Friday 3 January, 2003
Good morning.  The new baggage inspection procedures commencing on 1 Jan made for an exciting - and positive - start to the new year.  Initial reports from Wednesday and Thursday indicate that all is going smoothly, and if things continue well through the weekend (when traffic volumes will be much higher than the light volumes on Wed and Thurs) we can all relax.

And, talking about exciting positive starts to the year, I've added a major new section to the website.  A Discussion Forum.  This will enable immediate real-time responses to the weekly articles that I publish, as well as ongoing discussion on any travel related topics of interest.  It marks an exciting change for the website; causing it now to transition from being largely 'all my own work' to now seeking active participation from visitors - such as yourself.  :)

I hope you'll visit these discussion forums, do the optional registration, and start to post messages to seed the as yet un-touched discussion topics!  As always, any suggestions or comments on this new enhancement are most welcome - there's even a special forum to discuss such things.

This Week's Column :  Cruising the Canals :  Quietly and comfortably gliding through the beautiful English countryside, a canal cruise offers you a wonderful relaxing change of pace, while being very affordably priced.  Read more about this - one of my favorite ways of enjoying England.

Thanks to the several people that have offered to assist in my dispute with British Airways (current situation - 64 days since first faxed letter, 21 days since second faxed letter, still no reply).  But I'm keen to experience - and report to you - on the increasingly ugly reality of how BA mistreats 'ordinary' passengers.

Misery loves company.  While I struggle with non-responses from BA, my fellow travel writer, Johnny Jet, is struggling with Travelocity.  At least he is getting replies from their Customer Service department.  But, alas, they seem to be nothing more than standard 'boilerplate' replies that completely fail to answer the problem he raises and the solution he requests.

I've got to think that in both cases - BA who are now facing a law suit from me, and Travelocity that now have multiple staff members writing multiple (but stupid) emails to Johnny Jet, it would be much more efficient for the companies to quickly respond sensibly in the first place, rather than letting matters spiral into a greater and greater customer upset, and taking up more and more of their staff resources to resolve.  But - what do I know?  I've had no experience of causing any business I've owned or managed to lose $3.2 billion dollars, which is the revised staggering sum that United is now expected to lose in 2002.  Entire countries have smaller deficits than this.

United is hoping to cut its operating costs by $2.4 billion in the form of pay cuts from its employees, and its pilots have already agreed to a massive 29% giveback in pay.  But things are different at Continental - they have just agreed to higher pay, improved benefits and increased job protection for their mechanics and technicians.  New pay scales go as high as 23% more for top paid workers.

The other airlines are getting increasingly desperate in their efforts to avoid following United into the bankruptcy court.  If you've thought that check-in agents are less forgiving than they used to be, you're probably not imagining this.  Thanks to reader David who passed along a story about how Alaska Airlines approached the situation.  They noticed that too many of their desk agents were waiving excess and oversized baggage fees, and so, to motivate their employees, they held a competition, awarding cash prizes to the agents who collected the most fees from passengers!  Alaska's target was to increase its luggage penalty fees by $5.5 million in 2002.

America West is trying a different approach, and is test marketing a 'buy on board' program whereby it will sell airline food to you.  Meals range in price from $3-10, and seem to be fair value for what is included.  I'm all in favor of 'user pays' for extra services on flights.

Northwest says it is 'studying' the meal issue, while American says that although it has no plans to sell food on board, it is in 'early discussions' with vendors about arranging for food sales at its gates.  AA's concept sounds like a bad idea - it could be a rich source for delays and problems during the boarding process.

US Airways is trying an 'old favorite' again - it has brought back a fuel surcharge, adding $15 one-way and $30 roundtrip to the cost of a ticket. The airline said it was forced to do so because of the large increases in jet fuel prices.  When will the airlines learn that they have already maxed out on the fares they can charge?  The largest part of their present problem is that they got too greedy, they charged too much for people to travel, and so people stopped flying.

Nothing but good news from wunderkind airline JetBlue, however.  On New Year's Day they celebrated the boarding of their 10 millionth passenger - who won a full year of free flights.  Not bad going for an airline that started operation on 11 February 2000.  Congratulations to JetBlue.

Last week's newsletter had an item about how less than 2% of the shipping containers coming in to the US are inspected (more than 20,000 containers come in with no inspection every day).  Reader John Evans, who is in the shipping container trade, writes from the UK

I understand that there are plans to have US inspectors at many locations around the world to check if container manifests and declarations are true.  But even before 9/11, some shippers lied about the contents of containers (either to get lower shipping tariffs, or to ship banned or contraband items). With the growth of 'Free Trade Areas' (Nafta, EEC, Mecrasol etc) many containers roam at will.

About 20 years ago the Saudi Arabian government of all people, (worried about arms being shipped illegally into their country) had a project to modify containers, allowing a machine (manufactured by British Aerospace) to 'sniff' the contents through a small valve. A hand held meter would then be connected to the valve and an analysis made.

