Friday 8 August, 2003

Good morning.  I'm delighted to report that we seem to have completely recovered from the temporarily crippling virus that had much of the main server out between Thursday - Sunday of last week.  My thanks to the many of you who sent 'moral support' emails and special thanks to the lovely lady who told me she has saved printouts of all my newsletters.  She kindly offered to send them to me (in case I had lost anything during the recovery process).

It is only a couple of weeks since I wrote about the 'latest and greatest' solution to international cell phone calling (Hop Abroad) and already there have been some significant changes!

Firstly, Hop Abroad keeps increasing the number of countries that it covers.  Two weeks ago, it could be used in 70 countries.  Today it is up to 82 countries.  They say that they expect to grow coverage up to 110 countries during the next few months, and at their current growth rate, that seems highly likely.

Secondly, after having written so much about GSM service in the US, I finally 'gave in' and sort of bought a US GSM phone for myself.  I chose the very best of the latest generation of phones - the Nokia 3650.  This tri-band phone works anywhere in the world, includes Bluetooth networking, a built in 640x480 digital camera, and has an MMC memory card to store hundreds of photos and other data.  It has a color screen, and just about every possible feature you'd ever want (and many you'll never need!).  This represents the absolute state of the art in phones at present.

I say 'sort of bought' because although the cost of this phone, with service through T-Mobile, was $300, I received a $150 rebate from the seller (Amazon) and a second $150 rebate from T-Mobile, making it free (apart from shipping charge and, I think, an activation fee).  You can get one, too, also for free - click this link to go to the Amazon short term promotion.  The phone is also available with AT&T plans through Amazon, but never buy a GSM phone from AT&T!!!

Why do I say this?  Because AT&T do not allow you to use their phones with other phone service providers (by changing the SIM account card inside the phone).  In industry parlance, their phones are 'locked'.  T-Mobile, on the other hand, willingly and cheerfully unlocks your phone for you after only 14 days of having service (and I persuaded them to do it even sooner than that!).

I've been happily using this phone to send and receive emails and messages as well as phone calls, and to take pictures and email them to friends all around the world.  The camera quality is poor, but it is a tremendously fun device with lots of valuable use for both business and leisure travelers.  You can see two pictures that I took with the camera on this page if you're interested.

And now, on to this week's column.  Joe Brancatelli's weekly newsletter (which I can't link to for fear of having AOL then censor all my email to their members!) is having a focus on food this week, and he invited me to provide a food related column, too.  While writing about good food isn't quite as much fun as actually eating it, it is still my pleasure to introduce to you :

This Week's Column :  Dining in Seattle :  Here are ten distinctive dining opportunities for you in my home city of Seattle.  Dine above the water, alongside the water, or on the water.  Or on a train.  Or in various other locations, including even simply ordering out for the region's best pizza and eating it in your hotel room.  Bon Appetit!

Dinosaur watching :  Never ask a question if the answer might upset you.  United bravely ignored this maxim and asked 15,000 employees their opinions on several issues.  Alas, only 34% of those surveyed thought senior management was making changes needed to steer the company out of bankruptcy, and a mere 24% thought that management was responsive to the needs of employees.  It is not known if employees gave an opinion on management's responsiveness to their customers!

Of course, United doesn't need to spend money asking staff about its customer relations.  It just needs to read its own complaint mail.  Reader Heather B shares a far from untypical bad experience that she suffered at UA's hands in our reader forum.

United announced its second quarter results on Monday.  Even after a $300 million handout from the government, it ended up posting a $623 million loss.  Last year's second quarter loss was 'only' $341 million.  Operating revenues fell an astonishing 18%, and sadly expenses didn't drop to a significantly larger extent.

For the first six months of this year, UA's net loss totals $1.97 billion dollars, compared with a loss of 'only' $850 million same period last year.

US Airways posted a loss of $154 million before allowing for special items in its second quarter.  'Special items' included its share of the government handout - a generous $214 million payment.  Revenue passenger miles dropped 10.5% compared to last year.

AirTran reported a profit of $21.9 million for its second quarter, excluding the government gift.  With special items included, its profit rose to $57.2 million.  Revenue increased by 22.7% compared to last year.

