Friday 22 November, 2002
Good morning.  I'm writing this from a different location than normal - this evening I am on a BC ferry, in transit between Vancouver and Victoria.  A lovely large and roomy ship, complete with rows of excellent work carrels for compulsive computerists (such as myself!), that are complete with standard power plugs, too.  My $15 ferry ride has a lot more amenities than my BA business class flight of several weeks ago, and the cafeteria food sure looks a lot more appetizing as well!

Someone once said that those who don't learn the lessons that history teaches are doomed to repeat their mistakes again and again.  Nowhere is this more apparent than within the airline industry, where most of the 'new' strategies seem to be little more than a rehash of old and generally failed past strategies.  And, with that as introduction, here is this week's column :

This Week's Column :  This Bird Won't Fly :  On Wednesday, Delta announced plans to create a new low cost subsidiary airline. This will replace its already existing low cost subsidiary, Delta Express, which apparently is not a commercial success. Is there any reason to expect that Delta's next attempt will be any better?  Read my column to find out why I believe it will probably experience no better success than any of the other major airline attempts to create a lower cost secondary brand.

Maybe DL is trying to hedge its bets, because not only is it bringing out a low-cost subsidiary airline, but it (and AA) are both also experimenting with lower priced fares for business travelers.  AA have been trying this in 23 domestic markets since last week, with discounts up to 70% off the earlier applicable fares.  DL have been doing this for 470 different city pairs since 20 August.  Now for the amazing outcome - in the first seven weeks since lowering their fares, DL have experienced a 'double digit' increase in passenger revenues, compared to the seven weeks immediately prior!  Wow - you don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that there is a very strong message being broadcast to the airlines by their passengers - 'give us sensible affordable fares, and we'll return back to the skies'!

And, still on the topic of the major 'high cost' airlines and their problems, here is an excellent article that starkly points out the major shifts in marketplace dynamics that are occuring.

Meanwhile, at the same time that the US airlines struggle to determine exactly how high an airfare they can charge, European discount carrier Ryanair has come up with an answer to a different 'problem' - how low can they price their airfares.  Ryanair - which enjoys a profit level that the US carriers can only look at with amazement and envy - likes to have airfare sales in which it 'sells' hundreds of thousands of tickets, at no cost at all (except for government taxes and fees)!  Amazing.  Needless to say, the airline is growing, and, in a burst of welcome news for Boeing, is buying more Boeing planes.  Here's an interesting article that says Ryanair may be Boeing's 'pot of gold'.

The Future of Air Travel

Thanks to reader Peter from Miami, who got me started on an idea when he wrote :

I like your comments about the Sonic Cruiser-- "timid evolutionary crawl" versus "rapid revolutionary progress". It seemed to be a good step towards faster travel. Now here is a question for you: as the economy improves, and plane travel increases, do you think the sonic cruiser type aircraft will be re-addressed?

In reply, I don’t think that the 10-15% increase in speed the Sonic Cruise theoretically offered is very valuable.  Remember that the most valid measure of journey time isn’t just how long it takes from take-off to landing, but rather how long it takes from leaving one’s home/office/whatever and arriving at one’s final destination. Typically, for most journeys, you can double the ‘in the air’ time to get the total travel time.

Furthermore, the only component of the ‘in the air’ time that the Sonic Cruiser would be faster at is the above 10,000 ft straight and level cruising. It will be no faster taxiing on the ground, it will be no faster below 10,000 ft (a 250 mph speed limit applies), it is probably no faster at climbing, and it is subject to all the inevitable arrival delays due to air traffic control, waiting in turn to land, etc etc.

And so, even on a long international flight – say 10 hours of total flying time and 15 hours or more total travel time, the Sonic Cruiser is only going to reduce the ten hours down to nine and the 15 hours down to 13 (best case scenario). Will any traveler pay an appreciable premium to shave one or two hours off a 15-20 hour journey?

If the airlines are serious about reducing an hour or two off total travel time (and charging more for it!) the easiest way to do this is to improve the checkin time and luggage claim time. How about an optional service for an extra $100 that requires only a 30 minute checkin (rather than 2 hours) and gives guaranteed first-off baggage (this is obviously possible – haven’t you noticed how the flight crew baggage always comes off some minutes before even the first of the priority bags!).  This would cost an airline almost nothing to provide, compared to the huge capital cost of new Sonic Cruisers, and gives the same net time saving to its passengers.

And, what Boeing needs to concentrate on is not a successor to the 767 that flies 10%-15% faster, but a successor to the Concorde that flies two-three times faster than its 7x7 fleet.  That is what would really excite airlines and passengers.


My comments about pilots last week brought about an interesting response from - surprise, surprise - a pilot!  He explains that the FAA limit the number of hours that pilots are allowed to fly, to a maximum of 1000 a year.  He also explains that in addition to flight hours, pilots put in time before and after each flight, so the actual 'on the job' time is much greater than their flying hours would suggest.  He also says that not all pilots earn $300,000 a year.

I accept everything he says.  But, I still observe that the two AA pilots on the ill-fated Airbus last November had each logged only 570 hours of flight time in the previous twelve months.  And so, I repeat my earlier suggestion, but slightly modified - if AA's pilots want to help AA, why don't they fly closer to the full 1000 hours/year that they are allowed to by law?  That could still be a 50% increase in productivity for AA.

