Friday, 12 April, 2002
Good morning, and greetings this week from St Petersburg (Russia, not Florida).  It is regrettably a year since I was last in this glorious city, and I'm astounded at the activity that surrounds me everywhere - building restorations, road works, developments and improvements of all kinds.  The city is in a mad orgy of upgrading and repairing prior to its 300th anniversary celebrations in 2003.   Last night I enjoyed an opera (Flying Dutchman) at their Mariinsky Theatre (briefly called the Kirov during Soviet times) of such extraordinary emotional power that my wife was in tears for much of the second and third acts and possibly I was a bit sniffly too!  I urge you to visit this cultural treasure of a city.

My column two weeks ago set new records for site traffic, and then last week's column smashed through that record and increased visitation by another 50% (more than 15000 hits on Friday alone).  And so, giving you more of what you plainly want, the subject of travel agent problems continues this week.

This Week's Column :  Does Everyone Hate Travel Agents? :  Part of the reason it seems so easy for the airlines to dictate unfair terms to their travel agent 'partners' is because (almost) everyone loves to hate travel agents.  This week, I list five reasons why this is so, and explain the fallacies behind each of the five 'reasons'.

And, extending the theme of airlines dictating unfair terms to their travel agency partners, earlier this week Hertz announced that it was cutting back on travel agency commissions too.

Meanwhile, in a move that just shows how increasingly out of touch ASTA is with the travel agency community, and while commissions are being drastically curtailed, ASTA's President goes to visit Cuba and announces, on his return from the trip (sponsored by the Cuban government) that ASTA (the American Society of Travel Agents) will launch a training program helping agents to better sell Cuba as a destination (umm - isn't it currently close to impossible for Americans to legally visit Cuba?).  He also said that he thinks ASTA should also provide a 'destination specialist' program for the Antarctica!!! 

This week's 'it ain't over till its over' statement :  The White House has formally dismissed an application by American and British Airways to be allowed to deepen an alliance.  At the same time it approved an application to form an alliance between United and British Midland, subject to a successful completion of "open skies" talks within six months between the U.S. and Great Britain (the last set of talks in February were unsuccessful).  As recorded in this column before, the AA/BA alliance is an issue that refuses to stay dead - although both airlines have several times announced that they are abandoning the concept, it keeps coming back.  Anyone care to guess how long before we read about the next attempt to get this alliance approved?

Last week I wrote : "One of the great big unknowns has always been what would actually happen if a modern jet attempted a water landing,".  Thanks to one of our readers who reports as follows -  Several years ago a hijacked 767 ran out of fuel and made an emergency water landing close to a Caribbean island. Many were killed, but there were survivors. I'm not sure if this is good news or bad news, but now we know!

When is air rage not air rage?  Apparently if you have a pre-takeoff sleeping pill, then you've got a 'get out of jail free' card for whatever you might subsequently do.  REM guitarist Peter Buck has been cleared of "ransacking" a first class cabin during a drunken airborne rampage.  He told the jury, who found him not guilty of charges of being drunk on a plane, assaulting an air stewardess and cabin services director, and of causing criminal damage to BA property, that taking a pre-takeoff sleeping pill transformed him into a 'mindless automaton'.  The 45 yr old millionaire father of two was described by his wife, fellow celebrities and other friends as the 'politest gentlest' person imaginable.  I wonder if that is how the BA flight crew and other passengers would describe him?

Ever forget to set the park brake in your car and then watch it start to roll downhill all by itself?  Well, actually, it isn't something I've ever done, but apparently it is possible, as American Airlines found out earlier this week, when a parked unoccupied AA 767, waiting for maintenance at LAX began rolling and smashed through an airport fence, coming to a stop with its nose blocking a side street.

"It was parked overnight outside a hangar for maintenance. Somehow it moved. They don't know how. No one was on it. It's under investigation," said LAX spokesman Harold Johnson.

Want to get some frequent flier miles cheaply - and without having to set foot in an airport?  The Mileagerunner website is offering a promotion that enables you to get low cost frequent flier miles that can be used with many different airlines.  That means that you can effectively buy roundtrip domestic coach tickets for $190-285; and business class tickets to Europe for $960 or to Ausia for $1560.  Endorsed by mileage guru Randy Peterson, it seems like a credible offering.

Good news?  Well, maybe, but at what cost!  Consumer complaints against U.S. airlines dropped 29 percent last year from the previous year, with fewer flight delays and fewer lost bags.  But, of course, we all know the reason why this happened, and while flights might be closer to on time, the extra hour or more of checkin means that the total travel time for most journeys is now longer than at any other time since the introduction of jet services, some 40 years ago!

Which bring us to this week's security horror story.  As is usually the case, there are several to choose from.  In Aspen, Colo, a 14 year old boy claims that he became infected with the nasty Giardia microorganism after a security screener made him drink from a bottle of untreated stream water he was taking with him for a school science project.  And now for the interesting part.  Mike Fergus, a spokesman for the FAA says that passengers are required to drink from any liquids they take onto a plane to prove that they are not dangerous (remind me only to bring whisky and not shampoo!).  But Paul Turk, a spokesman for the new Transportation Security Administration, says that there is no requirement that travelers drink liquids to prove they are safe!  Ummm - come on, guys, let's get our stories straight!

In the 'better safe than sorry' category is the story of the police at SFO who  blew up a passenger's shoes on Wednesday after batteries and wires were spotted - even after it was determined they were not dangerous and contained no explosives!  The shoes apparently were designed to keep the wearer's feet warm, according to an airport spokesman.

Thanks to loyal reader LuAnn who provides the perfect ending to this week's security horror stories with this article (which is perhaps not entirely serious!).

Finally, this week's 'You Too Could Run an Airline' Award for Customer (dis)Service goes to the Hydro One power company in Canada.  During a recent power outage, callers got a recorded message advising them to check the company's website for further details on the status of the repairs.

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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