Friday 26 July, 2002
Good morning.  Is it my imagination or are the long days of summer already starting to shorten?  Perhaps it's time to start thinking of a trip down to the southern hemisphere!

This Week's Column :  Passport Travel Newsletter Review :  Ever wondered if one of those $100/yr newsletters that review hotels, destinations, etc, are worth the price they charge?  Potentially they could be worth their weight in gold.  This week I look at the longest established and perhaps most respected of these publications.

Have you noticed how 'security' is now used as the justification for everything, ranging from appalling customer service to flight delays to - well, everything!  With that in mind, I'd like to award this week's 'Security Lie' jointly to Alaska Airlines and Bank of America.  I just received a letter from them about my Alaska Airlines/Bank of America Visa card.  It says 'For your protection, we have added a new security feature to your $50 round-trip companion certificate and first class upgrade certificates.'  (These coupons are issued every year and now are to be endorsed for my use only.)   Claiming that this is a 'security feature for my protection' is nonsense.  The prime reason that they now limit the use of these certificates is to prevent the common practice of people giving (or selling) their certificates to other people!  The only benefit from this new so-called security protection is to the airline.  One can't complain about Alaska Airlines moving to close this loophole, but one can complain about them lacking the honesty to truthfully explain the reason for their actions.

Last week I said that it was 'ugly all around' for the airlines (except for Southwest) as they announced their latest quarterly results, with massive losses being the order of the day.  Another airline announced its result today - glamorous new carrier Jet Blue.  And - guess what - its high quality/low fare approach seems to be continuing to be outstandingly successful.  They reported a net profit increase of 37% and an almost doubling of gross sales compared to the same period last year.  This result is all the more remarkable when one also considers that their average fare declined by 11%!  Jet Blue's market capitalization is currently $1.71 billion.  In comparison, industry giants Delta, American and United have market capitalizations of $1.81, $1.68, and $0.23 billion - Jet Blue is now one of the very largest airlines in the country in terms of its stock market valuation.  Investors love this airline, as do passengers.

Delta has apparently received a report from the McKinsey consulting company about how it can compete with the successful low fare airlines.  But can such an entrenched 'old fashioned' airline change its ways?  I hope so - but doubt it.

And another airline also gets its focus wrong.  Alaska Airlines announced its quarterly result (a small loss).  Its CEO/Chairman, John Kelly, said that it experienced lower passenger yields and that this was a major contributor to its poor result.  But, astonishingly, in talking about their future plans, instead of focusing on improving yield as the number one priority, he says 'our prime focus will continue to be on cost management'.  While the old adage 'no-one ever saved their way into profit' is not always true, and neither is the adage 'you've got to spend money to make money'; continued efforts to lower costs are like trying to get blood from a stone.  Alaska - and all other 'traditional' US airlines - need to focus on fixing their broken yield equation.

Meantime, in Europe, carriers continue to convert to the low fare strategy.  The UK's largest regional carrier, British European, announced it is changing its name, lowering fares and offering customers a new deal as part of a radical overhaul.  The airline is now known as Flybe, but will not become a totally no-frills operation. It says a new package of measures will combine the best qualities of traditional airlines with the innovative approach of the budget carriers.

All tickets are now changeable (until 2 hours prior to departure) and the airline has pledged to eliminate over-booking.  It also has discounted last minute fares on sale for most flights from 12 hours prior to departure.

And Ryanair introduces an even more revolutionary concept.  Passengers can transfer their tickets to other people - something the airlines here completely refuse to allow.

Hey - Delta!  You could have saved yourself probably millions of dollars in fees to McKinsey - just copy Jet Blue, or Flybe, or Ryanair, or one of the many other new fare and operational models being experimented with in Europe.  Why is it that our American airlines are so slow to experiment with new business models while the European airlines (even BA) are rushing to re-invent themselves?

Running out of places in the world to visit?  Don't hold your breath, but maybe Cuba might become an option.  For the third time in as many years, Congress defied White House veto threats and passed, 262-167, legislation that would lift the four-decades-old ban on Americans traveling to Cuba.  In the past, the effort has failed in the Senate, but this year, the Senate is also moving to lift the ban -- setting up a likely clash with President Bush.

Currently, US citizens must get a license from the US Treasury to travel to Cuba, and those are generally limited to Cuban-Americans visiting family, journalists, academics, government officials and groups on humanitarian missions.  But Americans are increasingly finding ways to reach Cuba anyway by traveling through third countries, with an estimated 176,000 visiting the island in 2001.

Earlier this week USA Today had an interactive chat with America West CEO Doug Parker on their website.  I sent in a question for him to respond to - 'Do you think your airline acted appropriately when it took a lady passenger off a flight after she jokingly asked if the pilots were sober?'.  Although very few questions were asked (or, perhaps I should say, very few questions were answered!), he apparently refused to answer mine, and it never appeared on the site.  The questions that did appear were mainly 'set up' questions, feeding him an opportunity for a positive answer, or sycophantic praise for his airline such as real people would seldom express!  The net result - zero credibility to USA Today and America West for such a one-sided presentation and for censoring reader questions.

