Friday 28 February, 2003

Good morning.  Last week I was complaining about internet connectivity problems.  This week I'm instead delighted to offer you vastly improved bandwidth to the website.

We doubled the speed of our internet connection earlier this week, which means pages loading much faster next time you visit, and gives the site the ability to handle many more visitors simultaneously.  Currently we have up to 2000 unique visitors every day, and the helpful Alexa toolbar statistics (get your free copy here if you don't already have one) suggests that our site has continued to grow in popularity to where it is now the 69,296th most popular site on the entire internet.

This Week's Column :  Free First Class Upgrades - Fantasy or Fact? :  Some people claim to know the 'secret' to getting effortlessly upgraded, and some people even offer to sell you this knowledge.  But, is there really any sure fire successful way to get upgraded?  Read my column, and then, please, share your own thoughts and suggestions in the forum linked from the article.

One engine was sputtering, dying.  A second engine's low fuel pressure warning light came on.  Boeing test pilot Richard Nelson calmly turned to the Flight Engineer and commanded him to switch the fuel feed to another tank.  The flight engineer replied : 'There is no other tank. We are out of fuel.'

Read more about this incredible story of how a four man flight crew - comprising two highly experienced Boeing test pilots and two mechanics, one acting as flight engineer and in charge of monitoring fuel levels - managed to run out of fuel while taking a historic 1940s era Stratoliner on a flight around Puget Sound last year, and ending up, alas, in Puget Sound.  Thanks to reader David for passing this on.

I wish I could reassure you that this sort of thing would never happen on a 'real' commercial flight, but the rumor mill would suggest that even if few planes spectacularly run out of fuel in mid air, some flights do end up with dangerously low fuel reserves.  There is also a believable story about a flight, a few years ago, that ran out of fuel on the runway as it was landing!  The pilot covered up the problem by saying 'Due to experimental noise abatement procedures, we've been required to shut down our engines out here on the runway and will be towed to the gate by a tug'.

The UK Financial Times printed an interview with UA's CEO Glenn Tilton in their Sunday edition (available only to subscribers).  In the interview he was asked what United would do to respond to an expected downturn in traffic if a war with Iraq occurred.  He had two strategies.  The first was to cut flights.  The second was to ask the government for tax relief.  Neither suggestion seems profound or innovative, or likely to help UA return to viability.  If United keeps cutting flights, pretty soon it will be down to zero flights, but with still massive fixed costs.

You might think that it makes no sense for an airline to continue operating a loss making flight.  But the way a flight is calculated as being either profitable or loss making involves some very subjective calculations (accounting is as much opinion and guesswork as it is factual reporting of numbers).  Indirect issues are involved in the calculation.  The easiest analogy is a 24 hr supermarket - sure, it loses money between 2am and 4am, but it chooses to stay open because it encourages people to know that they can always visit, any hour of any day, and so their clients tend to preferentially patronize them during normal hours.

The marketing calculus for deciding if a flight should be operated or discontinued is extremely complex.  For example, a flight might lose money, but the fact that the airline offers that flight encourages people to use its services for other flights.  Or, the flight might lose money because it only has leisure travelers, not business travelers on it, but those leisure travelers also use the airline for all their business (high yield) travel as well, and if the airline cancelled the loss making flight, it might then lose the high yielding business traffic too.

In addition, an airline has very high fixed costs that don't really vary as costs are reduced, making it harder for it to reach profitability on its remaining flights.  Cutting loss making flights only makes sense if they are being replaced by other profitable flights elsewhere on the airline's route system.

If I was at the helm of United, I'd be looking beyond the immediacy of cutting flights - a strategy that will hurt rather than help them long term, and instead be looking at building more business onto the existing flights.  United's problems will never be solved by cutting its heart out, unless its long term plan is to become a small regional carrier.  United's problems can only be solved by regrowing its customer base through positive expansionary thinking.

I've confidently predicted, before, that the future of airline operationss will see a major move towards smaller regional jets.  This is being confirmed by United's plans in Denver.  It wants to add substantially more regional jet flights to this hub, and also wants to increase the size of its RJs from a current limit of 50 passengers to a new limit of 70.  What is the problem with doing this, you might ask?  Its pilot union contract severely limits how UA can use RJs (RJ pilots aren't paid as much as mainline pilots).

