Friday 11 July, 2003

Good morning.  My comments in last week's newsletter that we get what we pay for, with airlines as with everything else, generated some excellent reader responses.  Three of them can be seen here - you're of course welcome to add your own commentaries in our forums as well.

However, at present, my focus is more on getting unwelcome extra things that sometimes also have to be paid for.  By this I mean spam emails.  And so, here is

This Week's Column :  Stopping Spam :  Spam is always unwelcome, but especially so when you're traveling. The time and money cost of downloading spam when you're out of town and using a slow dialup connection can be crippling. Here are three ways to keep spam under control, on the road, and back in your office or home.

Dinosaur Watching -  June traffic reports have been coming out over the last few days, and it is fascinating to see the winners and the losers.  United reported a 9.8% decline (compared to June last year) in its passenger traffic, as well as a massive 14.2% reduction in its capacity (number of flights and seats).  Ouch.  There are only so many months in a row that you can suffer 14.2% declines before you end up with nothing left!

Fellow dinosaur Northwest reported an even larger 10.2% drop in passenger traffic, with a 10.5% drop in capacity.  And US Airways had a more modest drop of 5.8%, with a 7.3% drop in capacity.

However, all is not doom and gloom.  The shining star in the sky is JetBlue, announcing an increase of 62.7% in its June traffic.

Internationally, KLM reported an overall drop of 9% in its traffic.  On its Asia Pacific routes, traffic was down 28%, due primarily to the effects of SARS on travel to Asia.

In related SARS news, the WHO have declared that SARS has now been contained in all affected countries.  In total, there were 8400 SARS, and 800 deaths.  I am both astonished and delighted that SARS has now been contained.

BA had mixed results.  The good news was that in the three months April-June, their economy traffic increased by 4.9%.  But offsetting that was a collapse of 12.4% in BA's premium traffic.  And perhaps underscoring BA's move downmarket from being formerly the airline beloved of businessmen to that now sought after by budget conscious holiday makers, BA was deemed the 'best low cost airline' in an annual survey organized by The Guardian newspaper in Britain.  24,000 people returned surveys.

United is offering a nice giveaway at present.  Fly somewhere internationally in their business or first class, and receive a free coach class international ticket as a reward.  Best of all, the free ticket is valid on UA or any of their Star Alliance partners.  There are over 650 destinations around the world that you can redeem the tickets to.  Details on United's website.

Sometimes it is very hard to understand how the judicial mind works, isn't it!  I say this not because I'm currently reading the delightful book 'Uncommon Law: Being 66 Misleading Cases' by A P Herbert, but rather in response to the US Court of Appeals' decision that American Airlines did not display predatory pricing on routes between its Dallas hub and Kansas City, Wichita, Colorado Springs and Long Beach.

The Justice Department had appealed an earlier ruling in favor of AA, and argued that American tried to monopolize these four routes to develop a reputation as an exceedingly aggressive competitor to set an example to other carriers.  American competed with new low-cost carriers (Vanguard Airlines, SunJet International and Western Pacific) by lowering prices and adding capacity on the routes.

The low-cost carriers then either ceased operations or moved and American resumed its prior marketing strategy.  The Justice Department claimed that AA willingly accepted losses by matching fares and adding capacity, because it expected to recoup its losses through monopoly fares after its competitors exited the markets. While capacity was reduced after the low-cost carriers exited, it was generally higher than before the alleged predatory pricing, the court said.

The Justice Department argued that American's response to the competition was an anti-competitive one and therefore not allowed under the Sherman Act.  They claimed that American spent more to add capacity than the revenue it got from the extra passengers and that such an action made no economic sense.

None of the three airlines that AA 'fairly' competed against are still in existence.  One is left wondering just exactly what 'anti-competitive' actions are.

Referring back to the book 'Misleading Cases', if you're an amateur (or professional) student of English law, you will almost certainly find this a most delightful book.  It was written in the 1930s, and subsequently made into an excellent BBC comedy series in the 1960s (alas, not currently available on tape or DVD), and features a series of cases that highlight some of the logical absurdities that happen when a judge strictly follows the law while ignoring commonsense.  One of the best known of these cases is the story of the man who made out a check on the side of a cow, rather than on normal bank stationery.  Each of the 66 cases is an independent short story that is quick and easy to read, making it a great book for reading in short snatches of spare time, rather than something you have to solidly work through from start to finish.

One wonders what A P Herbert would make of the AA case.

On a happier airline note, AA's decision to cut back on its 'More Room Throughout Coach' program of expanded leg room caused a lot of anguish.  As a 4 July present to the US, JetBlue announced that it will be taking a row of seats out of every plane in its fleet of A 320s, enabling JetBlue to increase the leg room in most of every plane.

It seems that JetBlue can't conveniently move the location of the seats around the over-the-wing exit rows, and so the extra legroom will only apply to seats behind the exit row.  54 of the seats (the front part of the plane) will have an unchanged 32" seat pitch, while the other 102 seats will have an expanded 34".  The first newly configured plane will be in service within two months, and their entire fleet will be reconfigured prior to Thanksgiving.  Tantalisingly, CEO David Neeleman has promised 'more innovation' in the months to come.

