Friday 4 October, 2002
Good morning.  An upgrade of my webserver last week suffered the inevitable unintended consequences, with some web pages disappearing and others appearing with strange formatting.  To the best of my knowledge, all bugs and wrinkles have now been ironed out, but if you come across anything unusual, please let me know.

Computers are a continuing theme.  After last week's article on internet access in hotels, this week we'll talk instead about using the internet to book hotels.

This Week's Column :  Online Hotel Booking :  I spent two and a half hours last night trying to book two hotels in Switzerland and nearly ended up booking myself into hotels in different countries, or 40 miles from downtown!  It shouldn't take that long to simply book central city hotels in Bern and Geneva.  While the internet is increasingly a valuable source of 'web special' airfares, plainly there's a long way to go before it can help with other types of travel arrangements.  Read more, including a helpful checklist to use if you do book hotels yourself, in this week's column.

You'll also note that I'm asking for your assistance - please let me know your favorite (and least favorite!) hotel booking sites; I'm planning on featuring a review of the best known (and best) booking sites in a future column and want to make sure I include as many of the leading sites as possible.

There is clearly a rising tide of disaffection between travelers and the airlines they fly.  I don't think there has ever been an industry that has so singlemindedly gone about destroying the goodwill of their customers - but perhaps the airlines truly don't care, because they believe the government will simply give them more handouts.  If they can't profit from the fares they sell, they'll take money from the government instead.

Or, will they?  The first airline bailout was rushed through almost before the twin towers had finished falling to the ground, at a time when the nation was both shocked and pre-occupied with other issues.  But now, as the airlines hungrily approach DC with their begging bowls outstretched a second time, it seems that they're being greeted with skepticism and even open hostility.

And so, proving that he is a sensitive soul, Delta's CEO Leo Mullin went to some lengths to correct our understanding.  Oh no, the airlines are not "asking Congress for special treatment or what has sometimes been termed a 'bailout'" he said.  Instead, (and I bet you can't say this with a straight face) "We are asking for relief for the airline from the costs of fighting the war on terrorism and providing national security for our citizens."  Who was it who once said that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels?

At the same time, traveler dissatisfaction is erupting into almost open conflict - at least, in the press!  For example, there is a 350 member South Florida Airline Travelers Association, headed by a Continental Platinum frequent flier, Steve Landes.  His group - among many others - is insisting that Congress not give any more money to the airlines.  And what does this Platinum level frequent flier, presumably one of Continental's most valuable customers, say about the airlines?  "It's us against these airlines," he says. "These airlines have done the stupidest thing they could have done -- they're attacking their best customers [he is referring to new restrictions on tickets] and blaming us for their problems."

Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition, representing companies that between them spend over $1 billion a year on air travel, adds "[The airlines] are in Congress today looking for money, and yet they have refused to acknowledge the cumulative effect of having gouged their very best customers".  He said "The federal government should stay out of it and let the customer truly drive the reform that's necessary here."

But, for the last word on the airlines and their attempt at getting a handout, let's turn to Senator Peter Fitzgerald (R-IL), who after the Senate Commerce Committee hearing earlier this week had this to say.  "The price tag of this bailout will be infinitely greater because the costs will recur every year until the end of time. This bailout amounts to billions of dollars every year in free money for airline shareholders, and the taxpayers will foot the bill. Clearly, the taxpayers are becoming frequent fliers on this airline bailout ride."

Not everything the airlines do is blatantly stupid, however.  Some of it is stealthy.  On Tuesday American Airlines proudly announced that their Aadvantage members can transfer miles to other members' accounts.  Doesn't that sound like great news!  Ummm - read the fine print.  The cost to transfer these miles ranges up to as much as 5c a mile!!!  (Airlines typically sell frequent flier miles for 2c a mile.)  Unsurprisingly, AA boast that the program is open to all Aadvantage members, worldwide.  I'm sure it is - but I have to wonder exactly who it is that is taking aadvantage of who!

Did you know that if you're flying on a domestic First Class ticket, this doesn't entitle you to admission to the American Airlines lounges?  With only a couple of exceptions, all first class flights within the US (including a transcontinental from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles) don't get you admission to their lounges, as reader Peter found to his chagrin a couple of weeks ago.  You don't get much for your money these days, do you.

