Friday 20 June, 2003

Good morning.  I completely overlooked that last Friday was a 'black Friday' - I hope you did not suffer any misfortunes on such a traditionally unlucky day for travel.  I safely did very little traveling last Friday, but to make up for it, the second part of this weekend will see me proudly taking my new toy up the sides of mountains, fording through streams, and generally having a wonderful time miles from civilization.

And, what of the first part this weekend?  Like millions of others, I have a date at midnight on Friday night with my local bookstore, buying and then feverishly reading the fifth book in the Harry Potter series on Saturday.  Having read earlier this week that half of all HP readers are over 35 (and a quarter over 55) I'm no longer quite so defensive about enjoying books ostensibly for children.

Last week, a friend told me that she had downloaded a pirate pre-release copy of the new book, and she forwarded a copy to me.  It was not the bona fide new book, but it was a very good example of what has become known as 'fanfic' - extra books about Harry Potter written by fans of J K Rowling (the author).  There are apparently more than 75,000 fanfic short stories and books about Harry Potter written by other people!

If you're a great HP fan, then you too might enjoy the fanfic that I ended up reading, plus the other three Harry Potter books by the same author.  They do dwell a bit more on the, ahem, personal and physical relationships as the characters mature, and as such are perhaps not suitable for your younger children.  Free downloads here.

This Week's Column :  Noise Reducing Headphones :  In the fourth of an ongoing series of reviews of these almost essential aids to long distance travel comfort, I review a recently released set of noise reducing headphones that set a new best standard for high quality and great value.  Highly recommended - if you've held off on buying such things until now, now is the time - and this is the product - to buy.

I've decided to rename the weekly series of 'Deathwatch' articles, because it seems plain that none of the major airlines are going to go out of business just yet.  The slowly recovering trend towards increased air travel will probably save their bacon - and if it doesn't, then another taxpayer bailout will almost certainly occur, giving the dinosaur airlines more opportunity to continue in their inappropriate ways.  This chart of the American Stock Exchange's composite airlines index clearly shows the turnaround that is occurring :

Items about these carriers will now be offered under the heading of 'Dinosaur Watch'.  For the record, the US airlines that I consider to be dinosaurs are American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways.

Dinosaur Watch Part 1 - United :  Continuing its turnaround, UA is adding 54 flights to its July schedule (including seasonal service additions) and reinstating some Pacific flights that it had cancelled in June.

Good news and bad news for internet addicts.  United plans to offer email connectivity on all its domestic flights by the end of this year.  But don't go excitedly rushing to your next UA flight expecting some type of high end email connectivity, and don't expect it to be inexpensive.  The service - to be called JetConnect - will provide connections through the Airfone handsets on the back of airplane seats, and is a narrow-band service, meaning very slow transfer speeds for emails to travel to and from your computer, plus the potential need to share the Airfone with two other people in your row.

The cost is in two parts - a $15.98 base fee per flight, plus an additional fee for data transferred.  One source suggested this would be 2c for each kB, but two other sources (eg this) are quoting the fee as 10c. For example, my newsletter is typically 40kB-50kB in size, so you'd be paying either 80c-$1 (at the lower rate) or $4-5 (at the higher rate) just to get this single piece of email! Even I would hesitate to pay that much to read my newsletter!

That's not the only drawback.  Emails will be batched up and only sent or received once every 15 minutes.  This is a crippled service, and the main appeal to UA seems to be that other companies are underwriting all the costs, while paying UA a share of income generated.  But I doubt many customers will find this service very functional or worth the high costs to access and use it.

A couple of days after United's announcement, Continental rushed out an announcement that it too would offer the same service on its flights, and probably at the same prices.  But CO's plans are for a slower roll-out of service, commencing first on selected 757s.

Dinosaur Watch Part 2 - American :  Throw me in that briar patch!  The headlines in several news articles this week read that former AA CEO Don Carty is not getting a severance package subsequent to his departure in late April.

