Friday 31 January, 2003

Good morning, with this week's newsletter finding me in England's lovely Lake District, albeit with snow storms enlivening my travels.  Much as I'm enjoying my time in Britain, I spent four days desperately wishing I was back home so that I could recover a crashed server that caused the website to die - it was a victim of the SQL virus that did the rounds last weekend.  Apologies to all who could not reach the website; which is now safely restored once more.

In case you tried to reach it and failed, here again is last week's column link as well as this week's column :

 Last 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 last week's column.

This Week's Column :  Stop Snoops from Seeing your Screen :  People are using laptops more and more in public places, ranging from airplane seats to Starbucks stores.  And surveys suggest that other people are increasingly snooping at the screens they can see around them.  This week I report on a gadget from 3M that claims to make it impossible for other people to see what is on your screen.  Does it work?  Read the review.

My website wasn't the only victim of this virus.  Unexpectedly, the Bank of America ATM network shut down and probably other banks, elsewhere in the world, also had problems.  Being on the road myself, this was a sober reminder of the need to always keep several days worth of cash with you in addition to credit cards - you can never 100% rely on ATMs working or being available when you most need extra cash.

The big news this week is Delta's unveiling of its new 'airline within an airline', to be called Song (congratulations to Joe Brancatelli for scooping the new name two months ago, before it was officially announced).  I was very skeptical about Song in a column back in November, but it looks like I might have to eat my words now.  Song has admirably opted for the 'high road' and will be building a full service high quality operation, rather than going the 'low road' and offering even less service than on their main Delta brand.

This is an extraordinary and radical development.  A major carrier, developing a new airline with better service than its main brand, and with substantially lower air fares!  Is it possible that Leo Mullins and his team have actually listened to what we've been pleading for?  It sure seems like it.  We've asked for fair fares - Song has a simple fare structure, and at low cost - no Saturday night stays, and maximum one way fares of $299.  We've asked for greater comfort on board - Song is expanding its seat pitch from the industry typical 31" to 33" (and, yes, those two extra inches make a very noticeable difference).  Other goodies include seat back tv's that will also offer video on demand and game playing (including multi-player games with other passengers!), an enhanced moving map program that acts as a travel guide for where the plane is flying, and even connecting gate information broadcast direct to each passenger, individually.  In addition, Song will offer premium food options at mealtimes.  Although some of these services will cost passengers more money, they're optional rather than mandatory.

Song promises to continue to listen to its customers.  It will have on its website a voting section where you can vote in favor of (or against) current and proposed future services.  In terms of concept, Song seems super.

Plainly Song is intended to compete directly with JetBlue (Song is copying JetBlue's popular seatback videos and will also be based at JetBlue's JFK hub) but it seems to me that the major loser will not be JetBlue but rather Delta's (and the other traditional carriers') mainline services, that are increasingly over-priced and under featured, compared to the innovative services and simplified low fares that Song promises to offer.

As such, Song is not a simple lower cost part of a major carrier, but offers a whole new approach to providing air travel that is incompatible with the parent company.  And there is also its greatest vulnerability.  JetBlue not only offers great services, but also has great staff to complete the overall travel experience.  Delta will be staffing this new carrier with people from its existing operation.  Can these people switch from a customer-hating mindset to a customer-friendly mindset overnight?  Almost certainly not, especially if they remain part of the broader Delta organization with Delta's corporate culture imposed over what should be a totally different approach to running an airline.  This also begs the question - why not simply re-invent the entire Delta brand with the Song high service/low cost concept?

Song starts operations on 15 April, flying initially between JFK and West Palm Beach.  By October it plans to offer 144 daily flights.  Let's all wish Song the best of success and hope they displace Delta across their entire system as soon as possible.

