Friday 5 September, 2003

Good morning.  I hope you enjoyed your long weekend; I spent my Monday flying back from Moscow on Aeroflot.

In my review of Aeroflot's business class a couple of weeks ago I reported on stories about being able to bribe employees to get an upgrade to business class (a $500 cost officially).  Being a fearless and dedicated reporter, I tried this myself on my return flight.  At the counter, I had an unexpected result.  The ticket agent refused to upgrade me, unofficially or officially, for any amount of money!  Although the fare rules specifically state that the upgrades can only be purchased when checking in, she refused to sell me an upgrade any which way and insisted that it was something I needed to have done prior to checking in.

Undaunted, I tried on the plane.  I was quickly and conspiratorially hustled into a galley, where two flight attendants looked doubtfully at me and said, flatly, 'the price is $200'.  I replied 'the normal price that I paid on the way over is only $100'.  Upon hearing this, one of the women fixed me with the most hateful stare I have ever experienced, and told me to get lost.  By exposing their dishonesty, and not having me buy into it as a co-conspirator, they felt vulnerable and hated me for 'tricking' them into revealing their dishonesty.  I have never seen such a malevolent stare on anyone's face before, and hope I'll never see it again.

And so I retreated back to my seat in coach class, where the only special comfort I had to enjoy were my Plane Quiet noise reducing headphones.  Which brings me to this week's column ......

This Week's Column :  Plane Quieter :  My favorite noise canceling headphones have evolved and improved in the less than three months since I first reviewed them.  Now with better sound quality and better noise canceling, and, best of all, I've managed to negotiate a 10% discount to readers who choose to buy a set (and an extra 10% if you're a previous customer of theirs)!  Read more in the review.

Some people were surprised to learn of my equestrian activities last week in Moscow.  To satisfy such readers, here is pictorial proof.

I waited 40 minutes just to get through Immigration when returning through Seatac Airport on Monday (and I've heard from readers reporting similar delays at other airports over the last month or so).  Although I'm a US citizen simply returning back to the US, I was quizzed closely by an Immigration inspector as to where I'd been, what type of work I did, and various other things before being allowed to re-enter my home country.

In comparison, when entering Russia three weeks earlier I waited no more than five minutes and then was asked no questions at all by the Immigration official who - same as always - simply stamped my passport and handed it back to me without comment.  Twenty years ago, the opposite applied - hostile suspicious officials grilled visitors to Russia, while friendly officials welcomed US citizens back home.  It is also worth noting that Russia doesn't charge any fees whatsoever to passengers flying in and out of Moscow, whereas the US fees on my ticket totaled $46.40.

When I travel around Europe, many times I don't even see an Immigration official anywhere.  And just about every country except the US has green lines to speed people through Customs with no delays.

What has gone wrong with our country that we now treat our own citizens with hostility and - notwithstanding mammoth increases in passenger fees to pay for good service from Immigration officials - force us to endure 40 minute waits to re-enter our own country?  Partial answer to that question can be found in this article that details how - so as to save money - manning levels are being reduced at US ports of entry.  Having paid $46.40 for something that only ten years ago cost less than $10, and twenty years ago was entirely free, I surely don't understand what the financial problem is with staffing to a satisfactory level.  Where is all the money going?  And where has all the service gone?

Dinosaur Watch :  August passenger load figures are being released this week.  Most of the dinosaurs are reporting reduced passenger loads (again).  Northwest recorded a 5.2% decrease (compared to same month last year).  US Airways had a 5.7% decrease, and American had a reduction of 1.7%.  Delta dropped 3.7%.

Worst performing of the dinosaurs was United, with an 8.1% decrease in passenger miles.  Not only were its passenger miles down by 8.1%, but its capacity was down an even greater 12.2%.  How long before the dinosaurs shrink themselves into oblivion?

On the positive side of the ledger, America West - an airline that is struggling to re-invent itself - had a 2.6% increase in passengers.  Southwest has a 3.4% increase in its numbers, and AirTran is reporting a 32.6% increase in traffic.  Most growth goes to wunderkind JetBlue, with an astonishing 69.6% increase (this figure is perhaps distorted by the fact that JetBlue was still a new startup last year and adding extra routes).

