Friday, 31 May, 2002
Good morning.  Last week's column on the latest security inanities generated eleven reader replies.  I had actually hoped for a twelfth reply, because I invited the reader who refused to believe that Air Force jets would shoot down a hijacked plane to explain exactly what she thought the fighter jet patrols (complete with live missiles) were for - unfortunately she didn't reply!  After the controversy of last week, we're having a kinder, gentler topic for this week -

This Week's Column :  A Day Tour with a Difference :  Relive the golden age of steam.  Find out how to go on a main line steam train excursion next time you're in Britain.

The plane that probably defines Boeing more than any other plane is its 747 - the 'jumbo jet'.  For many years it has also been thought to be Boeing's most profitable plane, due to its ability to fly more people and further than any other plane.  But two things have happened (and, no, one of them is NOT 9/11!) - the market has moved away from hub to hub travel, such that there is less need for big planes and more need for medium sized planes, and Airbus is due to release its A380 (with 97 orders on the books already) which will dwarf the 747 just as the 747 has, until now, dwarfed its smaller competitors.

Boeing recently went 350 days without receiving a single 747 order, and is struggling to find a launch customer for its latest variant, the 747-400XQLR.  This thoughtful article from the Seattle Times (in the heart of 'Boeing country') tells more.  As I've wondered before, what has happened to Boeing and the leadership role it formerly held?

Continuing an airplane theme, here's an interesting article that doesn't fully disclose all the tremendous politicking behind the scenes on the subject of ETOPs operation - the limitations on how far away from airports twin engined planes can operate.  The bottom line is that most Boeing planes are twin engined these days, but their Airbus competitors are often four engined.  So Boeing wants as generous a set of ETOPs rules as possible, and also wants to insist that the same higher safety standards also apply to four engined planes.

That is illogical.  A four engine plane can lose one or two engines, maybe even three, and still stay in the air.  A twin engine plane has major problems if it loses one engine, and if it loses two, then its all over.  As far as I am concerned, three engines are better than two; four are better than three, and if there was a plane with five or six engines, I'd prefer that even more!  In my opinion the current ETOPs guidelines are already too generous and should be curtailed rather than extended.

'Major' airline executives like to sneer at Southwest Airlines, claiming that it isn't 'real' competition.  I guess they find it easier to adopt this line than to accept that, by any measure, Southwest is beating its competitors to a pulp.  Look at this data - as of a week ago, airline total market capitalizations were :

  • American $3.06 billion
  • Continental $1.43 billion
  • Delta $3.18 billion
  • Northwest $1.36 billion
  • United $642 million
  • US Airways $204 million
  • America West $107 million

That's a total value of almost $10 billion.  Southwest, all by itself, has a cap of $12.87 billion - more than the total of all the others!  Another telling statistic - immediately prior to 9/11, the major airlines had a total market cap of $16 billion - they have lost a third of their value since then.  Meanwhile, Southwest had a prior valuation of $13 billion - it has increased in value more than 20%!  Memo to Southwest - why don't you simply buy all these other arrogant airlines and claim the entire market for yourself!

As a postscript to this, the amazing phenomenon that is JetBlue, which only recently concluded its IPO, already has a market capitalization of $1.94 billion.  Yes, three times more valuable than United Airlines - and if anyone has flown on both airlines, they'll agree that this is a fair valuation!

And the discount/alternative carrier league might become even more crowded.  Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic, has set aside $100 million to start a no-frills airline in the U.S. The high-profile billionaire businessman hopes to begin services under a new Virgin Red brand (he also has a Virgin Blue that is operating successfully in Australia) next year - but only if US and European authorities revive open skies talks to ensure an open skies agreement to allow foreign groups to control American carriers (and that is a very big if!).

While we're still on the subject of the perfidy of our so-called major airlines, new reader Gordon comments on last week's newsletter and the article on Continental now charging for drinks on trans-Atlantic flights.  He says 'They can't even make change for dollars on the domestic flights.   How are they going to change the Euros, pounds and zlotys, from wherever people connect from? Or perhaps only Americans can drink?'

We had a minor panic for a brief moment in Seattle last week.  A light plane buzzed our downtown Safeco Field sports stadium, and jettisoned a canister of powdery substance over the grounds.  Authorities acted swiftly to cordon off the area and started to evacuate nearby people.  And then they managed to track down the pilot, who had now landed back at nearby Boeing Field.  Umm - the powdery substance?  Cremated remains of a devout baseball fan, who had asked to have his ashes scattered over the stadium!

Federal regulations prohibit dropping objects out of airplanes, unless "reasonable precautions are taken to avoid injury or damage to persons or property," according to FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer. That is why ashes are often spread in remote areas such as the tops of mountains or over bodies of water.  An investigation will be conducted to determine whether Safeco Field fits in that category, or if enough precaution was taken, said Kenitzer.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  I've complained before about the ridiculous presence of M-16 toting National Guardsmen in battle fatigues at airports; taken to its logical extreme in Miami where they even deployed a tank at the approaches to the airport!  Now it turns out that not all of those guardsmen actually had live rounds in their weapons, which just further confirms the ridiculous and purely 'for show' nature of that entire (now concluded) exercise.

Meanwhile, a news item on Monday revealed that the security crackdown on foreign pilot students would, according to the splendidly unbiased trade organisation for US flightschools (now suffering reduced student numbers) would cause 'an impact on airline safety worldwide'.  Apparently, or so we are asked to believe, only pilots trained in US flight schools are sufficiently qualified to be trusted at the controls of a passenger plane.  Officials gave two examples of lost business - China Southern Airlines cancelled a $6 million contract with a Glendale, AZ, flightschool, and Emirates Airline cancelled a $1 million contract in MI.  Ah, but, just one thing.....

If you read the entire news release, you'd find out where these two airlines moved their training to.  Not to some disreputable 'wing and a prayer' flight school in a third world country.  But instead to a major flight school in the country that proudly boasts the world's safest airline (Qantas) - Australia.  I'm sorry, but the attempt to invoke specious fears about passenger safety ill conceals the fact that the main concern of these US flight schools is merely they are losing business, and in the two cases cited, to a country with an excellent aviation record, whose flag carrier has never ever had a passenger fatality - all the more impressive a record when you consider that Qantas is the world's second oldest airline!

Lastly this week, Duch travel agency Kamstra Travel recently discontinued its 5 day in Paris tour due to lack of interest.  The tour, on sale for $420, was well publicized, being featured in over 300 newspapers and radio/tv interviews, but just did not sell a single package during its eight months on offer.  Perhaps that was because the accommodation on offer involved living in a cardboard box under a bridge!  It was suggested to companies as a 'team-building exercise', allowing executives to mix and mingle with the Parisian homeless.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels - and be sure to read the fine print about the featured hotels in any tour brochures!

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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