Friday 10 January, 2003
Good morning.  I'm writing this from the Hyatt Resort in Key West, Florida, where the weather is definitely warmer than it was in Seattle.  It is just over three years since I last stayed at this resort, and in the meantime, the room rate has increased exactly 50%!  Obviously some parts of the travel industry are doing very well!

I'd commented before about the inanity of Alaska Airlines requiring passengers to check in two hours prior to the flight.  It took 17 minutes from walking into the terminal building until sitting down at the gate to wait for the flight.  I'm of course delighted at the speed with which everything occurred during checkin, but remain frustrated that Alaska Airlines feels able to waste an extra hour or more of everyone's time without any care or concern. But kudos to Alaska for their excellent inflight service - a meal, a snack, and three drinks services, always allowing passengers to have a full can of drink.

The week after that will see me in Britain.  Although it is now 71 days since the start of my dispute with BA about my last flights, I'll be flying with them again.  Why?  They're the only airline with nonstop service from Seattle.  Plus they currently have some wonderful airfare deals, including a chance to upgrade to their 'World Traveler Plus' enhanced coach class for only $250 more each way.  The ease and speed of a nonstop flight - especially on a long international service - is always worth a fare premium, and $250 for ten hours of appreciably better comfort is another good value, and so I find myself back in their clutches once more.

Although I don't like BA, I'm not sufficiently upset as to kill myself about their shortcomings.  Which is more than can be said for a middle aged Swiss gentleman who, half way across the Atlantic on a BA flight from Heathrow to Los Angeles, and after completing his meal and glass of champagne in business class, quietly got up, locked himself in a bathroom, and hanged himself!  Fellow travelers watched in horror as an onboard doctor tried unsuccessfully to revive him after he was discovered.

And while I'm in Britain, I'll be renting a car for a while.  Which brought to mind a topic for this week's column.

This Week's Column :  Driving on the Left :  One third of the world drives on the left, and if your travels take you to, eg, Britain or Australia or Japan or India, you might find yourself driving on the other side, too.  This week I not only tell you the obvious (keep left) but also reveal a key insider tip for how to safely drive on the other side of the road.

The new discussion forum section of the website is proving popular.  It has had a huge number of visits - with as many as twelve different people using it simultaneously; but few visitors are posting messages.  Please do remember this service and use it next time you have a question or comment.

Perhaps it was the discussion forum that caused the website to be the 32,000th most popular site on the internet one day last week.  That might not sound like much, but when you think of the millions (or possibly billions) of websites out there, it is acceptably impressive.  How do I know this?  By using the Alexa Tool Bar web browser add-in, which gives fascinating statistics for most websites as you visit them.  This Tool Bar is free, and available for download from my site here.

In last week's newsletter I roundly lambasted US Airways for introducing a $15 each way fuel surcharge.  A day later, the fuel surcharge was withdrawn!  Unfortunately, if you were one of the people that bought a ticket with the surcharge included during the one week it was in place, you won't be getting a refund.

More drunken pilots.  This week two Lufthansa pilots tested positive and were taken off their plane in Helsinki.  The pilots immediately resigned.  While being drunk in the cockpit is an outrage, you have to admire their immediate resignation.

As part of the analysis of United's problems I wrote on 13 December, I observed that United was paying the McKinsey Group of management consultants $1.5 million a month, an act which attracted the strident criticism of some readers (see the reader reply page).  And now United's creditors are starting to wonder if this is necessary and sensible, too.  They filed with the bankruptcy court about this, complaining that McKinsey's fee may not be justified and may be duplicating work that United's own management is doing.  They also claim that a $15 million payment to Rothschild (a corporate restructuring consultancy) is a guaranteed flat fee payment unrelated to any benefits that Rothschild may actually confer.  Meanwhile United continues to lay off staff and ask for concessions from their remaining employees.

