Friday 21 February, 2003

Good morning.  I'm writing this while suffering severe withdrawal symptoms - my internet connection is giving massive problems; with the ISP and Verizon arguing with each other about who is to blame, and how to fix it.  If you're like me, when your internet feed goes down, your blood pressure goes up!  And so, with internet connectivity very much in mind, here's an appropriate column :

This Week's Column :  Wireless Internet Everywhere :  Already in over 2000 Starbucks stores, plus AA airport lounges, and in increasing numbers of other places, too; short-range high speed 'Wi-Fi' wireless networking makes it easy for your laptop to connect to the internet.  Read more in this week's report.

United Airlines' future remains unclear, with their avowed commitment to starting up another 'low cost' carrier conflicting with their pilots' worries about low costs requiring them to give back even more salary.  But while the airline is making a high public visibility effort to conspicuously save money in some areas, other less visible areas are being overlooked.  Read this article which lifts the lid on how United has been paying $18,000 a month to rent an apartment for their new CEO Glenn Tilton.

What do these airlines have in common?  United, Swissair, and Sabena.  You might say that one is struggling through a difficult bankruptcy while the other two have completely gone out of business.  That is true, but the answer I'm seeking is 'all three airlines have contracted with management consultants McKinsey for help'.  McKinsey has an excellent reputation for employing brilliant staff, and perhaps confirming this it now appears that they are attempting to hire Chelsea Clinton to join their firm.

Although Chelsea's qualifications are unusual - an undergraduate degree in history and post grad work on international relations, it is believed that she may be offered a starting salary of about $64,000 a year with a probable annual bonus of another $64,000.  Perhaps it isn't so much a case of what you know but who you know that counts.  But Chelsea probably couldn't do a worse job of managing an airline than that which the airlines are doing themselves!

Last week I mentioned how, due to tough economic conditions, Qantas is adding a 1% credit card surcharge onto its ticket sales.  This week Qantas announced better than expected profits for the first half of its fiscal year - a massive A$352 million net profit, a 130% increase on the same period last year.  Maybe they could manage without the 1%?

Air France is having more problems with its Concordes - a half-empty flight from Paris to New York had to divert to Halifax.  Strangely, Air France is declining to give further details of the problem.  A Coast Guard spokesman reports that the flight initially developed a problem in its number three engine, and then subsequently declared an emergency and asked permission to divert to Halifax.  I wonder what happened?

But reader Chuck had no problems when he flew to London several days ago.  Indeed he reports that it took him less time to fly New York to London on a Concorde than to complete the journey from Heathrow in to where he was staying in London!

Reader Mike passed along this fascinating article.  A series of reporters flew a Northwest flight and asked their fellow passengers how much they'd each paid for their tickets.  Although the answers weren't totally valid (because many passengers were paying for more than just that single flight in their total ticket price) the results are still startling.  The 65 passengers had paid 50 different prices for their fares, ranging from $181 to $1100.  There was no logic to the pricing -  some people bought tickets early, but paid more than other people that bought tickets later.  Other people were paying less for flying much further than others flying just the one single flight.

The airlines' crazy pricing system can no longer be disguised as either fair or sensible, and is as much a 'turn off' to customers as is poor service.  We all want to feel that we paid a fair price for a fair product, and at present we're completely in the dark about what is the true lowest fare, and whatever we pay leaves us with the feeling that we probably paid too much!

One of the big ugly secrets of the airline industry is that of pilots sleeping on the job.  Yes, sometimes both pilots may quite literally be asleep at the controls, especially on those long international night flights.  Although this sounds scandalous, some people suggest that it isn't actually all that serious - most problems or events that might arise include some type of audio alarm that would hopefully wake the pilots up.  Here's an article that very delicately talks around the edges of this issue.

You'll recall the TSA was opposed to allowing pilots to take firearms on board their planes.  After Congress enacted a law that gave pilots this right, the TSA is now dragging its feet and making it bureaucratically impossible for a pilot to actually do this.  A nightmarishly complicated series of background checks (including interviewing friends and neighbors), psychological evaluations both before and after a formal firearms training program, and a medical exam are all part of the procedure the TSA is insisting on.  Pilots are complaining, and point out, perfectly reasonably, that they already have six monthly physical and psychological exams.

Even if pilots do jump through all these hoops, there is likely to be a long delay before they get permission to carry a gun onto the plane in appreciable numbers.  The TSA has budgeted for an initial training program of only 48 pilots!

It is commendable to see the TSA becoming cost conscious, however.  The DoT's Inspector General recently accused them of wasteful spending, due to their amassing a $3.3 billion shortfall in their first year of operation.  Inspector General Kenneth Mead criticized the TSA for poor spending controls and loose monitoring of multimillion-dollar contracts with private companies. Mead said the goal of the TSA must be to provide high security in a way that avoids waste and is cost-effective use of taxpayer dollars.

The TSA also wins this week's prize for Orwellian 1984 double-speak.  They are an organization that is tasked with imposing rules and restrictions on how people may travel, but on their website they proudly have the banner slogan 'Freedom of Movement'.  Whether for better or worse, encouraging freedom of movement is the exact opposite of the TSA's mission.  Indeed, pursuing a steady decrease in freedom of movement,  just this week they ordered police to stop and search vehicles at random when they approach airports.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Canadian citizen Berna Cruz was flying back home to Canada, and had to change planes at O'Hare en route.  This meant that she had to pass through US Immigration - something that held no concerns for her, because, like many Canadians, she has traveled in and out of the US on a semi-regular basis for years.  But this time, the INS officer impounded her Canadian passport and declared it a fake.  He cut the front page of the passport to void it, and stamped 'expedited removal' on all its pages, making it completely worthless.  After threatening Ms Cruz with imprisonment, she was instead photographed, fingerprinted, barred from entering the US for five years, and immediately deported - but not to Canada, where she lives and where she was returning to, but to India, where her travels had originated.

