Friday 7 February, 2003

Good morning, with this week's newsletter finding me back home again in the Seattle area, where, to my astonishment, an envelope from BA was awaiting me.  Inside - two $350 travel vouchers in response to my fax to them of 31 October seeking compensation for baggage problems and travel delays.  While their response was extraordinarily slow in coming, the $700 in travel vouchers was the amount requested and I'm happy at the final result.  Thank you, BA - your response was definitely 'better late than never'.

Three suggestions for whenever you seek compensation from an airline (or any other company) :

(a)    By all means complain vociferously about things that were not right, but make sure that your letter opens and closes on a positive note and leaves the airline (or whoever it is that you're complaining to) with the impression that you are a reasonable person who has formerly been a happy and loyal customer and that, if the reader gives you what you want now in compensation, you will again become a loyal and happy customer into the future.  Letters that say 'I'll never ever use your product/service again' don't motivate any company to try and buy back the person's loyalty.

(b)   Start your letter off with a simple one paragraph summary of what you are claiming and why, so that people who are too busy (or too lazy!) to read through the letter can immediately see what you are seeking.  Close your letter with another simple restatement of your claim.

(c)   Try not to ask for cash back.  When you ask for a 'travel voucher or MCO' for future travel, not only does that show the airline (or whoever) that you're prepared to give them another try, but it also means that their cost of giving you what you want is vastly reduced.  In my case, the $350 per person travel vouchers will end up making BA money rather than costing them a single cent (the next tickets I buy from them will cost me substantially more than $350 each), while still being as valuable to me as $350 in cash would be (because I know I'll be traveling to Europe again before too long).

Some readers may recall my commentary on the Space Shuttle several weeks ago - I watched Columbia take off while in Florida.  While at Disneyworld, several days prior to watching the launch, I had an epiphany about the shuttle program - while on one of the rides, the ride commentary proudly boasted that each of the ride cars had more onboard computing power than an entire space shuttle!

At the time I toyed with making this the subject of one of my weekly columns.  I didn't; then the Columbia disaster occurred, and so I decided to write an analysis of the problems with the shuttle program and NASA in general for this week.  But, alas, with my jet lagged brain handicapping me, the complexity of the topic proved too difficult to master in the time available.  Maybe I'll write on this topic next week, but for this week, there is no new topic.

But, on the subject of jet lag - a very real phenomenon, not just my excuse for no column this week - why not read my two part series on jet lag.

Now that I'm back home, I've been able to restore the SQL server that fell victim to the internet virus while I was traveling.  This means that the discussion forums (fora?) are working once more, and I believe/hope that the site is back to its normal high level of availability and reliability.  Please let me know if you observe any remaining damage from this viral attack.

Delta's choice of the name 'Song' for its new airline subsidiary has inevitably attracted various jokes, but none finer than that offered to Delta by the airline that Song is clearly targeted to compete against - JetBlue.  Today is JetBlue's third birthday, and it is celebrating its birthday with the acceptance of its latest new A320.  JetBlue says that this will have competitors 'Singing the Blues', with the name of the plane being 'Song Sung Blue'!

JetBlue also reported an increase in loads for January of 93% compared to Jan 2002, with capacity increasing 80%.  Another amazing result for an amazing airline.  Last week, JetBlue CEO David Neeleman said that his airline welcomes competition from Song, but my guess is that, in private, he feels anything but welcoming thoughts at what could be a powerful competitor.

Continuing a musical note, Air Canada lost a massive C$364 million in the last quarter and so is considering selling off its regional carrier subsidiary, Jazz.

I mentioned last week the importance of always keeping a good supply of cash with you, in case ATM machines are not working or are not available or whatever.  I was standing in line waiting to buy a London Underground ticket from a vending machine a couple of days ago, and watched as the machine first gobbled up one person's credit card, and then a second person's credit card - in each case it would not issue the ticket and neither would it return the credit card.  I decided to pay cash instead!  The incident reminded me of another golden rule of money management while traveling.

Always take multiple credit cards with you, so that if one is lost, you have an alternative one to continue using.  And if any of the magnetic strips are wearing out, order replacement cards before you travel.  Credit card issuers are always happy to give you replacement cards any time you ask for them.

