Friday 7 March, 2003

Good morning.  My travels to London on Wednesday were unexpectedly eventful during a stopover in San Francisco; being interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle (the reporter is a subscriber!), and then by a tv crew, and two other groups of journalists. 

What happened, you might wonder?  Did I do something very foolish?  No, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and enjoyed a brief five minutes of fame as a result.  San Francisco Airport has just added Wi-fi service in the public concourses of their lovely Terminal 'A' (the international terminal), and I was in that area, and using my Wi-fi computer connection while various news teams were reporting on the story.  David Armstrong, the Chronicle reporter, subsequently wrote an interesting article.

As I said in my own Wi-fi article a couple of weeks ago, this truly is a rapidly growing technology, with new Wi-fi locations appearing daily.  In related Wi-fi good news, my 'inside source' at T-mobile advises that, (perhaps subsequent to my gentle criticism?), they've now dropped their rates substantially, making it more affordable for you to get connected - $30 a month now buys you unlimited access anywhere and everywhere in the country - no restrictions on connect time or data transfer.   This represents a major liberalization of their fee structure, and is much better value.

After spending an hour enjoying a Wi-fi internet fix, I checked in for my Virgin Atlantic Airways flight on to Heathrow, and am writing this paragraph inside an airport lounge that is quite unlike any I've had the good fortune to visit in the past.  The receptionist greets each person as they enter, and then gets up and gives her guest a guided tour of the facilities and ensures they are relaxed and comfortable.  As soon as you sit down, a waitress comes over to offer you a drink and brings it to you.  After you're seated and settled, another waitress brings a printed menu and invites you to choose from a very nice selection of cooked food.  Sure - they've got lashings of tiny plates of nuts as well, but unlike most other lounges, they also have a kitchen and provide excellent quality hot and cold food.  The lounge is spacious and uncrowded, unlike my last BA lounge experience where there was literally standing room only.

And now that I've tempted you with a precursor to the delights of Upper Class (what Virgin call their premium cabin) travel, it is relevant to turn to this week's feature column, which just possibly might help you, too, share a similar experience at less than full cost.

This Week's Column :  Free First Class Upgrades Part 2 :  I was fairly negative, last week, about the opportunities to get 'free' upgrades these days.  However, a few small opportunities remain to the fortunate.  This week I analyze where, how, and with who you might strike it lucky.

One more thing about Virgin.  I'll be writing a full review of my two flights as the feature column for 22 March.  Stay tuned.  But in case you can't wait - suffice it to say that my flight to London was very pleasant in all respects.  My new mission - to persuade Virgin to start service from Seattle!

And, talking about Virgin, they want to buy BA's Concordes.  Last week I reported the vague rumor that BA might be considering retiring its Concordes.  This week it became rather more definite, with BA officially admitting that the future of Concorde is currently 'under review'.  BA recently upgraded and refitted its five Concordes, at a cost of $50 million, but says that they would never sell the planes to another airline.  Instead, they would give them away to museums around the world.  A BA spokesman, showing remarkable arrogance, said 'We will never sell this aircraft.  The plane is synonymous with British Airways.  It is almost a symbol of the airline.  In any case, no one but BA and Air France are capable of maintaining this fleet.  It would be like asking the corner garage to service a Formula 1 car.'

Virgin revealed that they have already unsuccessfully attempted to buy two Concordes from Air France, and observed that BA's shareholders might wonder about BA's refusal to cash in on its planes if it stops operating them, especially so soon after spending $50 million to extend their lives.  The real truth about why neither BA nor AF will sell the planes to Virgin is, of course, nothing to do with maintenance at all.  It is all about the commercial embarrassment of giving up on such a distinctive flagship plane and seeing a competitor start operating it instead.  So - what price tag to put on corporate ego?  The five planes have to be worth at least $100 million, maybe $200 million.  Next time BA or AF announce lay-offs and cost cutting, someone might want to ask them why they're not selling these loss making planes to Virgin!

