Friday 13 December, 2002
Good morning.  Today is a 'Black Friday' so I hope that not too many of you are traveling today!

Talking about traveling, every week I get many auto replies from people that have their email set to send an 'I am out of the office' message.  This is often a sensible and necessary thing to do with business email accounts, but now it is being abused by criminals.  Criminals are spamming millions of email accounts to see which accounts send an 'I am out of the office' message.  They then use public databases to match the email address to a real person and their home address.  Knowing that you are out of town, and even knowing for how long you'll be out of town, they go and burgle your house!

A more secure strategy, if you plan to be absent and wish to ensure that emails don't go unanswered, is to arrange for (a copy of) your emails to be automatically forwarded to someone else in your office.  That person can then delete spam, answer questions, or advise your correspondents that you are away.  This is a more personal and better service, and less vulnerable to this latest threat.

A big thank you to the readers who are clicking over to my supporter's page and buying merchandise from the companies featured there.  Every bit helps.  And, talking about every bit helps, and new ways to make money, here is this week's column -

This Week's Column :  Six Steps to Success for United Airlines :  Now that United has declared Chapter 11, it has an exciting opportunity to turn itself around.  But the secret to its future success does not lie in more rounds of draconian cost cuttings, service cutbacks, and staff layoffs.  Although United is now spending $1.5 million a month on management consultants to tell them what to do to save their company, I offer some advice for free!  Read my column for the six positive and expansionary activities that United (and all other airlines) should be focusing on.

Of course United has been in the news a great deal during the last week.  One of my favorite comments came from their new CEO, Glenn Tilton, when he said that the airline will consult its unions and business partners and "quickly determine what step to take next.  Whatever course we chart, it should be emphatically clear that United will continue to fly and to deliver exceptional service."  Umm - exceptional service?  Just like alcoholics are taught that the first step on the road to recovery is to abandon denial and admit their problem, perhaps too United should admit that it has not delivered exceptional service for a very long time!  What could be worse than United returning to its 'exceptional service' of a year and two and three ago?  Cancelled flights, delayed flights, surly staff, etc etc etc.

I wrote a column a couple of weeks ago about Delta's ill-advised new startup low cost airline (which Joe Brancatelli reveals will be given the unusual name of 'Song').  Few people consider this to be a good idea, but as one of United's new desperate survival measures, it has announced that - surprise surprise - it will start a new low cost operation next year, too.  Alarmingly, it seems that this new low cost operation will be similar to its failed United Shuttle operation that closed down last year due to cost and competition!  Those that don't learn from their past mistakes are doomed to repeat them.

I mentioned above that UA are now paying $1.5 million every month to a firm of management consultants for advice on how to revive their operation.  Is it just a coincidence, I wonder, that this firm (McKinsey) is the same firm that recently advised Delta on their new low cost startup?  And United has also hired two high-profile public relations firms to help it present its bankruptcy 'in the best possible light and to encourage passengers to fly the airline'.  Don't you think it would be much more sensible to spend the money not on creating pr but instead on improving customer service and actually giving potential passengers a positive experience that they will accept and want to repeat?  If you have a good service, you don't need 'two high profile pr firms' - word of mouth will work just as well (eg JetBlue).

Lots of people have asked me if their UA Mileage Plus miles are safe?  The answer is that they are safe today, and probably tomorrow, but the future is, ahem, of course always uncertain.  The good news is that all those valuable miles that you 'own' actually represent as a very low cost item to United, and in past cases where airlines have been through bankruptcy their frequent flier programs have survived the transition in and out of bankruptcy, and in cases where one airline has taken over another struggling airline, again the miles usually are protected.

Reader Tom provides an example of the stupidity that has placed United in its present difficult position.  He writes

I received my latest Premier Exec statement and on the back is a big ad promoting 500 bonus miles for flights between Denver and Colorado Springs.  This is absolutely ludicrous!! I live in Colorado Springs and regularly fly out of COS through Denver, but no one in their right mind would take a round-trip flight only to/from DEN/COS.

DEN as you know is about 25 miles NE of Denver and the COS airport is about 15-20 minutes SE of Colorado Springs. If you factor in check-in and parking time you get well over 1 1/2 hours to fly what is a 63 mile drive between downtown Denver and downtown COS...without even considering the hassle and cost and time factor of getting a rental car at either location. No one in their right mind in either of those cities would actually consider flying instead of driving.  Just who does United think they are offering this special bonus to???

What goes round comes round?  UA bought an extensive network of Pacific routes from failing Pan Am in 1985.  Speculation is that maybe it will now have to, in turn, sell them on to another carrier as part of a bankruptcy reorganisation.  Rumors also suggest that Continental may be considering returning to Denver - once one of their major hubs, but now virtually 'owned' by United.