And while Song is clearly aimed at the JetBlue concept of enhanced service at lower cost, another airline has just abandoned its attempts at competing against JetBlue.  American is giving up on its service between JFK and Oakland where it was competing with JetBlue. The airline did its usual thing and offered lower fares but was never able to move enough market share from JetBlue, even though the JetBlue fares were often higher!   JetBlue passengers are very loyal, and also see the value in the extra services JetBlue offers them.  As for American, the combination of much higher operating costs and somewhat lower fares than JetBlue was a totally unwinnable situation and so it has given up on the route.  Score one for the good guys!

And, score a second point for the good guys.  JetBlue has just announced its December quarterly results.  They are strongly positive by all measures, and significantly up on the fourth quarter of 2001.  Net profit is up 37% to $15.2 million, with improvements in load factor, passenger numbers, and yield.  Bravo.

My reference in last week's newsletter to Adam Pilarski's comments about United drew a response from reader Jack, who said

You think Pilarski's comment about United's low cost carrier intent being "moronic" is terrific.  I think it's sad.  I agree that the low cost idea has proven to have little chance of success.  However, can't mature businessmen simply state their opinion without namecalling?  With Pilarski's track record at Douglas (he was with them for 17 years, involved in their economic and traffic forecasts - during this period Douglas became no longer viable in the aircraft manufacturing marketplace and was absorbed by Boeing), I think it would be mean spirited to call him a "loser".  It might be more accurate to say he has a limited record of achievement.

Jack raises a fair point, but many of us become so exasperated at what appear to be ill-considered and inappropriate actions on the part of the major airlines that sometimes our exasperation and disbelief slips through to a less than perfectly considered overly strong turn of phrase!

An example of how to politely condemn an airline was released on Monday when a 3,300 page (!!!) analysis by Ernst & Young found that Swissair had access to nearly ten times as much cash as was previously believed, at the point when it abruptly stopped flying, stranding thousands of passengers (perhaps unnecessarily) all around the world.  The report raises, again, the possibility of legal action against the airline's former executives and auditors, and says, in terms that reader Jack would definitely approve, that the company's 1999 and 2000 financial reports 'did not present the economic and financial situation of the SAirGroup correctly'.

How low can they go?  Fares between Britain and Germany have been cut to one pound or less as Ryanair and a new carrier, Germanwings (partly owned by Lufthansa) go head to head.  The new carrier began selling tickets earlier this week between London's Stansted airport and Cologne for one pound ($1.64), including all taxes.  Ryanair promptly cut its fares to 50 pence.  Both airlines will lose money on this because they are bearing the cost of the taxes themselves rather than charging passengers.  Might we see something similar between Song and JetBlue?  Alas, probably not.

Those of us that have pets understand how they can become as near and dear to us as close family members.  One of the huge but largely unreported scandals in the airline industry is the airlines' ongoing mistreatment of animals that are shipped as checked baggage.  The airlines refuse to admit how many animals die while under their care and control, while disputing the claim by some observers that as many as 5000 pets die each year.

The DoT has been proposing a rule to require the airlines to care more suitably for pets and to submit detailed monthly reports on any incident that leads to loss, injury, or death of pets.  The airlines' response - they are threatening to refuse to carry pets entirely if they have to actually provide some fair standard of care!

Some good news.  The FAA reports that air traffic controllers are now using a more accurate system to track weather that should lessen delays for passengers.  The FAA says that controllers can now see the same weather that pilots see and can help them make informed decisions on rerouting planes to reduce delays and increase efficiency.  The system displays weather at three different altitudes in three different colors and is more precise than the technology it replaced.  Let's hope this also means that pilots won't feel the need to keep us virtual prisoners in our seats so much, any time a bit of harmless light turbulence occurs.

More focus is being placed on the weight of the Beech 1900 commuter plane that crashed on 8 January.  No-one exactly knows how heavily it was loaded, with the big unknown factor being the weight of the passengers and their bags; but estimates suggest it was almost at its maximum takeoff weight.  The FAA currently allows airlines to use an estimate that the average adult passenger weighs 185 lbs when flying in winter (including all clothing and carry-ons) and is 5 lbs lighter in summer, and also uses an estimate that a checked bag averages 25 lbs.  These numbers sound low to me.