For the first time ever, while traveling, I had a call (to my answering machine at home) from one of my credit card issuers, asking me to urgently contact them about some potentially fraudulent transactions on my account, and threatening to switch my card off if I didn't quickly call.  Good job I was checking my home voicemail regularly!  I had noticed that authorizations for my charges seemed to be getting slower and slower, and this was obviously why.

The problem - their computer security program had detected multiple charges to my account from Britain (ie me on my travels)!  Their computer program has never, ever, worried about international charges on my account previously, but this time it did.  Maybe it makes sense to call and tell your credit card issuers that you'll be traveling away from home so that they can stop such automatic alerts from otherwise ruining your vacation.  And this is yet another reason to have multiple credit card accounts - one time I had a credit card taken and cut up in front of me by a very nervous retailer due to a security monitoring program that ran amok for no apparent reason at all!

Reader Jan provides another ATM horror story.  She was in France last year, and used her ATM card several times to get cash.  Several months later, back in Seattle once more, she was called by the bank, advising her that her checking account was $11,000 overdrawn, and asking when (and how!) she was going to pay in funds to bring it back to normal.  Investigation showed that someone was using what appeared to be her ATM card, with her PIN, in France; even though she was back in Seattle, and with her ATM card, too!

What happened?  There are known scams whereby thieves will either mock up a dummy ATM machine or add a special front to an existing ATM machine.  An unsuspecting person goes to the ATM machine, puts their card in, enters their PIN, and then, after requesting a withdrawal, is told that the data line is not working, and is advised to try again later.  Their ATM card is returned to them, and the person is completely unsuspicious about anything fraudulent having occurred.  But the criminals have managed to read all the data on the card's magnetic strip and also now know the card's PIN number as well.  They can now create a new copy of the card, and use it themselves.

The bank eventually credited Jan back all the thousands of dollars of ATM withdrawals, but not without a lot of fuss and bother.

A net $5 million is all it took for Ryanair to buy rival low cost airline buzz from KLM last week.  Ryanair hopes to become the third largest airline in Europe within 12 months, and has its eye on the number one spot within 24 months.  Currently BA and LH, carrying about 29 million passengers a year each, vie for the title of largest European carrier.

Last month United dropped its higher fares on flights through Chicago and Denver by as much as 40%.  The result?  Not only is United now showing increased passenger numbers on these flights, but it is also getting a net increase in revenue on the flights, too!  Simplified lower fares are proving themselves to be a key component of winning back more passengers, and of earning more money.

United has been losing more than $7 million a day since it went into bankruptcy.  And today sees the expiry of its 60 day grace period during which it did not need to make lease payments on its planes.  United has asked the bankruptcy court for a further extension, but if this is not granted, and assuming that its lessors don't give United special concessions, it will then have to start making payments on its planes again or otherwise risk having them repossessed.

Rumors - which United denies - suggest that some lessors are thinking about taking their 747-400s back.  If this occurred, it is speculated that United might be forced to cancel its service to Australia (they have already announced a voluntary cessation of service to New Zealand).

United (and US Airways) aren't the only airlines in dire straits at present.  American Airlines, although sitting on a $2 billion cash pile at present, is burning through it at an unsustainable rate of $5 million a day, with little relief in sight.  American competes with lower cost carriers on 82% of its routes (up from 75% a year ago).  While an AA bankruptcy in the next six months is unlikely, the airline needs to massively reduce its costs or in some other way make major changes to its operation if it is to realistically return to long term profitability.

Here are some fascinating airline statistics relating to the fourth quarter of 2002.  Draw your own conclusions.

CASM means 'cost per available seat mile' and it represents all the airline's costs divided by the total number of 'seat miles' it flew.  RASM means 'revenue per available seat mile' and it represents all the airline's income divided by the seat miles it flew.  Each 'seat mile' is one seat on a plane flown one mile - for example, a plane flying 1000 miles with 150 seats on board would have 150,000 available seat miles.  Yield is the actual income per sold seat mile (as is compared to the income spread over all seats, sold or not, that is shown by RASM).