But Carty is getting a $13.5 million payment from the 'supplemental pension plan' that aroused the controversy that resulted in his leaving, plus an annual pension of $79,000, an undisclosed number of shares, and retiree medical and travel benefits.  The $13.5 million lump sum reduces down to about $8.2 million after taxes.  If he can get a 6.1% annual return on this, he could live quite comfortably on the tax free $500,000 that this would earn him in perpetuity!  I'd resign too if I knew I could expect this sort of outcome.

Dinosaur Watch Part 3 - Delta :  After some months of passive non-reaction to the new security measures and the delays they caused after 9/11, the dinosaurs eventually started to complain about how the increased inconvenience of air travel was costing them business.  This had of course been immediately obvious to all of us who fly, and to all of us who chose to drive shorter distances and reduce the number of flights we took a year!  The airlines' complaining was primarily in the context of 'we need more government handouts, because the government imposed security is costing us business and profit', rather than in the context of 'we need to minimize the inconveniences to our passengers and to positively encourage them back into the skies.

Over the last year, the surprising fact is that most elements of air travel have returned closely back to the normality that we knew before 9/11.  Electronic checkin has reduced the checkin time for most passengers.  Security lines are generally short and most airports no longer have the annoyance of random searches prior to boarding planes.

Now that the airlines are on record as acknowledging that making air travel more inconvenient will cost them passengers and profits, what do they do?  Do the dinosaurs make a desperate attempt at finding renewed life, or do they hasten their downfall?  Of course, they do the latter.  Joining the trend towards requiring passengers to spend more time at the airport needlessly waiting for their flight than actually sitting on the plane traveling somewhere, Delta says that passengers should arrive at checkin at least one hour prior to departure, and be at the departure gate at least 30 minutes before departure.  Passengers that don't comply with these leadtimes may have their reservation cancelled, their seat assignment released, and any checked baggage offloaded.

My typical airport experience these days is arriving one hour prior to departure, then spending five minutes to check myself and my luggage in (I can no longer carry my luggage onboard due to always traveling with a Swiss Army Knife), five minutes to get through security, five minutes to get to the gate, and then wasting half an hour or more of waiting for the flight to commence boarding.  And, at the other end, anywhere up to 40 minutes to wait for baggage to arrive (Seattle's airport - my home airport, being consistently the slowest airport not just in the US but in the entire world, including Russia).

Prior to 9/11, my typical experience was arriving 20 minutes or less prior to departure, walking straight to the gate with carry-on luggage and pre-issued boarding pass, walking straight on to the plane, then at the other end, walking straight off the plane and out of the airport.  This extra checkin time, and waiting for luggage at the other end, means an hour or more of unnecessarily wasted time, due only to poor service offered by Delta (and the other dinosaurs).

At the same time that Delta is saying that passengers need to arrive at the airport earlier, they're also saying that they will be increasing the turnaround speed of their planes, so they can get better efficiency and use out of each plane.  Plainly Delta is sensitive to issues of efficiency, but only when it impacts on them, not when it impacts on their passengers.

It appears that DL under-reported the number of aircraft landings at SFO, and misrepresented the weight of some planes (landing fees are based on weight).  An audit by San Francisco's City Controller's Office has resulted in DL now having to pay an additional $800,000 in fees to the airport.

Curiously, although Delta spokesman Anthony Black said the company had disclosed the underpayments to the airport before it was discovered by city auditors, Audit manager Elisa Sullivan said airport officials could find no record of the company's ever notifying them of underpayments!

This article quotes Delta's CEO, Leo Mullins, as predicting that 'around 2006, a real competitive slugfest will occur between the hub-and-spoke airlines and the point-to-point carriers'.  He also trots out a well-worn claim that the dinosaurs (what he more politely calls the hub-and-spoke airlines) will be able to charge 15% premium on airfares to business travelers and still compete successfully against the new dynamic profitable airlines (what he calls the point-to-point carriers).