Although UA has cut some 25% of its flights since 9/11, and is considering a further 10%+ reduction, it wants to increase its fleet of regional jets from 199 to 275 over the next few years.

Apologies for sending a bad link to the story about United's extravagance last week.  With my web service not functioning, I wasn't able to do my usual last minute link check.  Here's a link to that story which does work.

United have just announced that they're offering double miles on flights across the Pacific.  So if you feel good about continuing to accumulate Mileage Plus miles, this might be something you want to consider.

From time to time, unhappy travelers contact me with a tale of woe about a problem that occurred with one of the internet booking services.  Invariably, the worst part of the problem is that after some type of misunderstanding occurs, the traveler is unable to find anyone who will listen sympathetically or help solve the problem.

This isn't just bad luck.  This is institutionalized, with the major booking services having draconian contracts that you are required to agree to, every time you buy any travel through them.  These contracts absolve them of just about all liability for just about everything, even if it is their fault and their mistake!  Read this excellent article by an attorney for more details.

However, that is not to say that web booking services are without their uses.  Reader Eric discloses how he uses the Deal Detector on Orbitz to track air fares after he has bought a ticket from an agent.  If the airfare goes down, he reports that he has good luck in getting Northwest to give him a credit voucher for the difference between the fare he purchased and the new lower fare.  He uses the credit voucher as part payment next time he books another ticket.

Governor Jeb Bush' plane was struck by lightning on Thursday, with the lightning punching a hole in the plane's wing.  It is true that these days modern planes seem to never be disabled by lightning.  But lightning sure is something that I have a great deal of respect for, and if you want to know why, have a look at this amazing series of pictures showing a 747 getting hit by lightning.  Wow!  Thanks to reader Tom for passing this on.

It is an open secret that forward bookings for international travel are seriously down at present.  Many people are holding off confirming their travel plans for this year until they know what is going to happen in Iraq.  Recognizing this, Virgin Atlantic have come up with a very sensible offer - all tickets booked between now and 17 March can be changed without any penalty or fee.  Some fine print does apply - for example, if you end up traveling in a more expensive season, of course you have to pay the extra difference in fare, but there is never a change fee, no matter what the reason.

You can't get a fairer deal than that, and so it is a shame that other airlines have not copied Virgin's customer-friendly policy!

On Thursday Virgin also announced a sale on travel to Britain.  Fares are as low as $268 from the East Coast and $426 from the West Coast.  While these are good deals, they're not as good as the incredible BA sale a couple of weeks ago.  If the soft level of bookings continue as they are at present, look for better deals in the weeks to come.

An airline food survey in Britain showed that, for most passengers, food is more important than films.  Also passengers have long memories of just what they have eaten on planes - 51% of respondents said they could remember exactly what meal was served on a flight up to 12 months ago, while only 39% said they could not recall what they had for dinner one week ago.

One in five said they would not use a particular airline again if the food did not meet their expectations.  75% said price was the main consideration in choosing which airline to fly while reputation at 62% was the next biggest factor.  Perhaps the US carriers should have done a similar survey before deciding to reduce their food service down to almost zero!

Is AA a bankruptcy risk or not?  On Wednesday a spokesman for AA's pilots union opined that the company had only three months of remaining cash reserves, and speculated that the cost cutting AA was asking of its employees might not be enough to keep it out of Chapter 11.  Based on AA's cash burn rate, the spokesman calculated a bankruptcy filing would be needed by May 25, and said that if AA didn't reach a cost-saving settlement with its staff within two months, its chances of bankruptcy would be 100%!

An AA spokesman said that the airline wouldn't comment on the pilots' findings.  AA's share price dropped to their lowest point in more than twenty years.

The next day, however, not only saw AA choosing to comment, but also the statement of the previous day, which had been made by the APA's Vice Chairman at DFW, was now being disputed by the APA's President as not being an official position of the union.  And the same spokesman who the previous day disdained to comment was now describing the analysis as "a non-mathematician doing math" and added "It's just one guy's rather unsophisticated speculation."  AA's share price did not recover.

The latest airline to hop on the 'low cost subsidiary' bandwagon is Midwest Express.  On the other hand, kudos to Northwest who, apparently alone out of all the major carriers, has come out and said that it has no intention of creating a low cost subsidiary.  Instead it plans to reduce the cost structure of its entire airline.

