Friday 18 July, 2003

Good morning.  I've been enjoying some of the new remote computing software tools by working on my deck, on the laptop, instead of in my office, on the desktop.  The 'clever' parts come from using Wi-Fi to connect the laptop to the LAN, and using Microsoft's Remote Terminal Connection to enable me to be 'working' on my desktop pc exactly as if I were cooped up inside.  So I'm enjoying the wonderful weather and the beautiful views from my deck, while working as if I were in my office.  Truly amazing.  Technology that really does work as advertised and which really can enhance one's lifestyle.

The same is not quite so true of many new low priced personal radio communicators.  The disappointment I experienced when buying a pair of these, advertised as having a 7 mile range, but finding their true range was very much less, prompted me to write what is now becoming a three part series.  Part one was several weeks ago and introduced you to the four main types of personal radio service, and explained some of the differences between them.  And now, for part two :

This Week's Column :  Getting the Best Range : Manufacturers claim up to a 7 mile range for personal two-way radios, but this is in 'perfect' conditions only; you'll be lucky to get one tenth the distance.  This week I explain what factors influence the real-world coverage you'll get, and how to get the best range you can.

Dinosaur Watching :  Second quarter financial results are starting to come out.  Continental shows a profit of $79 million.  Delta records a profit of $184 million.  Northwest has $227 million in profit.  Surprised?  Ah, but these figures include the impact of the latest government handout.

Without the handout, CO would be showing a loss of about $30 million, DL would have a $237 million loss after its share, plus a one-off gain from selling its share of a reservation system, and after similar adjustments, NW would be $160 million in the hole.

But poor AA can't show a profit - even after including the government's gift.  AA received $357 million, but still ended up with a $75 million loss.  AA continues to do its version of 'Honey, I Shrunk the Airline' by announcing massive reductions in its St Louis hub, which it inherited from TWA.

An interesting example of one area in which AA is shooting itself in the foot is discussed in this forum, where a reader describes how AA contacted her and ended up halving the amount of revenue they earn from her company.  Is that good business sense?  Apparently AA thinks so!

United's figures have yet to be announced, but one analyst is projecting a $630 million loss prior to the effect of UA's government handout.  But UA might yet surprise us, like it did earlier this week when UA revived what many had thought to be an abandoned concept to run a low-cost carrier as a sub-airline within itself.  It is unclear exactly how 'low cost' this subsidiary will be, because UA has agreed to pay its pilots the same rates as for its mainline pilots.

I'd mentioned last week about UA's promotion giving away a free coach ticket for every business or first class trip ( a promotion now copied by most of the other major airlines).  Travel agent reader Randy has this to say :

The "free" ticket must be booked in "XY" inventory, same as used for free frequent flier tickets. As we all know, this can be a very difficult class to find available.

Which just goes to show, when something sounds too good to be true, then, alas, it usually indeed is exactly that.

Last week we saw what some would call the ugly face of competition, when a US Federal Appeals Court held that AA's actions in protecting its routes from start up competitors, while hardball, was not illegal.  And now, this week, let's look at the good side of airline competition.  Virgin Atlantic Airways (VS).

VS has always had a two class service on its planes - coach class and business class (which it calls Upper Class), with a recent addition of a mid level 'Premium Economy' class as well.  I've flown and reviewed both these two cabins, and thought very highly of them.  Although I preferred VS's Upper Class in almost every respect compared to BA's Business Class, many people have been attracted to BA's sleeper bed seats - Virgin's Upper Class seats did not go completely flat into a sleeper bed.

All that is now changing.  In an almost $100 million upgrade (at a time when most major airlines are cutting back on their service every which way) VS is completely redoing its Upper Class cabins.  It is as if they read every criticism in my BA review and resolved to beat every one of BA's limitations.  The new VS Upper Class cabin will have the longest, widest - and most comfortable - sleeper seat of any airline, in either first or business class.  No sensible traveler will ever fly first class across the Atlantic again, when there is a better and less expensive business class product with VS!