This will probably be the last week that I write unkind things about our nation's pilots.  Am I to become a kinder, gentler person?  There is very little chance of that!  But, as part of the Homeland Security Bill that was passed this week, pilots will now be authorized to carry guns.  Experts estimate that as many as half of the 90,000 pilots in the country will choose to arm themselves, and I'd rather not confront an angry armed pilot!

More seriously, I welcome this further step away from the earlier mindset of 'don't resist hijackers and do everything they want' to a more active 'defend the plane, its passengers, and the buildings beneath it' policy.  This is an effective and sensible security measure.  But not all our security measures are either sensible or effective.

Do you remember, several months ago, how I wrote about a group of British plane spotters who were arrested in Greece and charged with espionage because they had been making notes about the planes they saw taking off from Greek airports?  Although I didn't say it, my definite thought was 'this could never happen here'.  But, not so fast.  If there is an even less threatening group of people with an even stranger hobby than plane spotters, surely it would be train spotters - enthusiasts that like to note the numbers of locomotives that they see in their travels.

Now, read this article about how US train spotters, in the US, are getting aggressively hassled by US police who are concerned that they might be terrorists.  I remember many years ago reading with astonishment how it was illegal, in the communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union, to take pictures of military installations, including train stations.  Now you can safely take a photo of a train station in Russia, but here in the US - a country that prides itself on its freedoms - it is becoming dangerous just to spot trains, let alone take their pictures.

ASTA and ARTA revealed a very different approach to helping their members over the last couple of weeks.  ASTA recently tried to get its members (who pay $365/year to belong to ASTA) to pay $40 for a couple of what it claimed to be helpful reports on elements on the travel industry.  ARTA sent out a free email to all its members (who pay a great deal less than $365 a year to belong!) containing an excellent checklist with over 100 really good helpful suggestions for how to better sell travel.  Let me ask my travel agent readers - which do they think is the more helpful organization and the better value membership?  My ASTA page already contains the comments of several travel agents on this topic.

There are two fundamentally different types of travelers.  Some of us can travel for two weeks on the road with only carry-on bags.  And then some of us need our full luggage allowance just to go away for a weekend.  If you are one of the latter types of traveler, your bags are probably not only big but also very heavy.  All the airlines have generally had a bag weight limit of around 70lbs per each bag, but now Northwest have started charging a $25 penalty if your bag weighs more than 50 lbs (and a $50 fee if your bag weighs between 70-100lbs).  NW say that a surge in employee lower-back injuries prompted them to impose the new fee - apparently employee reports of back injuries increased 27% in the past year.

Talking about Northwest, their new terminal at Detroit is one of the first airport locations to introduce a new security screening requirement.  You can no longer pass through security with only a printout of your e-ticket.  You need to have actually obtained a boarding pass in the public 'insecure' part of the terminal first.  They claim that this will 'speed up the process for the traveler' - but I have no idea why this should be so!

This change in policy (which is primarily from the TSA, not from NW) is part of the TSA's plan to eliminate the 'random' at-gate screening of passengers as they are about to board the plane.  Can anyone can explain to me how having a boarding pass prior to going through security means that there is no longer any need for additional random at-gate screening?  But, don't get me wrong - I'm delighted to see the abolition of the indignity of the random at-gate screening, but I don't understand why getting your boarding pass before arriving at the gate means they no longer feel the need for this extra screening!

And, in case you didn't notice, the TSA successfully completed its phase-in of its own staffing of security at all 429 commercial airports earlier this week.  I agree that the TSA staff are generally much more courteous than the former contract security screeners, although I worry how long this new positive attitude will last.  But, although they are more friendly, it appears they aren't necessary any more effective than the people they replaced.  Which brings us to this week's security horror story, which is an interesting extension of last week's security horror story.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Last week's security horror story featured the TSA security guard who fell asleep at his post in Miami's airport.  While asleep, two people managed to get past him, and so five airport terminals had to be evacuated, the terminals searched, and the passengers all rescreened.  Thanks to reader Tom for passing on the revised version of the truth for this story.  It appears now that, although, yes, a security guard did fall asleep, the two people that passed into the secure area without screening did not walk past him, but instead walked past other security guards that were awake!

One of the fascinating things about touring around London or Paris is reading the various commemorative plaques mounted on buildings that recount about how a famous person once lived there, or how in some other way the building or area is historically significant.  It now appears that not all these plaques - in Paris - can be accepted at face value.  Two artists have confessed they are the authors of a rash of fake commemorative plaques spotted on Paris buildings in recent weeks, solving a mystery that had perplexed city councillors and local residents.

The artists, who declined to give their names, said they had been installing bogus plaques, made of imitation marble, as far back as July 2001.  They said "Our purpose was in no way to make fun of historical facts and we did not intend to hurt or shock people, but rather to make them smile and think".  Some of their plaques carried humorous messages such as, eg, "On 17 April, 1967, nothing happened here".

An occasional problem of the international traveler is the need to get a visa to visit another country.  As Americans, this is usually an easy and automatic process, but people from other countries often find it very difficult to get visas.  In particular, thousands of Zimbabweans are trying to flee their country, with Britain a prime destination, and with this in mind, Britain is becoming very careful at who it grants visas to.  And so it is perhaps slightly less surprising to read about a Zimbabwean woman who paid a large sum to a faith healer, who conducted a ritual that he said would ensure she was granted a visa to Britain.  The ritual involved her parading naked before him.  The faith healer is now being tried on criminal injury charges for allegedly coercing the woman to go through a humiliating ordeal.  No word about the visa.

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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