Friday 9 August, 2002
Good morning.  Lots of airline news this week, and little of it any good.  If anyone believes that airline codesharing, joint-operating agreements, partnerships, alliances, or whatever other term is used, are good for travelers, would they please get in touch with me - I have some oceanfront property in Arizona you might be interested in buying!

The US Airways/United alignment seems to be now encouraging Delta to try and join hands with both Continental and Northwest, and all of a sudden, our rich and 'competitive' airline industry boils down to two or three super-airlines, a few bit players, and nothing else.  If you don't think that is bad, try and guess at how hard it will become for new airlines to then carve a niche into a market that is so dominated by several massive airline alliances.  And so, to balance these rather gloomy prognostications, it seemed appropriate to point out an interesting loophole in the current airfare structures of these major carriers.

This Week's Column :  Air Fare Loopholes - The Ultimate Airline Bluff?  Warning - the airlines claim that what you'll read in this column is illegal.  But - if you dare, you'll find three loopholes enabling you to reduce the cost of your travels that are mighty tempting.

Can you help?  Next week my column is about the legal basis for the airlines trying to enforce their 'you can't use these loopholes' claims.  As best I can see, there has never been any appellate court review of the airline claims.  If you're aware of any information one way or the other on this issue, I'd love to hear about it from you!

This week's 'You Read it Here First' item relates to a recent closed-door briefing given to members of the House Aviation Subcommittee.  The 'shock horror' news that they were briefed on, behind closed doors, is the fact that the TSA now projects it will only receive 700 of the 2000 explosives detection machines it needs.  Ummm - my 19 July column, published three weeks ago, discussed that very point in some detail!

And, the 'frightening understatement of the week' award goes to the TSA spokesman who, in admitting the shortage of machines says that alternate procedures to check bags prior to deploying all the machines may 'result in long lines and delayed flights'.

In case you haven't read this item already, another amusing example of mistaken identity occurred this week when a British couple flew from London to Sydney.  They expected to land in New South Wales, Australia, but landed in Nova Scotia, Canada; where they discovered that Sydney, NS, was not the same as Sydney, NSW.  Ooops.  Staff at Sydney Airport (NS) said that they have received luggage that should have gone to Australia before, but never - until now - actual passengers.  I guess that just confirms our suspicions that we, as passengers, are increasingly being treated as baggage!

Southwest Airlines found itself in some unexpected controversy a couple of months ago when it announced its policy of charging oversize people for two seats.  Certainly, some parts of its policy were unfair - for example, charging these people a full walk-up fare rather than any type of discount fare for the second seat.  Various people were quick to spring to the defense of 'size-challenged' people, but few people commented on the discomfort that people (of any size) experience if wedged in between two oversized people.

Maybe that is about to change.  An Ohio man has filed suit against Delta because it sat him next to an obese man for a two hour flight.  The plaintiff claims that Delta breached its contract to provide him with a full seat and reasonable comfort. He claims to have suffered embarrassment, severe discomfort, mental anguish and severe emotional distress from the flight (don't you just love what attorneys dream up for their lawsuits!!!).

How did Delta respond to the claim that it is required to provide its passengers with a full seat and reasonable comfort?  An attorney for Delta called the suit trivial and said that it is not a legitimate issue!  We'll see what the court thinks - a hearing is set for the middle of next month.

The interesting gossip this week has been US carriers unofficially reducing their full fares in an attempt to lure back business travelers.  This will not work.  Let me ask you - if a discounted fare is available for $250, does it matter to you if the full fare costs $900 or $775?  No, if you're like an increasing number of travelers, you'll refuse to pay any ridiculously inflated fare, be it $775 or $900, for a disgusting experience in which you're treated just as disgracefully as the $250 passengers (who should be better treated anyway!).  These airlines still don't get it.

But some airlines do 'get it'.  Ryanair in Europe has just announced its biggest quarterly profits increase in the history of the company.  Its most recent quarter also saw the no-frills Irish carrier fly more than a million passengers for the first time in three successive months - at a time when many airlines were still attempting to recover from the effects of September 11 and the global economic downturn.  An average 7% cut in their already low fares was rewarded by a 38% rise in passengers, meaning that net profits rose by - wait for it - 68%!!!