US Bankruptcy Court Chief Judge Eugene Wedoff, who is overseeing the bankruptcy, has told United it is too vague in explaining how it reaches essential financial conclusions. He chastised the company's managers for failing to "engage in even the roughest" financial analysis as it starts to make its case. Raymond Meidl, an airline analyst said "Nobody believed their numbers, including the Air Transportation Stabilization Board. The time for fun and games is past. This company is now in deep trouble. They have one shot, and if it doesn't work, the ball game is over."

United has also announced a new $50 million advertising campaign.  United says it will promote its customer service features and taking a page from the marketing of such low-cost rivals as Southwest and JetBlue likely will tout the 'experience' of flying United as part of its value.  They're proud of this?

"What's the difference between the major carriers? Not much. That's why there's no strong brand preferences among consumers," says Jerry Dow, United's director of worldwide marketing communications. "We want to give customers a reason to believe United is different from our competitors."  United has no plans to mention its bankruptcy in its advertisements. 

Well, it seems that Jerry, or one of the other executives, have come up with a brilliant way to show the different type of 'experience' that United now offers.  Starting immediately, United is dramatically cutting back on their food service.  What's new about that, you might ask?  The startling innovation this time is that United is cutting back on food for its first and business class passengers.  There'll be no food served at all on flights under 2-3 hours outside of 'normal meal times', and cold salads and deli plates will replace hot lunches and dinners at meal times (except on coast to coast nonstops).

This is rampant lunacy and a shining example of being 'penny wise and pound foolish'.  First class passengers pay as much as $1000 more per ticket than do coach class passengers, and to suggest that this $1000+ premium isn't sufficient to enable United to spend a few dollars on food is ludicrous.  Although United acknowledges that it needs to urgently increase its revenues, it has just discouraged its most valuable customers from continuing to fly with them.  United is saving itself no more than $5 (at the most!), but runs the risk of losing the $1000 or more of extra revenue that such passengers offer when buying a first class ticket.  So much for the 'experience of flying United' that its new advertising campaign will be promoting.

Perhaps in recognition of its diminished quality of service, United is now slashing its highest business type fares to and from its largest hubs in Chicago and Denver.  Fares were reduced by as much as 40%.  But with a level of service that is increasingly indistinguishable from Southwest, will fliers pay the still hefty extra cost of flying with United?  That remains to be seen.

Long time readers will know that I regularly write, both in the newsletter and in feature articles, about the awful loophole in present aviation security - the lack of inspection of commercial freight that is carried on passenger planes.  And so it is very encouraging to see the Washington Times now joining me on this lonely crusade.

If you're like me, you're fascinated by Concorde and its supersonic abilities.  In that case, you should read this very interesting article about how the original testing was done into the potential effects of its sonic boom.

It seems to be generally acknowledged that Venice is gradually sinking, with the city having subsided approximately 30" in the last 200 years.  Famous St Mark's Square, which a century ago would be flooded nine times a year, is now flooded 100 times every year.  And so the Italian government has decided to build flood barriers across the mouth of the Venice Lagoon.  This massive project, costing $2.3 billion (maybe not that massive when compared to UA's $3.2 billion loss in 2002!) is not without its critics, including the Mayor of Venice, Mr Paolo Costa.

He wins this week's 'Politician with No Brains' award for suggesting an alternate solution, including dredging the canals to make them deeper.  Umm - someone should tell him that the water level will stay the same, no matter how deep the canal bottom is!  This story details Venice's problems and proposed solution.

Things aren't very good at American Airlines, which is waging its own quiet struggle against ongoing financial losses.  American CEO Don Carty is asking his employees not to call in sick unless they are really truly sick.  Apparently, for 2002, an average of 5% of their employees were sick every day, costing the airline about $1 million a day.

Writing as one who hasn't had a day of sick leave in the last decade, and who has employed staff with almost as good attendance records, I find the concept of taking more than a day off, every month, on a 'sickie' extraordinary.  Unions representing the cabin crews reacted coolly to Carty's request. A spokesman for the flight attendants union said "We're in an enclosed environment with re-circulated air. We're exposed to a multitude of illnesses on a regular basis.

