Friday 18 October, 2002
Good morning. I'd hoped to be writing this in the very nice BA lounge at Seatac on Thursday evening, but upon arrival there, discovered the place to be full with literally standing room only (easier to get a seat and personal space in the public waiting area than in the lounge, and so the newsletter had to wait until subsequent to my arrival in London.  Consequently this may be a shorter than normal newsletter, and because I will be traveling around Europe on a fairly hectic schedule for the next ten days, there will be no newsletter or column next week.  Normal service will resume on Friday 1 November, and look for a review of my first experience with BA's business class sleeper bed seats shortly thereafter.  But the quick executive summary is 'don't waste your money on BA's disappointing service'.

This Week's Column :  Travel Insurance - What Do You Need?  :  Last week we looked at the different sources of travel insurance; this week we look at the different coverages that you'll typically find in a travel insurance policy.  You'll find out which are essential and which are of little or no value.

With my current travels, laptop computer issues are again in my mind.  Kudos to Dell for their splendid service - I placed a service call on my laptop last week.  The next day, an Airborne Express driver called and collected the computer, carefully boxing it, and sent it to a Dell repair center in TN.  Two days later, he was back again early in the morning, returning it!  Amazing fast service.

But one of the problems with my laptop is that its new P4M chip consumes too much power, so I can't use it with the airline seat power adapters!  So I couldn't do too much work on the flight yesterday evening.  And, talking about power, it does seem that with increasingly power demands of faster and faster chips, battery life is at best staying constant and perhaps even decreasing.  It is a long time since Lithium-Ion batteries became 'the latest greatest thing', and recognizing this, Intel have created a research group to develop improved longer-life batteries.  The really exciting thing about this is their promise to 'produce usable technologies by 2004'.  They say that the research group's objective is to develop a battery that will give a full day's usage of a laptop on a single charge!

But while the computer industry seems to consistently continue to obey 'Moore's Law' (this predicts that processing power doubles every eighteen months), the same can not be said for the airlines!  In what can only be described as a very embarrassing backwards move, American is now removing the badges 'Luxury Jet' (formerly used to describe its narrow body planes) and 'Luxury Liner' (formerly used to describe its wide-bodied planes).  Spokeswoman Mary Fagan said 'They are very dated'.  These terms were introduced in the 1970s, and, as she said in an unusually frank admission, 'they don't reflect a customer's perception of flying.  I'm not sure how many people equate flying to a luxury experience.'

More 'negative progress' comes from Amtrak.  It is discontinuing its two-year old 'Satisfaction Guarantee' program, while still continuing to compensate passengers for uncontrollable situations such as weather issues or freight railroad delays.  Wow - compensation for weather related issues - you'd never see an airline do that!  At least no-one at Amtrak is daring to suggest the reason for discontinuing the program is that it is now no longer needed!

But I continue to dream of a future where high-speed rail plays a part in all our travel plans.  I'm not alone in this.  Read this fascinating article for exciting details of plans to introduce high speed rail service in California and Florida.

Readers know that I'm very quick at criticizing the airlines for their shortsighted curtailments in customer service, but here's an idea that I approve of.  At a recent conference, Continental's CEO Gordon Bethune hinted at some new 'pricing models' that they were considering.  Continental is reviewing concepts such as charging extra for meals, for pre-assigned seats, for checking bags, and even for frequent flier miles.  Their surveys suggest that as many as 40% of passengers simply want the lowest possible fare and nothing else at all.  I'm all in favor of 'user pays' and as long as the charged for service is of fair quality and fair price, this is a great way to differentiate different levels of service for different types of passengers.  It will be interesting to see if this becomes anything more than empty talk.

Here's a fascinating new concept.  An Indiana based company is developing software that will allow a computerized rental car to turn itself on and off and rent itself out to consumers. The idea is to park the cars in places where mainstream rental agencies are harder to come by, such as auto body and repair shops, time shares, businesses, marinas and retirement communities. The company is testing two cars in Baltimore where they rent for $25 an hour or $55 a day and $275 a week. The rear driver's side window serves as a touch-screen, which users tap to start the system. The screen shows the user how much fuel is in the car and the cost of a rental, and the user plugs in name, address, date of birth, and credit card and driver's license numbers. The system then provides a loss of damage waiver and collects information about any damage to the car, checks the credit card and license information, unlocks the car and enables the ignition. To turn the car off the user gets out and punches a personal password into the window screen. When the car is returned it calls someone to clean and refuel it and sends a receipt via fax or e-mail to the user. Amazing!

