Friday 21 March, 2003

Good morning, with me once more back in Seattle after two weeks in Britain.  I'll be the first to confess that I have, at times, gone to extraordinary lengths to secure airline upgrades any which way, and so it was with a feeling of total unreality that I found myself bravely refusing the opportunity to fly in Virgin's marvelous Upper Class back to San Francisco, instead opting for a seat in their Premium Economy cabin.

But the net result is now being able to report, in the kind of detail that only a ten hour flight allows, on both their Upper Class and their Premium Economy services.  Part one, this week, and part two, next week.

This Week's Column :  Virgin's Premium Economy Class :  I report on my trans-Atlantic flight in Virgin's Premium Economy class.  Yes, it's wonderful, but is it worth the extra cost compared to coach class?  And is it as good as (or better than!) BA's similar competing product?  Read more in this week's column.

Last week's column about jet engine failures mentioned that one cause of engine failure are bird strikes.  Apparently rabbits are also a problem, in Miami.  Planes run over the black tail jackrabbits, and the dead bodies attract turkey vultures who move in to scoop up the remains.  This then poses additional problems for pilots as the large vultures could be sucked into the jet engines.  An airport spokeswoman said "Our airside people can't bag the carcasses fast enough."  There is estimated to be approximately 500 residents living around the airport, and they breed four times a year.

It seems that we have (at least) two new things to worry about this week (apart from rabbits).  The obvious troubling development is the situation in Iraq.  The other is a reflection on the modern jet-setting lifestyle enjoyed by so many people, everywhere in the world, and is also an unexpected by-product of the imperative importance that so many governments now place on international tourism.

I'm referring, of course, to SARS - or, if the acronym is not yet familiar to you, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.  It appears that the Chinese government chose to hush up the appearance of this nasty new bug in Southern China, for fear that it would depress its international tourism business.  And so, all of a sudden, the rest of the world suddenly finds itself confronted with a very nasty disease, appearing almost simultaneously in a number of different countries (as a result of jet travel), including 11 people in the US and 9 in Canada.

There are a lot of reasons not to fly these days.  For me, I put fears of international terrorism and Iraq related actions near the bottom of my list - with as many as 50,000 flights every day, the chances of your flight being among the unlucky one or two flights that might suffer from some sort of terrorist action (and nothing like that has happened since 11 Sept 2001) are acceptably minimal.  But the chances of catching an infection from a fellow passenger during the course of a 5 - 15 hour flight - now there is something to truly worry about!

Recognizing this danger, Cathay Pacific announced on Monday that they would screen all passengers for signs of flu symptoms.  But what they have been completely silent about is the type of screening they might use.  Plus, many of these types of diseases are at their most communicable prior to the infected person suffering obvious symptoms.  Whatever Cathay might do will serve only to inflict further indignities on its passengers, and may cause people with relatively harmless colds and other ailments to be refused travel, while potentially allowing SARS infected (but asymptomatic) passengers still to travel!

What can you do to minimize your own potential exposure to infection (this article reports that more than 50% of health workers caring for stricken people have, in turn, become affected)?  The CDC is recommending that you avoid non-essential travel to the primary affected regions (Hong Kong, China, Vietnam and Singapore).  Beyond that, about the only thing you can do is to try not to travel on continuations of flights from such regions (so as to minimize your contact with people from those regions), and to perhaps limit your travels domestically to airlines that don't have any appreciable international business.  For example, most of the major carriers operate flights to/from Asia, but airlines like Southwest or JetBlue of course do not.

The CDC doesn't yet have a clear understanding of exactly what this illness is, but the situation is developing daily and some breakthroughs seem likely.  More information and daily updates can be found on the CDC website.

This Week's Wi-Fi growth story - It would be very easy to make this into a weekly feature, and I'm impatiently looking forward to the time when Wi-Fi is everywhere.  This week's exciting development is offered by T-Mobile who announced the development of a cross-billing arrangement with one of the other national Wi-Fi networks, Boingo.  When released this will enable you to use either network, much in the same way that your cellphone seamlessly roams across networks.  My prediction (and hope) this week is that we'll see Wi-Fi access developing in two directions - either free Wi-Fi access or alternatively, user-transparent 'roaming' across competing networks, much as happens with a cellphone at present.  Both developments mean that Wi-Fi will become even easier to use.  Have you bought a Wi-Fi card for your laptop, yet?