With leather seating, inflight entertainment systems, and now expanded leg-room as well, JetBlue is clearly rivaling everything offered by the 'full service' airlines, only more so!  I'd like to hear one of the dinosaur CEO's explain how he still thinks that he can charge 30% more than JetBlue and expect people to fly on his dinosaur airline instead!  If anything, the dinosaurs should now be discounting their fares below JetBlue to try and entice people to accept inferior service!

JetBlue also scored tops in the May on-time flight figures.  90% of their flights landed within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival time, (as did also Southwest and SkyWest flights).  There just isn't a single bad thing you can say about JetBlue, is there!

Two comments about this.  First, it might seem like 2 inches of extra room is not a big deal.  It is.  If you currently have only one or two inches of free leg room, these extra two inches are effectively doubling your free space.

Second, JetBlue allow for pre-assigned seating on their flights.  Be sure to get your seats pre-assigned, and behind the exit rows.  Don't get stuck in the less preferred seating in the forward part of their cabins (rows 1-9 are the ones to avoid).

Lastly, if you want JetBlue to stay the course with this, please do all you can to preferentially choose their services.  As I said in my comments last week about how we get the type of airline we're prepared to pay for, if JetBlue don't see a positive response to this initiative, they're surely no more likely to continue it than was American Airlines, or TWA before them.

A gentle request to readers.  Many of you have asked how I manage to offer this free service.  My bank manager has occasionally enquired as well.  The short answer is I hope you'll occasionally click on some of the advertisers featured on the website.  While you should only click on ads that you are fairly interested in, if you see one of the new 'Ads by Google' that might be of interest, please do click on it.  This generates a very small fee per click to me and is much appreciated.  (Note that I have no control over the companies and products being advertised through this Google program - please don't think I'm endorsing anything!)

There is good news for flights across the board.  New GPS/WAAS based navigation systems are being phased in that will allow planes to navigate so accurately that they can fix their exact position to within 5 feet.  This will open airports up to takeoffs and landings even in very bad visibility that presently would prevent flying.  Best of all, the system does not require expensive ground installations at airports, and so even small airports will be able to benefit from it.

At last!  14 years ago, extending BART to the San Francisco airport was tagged as a high priority project.  Finally, trains are now operating - the ride takes 29 minutes, costs $4.70, and trains run every 15 minutes during weekdays and 20 minutes in the evenings and on weekends.  Part of the reason for the delay was funding.  So as to be able to use airline landing and related fees as a partial contribution to the development, negotiators worked out a deal that gives airline employees a BART discount in return!

In Chicago, a deal has now been reached for two new runways, and an extension on an existing runway, to be added to O'Hare.  The FAA is still completing an environmental review on the project, which in total is projected to cost $6.6 billion.

The environmental impacts of airports were also in the news in London this week.  The British government has won an appeal against a court ruling that would have ended night flights at Heathrow.  The original case was heard by the European Court of Human Rights, which decided that flights between 11pm and 6am violated the rights of some people living around the airport, and so ordered the cessation of these flights.

The necessary operational changes would have cost BA an estimated $530 million every year, and who knows how much extra for other airlines.  Would you care to guess at how many people had their rights violated, resulting in their initial victory that would have probably cost the airlines $500 million a year?   Eight.   A P Herbert's book on Misleading Cases seems less and less far-fetched.

Lastly about airports, LAX is proposing a major rebuild of much of its facilities, making it more secure.  Cars will be banned from the terminal areas, and passengers will check in for flights a mile east of the present terminals, then be transferred to the terminal by shuttle trains.  There would not be any expansion of the airport's facilities, just a redesign for security purposes.  The cost?  A breathtaking 9.6 billion dollars.

Reader Tom was planning to fly between New York and Vancouver.  He asked Travelocity for details on flights, and got this startling response back :

The specific itinerary you asked for is not available. Try making your search broader.

This Itinerary Is Not Available

The itinerary you requested is from New York, NY (NYC) to Vancouver, BC, Canada (YVR).

The specific itinerary you asked for is not available. Try making your search broader. Here are some common problems... You have chosen a city with no airport or limited schedules - try a nearby city with a larger airport.  You have chosen days when nothing is scheduled - try changing your departure dates or times.

Needless to say, there are airports in both New York and in Vancouver, and there are countless flights between the two cities, every day.  Of course this was obvious to Tom, but if makes you worry how many other times the information on Travelocity might be subtly wrong.

I wrote last week about Boeing having a strong advantage over Airbus when it came to AirTran choosing between the two competing companies due to existing contracts with penalty clauses.  And now a further possible advantage for Boeing has come to light.  Boeing is the second largest shareholder in AirTran!

