Friday, March 15, 2002
Good morning, and hello from warm and sunny Moscow (although the forecast for tomorrow sees a return to the cold and snow).

This Week's Column :  International Cell Phone Service part 2 :  If you have a US cellphone that works internationally, be aware of the huge danger lurking inside it - costs of up to $6/minute for placing and receiving calls!  This week's column tells you how to reduce your costs down to as little as 20c-30c and sometimes even all the way down to completely free!!!

Thursday 14 March - a black day for all US travelers.  Delta announced yesterday that it would no longer pay any standard commissions to US and Canadian travel agents at all.

Why is this a black day for you?  Why should you care if a travel agent earns a commission on selling you an airline ticket or not?  Surely Delta should be free to pay as much - or as little - as it chooses to travel agents?

Delta says that this move is an opportunity to reduce costs in an 'extremely difficult financial environment'.  I say :  Nonsense! The minimal cost of the less than 5% commissions Delta formerly paid is inconsequential, especially when compared to the alternate costs of selling tickets Delta would incur if selling via other methods.  This is not about 'cutting costs'.  This is about boosting revenues and depriving you of choices.  This is about depriving you of access to truly unbiased travel agency advice - of depriving you from the ability to have a travel agent almost instantly comparison shop through all the airlines, fares, and schedules, to give you the very best combination of fare and schedule.

As an interesting contrast, at the same time that Delta claims it can't afford to pay something less than 5% on travel agency commission, I just this morning got a Travelocity email offering a 30% discount sale on Delta tickets!

I have four questions for Delta that I challenge them to honestly answer :

(a)  If this move is about cutting costs in your current 'extremely difficult financial environment', will you restore commissions when you become profitable again?

(b)  If you can't afford to pay base travel agency commissions, why are you still continuing to pay much higher generous override commissions to travel agencies that give you more than your fair market share of business?

(c)  If you can't afford to pay travel agency commissions in North America, why are you continuing to pay travel agency commissions everywhere else in the world (where you are not a dominant carrier)?

(d)  What other 'costs' are you also going to cut?  Frequent flier programs?  Executive salaries and bonuses?  Fewer checkin and gate agents and even longer delays for passengers?  Less food service on flights?  Or how about the $300,000 salaries that pilots earn for working half time?

More on this issue next week (and would you care to bet how many of the other major carriers will join Delta over the next few days).  If you have any thoughts yourself, please let me know.

On a lighter note, here's an amusing news story (if a six car pile-up can ever be considered amusing, that is) :  A six-vehicle accident involving a woman with a mannequin propped up the passenger seat of her car snarled commuter traffic on Interstate 405 in Renton Tuesday morning. State troopers say the woman’s car darted between two buses driving in the carpool lane and was hit from the front and behind. The woman denied that the dummy was in the car to allow her access to the special traffic lanes for carpoolers (hmmm, maybe she works for Delta.....).

It pays to check your oil!  Especially if you run an airline, apparently.  The FAA is proposing to levy $1.17m in fines against American and American Eagle, relating back to 514 flights conducted in 1998 (hey - it took them four years to 'propose' a fine - but what's the hurry?).  Full story here.

Another backward step for Boeing.  Just eighteen months ago, South African Airways bought 21 new 737-800s.  Now, SAA has announced that it is ditching its entire fleet of Boeing aircraft, both the brand new planes and its older fleet of 737s, 747s and 767s; and replacing them with 41 new Airbus planes.  SAA said that the 737-800s had proven unpopular with passengers and had not provided the promised savings, but instead had actually lead to inefficiencies and higher costs.  Terms of the deal are of course confidential, and almost surely involve massive discounts (as much as 40% off list price), but am I the only one to observe what appears to be the continued move towards marketplace dominance of Airbus at the cost of Boeing's former leading role?

This week's security horror storyLast week I commented on problems with the new expensive luggage scanners not working reliably.  This week, here's another story that suggests that they actually work too well, rather than not well enough.  To be more accurate, they are giving so many 'false alarms' as to be useless!  Perhaps that explains why I had to endure a fifteen minute search of my suitcase last time I transited Los Angeles due to the super suitcase scanner suggesting there was something suspicious inside.  After 15 minutes of searching through my dirty underwear and everything else, the security people finally conceded defeat and reluctantly allowed me and my suitcase to travel.

Travel industry security expert Don Kimball wrote to disagree with my comments about the foolishness of evacuating several terminals at LAX subsequent to discovering a fake toy grenade in a checked suitcase.  He says that it is standard operating procedure to detonate unknown and potentially dangerous objects, and that the security screener should be commended for erring on the side of caution and following formal procedures to protect the safety of everyone in the area in such cases.  I don't disagree with Don's comments, and my point is not so much that the security screener was foolish, but rather that the formal procedures perhaps need to be re-examined.  My concern is that a fancy new state of the art $1 million CTX scanner can not distinguish between a fake and real grenade, and resulted in a massive disruption to thousands of people.  Why didn't the security people first use one of those patches to test for the presence of explosives as a way of confirming whether the grenade-like object may be real or a toy?  Most of all, why is it that in this new security-conscious environment, so many people confuse passenger inconvenience with effective security!

Meanwhile, a low tech solution is being applied to a high-tech problem.  After situations in six different airports in only eight days whereby accidentally unplugged metal detectors required terminal evacuations and rescreening, along with all the delays and hassle associated, Transportation officials are taking steps to keep them plugged in.  Brackets will be installed over the plugs to reduce the danger of them being unplugged - a delightfully simple solution!  Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said ''This is an embarrassing kind of thing''.  The insight of our senior Administration officials continues to amaze me!

Is it possible that he reads my columns?  After several commentaries on Amtrak recently, under a bill sponsored by Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC - chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee), Amtrak would receive $4.6 billion annually to develop increased passenger rail service - almost ten times more than proposed by the White House.  Let's wish this bill - and Amtrak - the best of luck.

Lastly, remember the last time you visited Paris.  Did you visit the Eiffel Tower?  If you did, any time in the last ten years, there is a good chance that the admission price you paid went straight into the pockets of the ticket sellers!  Fifteen people have been sacked and a criminal investigation is proceeding into the alleged unreported sale of potentially $3.4 million worth of tickets over the last ten years!  Ticket prices cost up to $8.60 per person.

 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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