to taxing frequent flier miles.  Its decision :  They're not taxable.  Way to go, IRS!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.....

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider
ps :  Don't forget to visit Joe Brancatelli's site for his weekly updates, too.

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