This sniffing really worked and was accurate enough to detect traces equivalent to a thimble full of a substance within an Olympic stadium. Unfortunately due to resistance from shipping lines on cost grounds the project never went ahead.

Today, fitting 'Sniffer Valves' on new containers would cost only a couple of dollars per container. I think their fitting (or any modern equivalent) should be mandatory.

The most popular page on my website is now the Airplane Types page.  In view of its popularity, I've added quite a bit more detail to this page.  And, in case you wonder, the second and third most popular pages are the series on International Cell Phones and the Noise Canceling Headphones series.

Noting the great interest in gadgetry, you might find this article interesting.  It reviews the latest electronic gizmos expected to be released in 2003.

This week's 'Blame it on the Travel Agents' award goes Allen Muten, spokesman for the Airline Reporting Corp - the organization that handles the accounting between tickets issued by travel agents and the airlines.  He said that an 'alarming number' of tickets are issued by travel agents but not paid for.  Because of this, the airlines and ARC (owned by the airlines) are seeking to tighten a provision that has existed since tickets were first issued by travel agents.  The provision allowed travel agents to cancel, without penalty, tickets issued any time during the week they were issued (and potentially up to Tuesday the next week).

Oh - exactly how alarming is the number of tickets that are not paid for through travel agents?  Less than 1%.  Less than one tenth of one percent.  Almost exactly one twentieth of one percent of tickets (which includes bona fide disputed tickets as well as deliberately unpaid tickets).  I estimate that this is ten to one hundred times less than the loss the airlines suffer directly through fraudulent credit card use on the internet!  Perhaps - if the airlines are truly worried about this - they should stop selling tickets on the internet as well!

The real reason that the airlines want to close this procedure is so as to make it more difficult for you - the customer - to change your mind on a non-refundable ticket within a day or two of buying it.  But, shamefully, they're inventing a red herring reason and trying to blame travel agents instead.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Thanks to reader Tom who supplied this narrative :

I watched on this past Thursday (12/26) at the United gate in the Charlotte airport while a young lady who was taking her first flight snapped a digital picture of the plane from the lounge.  Within moments a TSA representative approached her and after telling her "he could ask to have the picture deleted" - insisted no more pictures.

Did I miss something - Are airports classified national security sites?

Of course the same TSA rep missed the giant garment bag that another passenger for the same flight brought on board that caused all sorts of chaos when it clearly wouldn't fit in the overhead. Nor did they send back the multiple passengers with 4 and 5 pieces of luggage apiece.  I don't mind the security. It is the inconsistency and ineptness that are annoying.

Last week I included a reader story about how she thinks her new plastic flight bag set off the explosive detector.  Reader Mike sent in this story which offers another reason that can cause the explosive detectors to give false alarms - soap remnants on the hands of the security screeners (or on your hands, too)!

And a rather unsettling story comes from Therese, who writes

On Dec. 12, I was returning from a business trip to the Detroit area and had a disturbing encounter with federal airport-security agents. As a frequent flyer, I am familiar with security procedures, but when the agent took my computer for a swipe test, the test came up positive. (This wasn't surprising, since I know that these sensors are not fool-proof and various common chemicals can set them off.) What was surprising was that after they cleaned their equipment, repeated the test and it came up clean, they took my name, address and phone number!

Now I presume that my name is on some suspected-terrorist database and some bureaucrat has a brownie point for putting another name on his list. I resent this terribly. This is the very reason there is a 17-percent decrease in air travel since 9/11. I feel that we've let the terrorists win the war. They've succeeded in taking away my freedom and privacy. Are we going to allow another McCarthy era with secret lists of innocent suspects?

A lot of people have been worrying at the potential risk of pilferage from their luggage now that it must be left unlocked when checking it.  This is particularly a worry when flying to certain overseas destinations.

But pilferage is the least of our concerns, at least in Paris.  A baggage handler has been arrested at Charles de Gaulle airport for possessing a mini-arsenal of weapons stashed in the trunk of his car, including explosive devices ready to be used.  The man, a 27-year-old French man of Algerian origin, was arrested on Saturday night after a passenger alerted officers that he was acting suspiciously. He was stopped on the way to his car and the vehicle was searched, revealing a handgun, a machine gun, five bars of plastic explosives and two detonators.

I wrote above about new approaches to catering on flights.  Perhaps with that in mind, Jan sent me the following story (names of airlines changed to protect the guilty!)

Tower: "Southwest 702, cleared for takeoff, contact Departure on 124.7."

Southwest 702: "Tower, Southwest 702 switching to Departure. By the way, after we lifted off we saw some kind of dead animal on the far end of the runway."

Tower: "'Major airline' 635, cleared for takeoff, contact Departure on 124.7.  Did you copy that report from Southwest 702?"

'Major airline' 635: "'Major airline' 635, cleared for takeoff, roger; and yes, we copied Southwest and we've already notified our caterers."

And, lastly, this article lists some of the incredibly thoughtless questions asked at Tourist Information Offices.  I think my favorite is the enquiry about which day the New Year's Day parade is on.

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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