And another of the 'good' airlines - Frontier - reported a net profit also, although primarily due to its $15 million government gift.  Revenue passenger miles increased by 31% compared to the previous year.  Frontier also announced its July passenger traffic, showing a 38% increase in revenue passenger miles for the month, compared to same month 2002.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, BA played out the final moves arising from its disastrously handled strike a couple of weekends ago.  Officials are now admitting that up to 100,000 passengers were 'inconvenienced' and the longer term loss of business is still unclear.  However, in a text-book example of 'too little, too late', BA is now starting to send out £80 (about $130) vouchers to inconvenienced passengers.  Puzzlingly, it would appear that only British passengers are getting the vouchers, not passengers in other countries.

Virgin Atlantic Airways (VS) has already enjoyed some millions of pounds in windfall passenger bookings as a result of the BA strike.  In a typical example of the VS marketing flair and their zeal at taking passengers from BA, they announced that they too will accept the BA £80 vouchers, but if a person uses the voucher to buy a VS flight, they will be given a £100 credit!  Poor old BA - every step it takes, it only finds VS has already jumped ahead of them yet again.

But BA did sort of win a minor skirmish in its ongoing battle with VS.  VS was seeking to put up large billboards around Heathrow Airport, playing some more on BA's abandonment of Concorde, with the headline 'BA's talking scrap'.  The British Airports Authority deemed this to be disparaging and refused to allow the billboards to appear.  VS then arranged for the billboards to be pasted to the side of a truck which was then driven repeatedly around the Heathrow perimeter roads!

Perhaps it is just as well that BA is retiring its Concordes.  BA's Concorde flight from London to New York yesterday nearly ran out of gas!  It had to make an emergency landing in Gander, Newfoundland to refuel.  Apparently the hot weather increases the high altitude air pressure and causes the plane to use more fuel.  I can understand this (sort of - hot air reduces air pressure at lower altitudes!) but I can't understand how BA could be taken by surprise by the well known hot weather to the point of allowing its Concorde to take off with insufficient fuel to safely reach New York.

I have always agreed that the BA services from Heathrow have one major advantage over the VS services - you can check in and drop your luggage at Paddington Railway Station in the center of London, rather than needing to take your luggage all the way to the airport.  More convenience and a later checkin - powerful benefits for most of us.  Well - guess what!  They have now closed down this service, thereby eliminating perhaps BA's only service advantage.  I should add that VS already gives complimentary limo transfers to its Upper Class customers!

Star airline members continue to offer checkin at Paddington.  Let's hope that someone at VS might decide to once again profit from BA's missteps and take over the vacated checkin counters at Paddington (hint, hint).

Is it any surprise that a report issued last week by the Air Transport Users Council says complaints against BA doubled last year. Mishandled bags topped the list of complaints - I hope they're including my long sorry mishandled bag saga in their count!

In some airlines, being 'promoted' to a senior position in 'customer (dis)service' is hardly something that a person would aspire to!  But, as always, different rules apply for VS.  They have just powerfully reaffirmed their commitment to customer service in the North American marketplace by amalgamating different elements of their customer service roles and created a new position - VP of Customer Services, to head up everything that might impact on their customers.  They have awarded this position to the former VP of Marketing, John Riordan.

A quick word to demonstrate the caliber of person they are placing in this job.  I estimate that somewhere between 100 and 1000 airline executives read this newsletter every week.  A few have occasionally written to me and complained about comments I've made.  But only one person has ever contacted me to respond positively - John Riordan.  All of us VS customers can feel very pleased that VS have chosen to give this key role to such a responsive pro-active individual.

I heard an interesting story from longtime reader and regular correspondent David.  His friend had booked a hotel through Hotwire, and was encouraged by the description of the hotel and its 3.5 star rating.  After getting his booking confirmed, he then researched the hotel some more, and found little to suggest the 3.5 star rating was accurate.  He asked Hotwire how they assessed their ratings, and was told that they are based on published ratings by companies such as Mobil and AAA.

Further checking showed that neither Mobil nor AAA rated the property, and, alarmingly, the AAA ratings manager said they did not rate the hotel because it failed to meet their minimum standards!

Considerable correspondence resulted in Hotwire reducing their rating down to two stars and refunding the reservation payment.  But it remains unclear how Hotwire assessed (or re-assessed!) the rating, and one has to wonder just how accurate some of their other ratings may also be.

In related news about web travel booking, yet another survey has been released by Topaz showing travel agencies save their clients an average of 10% compared to the best published web fares.  Topaz works for companies, auditing and ensuring their air travel costs are the lowest possible, and so they can be considered to be an expert source of such material.  Their report can be read here.

Who to believe?  An IATA spokesman says that the airline industry has turned the corner and the worst is now behind them.  Boeing says that the commercial aviation industry won't recover until 2005 at the earliest.