I'm now in my London hotel room - the Caesar Hotel, and sadly not a hotel I'd recommend.  It failed the first test of any hotel which is the 'what happens if I arrive early' test.  A good hotel will invariably do all they can to quickly find a room for a guest that arrives early; a bad hotel points to a prominent sign on the wall and declares 'check in time is 2pm' and refuses to acknowledge that at 1.55pm there are already rooms ready for occupancy.  The Caesar acted this way - not a welcoming experience, especially after 18 hours of traveling.

After finally getting access to my room, I eagerly looked for the promised 'in room internet access' that they proudly offered.  This turned out to be nothing more than a phone jack that you could use with a modem!  I tried to explain that offering a second phone line was not the same as offering in room internet access, but the manager refused to acknowledge the difference between in-room internet access and a simple phone line.  They are either stupid or dishonest, and in either case, should not have the four stars they claim to deserve.

Deathwatch part one - United :  Is United doing better or worse than expected?  Considerable doubt seems to exist as to the answer to that crucial question!  What we do know is that in January it lost $382 million.  Included in its costs were $276 million in labor costs and $222 million for fuel.  It is interesting to observe that this means that if United's entire staff agreed to work totally for free, and if their fuel costs were cut in half, it would still struggle to break even!  This only confirms my repeated comment that while cost cutting is important, United's only hope for the future lies in growing its revenue base, not in cutting its costs and cutting its flights.

The good news is that this $382 million loss was about $75 million less than UA had been projecting.  Which makes it possible for UA to feel good about 'only' losing $12.3 million every day during January.

United is claiming that its new lower business fares, with discounts of up to 40% off previous unrestricted coach class fares, have actually brought in more revenue - as much as $20-25 million extra a month.  This announcement led UA's own partner airline, US Airways, to express skepticism.  They said they see no evidence that the fare structure is generating more travel in the industry.  And Northwest said last month it was losing $10 million in monthly revenues because of its lower business fares.

Plainly such massive discounts need a corresponding almost doubling in corporate type travelers, and while it is good to see the fares being made more realistic, it is doubtful that United's business travelers are now traveling twice as much as they were a couple of months earlier.

Where is the truth in all of this?  No-one really knows!

It also looks like United's ill-starred period of 'employee ownership' may be about to end.  It seems likely that employee ownership will soon drop below 20%, at which point the employees lose their 55% control of voting shares.

Deathwatch part two - American :  American Airlines continues to struggle in the financial markets.  Last Friday saw S&P downgrade AA's longterm corporate credit rating to B-, pointing to a growing worry in the investment community that AA might file Chapter 11 in the coming months.  AA's shares set a new low that day, closing at $2.34, but have now risen slightly from that point, back to about $2.55.  As mentioned last week, an apparent spokesman for the AA pilots union claimed that AA might run out of cash by 25 May; however broader opinion among analysts suggests that - assuming no cut backs in leisure travel due to a Gulf War (how's that for an assumption!) - AA has enough cash to struggle through to late summer.

At these low share prices, AA is valued, in total, at about $350 million - less than the cost of two new 747s!!!

Meanwhile, American is trying to take the 'high road' in building its business, having rolled out a new advertising campaign with the tag line 'Get a great low fare.  And a lot more airline.'.  The ads promote the fact that American offers more room in coach plus other 'full service' benefits that the discount carriers don't offer such as reserved seating and meals (sometimes!).  It mightn't be the most original or inspiring campaign, but it sure beats cutbacks in flights and service and coming up with the concept of starting a low cost subsidiary airline!