This week's Air France Concorde problem :  CNN report that the AF flight to New York on Thursday lost part of its rudder on the flight across the Atlantic.  The plane landed safely; indeed the crew didn't even realise that part of the rudder was missing until landing (is this a good or a bad thing, I wonder!).  Readers will remember that last week Air France declared a mysterious emergency on a Concorde flight to New York, requiring the plane to divert to Halifax.  And, last November, a BA Concorde also lost part of its rudder (but also safely landed with no problems).

In related Concorde news, BA is reported to be considering retiring its Concorde fleet, due to lack of business making them uneconomical to operate.

My friend Scott McMurren in Alaska reminds me that the best time of year to see the 'Northern Lights' is rapidly approaching - in early spring (or fall) they are most active.  He points out also that  the darker sky at this time of year gives the best contrast to view this incredible display - you don't want to go in mid summer when darkness barely falls.  He recommends the Chena Hot Springs Resort, just out of Fairbanks, as being a characterful place to see the Lights from, and points out that his Great Alaskan TourSaver Book includes a 'stay two nights for the price of one' coupon.

Because Scott's annual TourSaver book is the best travel bargain in the entire state of Alaska, I mention it every year - this year the total value of the saving coupons exceeds $25,000, including 30 'absolutely free' offers and over 100 'two for one' deals.  It is enough to make you want to go to Alaska for a vacation, just to enjoy the discounts!  Highly recommended.

Remember when building new planes was exciting, pioneering stuff?  It still is, for Airbus, with their project to build the largest passenger plane ever, the A380.  Here's a fascinating article that details some of the challenges involved in getting this new plane into commercial production (look for the plane to enter commercial service in 2006.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  'A 71 year old grandmother can kill you just as much as a 20 year old' said Philadelphia Police Capt Dominic Mingacci.  'In these times we are living in, you can never tell'.

Mingacci made these comments to explain what happened when the grandmother in question, after getting off her plane and walking through the concourse at Philadelphia Airport, suddenly remembered that she had left her coat on the plane, so turned round and walked back towards the gate.  In her confusion and concern, she didn't realize that she had left the secure part of the terminal and needed to detour through security to re-enter it.  Instead, she went directly back the way she came, past the 'no entry' sign, and was then immediately chased by a security screener who stopped her.

What happened next?  Oh, the usual.  Although she was probably in the secure area for all of 30 seconds, and never out of sight of the security screener, the checkpoints were closed for 55 minutes and bomb sniffing dogs called in to secure the area, while the 71 year old grandmother was marched off to the airport's police station and questioned.  She subsequently said 'I was treated like a criminal.  I understand they were doing their job, but there was no reason for that screener to yell at me like that and almost knock me over'.  Very true.

How likely is it that your city might suffer a terrorist attack?  The Insurance Services Office announced the results of a study that has grouped US cities into three tiers of risk.  The highest risk cities are New York, Washington DC, San Francisco and Chicago.  Second tier cities are Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Seattle.  All other cities are placed in the third tier.

First tier cities are believed to be 100 times more at risk than third tier cities.  Second tier cities are 20 times more likely to experience a terrorist attack.

Perhaps the most annoying and frustrating thing about spam emails and popup web ads is the fact that some people actually respond to these offerings.  On the basis of 'there's a sucker born every minute' - and to ensure that you don't become one yourself, you might like to look at this list of sad stories from people that were taken in by internet travel scams.

Under the 'big brother is watching you' category comes a story that the Transport Security Administration (the nice people with the slogan 'Freedom of Movement') now want to keep records of every passenger's every flight, along with various other information, for fifty years!  Even the IRS doesn't need fifty years of records.  But will this fifty year database protect us against terrorists with SAMs who don't even need to get on a plane in order to shoot it out of the sky?  No, of course not!

There are so many strange things in this last item that I don't know where to start, and all I can say is that bible class was never like that in my day!  A German priest has developed a novel way to brew beer in a washing machine.  Michael Fey, 45, a Catholic priest from the western city of Duisburg, came up with the idea of converting his 35-year-old washing machine to provide beer more cheaply for youth outings he organizes. “All I needed was something that could be used to heat and stir the mix so why not a washing machine?” said Fey, who no longer uses his washing machine to clean his clothes.  His machine brews 40 pints of beer in 10 hours.

Next week I'll be writing to you from somewhere in Britain.  Barring any unforeseen challenges, I should be able to get the newsletter to you same as normal.

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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