Friday 29 August, 2003

Good morning.  I hope you'll be spending your Labor Day weekend more enjoyably than me - Monday sees me flying back to Seattle from Moscow.  :)  This will be a short newsletter this week, but hopefully things will be back to normal next week.

Moscow - and all of Russia, of course - is full of bewildering contrasts.  For example, I went riding at a stables.  The riding area was a rough muddy field, with various industrial waste strewn haphazardly in the mud, and massive ruts worn deep into the ground where the horses had been training in circles on longe lines.  The stables were managed by a drunkard who on this occasion was so drunk that even my Russian companion had no idea what he was saying, and who lives in a dirty tack room in the stables, having no apartment of his own.  But.  Around me were world champion horses, some worth over a million dollars!

My relationship with Russia seems to be, in many ways, similar to keeping a wild animal as a domestic pet.  Just when I start to relax and become overly confident, something happens to completely destroy my comfort and to remind me that Russia can be a potentially very hostile and dangerous country for naieve foreigners.

Moscow is definitely not a disabled friendly city.  My daily commute between apartment and office involves travel by tram and metro.  While access to the metro is predominantly via long escalators, there are also 100 steps that I need to climb up and 60 steps that I climb down (an unfair imbalance of up and down stairs!) as part of the metro journey (with one change of line) alone.

Meanwhile, being in Moscow sees me even more conscious of the costs of international telephone calls, which leads to this week's article, offering an intriguing approach to all types of phoning - local, long distance, and international :

This Week's Column :  The Next Generation of Phone Service  :  Many of us no longer access the internet over phone lines. Instead, the opposite can apply - using the internet for telephone calls.   This week I review a revolutionary product that enables you to connect into the phone network through a cable modem or DSL internet connection, from anywhere in the world, and with cost savings and some intriguing new applications.

Dinosaur Watch :  What should a company's senior executives do when their company is in dire financial trouble and they're forced to lay off staff and call on other workers to accept massive pay cuts?  Well, if it is a dinosaur airline, perhaps the 'sensible' thing to do is to reward these executives with pay rises!  This article details how NW, DL and CO gave their CEO's pay rises while firing 33,000 workers.

 Reader Tom gives a classic example of how the dinosaurs are killing themselves with their astonishing stupidity.  He was scheduled to fly from Atlanta to Newark at 5.00pm, and after reluctantly checking in ridiculously early for fear of security and other delays, found himself at the gate at 3.15pm, where a 3.30pm flight to Newark was still boarding.

He and a colleague asked if they could take the earlier flight.  Delta said that they would have to pay $25 each to change their flights, and so they refused.

Now for the stunning twist in the tale.  Although the 3.30pm flight had an unknown number of empty seats on it, the 5pm flight was seriously oversold and DL ended up with three passengers unable to fly that flight.  Why didn't Delta gratefully encourage Tom and his colleague to take the earlier flight so as to lighten the load on the later flight?  This shows a stunning degree of short-sightedness by the DL gate agents.

Perhaps this week's saddest example of dinosaur logic at work goes to struggling Air Canada.  In discussing in flight service issues such as the availability of lemon slices, an internal memo says 'It's the little things that make a big difference'.  But, alas, while understanding that little things do make a big difference, Air Canada completely misapplies the concept, and so rather than advocating enhancements to such little things, they instead advocate their removal!  They have already saved about $70,000 by halving the number of lemon and lime slices on their flights - a trivial sum for an airline losing hundreds of millions of dollars, but another pinprick into their poor passengers, to whom the prospect of an AC flight is an increasingly unpleasant thought and one to be avoided wherever possible.

Here's a suggestion to AC on how to save another $70,000 (or likely much more) :  Fire the person that wrote the memo and fire the people that decided to remove the lemon and lime slices!