Last week I criticized Air Canada for its decision to halve the number of lemon and lime slices it has on board its flights.  I may have been unduly harsh in my criticism.  It appears that a large factor in their decision to reduce the supply of such items is the simple fact that currently not all the slices they bring on board are actually consumed.  Mea culpa.

And while I was unfairly criticizing Air Canada, I was inadvertently heaping too much praise on Qantas.  I referred to it, in the joke item at the end, as the only major airline that has never had an accident.  I should have added three words to the end of this - 'involving passenger fatalities'.  Qantas has indeed had accidents, although mercifully very few, and none involving the loss of passenger lives.

Talking about Air Canada, and talking also about accidents, there is a very strange story circulating about how an Air Canada jet apparently got lost and nearly landed at the wrong airport, 40 miles from its actual destination of Kelowna, BC.  The landing strip at the airport they almost landed at would have been too short for the plane, and, to make a bad situation worse, during the course of nearly landing at the wrong airport, the plane also came dangerously close to another plane that was about to land on the same runway, but from the other end!

With a sophisticated moving map display in the plane's cockpit, it is very difficult to understand how the pilots could make such a major mistake.

One of the dinosaurs is being threatened with extinction by a federal bankruptcy judge.  The judge threatened to liquidate Midway Airlines on 24 September unless the airline can quickly present a business plan showing how it can continue as a successful business operation.  Midway filed for Chapter 11 almost two years ago.

Meanwhile, the Greek government have come up with an innovative (?) solution to the problems faced by struggling Greek airline Olympic Airways.  It will be 'reinvented' and renamed as Olympic Airlines, with 51% to be sold to private investors.  Let's hope that the changes below the surface will be more profound than the name change!

Olympic has been plagued with financial problems for some time, and the Greek government is trying to restore it to financial health prior to the 2004 Olympics (in Athens).

And what did the airline's employees think of the new plan?  Employees went on a wildcat strike to protest what they see to be inevitable job cuts in the new airline.  The strike was ruled illegal by a judge, but employees stayed away anyway, stranding thousands of passengers.  Hardly an auspicious start to the new carrier!

What happens if an airline cancels your flight?  This might happen due to weather problems, or perhaps due to the recent power blackout, as well as for airline related reasons.  Airlines have been patting themselves on the back and announcing what they hope you'll think are very generous provisions to allow you to change your flights without penalty in such a case.  Sounds good?  Well, yes, but they forgot to tell you one important thing.  In most cases, you are already entitled to a full refund, as part of their existing 'Conditions of Carriage'!

Another reason why the dinosaurs deserve to die :  As reported in Conde Nast Traveler's Ombudsman section, an eight year old boy flew as an unaccompanied minor from Newark to Puerto Rico.  His parents paid the $80 extra fee for having him escorted on and off the flight by an airline employee.  Except that - the boy was not escorted off the plane.  He was confused and didn't know what to do, so simply followed everyone else off the plane and wandered behind them all the way to baggage claim.  This meant that he became lost - he didn't know where he was, and neither did the airline or the family member who was there to meet him.  The airline did not tell the family member that they had lost the boy, but instead told her he would turn up shortly (even though the plane was now completely empty!).

The airline's response to this problem?  To offer a refund of $40, and to say that there was nothing more that they would do.  Sure, in time, and with some public pressure, they recanted that refusal to respond more pro-actively, and issued a $400 credit for future travel, but why should it be necessary to beat up on an airline when they make such a substantive mistake?  A free ticket or two costs the carrier next to nothing, and would earn it good will, but by offering an insulting $40 refund and saying that there was nothing more they would do, American Airlines instead scored another 'own goal' in the public relations arena.  Shame on them.

Boeing is always quick to accuse Airbus of receiving unfair government subsidies, but as this article reports, there is a nasty smell that pervades Boeing's deal with the Air Force to lease 100 767s to be used as air tankers that has Senator John McCain, amongst others, crying 'foul'.  If nothing else, one has to wonder why the Air Force and Boeing would be talking about an old (almost obsolete) plane instead of focusing on the new 7E7 that would presumably offer just as many benefits to the Air Force as it is promised to offer regular passenger and freight airlines.