I referred to the Orbitz Deal Detector last week.  Apparently this is not yet officially released and if you don't know where to find its url, you're out of luck.  Reader Bob Cowen, who publishes an excellent travel newsletter from his Internet Travel Tips website, wrote in to give the story behind this new online product :

From what I can surmise, DealDetector is in some type of unofficial test period. I've been loving it since last November. Only recently has it been expanded to include almost all cities worldwide. It's smart enough to automatically update itself whenever necessary. Until the past month or so, it was limited to the 48 contiguous states. I suspect it's related to their implementation of ITASoftware's international search engine in the near future. Orbitz has only been using ITA's engine for domestic flights but something else for overseas flights. Reading John Levine's FAQ file in, he says that Orbitz will shortly expand their searching capability to include wider sweeps of dates of travel. The best example of that type of wonderful flexibility is at (discount flights within Europe & the UK). If Orbitz releases that type of extremely powerful tool, it will almost completely blow away Travelocity & Expedia as far as price shopping goes. With the inclusion of international destination in Orbitz Deal Detector, I see no need for Travelocity's Fare Watcher or for Exedia's Fare Tracker.

Reader Peter responded to my story last week about a plane running out of fuel just as it landed.  He reminds us of the incredible situation when a 767 ran out of fuel, over the Atlantic, and managed to glide 110 miles to land safely in the Canary Islands.  I doubt the pilot could have kept that a secret from his passengers!

This Week's Security Horror Story :  An American Airlines pilot was arrested and detained while going through security at Omaha on Wednesday morning.  Initially neither the Omaha Airport Authority, airport security or airport police would comment on the case, other than to say that the pilot 'made a threat'.  As a result, the 112 people on the plane he was due to fly were delayed for 90 minutes before a replacement pilot could be found.

And so what did this pilot do that warranted his arrest?  It appears that apparently he may have complained about the security procedures, and said to a screener 'I have an axe in the cockpit and could chop your head off' - an understandable comment to make when confronted with the lunacy of a pilot being searched for nail files and pocket knives.  But stating this simple fact was too much for the screeners, who called the police, choosing to believe that this matter of fact statement was a direct threat to them!

The city prosecutor, Marty Conboy, now acknowledges that there was never any suggestion that the public, passengers, or planes were in any danger or threatened.  Although the FBI have declined to bring federal charges, Conboy says he is looking into the tone and context of the pilot's comment before deciding whether to press state charges against the pilot.

I'm sure that he will get excellent unbiased testimony about the 'tone and context' from the security screener that called the police!  And I wonder what will happen when pilots start carrying pistols on and off their planes - will they still have their bags searched for pocketknives?

Reader Kit brings an interesting loophole to our attention.  While it is apparently not acceptable for pilots to refer to having an axe in their cockpit, it is acceptable for passengers to say 'you will have to kill me to get me off this plane'!  Kit was flying a Delta flight between Ft Walton Beach and Atlanta, and during the boarding process it became apparent that two seats had been assigned to two different couples.  The two men that were already in the seats - of Middle Eastern origin - refused to give up the seats and made this statement.  They were taken off the plane as a result of their comments, but after they loudly threatened lawsuits every which way, were let back on, displacing two other passengers in first class in the process!

Kit was sufficiently intrigued (and concerned) as to contact both Delta and the FAA to find out what happened.  It appears that the Transportation Security Administration said that it was okay to let the men fly because the only people they threatened were themselves.  Amazing.

I've several times referred to pilots asleep at the controls, but here's a slightly different story - the driver of a Japanese bullet train, also asleep at the controls.  It is interesting to read how much of the train's operation is automatic at present - why not make the train fully automatic?  For that matter, why not make planes fully automatic, too!

Lastly this week, spare a thought - and a shred of sympathy - for poor Chris O'Mahoney in Manchester, England, who was given a $65 parking ticket.  He had stopped, briefly, on a bus stop, and before he had a chance to move on, he was issued with the parking ticket for being parked on the bus stop.  Chris works as a bus driver.  And he was driving a bus at the time!  See this article for more on this startling bit of enforcement, which the city council admitted 'shows a lack of judgment'.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.  And be careful where you park.

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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