But I also came across an airline this week which proudly boasts a choice of three quality entrees on its short haul flights.  This was not in its Business Class or even in its Premium Economy Class.  It was in its basic Coach class service!  And who is this airline, you might wonder?  It surely isn't to be found in North America!  Instead it is a Russian airline by the name of UTair.

Things have evolved to a very strange situation when small regional Russian carriers provide better quality service than major international western airlines.

An airline loophole closes?  Northwest has discovered that some of its passengers are deliberately booking very circuitous routings for their travels, either so as to get a very very low fare, or perhaps to increase their mileage earnings.  In an internal memo, NW describes such bookings as 'suspicious' and blames it on internet websites giving customers 'perfect access to [y]our information' such that customers are 'buying it in a fashion you didn't intend it to be sold'.  The internal memo referred to one itinerary for a four leg trip between Kansas City and Indianapolis that traveled via Minneapolis, Columbus, and Detroit (instead of with a single connection), and which ended up being priced at only $68 roundtrip.

Apparently, NW does not want its customers to have access to 'perfect information' and so it is now restricting the number of connecting flights that can be included in a flight itinerary.

The unintended consequences of 'perfect' information are being experienced by hotels as well.  For many hotels, convention business has been a key component of their revenue, particularly because convention rates are sometimes higher than other rates for the same rooms.  In the last year, at least 10% of convention attendees have chosen not to book convention rate rooms, finding lower rate rooms available in nearby hotels - something made easier by low occupancy rates nationwide and the prevalence of hotel room deals.

And so, the affected convention hotels are beginning to respond.  But not in a positive sense by encouraging attendees to stay at their hotels by adding more services and benefits and lowering their room rates to make them competitive with nearby hotels.  Instead, some hotels are charging admission fees to non-guests who wish to enter their conference facilities!  These fees are on occasion as much as $50 per person.  In addition, they will levy fees on the convention organizers if an insufficient number of conference attendees do not stay at their hotel.

And talking about 'perfect information' a recent article by Forbes reviews internet web sites and determines that Orbitz is the best of the bunch at present (click the link at the bottom of the Forbes article for the actual site reviews).  But the article says that, on Orbitz, a trip can be booked in just three clicks.  This is nonsense!  It took me five clicks (plus various typing of entries) just to start an airfare/schedule search from the Orbitz homepage, and then a variable number of extra clicks to actually select the desired flight, and then to proceed on to book it.  Can't Forbes count?

A new Boeing regional jet from Russia?  At present, the smallest plane that Boeing produces is their not very successful 717 (the latest incarnation of the former DC9/MD90), seating 106 passengers.  One of the largest growth markets at present is in the under 100 seat 'regional jet' sector, and Boeing is currently working as a contracted consultant with Russia's Sukhoi airplane company (best known for their fighters such as the one I was in last week) to develop a Russian regional jet, described variously as having 60, 75 or 95 seats.  Boeing describes itself as 'really committed' to helping sell this new plane, which is currently scheduled to be first delivered in 2007.

Although I have no knowledge of the contractual details between Boeing and Sukhoi, being a 'contracted consultant' and 'helping sell' sounds very much like Boeing is in the enviable position of not risking any of its own capital.  Is this the new logical extension of Boeing's evolving approach to passenger plane production?  To no longer design and no longer build planes, but simply to consult with other companies?  It is no wonder that Boeing is in the middle of laying off 40,000 people, if this is to be their new strategy.

Readers may remember BA being caught unawares by a wildcat strike at Heathrow a couple of months ago.  One airline that is determined to be prepared for any such eventuality is Qantas, where over 1000 executive and non-union staff are being trained in a vast range of 'vulnerable' union jobs ranging from counter checkin to baggage handling to flight attendants, so that any sudden work stoppage can be immediately responded to.