Winning the award for the most puzzling commentary on United's problems (so far!) is reporter David Bowermaster who said, in this article, 'If United exits bankruptcy leaner and more profitable, it could pave the way for lower costs and higher ticket prices across the industry'.

I accept that United's problems may see cost reductions flow through to other carriers, but how does this then lead to higher ticket prices?  UA as a revived strong competitor would surely give us lower, not higher air fares.   I wrote and asked him, but he never replied.

British Airways in the news this week - after a positive turnaround in profit and share price, it is now rejoining Britain's FTSE 100 list of top UK companies.  But in other news, a group of baggage handlers in Miami were arrested on federal charges after stealing more than $1000 worth of items from BA luggage.  And, talking about luggage, there is still no reply, 42 days after I faxed BA's New York Customer (dis)Service office asking for compensation after their problems with my luggage.

Still talking about luggage, AA is now charging extra for moderately heavy bags on domestic flights - $25 per bag (each way) if it weighs 50-70 lbs. and $50 for bags weighing 70-100 lbs.  If your bag is over 100 lbs, then it has to go as airfreight, not checked luggage (this has always been the case).

Last week Expedia announced a $5 fee being added on all air tickets it sells.  This week - surprise surprise - Travelocity also adds a $5 fee.

And, talking about online ticket purchases, don't you always expect, when you're searching for the lowest airfare on a website, the website is actually checking all the different airlines and truly showing you the very lowest fares first?  This is not always so.

Not all airlines participate with all of the internet websites, and those that do sometimes give different contracts and discounts to different websites.  For example, discount carrier WestJet in Canada has just withdrawn from the major travel website because it felt that its flights were being unfairly shown on the website (which is owned by competing carrier Air Canada!).  Canada's travel agency association has been claiming for some time that this website unfairly shows Air Canada products first and does not always display the best fares.

And talking about online booking services, I was booking a rental car yesterday, and to my astonishment, it was impossible to tell, on Travelocity, exactly what type of car was being quoted for the various different rates!  I also didn't see anywhere to enter any discount plan numbers, and ended up getting a much better rate with the help of my friendly travel agent who not only told me the car type I'd get but also helped me check different discount codes to see which would be the best deal.

I mentioned last week that Continental and American were both reporting disappointing results for November.  And now JetBlue has released its figures - passenger traffic increased 78.2% compared to the previous November, with a massive 79.3% load factor.  Well done, and well deserved, JetBlue.

Here's an interesting story to watch.  Slightly quixotic industry crusader Bruce Bishins filed a complaint this week with the FTC, alleging that US carriers routinely fail to prove refunds of unused taxes, fees, and other charges for unflown travel on non-refundable air-fares.  Bruce says that while the ticket price might be non-refundable, the government and airport fees and security charges should be refunded to you because you're not actually taking the flights.  He is asking that the airlines be compelled to give back these fees (which it seems the airlines don't actually pay on to the taxing authorities but may simply keep for themselves, if you don't fly), and is asking that the refunds be backdated to all travel subsequent to 1 January, 2000.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  What happened in Pittsburgh?  Reader David reports that on Sunday only one security gate was working, with queues stretching all the way 'out into tomorrow'!  Indeed, literally so - so many people missed their flights that they were being rebooked by all airlines without penalty.

Reader Tom has an interesting security story.  He writes

My wife flew with my son to Mississippi from Denver yesterday. She was carrying her purse, a computer bag, and a styrofoam food box from one of the restaurants in the main terminal at DIA; my son had a backpack with him. The security screener looked at my wife and said, "you know you have four items here - you just make it under the limit." My wife was shocked that the TSA apparently considers a styrofoam food box a carry-on item when the airlines don't serve food anymore!

And now for some security good news.  Parking restrictions at airports, in place since 9/11 (due to concerns about car bombs) are being lifted.  Unattended vehicles can now be left within 300 ft of a terminal, but the prohibition will return if there is a perceived increased risk of terrorist attack.

Lastly this week, a woman fell asleep on her 90 minute domestic Canadian flight from Halifax to St John's woke up en route to London!  She apparently slept through the stop in St John's, and no-one thought to wake her during the 30 minute stopover.  Air Canada has offered her 15,000 bonus frequent flier miles as compensation.  It is not known if they also gave her full mileage credit for her flight to and back from London!

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.

If this was forwarded to you by a friend, please click here and subscribe to the newsletter yourself

If you ever wish to unsubscribe, simply reply to this email and set the subject line to say 'unsubscribe'.