Thursday 3 July, 2003

Good morning.  I expect very few of us will be at work on Friday morning, and so am sending this week's newsletter a day early.  And if you're at a loose end for what to do this holiday weekend, here's a great deal :

Fly from Los Angeles to Tahiti for only $340 roundtrip.  Business class available for only $1000 more.  Taxes extra.

Air Tahiti Nui is offering this last minute special on three departures (4,  5 and 17 July) with returns back to LAX available on 9, 10 and 24 July.

More information on these deals is available from the airline's website or your travel agent, who could also urgently put together a package of accommodation for you once you get to these beautiful South Pacific islands.

I read an interesting statistic about how, in Japan, becoming a flight attendant is still viewed as an ultra-glamorous career.  Young women spend thousands of dollars in private tuition to increase their chances of being accepted as a flight attendant, and over 50 people apply for every vacancy.  With that as background, this week's column reviews a book by a former Pan Am stewardess (as they were then called) that combines some interesting anecdotes about 'the golden age' of air travel with hard hitting practical advice for today's traveler.

This Week's Column :  Strategies for the Wise Passenger :  This is a new book written by a former flight attendant, full of helpful advice as well as amusing anecdotes.

Dinosaur Watch Part 1 - United :  United's ill-advised plans for another low-cost carrier, known as Starfish, seem to have been quietly dropped.  Plans for Starfish found little support, either among industry analysts or, more critically, among UA's unions, who refused to agree to Starfish being run as a separate entity with a lower-paid workforce.

UA's new emphasis seems to be on wooing higher fare paying business passengers, and concentrating on higher yielding routes where UA does not compete directly with discounters.  Plans to deploy Starfish on competitive routes seem to have been replaced either by a de-emphasis on such routes or by farming them out to United Express partner airlines.

Dinosaur Watch Part 2 - American :  Good news from AA.  You can now use your cellphone while the plane is on the ground, both while it is taxiing to the runway and also after it has landed and is taxiing in to the gate.  FAA (and possibly FCC) regulations prohibit the use of cellphones while planes are in flight, however (see an interesting discussion here).  Other airlines will likely copy AA's sensible move.

AA's load factor (the percentage of seats sold on every flight) increased 3.6%, up to 78.8%, year over year this June.  Sounds great, doesn't it.  But actual traffic declined 3.2% and their capacity (the number of seats they were actually flying during the month) declined 7.7%.  So, a diminishing number of passengers, but an even more rapidly diminishing number of flights meant that overall, the load factor improved.  And on Tuesday, AA said that it planned to ground another 57 planes by mid-2004, meaning that their fleet will reduce to the size it was in early 2000, before they bought TWA.

This high load factor is good because it means that AA is extracting more revenue from every flight, and is about as high a load factor as an airline can realistically ever get.  But soon AA will need to focus on increasing its dwindling passenger numbers if it wishes to retain its title of America's largest airline.

While AA was recording a 3.2% drop in June traffic, Southwest is proudly advising of a 5.2% increase in its June numbers.  Southwest advise that for the entire second quarter, traffic increased 4.6% year on year.

One of the major profit opportunities for dinosaur airlines has been providing service into non-competitive airports - typically small airports that only have a few flights a day.  Discount airlines have historically concentrated on going after higher traffic routes, leaving the smallest routes alone.

This may be changing.  JetBlue announced it has found 807 routes that currently have fewer than 100 passengers a day and which could be potential routes for its new 100 seat Embraer regional jets.  Spokesman Gareth Edmondson-Jones says 'We're bringing service to markets that have never had low fares'.  Gareth should use the future rather than the present tense - the first seven Embraers are not due to arrive until some time in 2005, and then extras will be delivered at a rate of 18/year for at least the next five years after that.

At the risk of sounding like I'm defending the dinosaur airlines, we get what we pay for, with airlines as with anything else.  An insufficiently stated subtext to my regular bemoaning about airline service is that the airlines are this way primarily because we have forced them into that corner.  All airlines would vastly prefer to compete on service rather than abandoning service and competing on price alone.  But we - their customers - have consistently shown an unwillingness to pay any type of premium for an improved service.

A recent example of this is AA's move away from its 'More Room Throughout Coach' program.  My guess is that the main reason they are de-emphasizing this is simply because it did not pay off - they did not get sufficient extra market share.  And while a few of us definitely did go out of our way to fly with AA because of their better coach seating, most travelers did not.  We only have ourselves to blame for AA reducing this program.

The most recent example of this situation can be found in a Carlson Marketing survey of 16,000 internet users in Britain.  It found that discount carriers easyJet and Ryanair are among the least trusted travel brands and that people feel they are the worst at handling complaints.  But, the survey also found that 43% of respondents said they have recommended easyJet to a friend in the last six months - the highest of any airline!!!

We are, ourselves, creating the nightmare that we then complain about.  Similarly, the solution is also within ourselves, but it requires us making an effort to selectively travel only with good airlines we like, abandoning airlines we don't like, and paying extra for better service.

If you're traveling to Europe this summer you've probably been looking with dismay at the strengthening Euro and its impact on your travel costs.  In his latest issue, publisher Bob Bestor treats subscribers to his Gemutlichkeit Travel Newsletter to an excellent outpouring of sensible strategies to control your travel costs without unduly limiting your pleasurable travel experience.  As I've said before, this is a great publication.

Thanks to reader Tom for passing on this gem.  Readers may recall the crash of a commuter plane at Charlotte, NC, killing all people on board.  One of the contributing factors to the accident appears to be that the plane may have been over its maximum takeoff weight.

The FAA has set average weights which airlines use to calculate the weight of passengers and bags on their planes.  After this crash, it surveyed actual passenger and bag weights, and found that passengers are almost 21 pounds heavier than the official average weight, and carry-on bags are almost 6 lbs heavier than the official average.