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A passenger went to go through security at Bradley Intl Airport (CT), and told the security people that he had a de-activated inert inoperative dummy (get the idea?) landmine in his carryon bag.  His work involves him in training people to recognize Russian landmines and he uses this object as a prop.

Which of the following three outcomes do you think followed :

  1. The security screeners thanked him for volunteering the information, put the bag through the X-ray machine and explosives detector, then visually confirmed that the landmine was no danger.  They agreed that it was not on their official list of banned carry-on items, and allowed him to proceed to his flight

  2. The security screeners thanked him for volunteering the information, and agreed that it was not on their official list of banned carry-on items, but politely requested he check the object, so as not to cause any potential fear or alarm among his fellow passengers.

  3. Even though the passenger volunteered this information before having his bag X-rayed, the security screeners accused him of trying to smuggle an (inoperative) land mine through the security checkpoint (even though this is probably not illegal), and had the passenger arrested and charged with breaching the peace.

Yes, and even though both police and airport supervisors said the device was not likely to be used as a weapon, and said it was not a terrorism-related incident, the "correct" answer is, of course, (3).

Here's an amazing but not unfamiliar story.  A woman was planning on taking a flight from LAX to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific.  She arrived early at her gate, where a Qantas flight to Melbourne was still loading.  Not realizing this, she boarded the Qantas plane, and thought nothing more as the hours passed on the long journey across the Pacific.  Only upon landing in Melbourne did she realize that she was on the wrong flight.

Qantas says their electronic boarding pass readers were out of service, and so passengers were being boarded manually.  But let's walk ourselves through the process and see how many people failed to notice the problem (as well as the woman herself, of course!).  She hands her Cathay Pacific business class boarding pass to a Qantas agent, who does not even notice the difference between the distinctive Qantas business boarding pass and a Cathay one.  The Qantas agent should have keyed in the passenger's seat number and confirmed the passenger name with what the computer then pulled up, but apparently did not do this.  (Later on, when reconciling the flight, the Qantas agent had another chance to notice the unexpected extra passenger.)

The passenger walks to the jetway, probably past another Qantas person, goes down the jetway, and then shows her ticket to one of the senior cabin crew at the doorway, who also does not notice that it is not a Qantas boarding pass, and directs her to her business class seat.

The flight attendant then does not notice that there is an unexpected extra person in business class, and does not check against the flight manifest to try and reconcile the difference in numbers at any time during the 16+ hour flight.

Everything failed.  Nothing worked.  But it does seem to encourage people to just sit down in Business Class rather than keep walking all the way to the back and see if they can get away with it, doesn't it!

Of the 2,615 federal screeners working at LAX, more than one in ten (285) have been fired for security violations, mostly for failing to submit to fingerprinting.  Los Angeles city officials said that its review disqualified 29 of the screeners hired by the TSA because of criminal histories ranging from weapons charges to sexual assault.  Another 256 employees failed to have their fingerprints taken by a June 20 deadline.

On Jan 31, 2000, an MD83 flying as Alaska Airlines flight AS261 lost control and plunged into the sea while the pilots were attempting to make an emergency landing in Los Angeles, killing all 88 passengers and crew on board.  There is now only 1 outstanding wrongful death lawsuit remaining, with the other 87 now settled.  How much does an estate collect in such a case?  The payouts are all confidential, but this report indicates that the total payout has exceeded $300 million - about $3.5 million per settlement.

More 'problems' with picture taking mobile phones.  This time, one of the manufacturers - Samsung - will only allow such phones to be taken into their factories if they have had their lenses covered with a plastic sticker.

Better mobile phone news comes from closer to home.  As from 24 November this year, you'll be able to change mobile phone services and transfer over your existing cell phone number to the new provider.

With Concorde's pending demise, there are very few opportunities to now fly faster than the speed of sound.  For little more than the cost of a roundtrip Concorde ticket ($14,300), there is now an opportunity to fly higher and faster than Concorde ever could.  I'm off to Russia soon, and will let you know if I manage to persuade the operators of the 'Fly the Legend' program to give me a complimentary flight!

And if a flight in a Mig-25 Foxbat gives you a taste for space, a company 'Space Adventures' has now arranged for a private space mission in 2005, using one of the reliable old Russian Soyuz spacecraft.  Spaces go for $20 million a seat, and the itinerary includes time at the International Space Station.

South Australia's National Trust has added two more things to its 'Heritage Icons' list.  Already on the list are a diverse range of items, ranging from Penfold's Grange wine (considered by many to be the finest red wine in the world) to Ligurian bees (they make a unique honey).  The list is designed to recognize, record and protect items that have made a significant contribution to the state's cultural identity.  The latest two additions to this distinguished list?  Beer and meat pies!

And, lastly this week, glow-in-the-dark camels.  Israel is marking the camels that its Bedouin population use with phosphorescent strips so that desert drivers will spot the camels at night.  Over 1000 camels will be so equipped.  In the last two years, 10 people have been killed in camel related accidents, and another 50 have been seriously injured.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and watch out for camels, especially when drinking beer and eating meat pies.

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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