As a counterpoint to the complaint about re-circulated air, AirTran announced yesterday that Denver will become the airline's 41st destination. The airline will launch two daily nonstop flights between Denver and Atlanta starting May 21. AirTran will use new Boeing 717 aircraft (formerly the MD-90), which it proudly points out feature 100% fresh air circulated throughout the cabin.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  It is a sadly familiar story.  Security guard falls asleep.  Terminals have to be evacuated.  Flights delayed.  etc etc.  This time it was Seattle's turn.  A security guard started his shift at 5.30am.  At 6.00am he was observed to be asleep at his post.  He was suspected of napping for somewhere between 8 and 22 minutes.  So what is the horror part?  Rather than decide that there was absolutely no danger at all of terrorists just happening to be at that exact part of Seatac at that exact time, and managing to then sneak past the snoozing security guard, officials of course decided that the only possible and prudent thing was a massive full scale evacuation of the airport.  Would you be surprised to learn that no bombs or terrorists were found in the rescreening process?

Fellow security screener Abdul Ahad said the incident should inspire other screeners to be more aware of what's going on. "I think people are safer (because of screeners)," he said.  And as for the snoozing screener, the TSA say that there will be 'an investigation' before any decision is made on 'repercussions'.  Hmmm.  Just exactly how long does it take to investigate that the guy was in a job that required him to be awake, and that he was, ooops, asleep.

A lot of people have chosen to drive rather than fly to their destinations.  And so, as a cautionary note to such people, this week's 'Best Reason to Fly not Drive' award goes to the unfortunate Smoak family of North Carolina.  The Tennessee Highways Patrol and the Cokkeville, TN Police Department chose to pull them over and make a 'felony arrest' of the family, shooting and killing one of their dogs in the process after refusing the handcuffed family's pleas to close their open car doors to stop their two dogs from leaving the car.  The Smoak's crime?  Mr Smoak left his wallet on the roof of his car while gassing up.  When he drove off, a passerby saw the wallet fall off the car and decided that a felony crime may have occurred.  The police apparently agreed, and the nightmare of what happened next can be read in this article.

And just for the sake of completeness, even riders on poor old Amtrak had problems last week.  An Amtrak passenger, Gerardo Bedia, armed with a plastic folding knife (wow, that sounds dangerous) shouted a stream of obscenities in English, Spanish, and 'some kind of Middle Eastern language', threatening to kill Americans aboard the train.  Fellow passengers overpowered him, and he was subsequently arrested on charges of making a terroristic threat.

Although the tragedy of the commuter plane crash on Wednesday has cast rather a pall, it is helpful to note that there were no deaths in US commercial airliners in 2002, which also makes for the third zero fatality year in the last decade.  Worldwide, 2002 was the safest year since 1946.  Flying really is amazingly safe.

But sometimes some people take the pursuit of safety just too far.  A Frontier Airlines mechanic is perhaps one such person.  Corydon Van Dyke Cochran is now up on federal charges of sabotaging a jet that was due to fly to Dallas.  Cochran claims that he believed the aircraft to be unsafe, and when no-one would heed his concern, he threw a two foot long wheel chock into one of the plane's jet engines (while the engine was running).  Apparently he noticed a burned out light on the wing of the jet which made him believe that the entire plane's safety might be compromised.

Lastly this week, Castaways Travel offers vacations with a difference - vacations for nudists.   And now they've extended their service offering - they are chartering a flight to a nude resort in Cancun, and allowing passengers to get naked on board the plane.  To avoid dangerous spills, no coffee will be served.

In the interests of privacy, Castaways are not disclosing the name of the charter airline.  But some of us are wondering if there is any connection between this news and the announcement, a few weeks ago, of the establishment of charter airline 'Hooters Air'.

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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