Plainly I'm not the only person following the progress of Cunard's new Queen Mary 2 with a great deal of interest and excitement.  Its inaugural voyage (scheduled for 12 January, 2004) was sold out in two days, and some customers had been on a four year waiting list for when Cunard started taking reservations.  The QM2 is to replace the Queen Elizabeth 2 on the trans-atlantic run and will be substantially bigger (capable of carrying over 3000 passengers).  The thought of six days at sea with no port stops might seem boring to some, but I absolutely loved my QE2 crossing some eight or nine years ago.

Thanks to my good friend Pat Funk at ARTA for reminding us all about passport fees being about to increase.  A standard ten year passport will increase from $60 to $85, and the extra you pay for expedited service increases from $35 to $60.  The Bureau of Consular Affairs explained that the increase was to recover 'the true cost of providing [passport and other] services'.  I don't understand why I can get a driver's license while I wait, and pay a mere $15 for the privilege (including having them take the photos) but a passport takes 6-8 weeks, two photos, and $85, or same day service for a massive $145 (and, no, it isn't because they do extensive computer background checks or anything like that!).  The new fees apply for applications received on/after 19 August.

Last week I expressed surprise that the Singapore Airline Pilots Association was shocked that the pilots of the Singapore Airlines jet that crashed in Taiwan had been fired subsequent to a finding of pilot error.  It was pointed out to me that the US Airline Pilots Association may have a similar myopic opinion of their own pilots.  The two America West pilots who were arrested for being 'drunk in charge of a plane' a month back were provisionally fired by America West - pending an appeal by their union!  Does the US Airline Pilots Association think it is okay for their pilots to be drunk at the controls of a fully loaded passenger plane?  Surely this is one time they could just quietly support the airline rather than automatically argue against them!

Last week saw the debut of yet another wonderful high speed rail service - but, no, sadly not here in the US, where Amtrak is now talking about cutting back its showcase Acela service between Boston, New York and Washington (due to the unreliability of its trains).  The new service is in Germany, where the 136 mile route between Frankfurt am Main and Cologne now takes just over one hour (including four intermediary stops!).  The new service represents an investment of $6 billion, and will be serviced by 54 trains a day.  And keep waiting for new service on the Berlin-Prague-Vienna line, where the current ten hour service will reduce to 6 1/2 hours in 2004.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  An eighty year old man was being security searched for the second time at Hartford's Bradley Intl Airport.  He watched the security screener poking through his wallet, and asked 'What do you expect to find in there, a rifle?'.  A state trooper asked him 'Do you think that was an appropriate remark' to which he replied 'Yes, I do'.  And so he was handcuffed, arrested, locked in a holding cell, then subsequently issued with a citation for 'creating a public disturbance'.

But what is really strange is that a State Police spokesman, Sgt Vance, said that normally such incidents result in 'breach of the peace' charges.  The lesser 'creating a public disturbance' charge was issued because 'no threat was made, and it wasn't a situation where a person became obnoxious or irate'.  Dare I ask - in such a case, why exactly was any charge at all laid against this gentleman?  While Sgt Vance obviously thinks that the 80 yr old man was let off lightly, am I the only one to think that, in actual fact, he is yet another victim of a 'security' system run amok?

'Guns' were a problem in other airports this week, too.  A lady was refused boarding at LAX due to having a plastic GI Joe doll in her hand luggage.  The doll had a 2" plastic gun as part of its outfit. <sigh>

Lastly, if you're like me, when visiting Rome you've probably done the same touristy thing I've done.  Most of the standard half day city tours include a stop at the Trevi fountain, and most of the tourists do the complicated maneuver to throw a coin from their right hand over their left shoulder and backwards into the fountain, thereby ensuring one's return to Rome (in my case, being left handed, my clumsy right handed backward throw ended up hitting a fellow tourist!).

Did you ever wonder what happened to all those coins?  A man, banned from fishing coins out of the fountain, was arrested Tuesday for collecting a 50-pound (!) bag of coins from its waters, police and media said.  Last week, the city banned him from fishing coins out of the fountain after he boasted about making a living by taking out hundreds of dollars worth of coins daily.  The Roman Catholic charity Caritas is the only organisation that is authorized to use the money, which the city fishes out of the fountain.

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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