Friday 27 September, 2002
Good morning.  It is great to be back after two weeks of silence imposed upon me by the massive challenges of internet connectivity while I was in Moscow (and thanks to the many people that wrote to me enquiring about my sudden silence).  How can people exist in one of the world's major capitals when they can't get simple ordinary and reliable access to the internet?  Surely this is now an essential part of modern 'civilised' life!  Perhaps because of these terrible challenges, I have chosen a related topic for this week's feature column.

This Week's Column :  The Internet Superhighway :  Finally, a practical and simple solution to on-the-road internet access is making its way into hotels across the US.  I checked into one such hotel for half a day purely to evaluate their internet access.  The results surprised me.

And now, back to the ugly 'real world' of arrogant airlines that are both 'cheap as dirt' and 'stupid as dirt'.  British Airways has just exposed me to a splendid example of why they are no longer 'the world's favorite airline' - as they used to claim.  Indeed, it has been amusing to see Lufthansa aggressively advertising in Europe 'now the world has a new favorite airline' as a way of mocking BA's former proud boast.  British Airways is not only no longer the world's favorite airline, but it is also no longer one of the key FTSE 100 shares in Britain, due to the continuing collapse in its share price (earlier this week it dropped down to the lowest it has ever been since listing).

Back to my story....  I called BA to ask for seats to be preassigned for my wife and I when we fly in three weeks in their Business class cabin.  Plenty of seats still available, (or so the man said) but they have reached their 'pre-assignment limit' and the balance are for airport checkin only.  The man said that they hold back half of their business class seats for airport checkin, in case there are 'passengers with disabilities' or 'people traveling together'.  I pointed out that we were, ahem, hoping to travel together, but this proved too complicated a concept for him to master!  I asked him 'what is the point of offering premium services if the services aren't actually provided' but of course that was a question well over his pay grade.

And, in case you think this was just my bad luck, a couple of friends flew BA in First Class a few weeks back and also were unable to get pre-assigned seating and ended up at opposite ends of the cabin!  Shame on BA.  Do they really think that people who pay sky high fares ($8300 business class Seattle to London return, or $13150 first class) are happy with lousy service (inability to preassign seats and no longer even offer priority luggage handling for business class travelers)?

Now let me guess at the truth behind BA's not assigning all seats.  The truth is that they are now overselling their Business class and perhaps even their first class cabins, same as they oversell their coach class cabin.  The main reason that airlines don't like to pre-assign seats is because they simply can't do this when they're selling more tickets than they have seats!  But wouldn't it be refreshing to hear the airline honestly tell the truth about why they won't give us the seats we want, rather than trying to waffle about 'making it easier for people traveling together to be seated together'.

It isn't only BA that is doing very poorly in the share market.  Shares of American Airlines hit a 20 year low on Monday to close at $4.22, and continued to drop on Tuesday. Last week's low was $4.65.  And shares of Air France hit a 10+ year low.

Perhaps part of AA's problem is that the US is appealing its earlier loss in the predatory pricing suit brought against AA in 1999.  U.S. attorneys told an appeals court this week that a lower court judge used the wrong method of determining cost when he dismissed a 1999 case against the carrier. The U.S. Justice Department earlier alleged that the carrier was trying to drive smaller airlines from its Dallas-Fort Worth hub by saturating routes with additional flights and low fares. Once the smaller carriers were gone prices were raised and services reduced. The judge ruled that the competition was legal because American never sold its tickets below cost. The government wants the ruling reversed and the case reinstated. The carriers who did leave Dallas-Fort Worth were Vanguard, Western Pacific and Sun Jet Airlines.

In a struggle to find positive news about air travel, here's an interesting item that reminds me of when I used to live in New Zealand.  In New Zealand, when our domestic 737s arrived at an airport, they would unload from both the front and rear doors simultaneously, making it twice as fast to get off the plane.  I've never understood why such a procedure has not been more widely followed here.  A very few US airports have a very few gates equipped with twin airbridges.  Now Albany airport has announced that it will install two dual loading bridges for Southwest Airlines' gates, in the hope that this will encourage Southwest to add more services to the city, and to enable Southwest to test the concept in the occasionally inclement weather prior to a possible roll out to more Southwest gates elsewhere in the country.

Note that it is a so-called 'no frills' airline that is actually pursuing this added passenger amenity.  Where are the high cost airlines - the  Uniteds, Americans, Deltas, etc of this world when it comes to actually increasing - rather than curtailing - passenger convenience!