I remember one time being co-opted into service myself as a baggage handler when an unexpected walk-out occurred at Cairns Airport.  I was leading a group of 25 people, and so as to ensure we could indeed fly down to Sydney, hopped over to the other side of the checkin counter and helped out with the baggage.  The flight was delayed, but did indeed travel on down to Sydney.  It is interesting to also remember that, although BA did almost nothing to help its stranded passengers, in my Qantas case, our delayed flight to Sydney meant that we missed our international flight back to Los Angeles, and so Qantas graciously agreed to pay for overnight accommodation for us all.

There's a right way and a wrong way of managing an airline, and Qantas consistently does an excellent job of managing its airline.

And any time I find myself talking about both BA and well managed airlines, it is impossible not to think of Virgin Atlantic Airways (VS).  In a typically contrarian approach to the market, at a time when most major airlines are idling planes and reducing capacity, Virgin is about accelerating its growth and buying up to ten more aircraft.  They hope to conclude negotiations in a matter of weeks, and could start accepting new aircraft deliveries as soon as next year.  VS was one of the few airlines to make a profit in 2002.

This Week's Security Horror StoryLast week I reported disbelievingly on claims that security screeners can resolve mystery potential bombs in luggage they are screening in as little as 15 seconds.  This week, a graphic illustration of this occurred at  Bradley Intl Airport , CT.  The airport was shut down for three hours on Saturday when screeners thought they found a bomb.  State police were notified and called in a bomb squad, who eventually determined that the 'bomb' was in fact a harmless wall clock!

There have been several cases where private citizens who due to thoughtless or careless actions, have caused airport shutdowns and associated costs, and then been sued and fined for at least some share of the costs their actions have caused.  But the TSA seems able to freely cause an airport to close down for three hours due to not being able to tell the difference between a clock and a bomb.

Bad news from Britain, a country in which personal privacy is already severely compromised.  The British government is proposing to add a monitoring chip to every vehicle that will report to roadside receivers every time the vehicle exceeds the speed limit, drives in a 'Bus only' lane, or even stops in a no parking area.  The government will also be able to track every vehicle all the time.  All new cars would be required to have the devices installed, and existing cars would have up to one year to have such devices retrofitted.

The EU is also considering a similar provision for the entire European Union.  How long before such devices are considered for the US, too?

Lastly this week, an oldie but a goldie.  After every flight, pilots fill out a form called a gripe sheet, which conveys to the mechanics problems encountered with the aircraft during the flight that need repair or correction. The mechanics read and correct the problem, and then respond in writing on the lower half of the form what remedial action was taken, and the pilot reviews the gripe sheets before the next flight.

Never let it be said that ground crews and engineers lack a sense of humor. Here are some actual logged maintenance complaints and problems allegedly submitted by Qantas pilots and the solutions recorded by their maintenance engineers. By the way, Qantas is the only major airline that has never had an accident involving passenger fatalities.

(P = The problem logged by the pilot.)
(S = The solution and action taken by the mechanics.)

P: Left inside main tire almost needs replacement.
S: Almost replaced left inside main tire.

P: Test flight OK, except auto-land very rough.
S: Auto-land not installed on this aircraft.

P: Something loose in cockpit.
S: Something tightened in cockpit.

P: Dead bugs on windshield.
S: Live bugs on back-order.

P: Autopilot in altitude-hold mode produces a 200' per minute descent.
S: Cannot reproduce problem on ground.

P: Evidence of leak on right main landing gear.
S: Evidence removed.

P: DME volume unbelievably loud.
S: DME volume set to more believable level.

P: Friction locks cause throttle levers to stick.
S: That's what they're there for.

P: IFF inoperative.
S: IFF always inoperative in OFF mode.

P: Suspected crack in windshield.
S: Suspect you're right..

P: Number 3 engine missing.
S: Engine found on right wing after brief search.

P: Aircraft handles funny.
S: Aircraft warned to straighten up, fly right, and be serious.

P. Mouse in cockpit.
S. Cat installed.

P: Noise coming from under instrument panel. Sounds like a midget pounding on something with a hammer.
S: Took hammer away from midget.


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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