They are to be the first airline with a wonderful innovation - the side of the seat/bed you sit on is not the same side you sleep on.  As I complained in my BA review, what makes for a comfortable seat seldom makes for a comfortable bed!  VS's seat flips over as part of its transformation to a long wide comfortable bed, and allows you to sleep on a softer foam mattress like material.

Among other innovations, the layout of their new cabin has all seats as aisle seats, and all facing forward.  A criticism several people have made about the BA cabin is that if you get trapped in a backwards facing inside seat, getting out in the middle of the night unavoidably seems to require waking the stretched out sleeping person blocking your exit.

And another innovation - you don't have to put your seat back up for takeoff and landing.  You can have it in any comfortable position you choose.

There are many more very positive elements to this new cabin (called the Upper Class Suites), which now seems to offer passengers a service that is uncompromisingly better than other airlines' first class, at a business class price (ie a saving of $4000 compared to first class on a New York/London roundtrip)!  But I won't elaborate further now - I hope to be able to experience this new service for myself before too long and then report back to you in full detail.

More Virgin news :  Their Virgin Blue subsidiary in Australia has been awarded international rights to fly to New Zealand, Fiji and Vanuatu (bet you don't know where that is!).  And it seems likely that the main airline will soon be adding flights between Hong Kong and Australia - who wants to bet that it won't be long before they add a flight between Australia and Los Angeles, giving them boasting rights of having round the world service.  On occasion, in the past, UA has had flights encircling the world, but I'm not sure if they still do, and, as far as I'm aware, no other airlines have complete round the world service.

And, still more VS news :  In a week full of great news from VS, they also found time to mention that they hope to be starting up a new discount airline in the US within the next eleven months, initially with 10-15 planes and then averaging one more plane a month for the next eighteen months.  That is, for sure, another nail into the dinosaur's coffin - a discount domestic carrier that also has a highest quality global network.

And, what of BA?  It is in the process of laying off 13,000 staff, but perhaps it is getting a bit overly enthusiastic at this.  Last weekend it had to charter an old 747-200 from an Icelandic airline to fly the BA service between London and Cairo, due to BA not having enough cabin crew to staff its own planes!  Even though it has insufficient staff to fly the flights it has scheduled, BA expects to lay off another 3,000 staff between now and September.

File this quote away and see if it comes back to haunt the person making it. Lufthansa spokesman Bern Hoffmann said on Monday 'There's definitely been no offer' in response to continued rumors that it has offered to buy out Switzerland's struggling carrier, Swiss International Air Lines.  Rumors continue that Lufthansa is in talks with Swiss.

The headline on Tuesday looked innocent enough.  Continental announced it was deferring the delivery of 36 737s (by about three years) and that it was in discussions regarding the terms of delivery of 11 757s.  But this news has a major potential impact on Boeing.  Its 757, introduced in 1978 (but first delivered in 1982), has not received a single new order in the last 18 months, and its order backlog has been almost exhausted.

When the 757 was first announced, it offered a substantial increase in seating (100 more seats) and range (1000 extra miles - enabling the 757 to fly coast to coast nonstop) over the 737-200 series, and clearly filled a gap in the marketplace.  But now, current model 737s have almost double the passenger carrying capacity of the 737-200, and have almost the same range as a 757, and the proposed new 737-900x will hold even more passengers, making it almost indistinguishable in capabilities from the 757 series.

Some industry commentators are accordingly speculating that Continental will replace its 757 orders with orders for other Boeing planes instead, with the result that Boeing may close down its 757 production entirely some time in 2004.  The 22 year life of the 757 series is in line with the 707 (21 years) and the 727 (20 years).  The 737 has now been in production for a massive 36 years, and the 747 for 34 years.  Another plane with an uncertain future is the 767, which has been in production for 21 years.