One small step closer to a Concorde replacement?  Northrop Grumman Corp said that it has shown that a change in the shape of a plane can reduce the impact of sonic booms caused by supersonic flight, potentially making the concept of over land supersonic flight feasible.  A modified F-5E did a series of test flights earlier this week, confirming for the first time what theory and wind-tunnel testing had earlier suggested.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Marion Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration said earlier this week that it will take about 22 years before air travel is easy and convenient once again. She said "Many factors would have to come together before passengers will be able to walk from the curb to the gate and they fly without delay. These include new technologies and coordination between federal agencies.  All of this can be done by 2025. We want to develop a system that is absolutely seamless and efficient."

Twenty two years is an unthinkably long time to most of us.  We put a man on the moon in less than a decade, fought and won both World Wars One and Two in less than a decade combined, and 22 years ago the PC was only just being introduced for the very first time by IBM.  Who can guess what we'll see ten years in the future, let alone 22?  But perhaps politicians and their appointees are more patient than we are!

One failed technology that seems unlikely to speed us through the airport any faster is face recognition.  Two separate tests of two different systems at Boston's Logan Airport failed to recognize 'suspects' 40% of the time, and no information is available about how many 'false positives' they gave during the test (where the system may have suggested that innocent people were actually suspects).

Perhaps confirming the failure of this technology, last month Tampa police announced that they were shutting down their face-recognition surveillance cameras, due to not having made any matches in a two year period.  Virginia Beach police have operated a similar surveillance system for a year, and also report no successes as of July.

Another potentially backward move to the various government programs to screen passengers came this week when the EU stuck to its guns in claiming that the US government's demands for personal passenger information breached EU personal privacy laws, and further claimed that the US government had failed to give binding commitments that information disclosed to it by airlines would be protected against abuse.

Which leaves European airlines in a difficult position.  If they don't pass on the information the US government demands, they could be fined by US authorities.  And if they do, they could be fined by European data protection agencies.  It is almost enough to make you feel sorry for the airlines!

An announcement this week boasted that the Homeland Security Department will add another 5000 air marshals to protect flights in the US.  While on the face of it, this is perhaps good news, it does beg the question :  Why do we need air marshals if passenger screening is ensuring that terrorists don't get to fly, and/or if they do get to fly, they won't be able to smuggle any dangerous weapons on the plane, and/or if they do get on a plane, unarmed, they won't be able to break through the secure cockpit door, and/or if they do break through the cockpit door, they might then be confronted by an armed pilot?

How much does it cost to equip a plane with an anti-missile system?  Figures of about $1 million per plane have been quoted earlier this year.  But on Thursday, Qantas claimed it would cost them in excess of US$6 million per plane to outfit their fleet with anti-missile defenses (they have about 70 planes in their international fleet and said it would cost US$442 million to equip them with anti-missile systems).

How is it possible that their cost is more than six times higher than the cost being quoted in the US?  Is $1 million a realistic figure, or is it merely an opening cost that is likely to escalate six fold?  Or is Qantas being slightly careless with its figures?

Note that, even with a sophisticated $6 million anti-missile defense system, this does not form an impenetrable shield.  It merely reduces the likelihood of a missile reaching the plane, but it does not zero out this risk.  Fighter planes, with state of the art defensive systems, and pulling 8 g's in evasive maneuvering, still get downed by missiles some of the time.  Passenger planes, unable to maneuver and only able to drop flares and shoot lasers, are much more vulnerable.

Here's a great way for terrorists to defeat security measures at an airport - steal the computers that store vital security information right out of the airport's cargo intelligence center!  This article reports how two men, described as being of Pakistani-Indian-Arab appearance, did exactly that at Sydney Airport last week.

News from the country that has banned chewing gum in the name of public order.  Singaporeans who send text messages on their mobile phones while driving face a fine of up to US$570 and six months in jail!  Police issued a statement about text messaging behind the wheel after a letter appeared in the Straits Times newspaper asking whether it was legal for a bus driver to send messages with one hand while steering his vehicle with the other.

Lastly this week, does your office have too many motivational materials festooned on its walls?  To balance things out, you might want to consider the materials offered by this website.

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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