More good news.  There have been many stories about the latest curtailments on discounted tickets instituted by the major airlines (at the rate they continue to cut back service and lose money, we'll have to stop calling them 'the majors' fairly soon - I think I'll start calling them the 'high cost' airlines!).  But America West says it has no intention to match the use-it-or-lose-it policies on nonrefundable fares. The airline's chairman, Doug Parker, said that America West expects to draw more business travelers who want the flexibility of canceling and then rebooking a trip after the flight departs. He said the airline had already increased its share of business travelers after revamping its fare structure by eliminating the Saturday night stay and slashing walk-up fares.  This is good news, and shows that America West is struggling to reform itself and break out of the mould of the 'high cost' airlines that it used to belong to.

We've heard a lot the last few weeks about United's attempts to cut its labor costs.  But did you know that earlier this year the United pilots' union was asking for a 37% pay rise!!!  A senior United captain earns $300,000 a year (compared with $200,000 at Continental); their airline was on the verge of bankruptcy, but they wanted a $100,000+ pay rise!!!  Wouldn't you love to be able to ask for a 37% pay rise this year, too?  Especially if you already earned $300,000 (for working half time)!  It is common to blame airline management for the problems they have, but it seems to me that the unions deserve a fair measure of blame, too.

Continental Airlines head, Gordone Bethune, had an interesting comment to make about United this week.  He was quoted in English newspaper the Observer as saying that United would go under, 'war or no war'!  Not a very kind thing to say about one's archrival competitor, is it!  But I haven't heard United complaining or suing him for the statement - I wonder why not?

How many engines is enough?  Several months ago I made the comment that I much preferred four engined planes compared to two engined planes on the basis that you have many more 'spare' engines in case things start going wrong.  Several readers took me to task over that comment and assured me that modern well maintained jet-engine planes rarely (I think the word 'never' was even used by one reader!) have engine problems.  I allowed myself to be reassured.

But in the last week I've read about at least three different cases where planes suffered the loss of an engine (most recently an Air NZ 747 that was forced to return to Heathrow after 'loud bangs and overheating' caused an engine to be shut down).  No crashes eventuated, but I am forced to once more return to my clear preference for three or four engined planes when flying long distances away from airports.

Air New Zealand has had a series of problems recently, including a panel that fell off a plane due to only being fastened with four instead of the regulation 120 screws!!!

In a massive attack of corporate meanness, American has cut back on its free meal and lodging policy for stranded travelers, and is also limiting the amount of compensation it pays to persuade people to take a later flight (when they have overbooked planes).  In a delightful example of corporate doublespeak, an internal memo says that the cutbacks  'will cause some initial discomfort for both front-line staff and customers'.  There is now a maximum $300 flight credit that will be offered for passengers bumped off domestic flights.  Apparently, in the past, they would offer up to $1000 to get volunteers (a bigger amount than I ever saw).  The airline accepts that these reductions will mean that fewer people will volunteer, meaning that more people will be forced to accept involuntary denied boarding.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  I had my first taste of the new TSA personnel at work when I returned from Moscow.  Seattle is, I think, the only airport that requires you to go through security in order to leave the airport!  And so, there I was, jetlagged, and forced to wait while not one or even two but three different screeners all clustered around the Xray machine monitor and carefully looked at and gossiped about every image of every bag that went through.  Three people!  Needless to say, the line of people waiting was enormous.

But at least they were checking all the hand bags through this Xray machine.  This article indicates that many of the enormously expensive checked baggage Xray machines aren't even being used!

A security horror story of a different kind is evolving between a guest and the Marriott hotel he was staying in.  As this article explains, the man accidentally discovered a video camera in his room's bathroom, spying on everything that took place there!  He's now suing for $1.5 million; meanwhile the hotel is declining to comment whether there were video cameras secreted in other bathrooms or not.

Maybe video cameras need to be installed in Virgin Atlantic's 'Mother and Baby room' on its new A340-600 planes.  Apparently couples (rather than mothers and babies) have been using these rooms for, ahem, other purposes, and wrecking the changing tables in the process. But somehow I feel that Richard Branson approves, don't you? :)

Lastly, spare a kind thought for the 'meter maids' on Australia's Gold Coast.  Whereas in most parts of the world, parking enforcement officers fine motorists that don't feed their parking meters, in friendly Australia's Gold Coast region (just south of Brisbane), these 25 young ladies feed coins into expired meters.  Oh, there's one other difference too - their 'uniform'!  A skimpy bikini, and with advertising messages on their bikini bottoms (the cost of an advertisement on their bottom - A$1266/month or about US$700).  A small group of local business owners are claiming that these young ladies are 'bringing shame and embarrassment' to the area.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and, unless you're on Australia's Gold Coast, better keep feeding your parking meters.

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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