Friday, 7 June, 2002
Good morning.  As one who has variously owned both a travel agency and a travel wholesale company, I've seen travel agents from three perspectives - as a customer, as an actual agent, and as a supplier to agencies.  And I've had a similar broad range of perspectives on airlines, too.  Believe me when I say that the airlines are not your friend, and anyone who thinks that their main mission is to make it easier for travelers to book cheaper fares directly with the airlines is sadly mistaken!  Which leads me to this week's column; an addition to the four part series on travel agencies that was featured a couple of months ago.

This Week's Column :  Solving the Perception Problem :  Most people think that the internet is increasingly the best source of lowest price airfares.  In actual fact, a study a year ago showed that travel agents were 17% cheaper than the internet, and the same study this year shows travel agents to offer fares a massive 27% less than on the internet.  So why isn't this better known?  And what should you - the many travel agent readers of this newsletter, be doing about it!  Here are some thoughts; with more next week.

I've written about Amtrak before.  Things continue to get worse - or, perhaps, the truth is finally starting to be revealed and finally acknowledged.  What splendid nonsense it was to ever believe that the US could become the only country in the world with a profitable private passenger railroad network.  Amtrak is now claiming that it will have to completely close down in July if emergency funds aren't made available.  While the government is throwing billions of dollars at the airline industry under a series of rushed and ill-considered measures, it continues to avoid solving the Amtrak problem, even though rail travel has become vastly more attractive from both a safety and a convenience point of view.  This article tells more.

And on the subject of safety, did you see this article, suggesting the remote possibility that terrorists might have brought anti-aircraft missiles to the US as a new way of attacking planes.  One thing the article is tactfully silent about - guess where these missiles might have originated from?  Ummm - would you believe the US?  Yes, during the Afghanistan conflict the US was liberally providing Stinger missiles for the 'freedom fighters' to use against the Russians (hey - isn't Russia our new best friend on the world stage?); there's more than a few of those still lying around and potentially now in the hands of Al Qaida.

I suppose they could use the missiles against a train as well, but at least a train would never then crash and destroy a skyscraper.

In last week's newsletter I spoke about my preference for airplanes with as many engines as possible when on long over-the-water flights.  Well, I still do prefer four engines over two, but two readers from within the airline industry both wrote in to put the other side of the story.  It seems that modern, well maintained jet engines almost never fail - the vast majority of all airplane problems are due to something entirely unrelated to the engines.  A particularly interesting statistic from reader David was that a jet engine on fire can still continue to work and produce as much as 70% of its normal power!!!

Reader Jeff had an interesting experience on a recent flight.  He writes

I was flying American Airlines this past week and they made a big deal that passengers could not put anything in the seat pocket, not even their ticket stub, own magazine – nothing – per a new FAA rule.  Funny, I also flew a couple other airlines last week and they did not mention this new “FAA” rule.  Have you heard of this?  If so, is it really a new “FAA” regulation, or just a stupid AA rule?  If the latter, I wish these guys would just tell it like it is and not say it’s an “FAA” rule.

Has this happened to anyone else?

And, talking about American Airlines, AA's CEO was widely quoted as saying that the likelihood of more airline terror attacks was low, and suggesting that some security measures should be adjusted to a more realistic and sensible level.  Interestingly, several days later, AA issued a 'clarification' that denied that CEO Don Carty ever called for reduced security measures.  The AA clarification said that he was quoted out of context, and what Carty actually was advocating was 'the government to stop those tasks that have little real security value'.  However, the correction goes on to say that his example of searching "Aunt Molly from Iowa" -- once it has been confirmed that Aunt Molly is truly Aunt Molly -- is something he considers a diversion of limited security resources at checkpoints.

Now you and I - being reasonable people, would probably agree with Carty on that point.  Leave Aunt Molly alone, and don't divert resources away from concentrating on potentially threatening passengers.  But, not so everyone else.  Five Arabs are now suing four US airlines, claiming that 'discrimination unrelated to security' caused them to be taken off flights.  Depending on your perspective, you will either be pleased and relieved, or horrified to learn that the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations claim to have documented an increasing number of incidents of profiling at airports post 9/11.  I guess that we should get the AARP to get in on the act too, because most searches seem to involve harmless elderly retired people!

More seriously, I'm glad that these cases have been filed.  Hopefully the legal system will laugh the cases out of court, and then the Transportation Security Administration will be left with no excuse not to aggressively profile and sensibly concentrate their resources on people that (excuse my political incorrectness) look like high risk passengers.

Did you hear about this week's California Highway Massacre?  Well, don't get the wrong idea, the massacre involved members of the CHP who chose to gun down six cows that had escaped their pasture and were grazing 50-100 yds away from coastal Highway 1.  CHP District Commander, Lt Martinez, says 'officers tried to find the cattle's owner for three hours' before killing them.  But, ooops, the local CHP dispatch center keeps a listing of all cattle brands and their owners' contact details and, well, 'it wasn't immediately clear if officers checked this'.  Hmmmmm.........

Do you love or hate being bumped off planes?  Personally, I generally love it!  Here's the latest statistics on which airlines are the best and worst for bumping passengers.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  You've probably already heard about the decorated Afghanistan Special Forces veteran who suffered a bullet wound in the face and has his jaw wired shut during the healing process.  His doctor required him to keep a pair of soft nosed rounded side-cutters (total length of the cutting blade under one inch) with him at all times in case he started choking on something and his jaw had to be urgently unwired and opened.  You can guess what happened; yes, of course, the wire cutters were seized at security.  Security officers (and presumably the airline) refused to allow the wire cutters on the plane, not even in the care of the flight attendants or captain.  Good job that the soldier didn't get airsick!  An airport spokesman said that 'security officers were just doing their jobs' (the same excuse used by Nazis after WW2 - an excuse that War Crimes Courts refused to accept).

But that isn't our featured horror story.  First place this week goes to poor Ms Karen Fern.  While passing through a checkpoint at BWI, screeners told her they detected traces of TNT (dynamite) in her purse.  Ms Fern said that she thought that it was probably fertilizer contamination.  The security checkers couldn't find any dynamite (of course!) or anything else threatening, but wouldn't let her pass.  Ms Fern offered to leave all her belongings behind.  But, no.  The airport refused to let her fly under any circumstances!  Ms Fern had to spend $1200 (and several days) to take a train back to her Californian home.

Now you might think this is bad, but what really makes this the horror story of the week is the response from the Transportation Security officials when asked to explain the situation.  Their response - a refusal to comment on the case at all!!!  Hey - do these government employees work for us (or against us!)?  Are they no longer accountable?  Refusing to comment about an idiotic mishandling of a simple situation is just not acceptable.

And, lastly, this week's Really Stupid Idea by Someone Who Should Know Better Award goes to Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn and Airport Commission President Ted Stein, who support an idea to centralise LAX passenger processing procedures in a massive off-airport facility.  Passengers, after being processed, would then be shuttled on to the airport.  Why is this idea so colossally stupid?  Simple.  Next time some bright screener accidentally switches off a metal detector, or a 'security breach' in some other way occurs, can you imagine the chaos and the delays when the entire airport - every terminal - would have to be emptied, every passenger shuttled back to the processing facility, rescreened, and then sent back to the terminals?  It would dwarf the problems that have occured when only one or two terminals have had a security breach, and passengers have just had to walk back to the security area and back through the gates.

Some officials worry that the plan would scare prospective travelers away from LAX, forcing them to use other nearby airports. Mayor Hahn, in the finest tradition of public accountability, is declining to comment on the matter.

Until next week, well, the only thing I will say is 'no comment'!

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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