In a worst case scenario, Boeing could see itself reduced to only two ongoing series of planes - the 737 and the 777.  Airbus has five different series of planes.

Meanwhile, an embarrassing reminder that while some things happen quickly, other things take forever.  Seven years ago TWA's flight TW800 blew up, just off the coast of New York, in mysterious circumstances.  Some people believed it to have been struck by a missile (possibly even accidentally launched by US naval forces).  Others suggested that an empty center fuel tank contained a danger mix of fuel gases and air, and a stray spark caused it to explode.

There is a reasonably easy process to prevent such explosions - as fuel is drained out of a tank, it could be replaced not with ordinary air but with inert nitrogen, making it almost impossible for any nitrogen/fuel vapor mix to explode.  Finally, seven years later, Boeing and Airbus are "preparing" to test this technology.  I don't think this is a fast enough response - do you?

But maybe I'm worrying needlessly.  2002 was the safest year ever for US airlines, with no fatalities whatsoever.  Strangely, some commentators suggest that the airlines' financial crisis helped make 2002 so safe.  The airlines grounded a lot of their older planes and laid of their less-experienced pilots and mechanics, leaving them with the most modern and reliable planes and most skilled employees.

There was a fatal crash in November 2001 (the AA flight out of JFK) and another in January this year (the commuter plane in Charlotte) so this 'safest year ever' only just managed to sneak in between accidents on either side of the twelve months.

I'm in two minds about Wi-Fi.  I love it, but I'm not yet convinced it is going to become a ubique feature.  It has just too short a range for many purposes, and it is close to impossible to provide blanket coverage over a wide area.  Faster cell phone data lines might become a better source of 'go everywhere' connectivity.  But, meantime, putting this reservation to one side, it is great to see Wi-Fi spreading into more and more places This article talks about it now cropping up at campsites, beaches and RV parks.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The TSA has clarified and standardized its shoe policy (ie do you have to remove them or not to go through their checkpoints).  The good news - it is no longer mandatory for all passengers to remove their shoes.  The bad news - screeners 'are being instructed to encourage passengers to remove their shoes and submit them for x-ray examination'.

What does 'encourage' mean?  Well, the TSA smugly says that people who insist on leaving their shoes on will have a great chance of 'being selected for a more thorough, secondary screening'.

So why can't the TSA stop playing games and be honest with us all.  The message seems to be 'take your shoes off voluntarily or else we're going to make your life hell for you'.

Meanwhile, proving that government clocks move at a different speed to those in the normal universe, the TSA's service commitment to an average delay of ten minutes to get through security continues to be smashed to pieces.  Some airports and airlines are reporting that hundreds of passengers are missing their flights on some days - for example, AirTran reports that typically 120 passengers are not making their flights out of Atlanta during peak travel times on Mondays and Saturdays.  Delta wouldn't give figures for its passenger problems in Atlanta but did say that 'the current delays at peak times are unacceptable'.

Travel writer Joe Sharkey was on an AA flight from San Juan to Miami that was stuck at the gate for three hours before takeoff, due to a mechanical problem.  Neither he, nor any of the other passengers were allowed to get off the plane during the three hour wait.  A flight attendant announced that this was not allowed because it would cause a breach in security, and said that anyone with complaints should contact the TSA.

So Joe did exactly that, only to be told by TSA spokesman Brian Turmail 'There is no policy on the book that would have prevented passengers from deplaning'!  This is part of the reason we hate the dinosaurs - because they treat us like contemptible idiots and lie to us for their own convenience.

I continue to worry about the threat posed to passenger planes by surface to air missiles.  Moscow Defense Ministry officials admitted this week that 'at least' eight Strela missile launchers were stolen from a navy arsenal near St Petersburg.  Coming soon, to an airplane near you?

Finally this week, another glimpse into travel packages for those that have been (almost) everywhere and done (almost) everything.  Hunting for Bambi (the two legged variety).  Words fail me.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

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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