So, what does the FAA do?  Does it require airlines to adjust their calculations to increase the weight of each passenger and their carryon by 27 lbs?  No, it says that airlines should increase the theoretical weight by only 10 lbs!  What happened to the other 17 lbs?

These are not the only numbers that the FAA seems to have difficulty with.  A government audit released on Monday shows that many contracts for modernizing the nation's air traffic control system are years behind schedule and billions over budget.  Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead reviewed 20 projects worth $14 billion and found that 14 of them had $4.3 billion in overruns and 13 were also one to seven years behind schedule.  Mead concluded that the FAA cannot "effectively plan, manage programs or meet expectations" for these air traffic controller projects.

Readers may remember how impressed I was with Virgin's (VS) lounges at Heathrow and San Francisco when I flew with them earlier this year.  The innovative airline has now come up with a new way for you to fill in your time while waiting for your flight - get fitted for a new tailor-made suit and shirts!  Initially available only at Heathrow (but likely to expand to the US), passengers can have a 20 minute fitting, select fabrics and colors, and then, within four weeks, their new suit and/or shirts will be shipped to any address in the world they wish.  Prices start at approximately $520 for a suit and $96 for a shirt.

VS tells me that the service has proved immediately popular with already twice as many people using the service every day as expected.  Should you have any problems with the fit of the suit when delivered, the tailor (London's Dress2kill) will credit you for up to 30 ($50) of alterations done locally.

And while VS are bringing custom tailoring into their lounges, airline shopping in general seems to be undergoing surprising growth - travelers are finding that shopping is a good way to fill in the waiting time until their flight departs.  Pittsburgh has the highest revenue per passenger - on average, every passenger getting on a plane spends $8.63 in airport shops.  Airport shops average $1000 in annual sales per square foot, about three times the rate of shops in retail malls.

It has been a good week for Boeing.  All Nippon Airways (ANA) announced an order for 45 737-700s, which will replace its existing fleet of earlier model 737-400s and -500s and also Airbus A320s.

Later in the week, Boeing scooped up a prize US fleet order that had been fiercely contested by Airbus, when AirTran announced an order for 100 737s and 10 717s.  However, this deal is not as good as it seems on paper.  In reality, it represents 28 firm orders for new 737s and 6 firm orders for new 717s.  Another 22 737s have already been counted into Boeing's existing orders (sold to a leasing company) and the balance of the order are merely options that have yet to be confirmed.

It was great to see Boeing beat Airbus, but it doesn't seem quite such a convincing win when one probes beneath the surface of the deal.  AirTran had earlier secured a very favorable deal from Boeing for the leasing of some 717s.  In return, a penalty clause could have required AirTran to cash out approximately $125 million it had borrowed from Boeing if AirTran now purchased Airbus planes.  This penalty clause definitely gave Boeing a massive tactical advantage over Airbus during the present negotiations!

I've regularly predicted that Wi-Fi access is going to continue to drop in price.  This interesting article echoes my prediction, and quotes an 'industry expert' as predicting that half of hotels with wireless broadband will be giving it free to guests by 2007.  But not every hotel seems to be planning for this.  This article refers to Marriott charging $2.95 for the first 15 minutes of access, and then a hefty 25 for every minute of wireless access after that.  That is an outrageous fee (T-Mobile charge 10 a minute or less).

Bottom line?  Ask, when making a hotel booking, if the hotel offers wired or wireless broadband, and what the cost of the service would be, and book away from hotels that are overly greedy.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  At great cost (generally $25,000 - $50,000 per door) the airlines have all installed special strengthened cockpit doors.  These doors - in theory - are bulletproof and can also withstand a heavy man trying to break in through the door.

So how, then, to explain this incident, forwarded by reader Tom?  On 10 June, while a flight attendant was exiting the cockpit on an AA 757, she closed the door and this resulted in one of the panels falling out of the door and hitting the pilot on the head!  The accident report describes the pilot as 'incapacitated' by a 1" long cut on his head, and the first officer had to take over, making an immediate descent and landing at Denver.

A suspicious package in an airport restroom at LAX's International Terminal resulted in three of the terminals being evacuated.  The package contained some fireworks.

Talking about fireworks, be careful if you're planning on letting off some fireworks yourself and then traveling the next day.  New sensitive explosive detectors at airports can pick up the remains of fireworks residue on your clothes, your shoes, your belongings, and of course, on yourself.  These detectors can also be triggered if you have garden fertilizer traces on you, or even if you take nitroglycerin heart tablets.

I'd mentioned last week about the new type of 'X-ray vision' metal detectors that can see through clothes.  Quite apart from the fun (?) of having airport workers seeing you virtually naked, I'm surprised that no-one is talking about the harmful effects of being repeatedly bombarded by X-rays.  Although described as 'no more radiation than a dental x-ray' most of us don't get dental x-rays as often as we walk through metal detectors - and have you ever noticed how the dental technicians often elaborately shield themselves from the radiation?

Here's an amusing story about the CIA classifying as 'secret' and refusing to release, under Freedom of Information requests, a document that was nothing more than a seasonal Christmas joke.

Lastly this week, more on problems with picture taking cell phones.  In Japan, where more than half of new cell phones have built in digital cameras, bookstores are complaining that the cameras are being used for 'digital shoplifting'.  Rather than buy a magazine, some people are simply photographing any pictures or articles of interest!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and have a wonderful Independence Day celebration

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider
ps :  Don't forget to visit Joe Brancatelli's site for his weekly updates, too.

An archive of previous emailed newsletters can be found here
If this was forwarded to you by a friend, please
click here and subscribe to the newsletter yourself
If you ever wish to unsubscribe, simply reply to this email and set the subject line to say 'unsubscribe'.