Boeing made these statements as part of its report on its second quarter, which saw a 34% drop in commercial aircraft deliveries compared to last year, and a loss of $192 million, compared to a profit of $779 million in 2002's second quarter.

Boeing's deal to lease 767 tankers to the Air Force continues to attract critical comment, as this article reveals.

And in an interesting example of the global issues confronting industries, apparently both Boeing and Airbus are including Chinese superstition into the numbering of their planes.  The number 8 is considered a very good number, which is thought to be why Airbus jumped their numbering sequence directly from the A340 to the A380 for their super-jumbo.  Boeing has an easier choice - should it number the new plane that is currently designated the 7E7 as a 787 or perhaps jump straight into the 800s and call it an 808?

Anyone who has rented a car recently will be unsurprised by a Wall St Journal statistic that shows the average rental car contract bears an additional 24% in taxes over the base rental cost.  Houston has the highest amount of surcharges, with an incredible seeming 71.7% of extra taxes being added in that city!  DFW is second, Austin third, and Houston (Hobby) fourth.  That's four out of four for TX.

Why does the Texas state flag boast a lone star?  I guess because the other 49 were deducted in taxes!

They're at it again.  Amtrak, that is, claiming it will have to shut down if it doesn't get the money it needs to continue operating from Congress.  Whatever else one might think about Amtrak, it continues to seem inconsistent that both unprofitable and even profitable airlines are given tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, but Amtrak is unable to secure the funding it desperately needs just to keep operating its trains.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A silly seventeen year old boy wrote a rude note to the TSA and placed it inside his checked bag.  The TSA randomly chose to do a hand search of his checked bag, and found the note.  His note said, in part, "Have you found a [expletive] bomb yet? No, just clothes. Am I right? Yea, so [expletive] you."

The net result?  Did the TSA laugh at the stupid boy?  Or just ignore the note - after all, 'sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me'!

As reported in this story, the TSA instead arranged to have the boy arrested and charged with making a bomb/hijacking threat, thereby conclusively proving that, while the boy was impudent and stupid, the TSA is vastly stupider still.

And proving that our government is getting stupider in more and more areas, a spokesman for the county's DA office said 'Putting a false bomb threat in your luggage is not something we take lightly.  In the current climate, it's just unacceptable because of the fear and panic it causes.'

The spokesman did not explain how the boy's statements could be considered to be a bomb threat, and neither did the spokesman point to any fear and panic caused.  The flight was not delayed, and TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said 'There was no commotion whatsoever.'

Sadly proving that stupidity is not limited to our own government, a disabled man in Australia has settled a lawsuit after being taken off a flight because staff thought he was either drunk or a terrorist.  In fact, he is severely disabled, having incomplete quadriplegia, giving him limited control of his arms and legs, and drooping eyelids and facial features.  Although essentially paralyzed from the neck down, this doesn't stop him from working as a corporate attorney.  But the airline and security staff not only can't tell the difference between drunks and terrorists, but also apparently confuse disabled people - and attorneys - with both drunks and terrorists as well!

Strange but true - more than 20 airlines have already applied to offer scheduled service to Baghdad.

Here's a story that I hesitated to pass on, because it sounds so much like an urban legend.  I did research the leading urban legend site ( and even asked the editors if they were aware of the story (no response), so this may or may not be true.  I am told that apparently a woman at Dulles realized she had lost her cell phone - probably as part of going through security screening.  She asked the next man in line if she could use his cell phone - called her cell phone - and they found her cell phone ringing in the pocket of the TSA Security guard  that had searched her!

As all people that work in the travel industry know, some people are 'professional complainers'.  Here are some also allegedly genuine complaints that formed part of the 17,000 complaints that one tour company in Britain received in the last year.

One such complaint comes from a family who said that they were not warned of the presence of fish in the sea, and that their children had been “startled” when they were paddling.  Another complained about the color of the beach, stating that it was “whiter than in the brochure”, while one holidaymaker in the Caribbean was concerned that the flight had been nine hours long and that visitors from the United States only had to fly for three hours.

Perhaps my favorite complaint is as follows : “My fiance and I booked a twin-bedded room and were placed in a double-bedded room.  We now hold you responsible for the fact I find myself pregnant.  This would not have happened if you had put us in the room that we booked.”

The next few weeks will probably see me writing on a reduced basis.  I'll be busy in Moscow.  I do expect to have weekly feature articles to offer you, but doubt that the newsletter will be very substantial.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and be sure to insist on twin beds

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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