I must confess that I weigh 185lbs naked, my carry-on bag often weighs over 20 lbs, and my checked bags are usually 40-50 lbs a piece.  Get a small plane full of people like me and you could have serious overloading.  Accordingly, the FAA is undertaking a month-long survey to determine if current weight estimates are correct, and will require,  on small commuter flights, all bags to be weighed and passengers to declare their weight.  This is a good idea, but imperfectly thought out.  Who among us doesn't slightly understate our weight when asked?  Why not get passengers to actually stand on the scales?  That is the only 100% accurate way to get correct data. and if airline safety is at risk, it needs to be done.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A passenger discovered a box cutter in the seat pocket in front of him shortly before the flight was due to take off.  Unfortunately, he chose to tell a flight attendant about his discovery.  And so, UA 179 was evacuated and all passengers rescreened.  The flight finally departed, three hours later.  No terrorists or other 'weapons' were discovered (of course).

Are we still scared of box cutters (a ridiculous weapon to choose at any time)?  Even now, with the massively expensive armored cockpit doors, with a new policy of active resistance against hijackers, and with a sprinkling of armed federal marshals on flights?

Now, let's think this through.  We know that as many as 25% of all illegal possessions are not detected when passengers (deliberately or accidentally) take them through security.  We also know that 67 box cutters were found during inspections at one airport alone, in December.  This would suggest that another 20 or so box cutters are slipping through security in every airport, every month - more in the busiest airports, less in the smaller airports.

What would you do if, after getting on the plane, you suddenly remembered that you had a box cutter in your pocket?  Maybe, fearing its discovery and your demonization that would surely follow when you went through the next security screening on your travels, you might just surreptitiously slip it out of your pocket and into the seat pocket in front of you.  That is almost certainly what happened.

Perhaps we need to have 'amnesty bins' in all airports and even on all planes, and a clear policy advising passengers that if they innocently discover that they've slipped something through security, they can voluntarily hand it in with no penalty.  But, of course, that would be a public admission that much contraband is slipping through security, so it will probably never happen.  The fable of 'The Emperor's New Clothes' has nothing on the pretense that airport security is secure.

Many of you travel to foreign countries, although you probably seldom go to a country where no-one speaks English.  Life is very different when you're in a country where you have a poor grasp of their language and they don't speak English at all!  So try and imagine, if you can, the situation when a foreign traveler - a professor of law in his home country - went to Canada to attend a language course to improve his English.  While on an internal Canadian flight to his final destination, a flight attendant asked the professor to put his briefcase under the seat in front of him, and, due to him not understanding, she then bent down and tried to shove his bulging briefcase forward.

According to the passenger seated next to this unfortunate gentleman, the professor became flustered and said that the briefcase might explode if the flight attendant continued to try and squeeze it under the seat in front.  The passenger next to him - a Canadian naval officer and so presumably a fair observer, said that the professor probably meant that the case would pop open and strew its contents all over the place.  He did not think the professor meant that there was a bomb about to go off in his briefcase.

Needless to say, the plane returned back to the gate, etc etc.  The professor was removed from the flight, although no explosives were found (of course), and spent 26 days in prison before being bailed.  And now, at the hearing, and notwithstanding the testimony of the navy officer, he was found guilty - the judge refused to believe that the professor didn't know what he was saying.

I imagine that the professor will be pleased to finally return home, where he doubtless feels the laws are applied more sensibly and fairly than they are in Canada.  The professor is Iranian.  He has my full sympathy.

A passenger who 'appeared to be Russian' (what does that mean, I wonder?) was arrested on Tuesday night after setting fire to his seat on a United flight.  He got into an argument with a flight attendant and then pulled out a cigarette lighter and started a small fire in his seat.  No language excuses for this one!

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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