An interesting example of the enormous political power the airlines uniquely have in this country is occurring at present.  Look at the west coast dock strike, that is threatening grave economic consequences (a cost of $1 billion a day) to the entire country (as well as to our trading partner nations).  This dwarfs the impact of any single airline strike, but while the White House has said it will immediately act to pre-empt any airline strike, no-one is responding to the dock strike.  It seems to be a case of one law for the airlines, another for the rest of the nation.

And now for some airline good news.  The gap between the high cost and the good value airlines is widening, as the good value airlines continue to evolve increasingly consumer-friendly fares and policies.  Copying the example set by Southwest, ATA announced on Monday that it is capping its maximum fares to no more than $299 each way.  And, flying in the face of increases in penalties and fees, ATA is reducing its charge for excess baggage, ticket exchanges, and various other administrative services.  Best of all, unused tickets can be applied to future travel without penalty, and there's no charge for same day same routing standby travel.

Rather to my surprise, I had several readers write in reply to my comment about preferring four engined planes, asking how to tell if you are traveling on a 2 or a 4 engine plane.  I guess it isn't always obvious when you're making a booking, although the travel agent or airline sales person can always tell you the plane type and look up, in their computer, more details of the plane size, engine type and number, etc etc.  I'll create a web page that lists all common airline types and the number of engines, etc - hopefully will have this online next week.  Thanks for the idea!

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Two passengers on a BA flight from BWI to LHR were overhead quietly talking between themselves about airline hijacking.  Their exact conversation has not been reported, but there seems to be no suggestion that there was anything notably sinister about their chat, although they did move to sit closer to each other during their flight!   The captain was informed, and so the RAF scrambled fighter jets to 'escort' the flight in to London (has anyone ever paused to consider what this word 'escort' actually means - it means 'stand by to blow it out of the air'!) where the two Americans were greeted by British bobbies armed with machine guns who took the two men off.  No charges have been filed and the men were subsequently released.

Meanwhile TSA Head James Loy says that the public remains 'confused' about what is prohibited on flights.  In a single month, the TSA confiscated 122,763 knives, 234,575 other types of 'prohibited cutting devices', 4631 box cutters, 5201 incendiary devices (!) and 228 firearms!

This week's 'I'm from the Government and I'm Here to Protect You' award has to go to our not very good friends across the border in Canada.  Canada's clamp down on terrorism seems to be largely - ooops - a threat to the freedoms of its own citizens.  Their federal government has announced a plan to maintain a database that stores records of all international travel by all Canadians for up to six years.  Okay, maybe this can be justified for some sort of security reason, but guess who gets to operate the database?  Not the police, not any intelligence agencies.  Instead, the Canadian Customs and Tax departments!!!  Travel records will be cross-referenced against tax returns.  I don't know how many terrorists that will catch, but the Revenue Minister concedes that it will help police tax collection.  I'd much rather the government didn't try to sneak this in under the heading of trying to protect the country from terrorism.

Thanks to reader Tom for this fascinating fact.  Passengers from the Dutch Antilles who are suspected of drug smuggling are now being refused boarding by KLM, on the order of the Dutch Government.  Now, get this - if you are suspected of drug smuggling and refused boarding, KLM will also refuse to refund you your ticket!  Doesn't 'due process' exist in Holland?  But the really interesting statistic is that in the 150 flights that have occurred since this new policy, a massive 2,300 passengers have been denied boarding!  Another indignity (and outrageous airline profiteering) in the name of 'security'.

For a thought provoking article of a different kind, click here for an interesting story about what might have really happened to UA 93 on 11 September last year.  I can't comment other than to say that this UK newspaper story makes a compelling and convincing case.

Lastly, and hopefully in the 'Only in Australia' category, comes this story of how the Australian Attorney General has issued a ruling that says that physical and mental handicaps should not prevent people from becoming pilots or air traffic controllers!  Eyesight and other medical tests were found to be - ooops - breaching anti-discrimination laws!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and try not to worry if your pilot speaks with an Australian accent.

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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