Readers will remember my commentary on trying to book hotels on the internet.  Well, now that I am checked into a London hotel that I booked on the internet, I'm starting to experience the results of my careful research and booking.  The good news - the hotel at least had a record of my booking!  The neutral news - I have an okay room on the fifth floor, although it looks out over a busy noisy street.  And - the inevitable bad news?  Oh, just the fact that the hotel has no lift!  To get to my room requires climbing 73 increasingly narrow and steep stairs!  And, with no porter service, carrying one's bags up those stairs is quite a struggle!

Europe's largest no-frills airline, easyJet, announced on Monday that it had chosen Airbus instead of Boeing to supply 120 planes, with an option on 120 more.  Until now, easyJet has operated an all Boeing fleet, and their order was the subject of intense negotiating by both Airbus and Boeing.  Various sources suggest that Airbus gave discounts of 30% or 40-45% or even 50% or possibly 60% to win the business.  This huge order is an enormous loss to Boeing - Airbus had to provide a compelling argument (or discount!) to get easyJet to double its equipment types.  Although Boeing has tried to sneer and suggest that it deliberately chose not to match the discounts that Airbus was offering, the reality is that Boeing should have won this order.  Yet again, it seems that the Airbus planes are beating Boeing, not just on purchase price, but also on operating costs and overall superiority.  Here's a good article in Boeing's home town newspaper about this, the biggest airline deal of the year, and Boeing's appalling loss of market share that will mean, next year, Airbus is now delivering more planes a year than Boeing.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  We've heard about the 'shoe bomber' but now there are reports that al Qaeda may be planning a 'jacket bomb' as well.  An al Qaeda detainee told  US interrogators about conversations he had with members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in which they discussed how explosives would be placed in an "ordinary but thick winter or rain jacket" after the insulation had been removed. "At the base of the jacket would be two wires, one red and one black, which the bomber would cross at an opportune time to detonate the device," according to Abu Zubaydah's account, obtained by Newsweek. The terrorist planners, Abu Zubaydah went on to say, had used their own metal and explosive detectors to determine which materials would elude airport safety. 

Justice was done this week to a man who in July missed his flight from London to Pakistan.  After a verbal confrontation with check-in staff who refused to let him on board, he left and phoned police saying "Pakistan International Airlines, there is a bomb on it leaving at 8 p.m." The call sparked a major security alert. All passengers and luggage were taken off the plane, which was subjected to a thorough overnight search. Nothing suspicious was found.  The phone call was traced back to his mobile telephone and police arrested him when he arrived at the airport to catch another flight four days later.  After pleading guilty to the bomb-hoax charge, he was sentenced to five years in jail.

Of course, most security thoughts at present are focused either on Bali or the greater DC metro area.  As of the time of writing, I can't help but observe we have had 9/11 (ie 9 of the 11) sniper victims murdered, and no fresh victims in the last several days.  Note the numbers!

You've probably already read about the latest drunken pilot, this time a Continental pilot.  What I find amusing is to match up the official statement with what actually happened.  Continental spokeswoman Julie King said that a pilot was removed from his flight Tuesday afternoon because he didn't appear to be fit for duty.  King said the pilot was taken off the Boeing 737 before the airliner left the gate at Bush Intercontinental Airport. She declined to identify him or specify how he was considered unfit for duty.  "Someone did notice that he did not appear to be fit for flying," she said.

What she didn't say is that the pilot was involved in an altercation with a federal air marshall, and that it was the air marshall who was the 'someone who noticed' the drunk pilot!

Lastly, I'm looking forward to traveling on to Venice in a few days time.  One of the joys of Italy is, for sure, its wonderful cuisine.  And now, to protect its culinary reputation, the Italian government has funded a new 'pasta police' - a group of people that will check restaurants throughout Europe that claim to be Italian and ensure that their cooking is sufficiently Italian and high quality!  Read more here.

Don't forget - no newsletter or column next week.  Next will appear on 1 November.  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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