Friday 24 January, 2003

Good morning, with this week's newsletter finding me in Salisbury, England - a place that is enormously different to where I was last week (Orlando, FL).

Rather reluctantly, I flew to Britain on BA - I say reluctantly because, when I last cleared my mail at home, it was 83 days since I first faxed BA my request for compensation over my baggage problems in October last year, and 40 days since I faxed them a follow up request, still with no response.  What is wrong with BA and its customer service people?

I bought my BA ticket online and was given an e-ticket number.  But, far from being paperless, I was told I had to print out the 'receipt' and carry it with me at all times.  The receipt (which no-one asked to see) came to four pages of closely spaced printing!

However, some things are (reasonably) right with BA, and one of those things is its World Traveler Plus cabin, which I flew in.  But even there, they have some inconsistencies and a mix of well done and poorly done things.  Which brings me to this week's column :

This Week's Column :  Poor Man's Business Class - or Rich Man's Coach Class? :  BA have copied Virgin Atlantic's concept of a 'mid' grade cabin; better than coach class but inferior to business class.  Is it worth the extra cost (and how much extra does it cost)?  Read more in this week's column.

Note that long time readers may partially recognize this column, which was originally published in October 01 as my second ever column under the name of 'The Travel Insider'.  The column has been extensively rewritten to reflect my latest experience with WTP, so it is worth a re-visit.

I am pleased to give Alaska Airlines two enthusiastic thumbs up for their high level of customer service.  The first upraised thumb was earned for two consistently excellent flights between Seattle and Miami then back again.  Great crews, great food (!), lots of drinks, everything was as one would hope for.

The second thumbs up was when I called their Mileage Plan Customer Service Desk on Monday.  I had two expiring award coupons, and had not able to use them due to there being no award seats on the dates I could fly, prior to their expiration.  The helpful man told me that they would allow me to use these restricted 'Saver' type awards as 50% discount certificates off any published fare I could find on the dates I wanted to travel.

Wow!  An airline that is flexible and helpful and 'bends the rules' to make it easier for ordinary customers (I have no premium status with Alaska and they don't know I'm a travel writer).  Fellow travelers - there is hope for us yet!

There is another consistently good airline, of course, and that is Southwest.  After just declaring their latest profitable results (compare that to American Airlines' shock announcement of a $3.5 billion loss in 2002!) they also confirmed that they will be buying 11 new planes from Boeing this year.  At present they have a staggering 413 planes on order from Boeing, with deliveries due through 2012.  And, as another contrast, poor old American is also taking 11 new planes from Boeing this year, but it says that it doesn't need them and can't afford them!  However, Boeing is insisting that American purchase them as per the contract they agreed upon.

Southwest Airlines also appeared at the number 21 spot on the PriceWaterhouseCoopers fifth annual survey of the world's most respected companies last week.  Qantas came in at 76 (but also was the second most respected of all Australian companies) and Ryanair came in at 82.

Last week's column on luggage services set a new record for visits, with over 2000 people visiting it on Friday alone.  I'm starting to get to the point where I occasionally worry if the internet connection to my webserver is fast enough to handle the growing numbers of visitors each day - please let me know if you notice my website noticeably slowing down.

Two different readers asked me last week if I could keep an online archive of past newsletters for them to refer back to.  I'd never thought there'd be much interest in this, as the newsletters tend to be about items that quickly date and become of less interest.  But, anything my readers ask for, I will of course happily provide (within reason!) and so I've created a private page that links to all past newsletters at www.TheTravelInsider.Info/info/emails.htm.  You'll see a link to this at the bottom of every future newsletter, but you won't find a link to it from anywhere else on the website.

If you're traveling internationally, try and keep your stops in Tokyo and Osaka as brief as possible.  These two cities are (again) the most expensive cities in the world, according to the latest 'Worldwide Cost of Living Survey' released by London's Economist Intelligence Unit.  Oslo is now third on the list, with Hong Kong and Libreville tied for fourth place.  (Libreville is in Gabon - it is obviously a very thorough survey if it includes Libreville!).  London is the most expensive European city (#7 on the list) and New York the most expensive North American city (#11).