For an airline to be profitable, RASM obviously has to be higher than CASM.  Yield is always higher than RASM, because not all seats are filled on every flight.  If yield is ever lower than CASM, then the airline has incredibly huge problems, fortunately this is an extremely rare situation (but look below....).

(Note that if this table doesn't appear clearly in your email, you can see it on the web here.)

Airline CASM (cents) RASM (cents) Yield (cents)
US Airways 12.45 9.20 13.35
United 11.73 7.46 10.29
American 10.73 8.18 11.72
Delta 10.40 9.38 12.18
Continental   9.29 9.35 11.73
Southwest   7.47 7.72 12.25
JetBlue   6.32 7.59   9.0

Boeing has given a name to its new plane.  The more fuel efficient plane is to be known as the 7E7, and it may be in commercial service as early as 2008.  At the same time, Boeing spoke of an increasing focus on providing airplane related services, rather than just the manufacture of new airplanes.  Boeing says that airlines spend five to seven times as much money, every year, on technical support services, compared to what they spend on new plane purchases.

Is this wise?  Only maybe.  By entering into the airplane services marketplace, Boeing will be competing against its major airplane customers (such as Lufthansa) that already have large maintenance and repair business units.  And there is also the thought that if Boeing takes its eye off the commercial airplane building ball, it risks going the same way as Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas, with increasingly competitive Airbus taking more market share away.

A poll of 142 Carlson Wagonlit Travel agents suggest that the hot destinations for 2003 will be (domestically, most popular first) Las Vegas, Orlando, Alaskan cruises and Hawaii.  Internationally, the top picks are for Mexico, Jamaica, Britain, France and Aruba.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A passenger on board a flight from the US to London became 'verbally abusive toward the cabin crew and disruptive'.  She also refused to sit down and put on her seat belt.  Fellow passengers said that she 'went berserk' when a traveling companion in coach class was banned entry to the business class section where the problem passenger was seated.

But, what happened next?  Did a dozen burly passengers wrestle her to the ground and sit on her, causing her to die from asphyxiation (as happened to one poor passenger a year or so ago)?  Did flight attendants wrestle her to the seat and use plastic handcuffs to restrain her for the duration of the flight (as sometimes happens)?  Did a doctor forceably inject her with a sedative, causing her to die in the process (as has happened to other passengers)?  Did the pilot call SOS and divert to the nearest airport (as has happened before)?  Did air force jets scramble to 'escort the plane' down to ground (pray that you never have fighter jets 'escorting' your plane, because you're just one step away from getting up close and personal with one of their live missiles)?  Did a SWAT team swarm the plane upon landing, then detain and interview all passengers for many hours before releasing them, as they have done before?

No.  Instead, as shown in newspaper photos, the passenger, not in handcuffs, but 'with a policeman at each arm' was escorted off the plane subsequent to its arrival at Heathrow.

Oh, the passenger's name?  Courtney Love.  I guess it is one law for the rich and (in)famous and another law for the rest of us.  Yet again, I find myself wishing I was rich and (in)famous!

Valentine's Day is just around the corner.  One of our supporting merchants - the French chocolatier, ZChocolate has some amazing confections that they can ship to you or your loved one, all the way from France, to arrive in time for V-Day, if you order from them prior to the end of Monday 10 February.

The Mouse that Roared?  In this case, the mouse that delayed a 747 for 24 hours.  A laboratory mouse being transported from Boston to Zurich escaped. So as to prevent the mouse from gnawing through any wiring or cables, the plane was sealed and carbon dioxide was pumped into it.  A day later the plane was unsealed and, while the mouse wasn't found, it was considered to be dead.  So, if you're on a Swiss Air 747 and notice a strange smell coming from somewhere on board, don't worry - it is probably nothing more than a dead mouse!

Lastly this week, and perhaps pursuing the same line of thought as in the preceding paragraph, UK low cost airline Virgin Express announced that it has secured some additional financing arrangements, including a loan of approximately 35 million euros.  The name of the company that is making this loan?  Barfair Ltd.

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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