Different dinosaur CEO's regularly trot out this claim, with the only difference being the premium they say they can succeed at gouging out of business travelers.  These claims have no apparent basis in reality, as measured either by their success (ie lack of profit) or their market shares (dinosaurs are losing market share while the low cost carriers are scooping it up).

Note also that while CEO Mullins is singing another familiar refrain - the need to get bigger through mergers and consolidations - the only profitable airlines are those that are small in size.

Last year an incredible total of 22 commercial pilots tested positive for alcohol use, and a further nine pilots have tested positive so far this year. The increase in numbers has caused the FAA to change procedures so that pilots who fail sobriety tests are stripped of both their medical and airman's certificates immediately.  A pilot needs both certificates to fly.

Here's an interesting article, with some fascinating pictures, about the test flight procedures to get Boeing's new 777-300ER certified.

Boeing has settled on a name for its proposed new 7E7 -  the 'Dreamliner' - a very appropriate name for a plane that has yet to have its design finalized and which has still to be approved for commercial development.  Boeing is also saying that it might create a new company to develop the 7E7, with some shares held by other companies.

This would create tremendous conflicts of interest when Boeing came to sell the plane - should it be selling a plane model that it gets 100% of the profit on, or the new 7E7 that it would get a reduced profit share on?  And how would the other shareholders feel if Boeing seemed to be selectively discounting the 7E7 to sell at close to cost, while selling other planes at full margin?  Should it jointly develop new 7E7 models in the future, or apply the technology to its other planes?  With such scenarios, it might be better to call this the Nightmareliner.

And just to show that Boeing might have a sense of humor, they also said they will ensure the 7E7 is not 'too quiet' on the inside - Boeing says passenger studies have shown that 'library quiet' is too quiet because passengers then worry about having their conversations overheard.  The big joke in all of this being a suggestion that 'library quiet' was ever being considered as an option.  Possible translation - 'we're going to save money on the soundproofing of the plane, and all you passengers can buy noise reducing headphones if you don't like it'.

The two yearly airshow in a certain country beginning with 'F' has been underway, albeit with a massively reduced US presence, and the usual series of staged announcements of new plane orders has occurred.  Airbus is the clear winner, having picked up an order from Emirates for 41 new widebodied jets (including 21 of the A380 superjumbo) valued at $12.5 billion, and a $5.1 billion order for 18 planes from Qatar Airways.

In total, Airbus now has 125 firm orders for its A380.  It says that it needs to receive 250 orders, spread over 20 years, for the project to be profitable.  Having 125 orders two years before the plane first flies seems to suggest that this plane will be wildly successful.

However, the first cold water has been poured on Airbus' fanciful descriptions of the A380 being equipped with lounge areas, bars, duty free shops, casinos, and even gymnasiums by Emirates spokesman David Wilson who said 'there won't be gymnasiums and bars.  These will be planes to carry passengers, not casinos.'.

Further proof of the turnaround in air travel comes with Qantas announcing that it will be increasing its flights between the US and Australia from the current 25 a week up to 28 at the end of the month, and then up to 30 in early August, and up to 33 in September - the same as the maximum number it was flying before 9/11.

Mercer Human Resource Consulting have released their annual expensive city survey.  This year shows that Qantas' home territory - Australia and New Zealand - is the cheapest region to do business in, with only Sydney appearing on the top 100 expensive cities (at number 67).  The ten most expensive cities are Moscow, Tokyo, Osaka, Hong Kong, Beijing, Geneva, London, St Petersburg, Zurich and New York.  Los Angeles comes in at 22, Chicago at 25, and Miami at 27.

Cellphone and Wi-Fi news :  Here's an article that talks approvingly about new cellphones under development that will automatically spend your money for you!

And here's yet another article to prove that the Luddites are alive and well in modern society.  The article seems to approve of the concept of banning picture taking cellphones from many places, for fear that pedophiles may use them to take pictures of young children.  As I've said before, there are any number of hidden or miniature digicams and camcorders that would do a vastly better job of this than a picture taking cellphone.

