Friday 20 December, 2002
Good morning.  Last week's column, offering six suggestions to United, set a new record for reader commentary, all posted on the reader reply page.  One reader sent it to UA's customer service, apparently as if it came directly from me, and you'll see the response from United at the bottom of the list of reader replies.   Although almost certainly a coincidence, UA have already partially adopted two of the suggestions - an airfare sale, simplifying standby travel, and tweaks to sweeten their frequent flier program.

Although United's customer service responded in only three working days to the copy of my article, British Airways continues to display a disgraceful level of non-response to my fax that was sent to them on 31 October - 50 days ago.  Is there any other type of business in the world that offers a 'Customer Service' department that in actual fact does nothing except ignore bona fide customer service requests?

At the urging of a reader, I sent BA a follow up fax last Friday.  In this follow up fax I advised them that if I haven't received a favorable response by Monday 23 December, I will lodge a greatly increased claim for compensation with the local Small Claims Court, here in the Seattle area.  BA have my phone and fax numbers, email and street addresses, but continue to ignore me.  Accordingly on Monday morning I'm heading straight to the local Courthouse to file a Small Claim against them.

The reader who urged me to file the small claim wins a prize for emailing from the most unusual place - DacLak Province in Vietnam.  He is originally from Canada, however, and tells this story :

I have always found carriers respond to a Small Claims Court claim - by sending the check.

On one occasion BA's Dollar Stretcher unit did not.  After winning the Small Claims Court case and still not getting payment, the next step was very simple.  I took the local enforcement person from the Court to the airport and we stuck my judgment on a BA aircraft's front wheel, and then went for a coffee.

A few minutes later a page came over the airport speakers and we were offered a check, which I refused. Many hours later they came with a pile of small bills and a receipt.

The aircraft departed very late. Only thing is you must find out which aircraft they actually own - you can't stick a leased aircraft.

Increasingly, the travel suppliers we buy products and services from seem to suffer from some type of hatred of their customers these days.  Which makes it all the more important to find good suppliers.  And so, for this week's column, here's a review on an invaluable resource for all of us when we travel on vacation to Germany, Austria or Switzerland.

This Week's Column :  Gemütlichkeit Travel Letter Review :  A monthly newsletter and companion website provides valuable information if you're planning to travel to Germany, Austria, or Switzerland.  Should you spend $49 a year for a subscription?  Read the review to find out!

Last week's comment about thieves targeting people away from home as a result of email 'out of the office' messages reminded a reader of a BA employee in England a few years back.  This person checked the names and address of people in the BA computer system that were traveling away from home and then 'arranged' for their houses to be burgled.  He was caught, fired, and presumably also sent to prison.

Editorial - Too much, not too little, industry regulation

With the current upheavals in the airlines, some people are predictably starting to talk up the need to re-regulate the industry.  This is faulty thinking - the truth is that air transportation was never fully deregulated.

Only the airlines were deregulated.  Airports and air traffic control issues remained subject to government control, and many of the problems of the last two decades can be traced to the inequities that these still regulated parts of the total air transportation process created.  For example, the 'fortress hub' concept, giving major airlines control in key airports would collapse if other airlines could get fair and full access to the slots and gates they want.

We all know that one of the side-effects of deregulation was a massive increase in air travel, but there was not a matched increase in ground-side capacities.  Here in Seattle we continue to observe an incredible saga, now dating back sixteen years, of our airport's attempt to add a third runway.

After some sixteen years of struggle, and hurdles created by 'nimby' protestors determined to prevent the airport's expansion, the airport authorities predict at least another six years before the third runway is completed.  Some people doubt that it will ever be developed.  Meantime, flight delays inconvenience us all, and $320 million dollars of taxpayers' money has already been spent on a project that has yet to obtain complete approval.

One example of the extreme nonsense involved in this process is wetlands.  Adding the third runway will require the development of 19.62 acres of wetlands.  Forgive me if my first response to that is 'so who cares!'.  Plainly, someone cares, and you might think that a fair deal would be to simply create additional wetlands somewhere else of equal size.  Not so.  To secure approval, the airport had to agree to swap these 19.62 acres of wetlands for an unbelievable total of 175 acres of other wetlands!  And even this deal is far from guaranteed (environmentalists continue to protest).

Truly there's got to be a better way.  But - more regulation?  I'm unconvinced!

Happy birthday, on Tuesday of this week, to the airplane.  Tuesday 17 December was the 99th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight.  Except - was it truly the first controlled manned flight of a powered airplane?  As a New Zealander, I have to tell you that the first ever flight actually occurred in New Zealand.  Richard Pearse is believed to have experienced the first flight some eight months prior to the Wright Brothers, in March 1903. 

And, continuing a theme of 'downunder' airline innovation, here's an incredible story.  Qantas is facing mounting competition from low-cost, low-fare startup carrier Virgin Blue, in a manner similar to the challenges faced by the major airlines in the US.  Additionally, Qantas' main competitor on its North American routes is United, and we all know about United's cutbacks in service.

So, how does consistently profitable Qantas respond to these pressures?  If it was a North American airline, it would of course start cutting down on food, it would start charging for drinks (and we know that the Aussies can drink a fair bit on a long flight!), and eliminate any other frills.  What does it actually do?  Quite the opposite.  Qantas' response to low cost no frills competition is to upgrade its services!  It will start giving its coach class passengers amenity kits, increase the amount of food it serves, and improve its drinks selection, too.  Bravo, Qantas.