This week's 'Big Brother is Watching You' item is a scary story that suggests that your airline seat could be used to monitor your actions and to predict if you might be liable to become a 'potential troublemaker'!  Shades of the recent movie, Minority Report - are passengers now to be restrained in advance of causing trouble?  The new type of passenger seat is covered with sensors that measure movement, blood circulation and temperature.  If a passenger falls asleep, the seat can automatically adjust lighting and ventilation and if a passenger sits for hours without moving they will be warned by the seat that they risk deep vein thrombosis.  The seat would also warn cabin crew if a passenger moves about 'too much' - restless passengers are considered by crew as likely to be suffering from anxiety and are considered potential troublemakers.

On the subject of potential troublemakers, a news item appeared on the 18th that was as significant for what it did not say as for what it did say.  You'll recall that any time a passenger is accused of 'air rage' the airline delights in giving extravagant details about the alleged behavior, and of course the passenger is inevitably arrested by the FBI once the plane arrives at its destination.  Exceedingly rarely, in extreme cases only, the plane makes an 'emergency stop' for the passenger to be taken off (in restraints).  And so, the news item from Associated Press is tantalizing when it merely says 'A flight attendant who was rude to passengers and fellow staff members was removed from an overnight American Airlines flight after the jet diverted to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, airline spokesman John Hotard said Thursday.'  The plane was traveling from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale, when the captain diverted to DFW due to the actions of this person.  The only other thing we are told is that it could take several days for the investigation to be completed.

This looks very much like 'one law for staff, another law for passengers'.  Apparently the police or FBI were not called, even though the plane had to make an emergency landing to get rid of the offender.  And, whereas the airlines rush to tell us everything that passengers do, they're very silent about what their own employee may have done.  And if being rude to passengers is now a reason to offload flight attendants, hooray for that - but won't the airlines very quickly run out of staff?

Good news for passengers that have to travel through O'Hare, with a major expansion program getting Congressional approval.  The improvements are claimed to create 195,000 new jobs in the region - but doesn't that number sound overstated to you?  19,500 I could believe, but, really - 195,000 new jobs as a result of O'Hare growing?  I doubt it.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Prominent libertarian crusader John Gilmore (also co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation) has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the US government, United and Southwest Airlines, alleging that requiring ID from travelers who are not suspected of being a threat to security violates not just one but several of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.  The lawsuit alleges that the regulations restrict freedom of travel, permit intrusive searches without good cause and violate the Freedom of Information Act because they have not been published in the Federal Register.  But, most amazingly of all, airline officials were unable to identify the specific regulation that requires passengers to produce identification, calling it an 'unwritten' rule!!!

If you remember back to (I think) 1996 when the requirement to show ID first appeared, it was my belief then that this was primarily a chimera invented by the airlines to stop people giving away or selling their tickets to other people, with the prime beneficiary of this 'security' measure being the airlines who now had the double benefit of seeing some people unable to use tickets and other people being forced to buy expensive last minute tickets.  Good luck to John Gilmore and his court case accordingly.

Thanks to reader Tom for contributing the following true story.

We had to sit on the plane in Colorado Springs for four hours before we got to fly to Chicago. Evidently the plane was over weight combined with it being "too hot outside" and gusty winds. United Airlines first filled the plane with standbys and then said the plane is too heavy and we either have to have 30 people get off or take all of your luggage off. But they offered no incentives for anyone to get off, so nothing happened.

Finally some people got very annoyed and so left to try to get other flights. Then United said that they were going to download some fuel to make the plane lighter, but we would have to land in Denver or Omaha to refuel.  They then told us that it would take at least another hour on the ground while we waited for the fuel truck to arrive and take the extra fuel off.

So, some more people decided to make other arrangements and left. The rest of the passengers suggested we play row survivor and vote one person off each row!  Finally the fuel truck came and started playing with the fuel.  And then, believe it or not, United said, well, after all those passengers left, we think we can fly all the way to Chicago now without refueling! So - guess what?  Some of the people who had left, when they heard the plane was about to depart, came back on. And now, (and I promise this is true) United said the plane is too heavy again, we need five people to get off.  By now, they had wised up, and so were offering a free roundtrip to anywhere in the US. Four people got off. Then UA threw in a bottle of champagne and one more got off. As for those of us that had suffered four hours of United's Keystone Cops routine, we were given a "complementary granola bar." Then, on the flight to Chicago, we were given one complementary drink and a snack pack. Call that dinner, I guess.

One more insult awaited me upon arriving at my destination.  A tight connection onto a rebooked flight in Chicago meant that my baggage did not make it with me to my destination.

Lastly this week, in case you wondered, a new survey by Expedia reports that Germans are the most welcome holidaymakers around the world.   And, the least favored visitors - the British win that dubious honor.  American tourists scored tops in the politeness category.  The Brits were said to be the worst behaved and the rudest. They make no effort to speak the local language and are tight-fisted tippers.

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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