I've several times written about pilots enjoying a nap while supposedly flying their plane.  That doesn't actually bother me too much - if something goes wrong, an alarm will sound and wake them up in plenty of time, and it is probably better that they be refreshed than tired in such a situation.  However, this horrifying article recounts a very difficult circumstance - a co-pilot who was repeatedly falling unconscious!

Not all is doom and gloom in the airline industry.  Bloomberg reports that the world's airline traffic on international routes rose 11% in January, compared with the same period in 2002. Transatlantic traffic rose 6.4% and Mid Eastern traffic rose 24.8%.  And IATA says global figures are now back to their levels of January 2001. Traffic on European carriers rose 6.4% in January.

And in a welcome contrast to major US carriers who continue to act as if the only way to win back business and profitability is to make air travel even less pleasant than ever before, award-winning passenger-favorite Singapore Airlines is pressing ahead with plans to equip its new A380 super-jumbos with luxury features that may include passenger bars and gyms.  SQ will be the first airline to take delivery of the enormous new double decker planes, in 2006, and says it will reduce the passenger seating from a typical 550 down to 'only' 500, using the extra space for passenger amenities and comforts.

They are incorporating suggestions from passengers that they've been surveying in developing the cabin design.  Alas - one feature that passengers requested but which will not be incorporated - showers.  The weight of the water makes such things impractical.  And I guess that any gym facilities won't include weight lifting equipment, either!  Other airlines that will be adding A380s to their fleet include Virgin and Qantas.

Deathwatch Part 1 - United :  For the first time ever, United admitted on Tuesday that it might fail to successfully emerge from bankruptcy and need to liquidate.  In predicting a first quarter loss of $877 million, it said that domestic bookings are down and international bookings dropped 40% in last week alone.

However, methinks they doth protest too much.  The threat of liquidation is almost certainly part of an orchestrated campaign to get federal support, and/or to beat up still further on its unions.  United is blaming its increased problems on the Iraq conflict, on the high cost of jetfuel, and on its labor costs.

Deathwatch Part 2 - American :  In a welcome sign of good sense, American Airlines spokesman Bruce Hicks said that American was "watching what the others are doing -- we take a look at everything -- but we're not interested in creating a separate low-cost airline.  It didn't work for anybody in the past. There's no evidence that it can succeed," he said.

However, its attempt to stave off bankruptcy took a negative turn when it was reported over the weekend that AA have hired a well-known bankruptcy attorney, Harvey Miller.  Miller had formerly advised TWA to declare bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, it appears that Southwest Airlines has lost $1.1 million or more as a result of employee theft.  At least eight former employees allegedly pocketed the cash when selling tickets at El Paso airport.  The FBI have apparently been investigating these people since last year, and it seems that the ticket scam has been underway since 1996 - the wheels of justice sure move slow down in El Paso!

There has been no reply from Delta to my invitation, last week, to justify its claim that increased passenger traffic is the reason for it boosting its flights between Los Angeles and Atlanta by 50%.  Their silence almost makes you wonder if they're unable to back up their public claim with real data - could it be that they truly are doing this purely to try and squash the new flights to be operated by AirTran and JetBlue!  Surely Delta wouldn't be that nasty?

More and more people are turning to cruising as a 'safe' alternative to international travel this year.  Which makes this article in USA Today an interesting and scary story about how those amazingly inexpensive cruises can end up costing you a bundle.

As an interesting postscript to the USA Today story, the strategy they report of 'sneaking on' your own liquor to save on bar bills is not always possible.  Some cruise lines now forbid you bringing your own liquor on board, and with increased 'security' and bag searches when you board, it is difficult to successfully smuggle a bottle on.