The stupidest idea of all in this article is to install cellphone jammers in such places - sure, it will stop the cellphone from sending or receiving phone calls, but it won't stop the camera inside it from still working perfectly.  Alarmingly, the sidebar poll shows that 60% of article readers support such a ban.

Wi-Fi is now available at LaGuardia airport.  And the 15 Laptop Lane business centers in nine major US airports now offer color printing services for travelers.  Simply connect your laptop to their universal print driver, print out whatever you need, wait a couple of minutes, and collect the final printed pages.  Great for procrastinators who leave finalizing their presentations to the very last minute!

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A thirteen year old Seattle boy bought a ticket to Maui on the internet using his mother's credit card.  He then walked by himself to the airport (2 miles), showed his school ID (with no picture on it) to get through security, and was welcomed onto the flight.

How can a 13 year old boy, traveling by himself with no government issued photo ID, and with a ticket paid for by a credit card that wasn't his, get a boarding pass, pass  through security, and board the plane?

Picture this, if you can :  Police and terrorists carry out a pitched gun battle at gate D5 inside an airline terminal.  Meantime, at gates D4 and D6, passengers are calmly waiting for their flights as if nothing is going on (apart from the ones hit by stray bullets and killed, of course).  This would seem to be the vision at Boston's Logan Airport, where their 'elite' police unit now patrols the airport with submachine guns.  The guns have been fitted with silencers so as to (and I'm quoting) 'minimize alarm among travelers if they are fired'.

Don't you think it worrying that people who believe putting silencers on their submachine guns is a good idea and will make everything okay are given the submachine guns in the first place?  As I've said before, there are many tactical reasons why submachine guns are a very bad weapon to use inside an airport, and plenty more reasons why fitting them with silencers is also inappropriate.  Are we now to have politically correct gun battles where the guns aren't 'too noisy'?

As long time readers know, I believe that much of our present preoccupation with security is nothing more than the latest boondoggle way of wasting public money.  The most recent confirmation comes from learning that the small regional carrier Sun Country Airlines is fitting a video security system on one of its 737s.  The plane already has an expensive secure cockpit door, and this new video system is to allow pilots to see who is outside the cockpit door.

Okay, companies like X10 sell video monitoring systems for a few hundred dollars.  So how much do you think was spent on the Sun Country Airlines plane, which has four cameras (an overkill to start with)?  The answer - $60,000.  And why did they spend so much money on something that is perhaps not necessary at all ?  Oh, because they received a federal grant.

Last week I referred disbelievingly to comments from two consultants suggesting that the internet was easy to use and an effective way of booking travel.  Confirming my incredulity, this week we have the results of a study conducted by Web Mystery Shoppers Intl Inc.  They had 486 'mystery shoppers' try and book flights on eight different airline and nine different travel agency web sites.  40% of the group got error messages when trying to confirm their flights; 41% did not know if they could cancel their booking, and 25% did not know what the exact final price would be for the flights they were booking.  In addition, key frustrations expressed by the shoppers included :

  • Confusing airport codes, particularly in cities where there is more than one airport.  If you don't know the city, how do you know which airport you want to land at?
  • Agonizingly slow search times, with many useless results.
  • Sites that hid or did not provide toll-free telephone numbers. When you are ready to book, you want to get all your questions answered right away, not wait a day or two for a reply to an e-mail.
  • High prices: few of the shoppers felt that the prices were better than elsewhere.

I'd enviously commented, a couple of months ago, about the academic who spent several years researching the world's beaches, to see which were the best.  Now, an entire team of researchers from New Scientist magazine spent an impressive six years determining which is the world's friendliest city.  Rio de Janeiro came top of their list, closely followed by Costa Rica’s San Jose, while Madrid, Spain, was third. Cities that were deemed unfriendly included New York, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Amsterdam.

Talking about unfriendly cities, a hotel in Leeds, England, is offering free stays to people that have had a bad tour experience.  Simply email them a 50 word description of your vacation gone wrong, and you might be one of 150 winners.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels in friendly and inexpensive locales

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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