Worse still, she was refused permission to call any Canadian consular officials who might have otherwise clarified the situation.  And, due to her now defaced and voided passport, she was unable to get into India and spent four days stranded in Dubai until Canadian consular officials managed to confirm her identity and give her a new emergency passport.

Do the INS now admit that they made a dreadful mistake?  No.  A spokesperson proudly says 'We have very high-tech technology out there to detect these kinds of tampered documents'.  Maybe so, but there was nothing wrong with Ms Cruz' passport (which she has used many times in the past to travel through the US).  There is something dreadfully wrong with the INS when they can apparently run amok and do whatever they wish without pausing to allow commonsense or fairness to interfere with their actions.  Read more about this shameful situation here.

The most puzzling part of this is why the INS were so strict on a person simply changing planes in Chicago on their way to Toronto, when they leave our southern border wide open to any illegal immigrant that wishes to bus across.  Reader Lan provides this commentary :

I was at a convention in San Diego this last week.  Security and weather delays were delaying airport passengers by many hours, and so I chose to drive six hours instead of fly home.

Even stranger was the contrast between the airport "security" which penalized working citizens from traveling and the incredible freedom which Mexicans (and any other people) enjoy while crossing into and out of the U.S. Literally thousands make the transition illegally every day - with little danger of being caught and a casual penalty if caught.

The real kicker came when I was being give a ride back to my house from the AVIS rental office. The driver spoke no English but freely admitted that he was only in the U.S. for a day - having come over the Mexican-American border the same day - just about the same time I was attending a presentation that morning by Rudy Giuliani (who mentioned how terrorists are being stopped at the borders).  This illegal actually took less time to get to my home town than I did - and he had a job waiting thanks to other illegals who organized this ahead of time.

How did he cross and move so fast? "Took a bus." Seems the procedure is, and I've heard this before, is to purchase in Tijuana a sports event ticket which includes the bus trip to the stadium - then just meet your friends at the stadium for a final ride to the destination. "Easier and cheaper than hiring a coyote" he boasted "I trusted my pregnant wife and two children to ...the 'sports bus'." Perhaps you'd think they'd be caught at the border crossing? "They just look at our tickets and smile." Perhaps you think they'd be caught at the immigration check point on I-5 by Camp Pendleton? The one where officers are paid to stand in the middle of the freeway and cause traffic jams? It was closed Thursday!  Probably didn't want to risk the tender immigration agents to the possibility of getting wet in the rain.  I went thru the checkpoint at 65 miles hour - probably just as fast as the bus full of illegals headed for a "sports event" in L.A.  Sure hope no one was from another country and carrying a bomb/gas/bio agent/box cutters/dirty nuke. But then, who'd know?

Bottom line memo to terrorists :  Don't fly into Chicago.  Take a bus across the border from Tijuana instead.

Reader Kari reports on her AA flight from Los Angeles to Heathrow two weeks ago.  The plane had pushed back from the gate when it was discovered that six of the passengers were on the wrong plane!  They were supposed to be going to Denver, but somehow got on an international flight to London.  How is this possible?  Kari doesn't know, and based on the number of times I always have to show my passport to get on an international flight, I have no answer, either.

Part two of the Courtney Love story last week received quite a few replies.  One comment that I must pass on to you, though, came from Kari who very politely corrected my commentary.  She explained :

I feel I must point out that your story about Richard Branson and Courtney Love, though widely reported in the news, is not accurate. I was in London during the time and several London newspapers ran letters from Mr. Branson, who unequivocally stated that he did not give Courtney free tickets on Virgin, that in fact she flew home on another airline, and that he backed his Virgin employees and their actions 100%.

Following up on this theme, reader Margaret, a 27 year veteran of rock journalism, had this to add :

Doesn't this incident have the whiff of Publicity Stunt about it? Being "abusive and obstructive" is child's play for the journalist-slugging, camera-hogging, headline-loving notoriously misbehaved star. When Courtney makes a scene, she makes it her own.  Watching the film footage of her blithely being led off the plane, waving and mugging for the cameras, her expression struck me as one of someone who got exactly what they wanted: the kind of publicity money can't buy. After all, everyone knew Courtney was in Britain, didn't they?

And that, I suggest, is more discussion than this woman deserves.  I'm hereby declaring a moratorium on any more CL news!

Reader Tom was curious what the phrase 'home of the original minnow shot' meant on the sign shown in last week's email.  One of our readers in that part of the world advises

Big Dick's is a great local establishment in the Lake of the Ozarks.  During the summer months the place is packed with tourists and locals enjoying cool refreshment, and burgers, taking a break from the lake activities.  It's next to impossible to find by land, however by water they are on the 47 mile marker.  They sell shots with minnows to be swallowed. I have enjoyed their burgers, but have taken a pass on the minnow!

And several Alaska readers proudly advised that there is a Big Dick's in Alaska, too.

Reader Skip is on the Marketing Committee at the Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Tennessee.  Responding to my comment last week about the socks they give out to free if a passenger has to take their shows off, he sent me a complimentary sample pair of the socks, in a gift box festooned with light hearted humor and interesting facts about their friendly airport.  I am again amazed at the positive approach to passenger service offered by this airport.  He also had this groaner to offer :

One of our committee members is a minister.  On the occasion of my telling the group about the forthcoming Song Air, he looked up and said that he guessed that'd be OK just as long as the song was not 'Nearer My God to Thee'.

Until next week, keep smiling and singing 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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