And, talking about Africa, hundreds of travelers have been stranded for as long as two weeks at Lagos airport.  Nigeria Airways has been canceling flights due to not owning enough airplanes.  Reports suggest that the airline, which formerly was considered one of Africa's best and operated about 30 planes in the early 1980s, may now have only one plane, and that one may have possibly been seized by creditors.  It further appears, according to a Reuters story, that the airline took advantage of year end demand to sell tickets without, oooops, arranging for aircraft to subsequently fly its travelers!

When you read about such shenanigans, it makes the extraordinary developing situation with the triple codeshare deal between NW, CO and DL seem almost like ordinary business.  I'd like to write at length about this (and about the underlying fact that, no matter what any airline may claim, code-share operations seldom benefit travelers while always benefiting the airlines), but I have a feeling that the matter has not yet been resolved.

They do things differently in Jeddah (but you probably knew that already).  Last week Saudi Arabian Airlines decided to punish the crew of their flight 701 bound for Karachi for causing a five-hour delay in the flight's departure. Their salaries will be cut for an unspecified period as a penalty. The airline viewed the incident as potentially damaging to Saudia's reputation and imposed the punishment to prevent a similar lapse in the future.

Travel agents win out over the internet - yet again!  A travel auditing firm (they work on behalf of companies to make sure that travel agencies are getting them the best fares) has released its latest survey, which again shows that tickets sold by travel agencies are very much cheaper than those purchased over the internet.  Topaz International said that its survey of over 12,000 agency booked tickets during the 4th quarter of 2002 showed that ticket prices averaged $135 less than the same tickets would cost if purchased through Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, or an airline's own website!

The average agency fare was $451 while the average internet fare was $568.  This is a huge difference in airfare, and makes the $25 or whatever service fee an agency charges seem like a wonderful investment if it buys you a $135 saving!  It also provides a clear explanation why the airlines are so keen to get rid of travel agencies.  The full report is here.

Amtrak is now asking for $10 billion in federal subsidies over the next five years - it says it needs this not only to meet its operating needs but also for capital investments to repair its crumbling infrastructure.  It says it needs at least $1.2 billion for 2003.  The Senate has approved Amtrak's request, but the House only wants to give $762 million, so the outcome remains uncertain.

Winning the award for this week's quotable quote is Adam Pilarski, Senior Vice President at Avitas, an aviation consulting firm.  In this USA Today story, he is quote as saying, while talking about UA's plans to create a low cost carrier subsidiary - 'Their pronouncement that they will meet the low-cost carriers head-on is one of the more moronic ideas I have ever heard'.

We all know that the largest two commercial airline manufacturers in the world are Boeing and Airbus.  But did you know that the third largest is Canada's Bombardier, currently seeking up to $3 billion in loan guarantees from the Quebec government.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  How many times have we read about a minor security slipup such as a metal detector coming unplugged or a screener falling asleep?  Lots of times.  And, invariably, every time this happens, the TSA evacuates entire terminals, checks through the terminal to see if any bombs or weapons have been secreted, and rescreens all the passengers, delaying thousands of people and tens of flights.

This would make sense if security was otherwise 100% watertight, but it isn't.  This USA Today story details how undercover agents at Bradford Intl Airport twice smuggled bombs past the security screeners in their carry-on luggage, while another agent walked through the metal detector with a knife taped to her leg.  Indeed, a GAO report last summer suggests that 25% of all test weapons are undetected!   No weapons have ever slipped through while machines are switched off or staff are sleeping, but apparently one in every four weapons goes through unnoticed while the machines are on and the staff alert. Maybe we'd have better security if the machines were always unplugged and the staff always asleep?

And this week's silliest ID check happened to me at Seatac airport.  At the top of the escalator down to the security gateways, I had to show my boarding pass and ID.  I then rode the escalator and, at the bottom - guess what.  Had to show my boarding pass and ID again!

