Friday 11 October, 2002
Good morning.  Last week's column, which opened with the story of it taking me 2.5 hours to make two simple hotel bookings, and which included a recitation of problems that I encountered while trying to make these bookings, was interpreted by most of you to be a not very subtle suggestion that a travel agent can provide a better service.  As long time readers will know, I have been very supportive of the travel agency community.  So I was both surprised and saddened when several travel agents angrily chose to unsubscribe, describing me as yet another travel agent basher!  Apparently the mere act of mentioning that it is possible to book hotels, other than through travel agents, is sacrilege to these agents, and they couldn't condemn me fast enough.

Not only is this unfair, it is also shortsighted.  If travel agents are to survive in this changing world, they can not close their eyes to criticism (whether it be real or imaginary) but rather must be sensitive to it and adapting as best they can to changing marketplace needs.  Whether they like it or not, they can't pretend the internet doesn't exist.  Successful travel agents recognize that their clients have alternative methods of booking travel, and strive to provide the best service for their clients.  Successful travel agents keep in touch with, and respond positively to, their competitive reality.

This Week's Column :  Travel Insurance - Yes or No?  :  Some people swear by travel insurance.  Other people swear about it!  But the term 'travel insurance' spans not just one type of product, but many different types of coverages, and sold in many different forms.  This week I describe the different types of policies available; next week I'll describe the different types of coverages.

Last week I promised you a new web page with airplane information.  I spent much of the weekend researching data on 50 different common types of passenger plane, and now you can conveniently find information on seating configurations, general size and model age, plus, yes, the requested information on the number (and type) of engines.  I hope this is helpful, and will be pleased to add to the table if you have additional suggestions.

Please tell me that you always keep your seatbelt fastened when flying.  Here's an interesting article about the dangers of turbulence, and some of the steps being taken to detect and respond to it.

Have you noticed that some airlines seem to be much more hypersensitive to the slightest bit of turbulence than others?  In general, it seems that pilots on most US carriers will turn on the 'Fasten Seat Belt' sign at the slightest suggestion of some 'bumps in the road', and then leave it on for extended periods of smooth air flying as well.  But foreign airlines and their pilots seem to have a much more relaxed approach to turbulence, happily flying through quite alarming and ongoing turbulence without a single comment.  And then there are the rumors that some pilots cooperate with their cabin crew and turn on the seat belt sign, not because of turbulence, but to make it easier for the cabin crew to get their carts up and down the aisles!

How about leaving your seat belt on all the way until the plane is stopped at the gate?  I'll confess that I usually unbuckle a minute or two before the plane stops.  Maybe that is not a good strategy.  Last weekend an American Airlines jet, while pulling into a gate at LAX, hit a portable passenger bridge, delivering what is quaintly described as a "little jolt" to those aboard the plane.  One passenger required attention from paramedics.  A spokeswoman said it was 'unclear what caused the accident'.

Still on the subject of safer seating, the FAA is proposing a new rule that would require airlines to install new stronger seats that could better protect passengers in some types of crashes.  The FAA estimates that, over a 20 year period, the new seats might save 114 lives and reduce the extent of injuries to another 133 passengers.  The seats would cost $520 million, and while you might call me cold hearted, I'm unconvinced that this is the best way to spend half a billion dollars, compared to other ways that the money might be used to save greater numbers of lives.  However, the FAA is also displaying its (in)famous timid approach to requiring the airlines to spend money on safety issues - in this case it proposes to give the airlines a staggering 14 years (!!!) to install the new seats!

If you'd like another example of the glacial speed at which the FAA moves, do you remember back all the way to 1991 and a 737 crash in Colorado Springs?  Or 1994 and another 737 crash just outside of Pittsburgh?  The FAA has now (11 years after the first crash and 8 years after the second, and I forget how many years (more than 5) after a major expose in the Seattle Times on a suspected rudder flaw) decided that modifications need to be installed on all Boeing 737 rudders.  And, extending its glacial slowness still further, it is giving the airlines six years in which to make the changes!  I don't understand this at all.  If there is a mechanical flaw that threatens air safety, why give the airlines six years to fix it?  Why not six days, or six weeks?

Boeing is in the news, but not all of it is good.  On the financial front, it has been writing down the value of loans to United in anticipation of the impacts of a United bankruptcy, should such an event occur.  It would seem that in the last year or so Boeing has lent United $1.3 billion, so that United in turn can then afford to buy planes from Boeing.  All a very circular sort of transaction, with one analyst claiming that Boeing would likely get back only 'pennies on the dollar' if United files for bankruptcy.