Passengers aboard the P&O liner Aurora have threatened to mutiny.  The ship left Bombay on Wednesday, en route to the Red Sea, and its route takes it just a few miles from the coast of Yemen, where there have been at least two recent terrorist attacks.  The passengers do not want to go through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal at this time.  The cruise line has already cancelled its stop at Dubai.

A spokesman for the cruise company said 'We have been given full assurances that the Suez Canal will be safe to travel through.  The safety of the passenger, crew and ship is of the utmost importance to us and nothing will be done to jeopardize that.'   If the ship doesn't go through the canal it would be forced to go around the horn of Africa, a massive detour.

As part of my in-flight reading on my flight back from London on Monday I thoroughly enjoyed a book by airline pilot turned popular author, John J Nance.  It tells the story of an airline gone 'bad' with dreadful customer service, and the eventual mutiny of passengers aboard an international flight.  Read the book and see how many of the examples of fictional bad customer service have actually occurred to you in real life!

Author Nance said 'It's time for the airlines to get their house in order with respect to customer service. The airlines have to understand that their customers are not only fed up with bad service, they're furious over this rancid attitude of too many employees that they're somehow doing their customers a favor by selling tickets.  Especially business travelers, who are sick and tired of being financially mugged every time they have to fly.'  The book is called Turbulence and if you buy through this link, I get a small commission.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Thanks to travel agent reader Anise, from Birmingham, AL, who sent in this story about her local airport, that closed down for two hours after discovering four suspicious looking characters on the runway, who then 'disappeared'.  Who were these potential terrorists?  Ummm - four TSA employees, apparently conducting some type of security test.  Although the TSA is required to inform airport officials of security inspections, a TSA spokesman concedes that 'for some reason' this did not occur.

With this in mind, readers might perhaps be relieved to learn that the TSA is no longer going to be conducting aggressive 'red team' attempts to penetrate airport security to test their systems.  The 'red team' testing was an established part of former FAA testing, and it consistently succeeded in smuggling weapons past security screeners, valuably highlighting weaknesses in airport security.  TSA chief James Loy views this aggressive testing as a failed system and insisted it be disbanded!  We all must hope that for-real terrorists will be as kind and gentle as the TSA apparently now is in its own security testing.

Here's an interesting article about how the TSA paid for twenty recruiters to spend nearly two months at a luxury ski resort in Colorado to hire security screeners.  The 20 recruiters succeeded in hiring 50 people in the two months they were at the ski resort.

Last week's security horror story was about the young child and his grandparents who were deplaned from a BA flight because the two year old was refusing to do up his seatbelt (and, yes, I do agree that the grandparents were at least partially to blame for allowing the situation to escalate).  Perhaps it is just as well, however, that these passengers weren't flying on Northwest.  A former NW flight attendant was last week charged with assault, for allegedly putting a prescription depressant into a 19 month girl's apple juice to stop her crying.

A picture never lies?  Well, maybe not, but sometimes the caption and context do!  Bermuda has confessed that some of the lovely pictures featured in its latest tourist advertising are actually of Hawaii and other locations rather than Bermuda itself.  When confronted with this deception, Renee Web, the island's Minister of Tourism, unapologetically stated 'Our call centers have been buzzing since the campaign started.  We're not pulling the ads.'

This Week's 'Most Appropriate Reward for Greediness' Award goes to the three Spirit Airlines passengers who sued for anguish after a Spirit plane made a sudden plunge in severe turbulence.  A jury gave them $5000 each.  The reason that this $5000 settlement wins the award is because the greedy opportunists had earlier been offered $50,000 each by Spirit Airlines if they would settle out of court!

Lastly this week, and rather as I'd expected, amongst the many thousands of people that read last week's column about what happens if a plane's engines fail, one person wrote back to me to complain about my singling out the Irish for the joke appended to the end of the article.  The writer challenged me to 'have the guts to tell a stereotypical Jewish or Polish joke'; and so, with that as encouragement, here's one of the many French jokes doing the rounds at present.  France announced today that it plans to ban fireworks at Euro Disney. Last night's display caused soldiers at a nearby French army garrison to surrender.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and let's hope and pray that none of us has to confront anything more frightening than the sound of fireworks in the week ahead.

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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