Sometimes the best is just not good enough.  Air Transport World reports that shortly before 9/11, AA pilots rejected a contract offer that would have made them the best paid in the industry!  American's pilots are now refusing to accept salary concessions, saying that the airline instead needs to make fundamental changes to its business model.  Umm - wouldn't halving pilot salaries count as a fundamental change?  They better be careful what they wish for, because they just might receive it!

United giveth, United taketh away?  United's deal with their pilots a couple of years ago set a new high level for salaries and may have contributed to their subsequent bankruptcy.  Now United wants it all back again, and more besides.  In a generally anticipated move, they are threatening to file to annul their labor contracts if the unions don't agree to the cuts they are proposing.

Meanwhile United's share price, which briefly traded as low as 64c after their bankruptcy announcement, recovered up as high as $2.05 last Friday, and this Thursday closed at $1.37.  Someone somewhere has to be eagerly buying all those shares that so many other people are desperate to sell - so desperate, in fact, that United has filed a restraining order preventing large blocks of its shares being offered for sale.

Good news for road warriors.  Marriott has announced it will be adding WiFi wireless internet access to an initial 400 of its 2500 hotels.  This will be at hotels that already have broadband wired internet access in the guest rooms; with the wireless access being added in public areas and meeting rooms.  The service is being provided by STSN - see my earlier review of their hotel room internet service.

And, on 15 January next year, look for internet connectivity on Lufthansa flights between Frankfurt and Dulles.  Bandwidth of up to 1 mb/sec is expected on the service, which was developed by Boeing and is sold under the name of Connexion.  LH's debut will quickly be followed by SAS, BA and JAL.  LH will offer the service for free during the first three months; BA expects to charge about $30/flight.

I've added feedback buttons on all the articles on my site, making it easy for you to rate each article for quality and coverage, and to indicate an interest in either more or fewer articles on related topics.  Please click in your opinions - this really helps me keep the material on topic and interesting.

And talking about really helping, don't forget - next time you're buying a book from Amazon, or any one of several dozen other categories of items from as many different suppliers, please consider clicking to the vendor site from my page, so that I may get a small referral reward on your purchase!  It costs you nothing and sure helps out at this end.  New merchants this week include a Wine store, a Pen shop, and a fascinating seller of Soviet era Russian collectibles.  Yes - it's true - I enjoy wine, collect pens, and am fascinated by Russia myself!

By the way, a word of warning : Some types of travel insurance cover cancellations due to supplier defaults, but none will cover a company already in bankruptcy. Travel Guard International, a major insurer, put United and all of its subsidiaries on the list of companies it excludes minutes after United filed for bankruptcy.  US Airways is already on the list.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A Canadian woman flying out of Regina, Saskatchewan set off the metal detector, but wanding and patting her down revealed nothing suspicious.  She had been suffering from persistent stomach aches over the last four months, subsequent to having had abdominal surgery.  Curious about the metal detector 'false alarm' she had an X-ray which revealed a 12" long, 2" wide metal surgical retractor still inside her!

Last week I mentioned how security screeners decided that a bag of take-away food counted as an official carry-on item.  Reader Chris writes in to advise that this is not all they are limiting.  She had her purse inspected at MIA on 10 December and the security guard told her that she was only allowed to take two lighters on the plane with her (she had accumulated three in her purse).  So they jointly chose the $1.49 Bic lighter that was most used up and threw it away.  Chris wonders how removing a nearly empty lighter from her purse made her less threatening to her fellow passengers.

When is an emergency not an emergency?  The pilot of a 737 sent out a Mayday call and diverted his plane to land in Cardiff (it was flying from Spain to Glasgow).  The RAF scrambled two helicopters that shadowed the plane down.  The emergency?  What the crew described as a 'riot' amongst the passengers on board.

Except that, this 'riot' was apparently so innocuous that many of the passengers in the forward and center cabins (of a small 737) did not even realize that there was any disturbance occurring at the rear of the plane!  Perhaps a slight over-reaction on the captain's part?  Just as well he didn't have a gun.

And, talking about guns, guess how much the TSA says it will cost to implement a program to allow pilots to bring their own guns on board?  It is projected that no more than half of all pilots (ie less than 40,000 pilots) might choose to carry a firearm.  The TSA says that it will have to 'determine parameters for eligibility, background checks, final cost and the type of handgun and ammunition to be used'.  Pilots will also have to undergo some type of formal training program.  Presumably pilots will be charged a fee for the cost of their training.

So how much do you think this will cost?  Ummm - whatever you just guessed, you're way too low.  TSA head James Loy and Transportation Secretary Mineta (both of whom were opposed to arming pilots) now claim that setting up such a program would cost $850 million, plus another $250 million annually to run it.  This staggering sum equals $21,250 per armed pilot to set up the program, and another $6250 per year per pilot to keep it running!  This is outrageous insanity of the worst kind.

Last Friday, as I commented, was a 'Black Friday' and a bad day for traveling.  Here's a fascinating story about an engine failure on an Air New Zealand 767 the next day - if you've ever wondered what it is like on board a plane in such a case, this narrative leaves very little to the imagination.

Lastly, thanks to Travel Agent Suzanne who sent in this story :  Three professionals were arguing as to who belonged to the oldest profession. The doctor claimed the medical field was first because God made woman from Adam's rib. The architect said "Oh no, the Bible says God created the earth from chaos so obviously architecture was earlier". "Humph" said the airline executive, "Just where do you think the chaos came from?"

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and all the very best for a non-chaotic Christmas.

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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