And, on the blue sky front, Boeing has announced plans to build the world's largest airplane, strangely named the Pelican.  It would have a wingspan of more than 500 feet, and a wing area of one acre.  By comparison, a 747 has a wingspan of 195 ft.  It would have 38 sets of landing gear, but only four propellor (turbo-prop) engines.  It is designed for military air lift duties, and could carry a staggering 14,000 tons of cargo more than 10,000 miles.  By comparison, a 747 freighter carries something under 100 tons for something less than 7500 miles.  It is a fascinating concept, but do I think we'll see this plane fly in our lifetime?  Almost certainly, no.

A bit of good news for United (for a change!).  Did you ever wonder who trains the Air Force pilots that fly Air Force One?  United does, and they have just won a new five year contract to provide flight training for these pilots. The contract calls for the training of four pilots and four flight engineers along with refresher training for eight additional pilots and flight engineers each year at United's flight training center in Denver. The airline has handled the training for the past ten years.

You've got to hand it to the Japanese.  They do take personal responsibility seriously.  In a reprise of similar events here in the US, the pilot of an ANA flight was found to have drunk alcohol too close to the flight departure time (ie less than six hours prior), meaning the flight was delayed seven hours while a replacement pilot was flown to Ho Chi Minh City, where the flight was to depart from.  As a result the pilot has been taken off flying duties.  But that's not all.  The Head of Flight Operations has been demoted.  And both the President and the Chairman have taken a 20% cut in their salaries for three months as part of the disciplinary measures.  Somehow I don't think you'll be reading similar stories here as a result of the America West incident a couple of months back.

One of the interesting results of my column last week about the difficulties in booking hotels online was the number of readers that wrote in to tell me of similar problems they too had experienced (ie getting hotels in the wrong city, state or even country!).  Here's an interesting article about problems some people also have booking airline tickets on Orbitz.  But the really interesting thing is the question the article lightly passes over at the end.  Here are the airlines, making a big show of cutting their selling costs every way they can (with travel agents); but they continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into loss-making Orbitz.

Through March 2002, Orbitz had consumed $205 million dollars from the desperately impoverished airlines, and is generally expected by most analysts not to become profitable any time in the foreseeable future.  How can the airlines go to our government and ask for taxpayers money, when at the same time they're investing hundreds of millions of dollars into an internet system that does not make them money and seems to have as its prime purpose merely trying to starve out competing internet and traditional sellers of travel?

We all know that the airlines are cutting back on everything they possibly can, but you would hope that they do not cut back on the truth.  Reader David was disappointed to discover that his trans-continental American Airlines flight that claimed to provide a dinner in fact provided only a cold bag snack.  The airlines have different computer codes for different meal types, including a 'dinner' code and a 'snack' code and so could have described this meal correctly.  Shame on AA for trying to pass off a cold snack as a hot dinner.

Credit Suisse First Boston earlier this week warned investors that it believes American Airlines has a 25% chance of filing Chapter 11.  In the last five trading days, AA shares have lost almost one third of their value.  Over the last six months, it has performed almost identically poorly to UA - both shares losing almost 90% of their value (ouch!).  UA's market valuation is now at an all time low of $100 million (Southwest is at $9.6 billion!).

It isn't only airlines that are feeling the icy chill of tough times.  Rental car companies are suffering as well, while not attracting as much publicity.  So it is perhaps unsurprising that I'm hearing increasing stories of rental car companies becoming tougher on policies such as arguing about whether damage was caused by you or already present when you rented the car.  Generally, major US rental car companies have been fairly easy going about this, but they seem to be increasingly adopting the approach of lesser car rental companies and international companies.  A word of advice - it pays to carefully check your rental car before you drive it off the lot - this is something you always must do overseas, and increasingly should do here, too.  If there is any damage, show it to a rental agent.  This site has a series of scary stories about problems with doubtful damage claims.

JetBlue released their September figures earlier this week. The airline reported traffic increased 152% from last September, with a capacity increase of 97% and an average load factor of 76%.  An excellent result by an excellent airline.  But is JetBlue guilty of over-reaching?  It is now starting to go head to head with Southwest on several Californian routes, and that is a strategy that could see both airlines bleed cash as they match each other's crazy low fares ($19 Long Beach to Las Vegas, $29 to Oakland, and $49 to Salt Lake City, for example).

Lastly, this week's 'useless but interesting statistic' - guess which city in the US has the highest per capita number of cell phones?  Answer - Greenville, SC, where 68% of residents have cellphones.  Across the country, 51% of all men, women and children now own a cellphone.  However, the US still lags strongly behind other countries.  Some areas in Europe and Asia have ownership rates as high as 85%!

I'm flying to London Thursday evening next week, and hope to publish next week's newsletter on Friday morning once I'm in London.  Until then, 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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