I've lamented regularly about the ineffectiveness of the new million dollar baggage scanners This is a very forcefully written article that gives some background into why the FAA had to buy these machines.  Here's a sample of what it has to say :

Before 9/11, Senator Daschle pushed through the sleazy deal in the backrooms of Capitol Hill that forced the FAA to buy defective baggage scanners from one of Linda’s [Linda Dashcle, Tom's wife] other clients, L-3 International (from which Linda’s firm raked in $440,000 in the ’97–’01 period). Under a provision Linda’s husband had slipped into the 2000 budget for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the FAA was required to buy one of L-3’s scanners for every one it purchased from the company’s competitors. The L-3 scanners were found to be substandard by DOT’s inspector general; FAA tests of the scanners showed high failure rates; and most have not yet been installed because of their defects (the one at the Dallas–Fort Worth airport — another of Linda’s clients — leaked radiation), which is a major reason DOT says it won’t be able to screen all luggage for explosives for years to come.

My story last week about how Southwest is reintroducing humor onto their flights prompted travel agent Peter to write in with this story :

Back in the '70s, I had a called who was asking if I knew anything about a new "bus tour of the Caribbean?"

He was young and obviously an inexperienced traveler.  I explained to him the geographic make-up of the Caribbean and how a bus tour would be pretty difficult.  But he insisted he had seen the ad somewhere. The tour originated out of Miami.

This conversation went on for thirty minutes, and we appeared to be drifting father and farther apart.

Suddenly, the penny dropped, and I realized it wasn't a 'tour in the bus'  he was trying to locate but rather a "tour in the buff" !

And, lastly this week, here are some allegedly true examples of airline humor (although not necessarily from Southwest).

On a Continental Flight with a very "senior" flight attendant crew, the pilot said, "Ladies and gentlemen, we've reached cruising altitude and will be turning down the cabin lights. This is for your comfort and to enhance the appearance of your flight attendants."
On landing, the stewardess said, "Please be sure to take all of your belongings. If you're going to leave anything, please make sure it's something we'd like to have."
"Thank you for flying Delta Business Express. We hope you enjoyed giving us the business as much as we enjoyed taking you for a ride."
"In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, masks will descend from the ceiling. Stop screaming, grab the mask, and pull it over your face.  If you have a small child traveling with you, secure your mask before assisting with theirs. If you are traveling with more than one small child, pick your favorite."
Weather at our destination is 50 degrees with some broken clouds, but we'll try to have them fixed before we arrive. Thank you, and remember, nobody loves you, or your money, more than Southwest Airlines."
"Should the cabin lose pressure, oxygen masks are in the overhead area. Please place the bag over your own mouth and nose before assisting children or other adults acting like children."
"As you exit the plane, make sure to gather all of your belongings. Anything left behind will be distributed evenly among the flight attendants. Please do not leave children or spouses."
And from the pilot during his welcome message: "Delta airlines is pleased to have some of the best flight attendants in the industry. Unfortunately, none of them are on this flight!"
Part of a flight attendant's arrival announcement: "We'd like to thank you folks for flying with us today. And, the next time you get the insane urge to go blasting through the skies in a pressurized metal tube, we hope you'll think of US Airways."
A plane was taking off from Kennedy Airport. After it reached comfortable cruising altitude, the captain made an announcement over the intercom, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Welcome to Flight Number 293, nonstop from New York to Los Angeles. The weather ahead is good and, therefore, we should have a smooth and uneventful flight. Now sit back and relax... OH, MY GOD!" Silence followed, and after a few minutes, the captain came back on the intercom and said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I am so sorry if I scared you earlier. While I was talking to you, the flight attendant accidentally spilled a cup of hot coffee in my lap. You should see the front of my pants! "A passenger in Coach yelled, "That's nothing. You should see the back of mine

Until next week, keep smiling and 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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