Friday 12 September, 2003

Good morning.  My morning walk through a nearby nature reserve with my dog now sees us treading on a carpet of amber golden maple leaves, as autumn's approach results in turning colors and falling leaves.  Very beautiful, but also slightly sad as summer decays into winter once more.

In an attempt to enjoy the last of the summer, I went with some friends to the picturesque pseudo-Bavarian town of Leavenworth, nestled in the mountains two hours from Seattle for last weekend.  We rented a country cottage with a beautiful location alongside a lovely river.  But, alas, my bed was awfully uncomfortable and the house itself was dirty (mold in some of the cooking utensils).  It would be great to see a reliable and realistic rating system to enable people to understand what they might encounter prior to renting such places.

One of the most popular article series on this site is on noise reducing headphones - something that is an affordable essential for any long-distance air traveler.  And the most asked for new product review has been of the top of the line new Bose headphones.  Unfortunately, my fair and realistic - but not full of gushy undeserved praise - review of their earlier model headphones meant that Bose no longer wished to cooperate!  Now, thanks to reader José, I've managed to get my hands on a set of these headphones, which leads to :

This Week's Column :  Bose Quiet 2 Comfort Noise Reducing Headphones :  Costing $300, these headphones are four times more expensive than the highly regarded Plane Quiet headphones.  Are they four times better?  Which should you choose?

I spend (too) much of my life on my computer, and my daily deluge of spam gets only worse.  I wrote about this topic once before, and am looking at doing a follow-up.  Before leaping into print again, can I ask for your help.  Please would you help me by answering this short survey about spam.  I'll publish the results in a subsequent newsletter.

Dinosaur watch :  The action by the airlines in zeroing out the commission they pay to travel agencies massively changed the dynamics of selling airline tickets in the United States.  While the airlines no longer wish to give anything to their passengers for free, they instead believe that travel agencies should become their sales agents totally for free!

There have been various justifications for this action, but none of it stands up to close scrutiny when one examines what they do in other countries.  For example, reader Ed from Australia tells me that United has increased the commission it pays to travel agencies in Australia, and now pays 9% on all its flights, both within the US and internationally.

It used to be that when a new small airline butted heads with a dinosaur, the dinosaur would always win.  But this is no longer automatically the case, with the new breed of airlines typically fighting the dinosaurs first on secondary routes and slowly building up a strong network so that they can then afford the crippling costs of fighting a dinosaur on a major route.

One such steadily growing airline is consistently profitable AirTran, and it is about to move into the big league with an announcement that it will shortly start to operate 24 flights a day from four gates out of Dallas Fort Worth.  DFW is home ground for American Airlines, with a 70% market share at present, and currently AirTran operates six flights out of one gate.  Airline analyst Morton Beyer says of this upcoming contest 'Both airlines are brutal competitors.  There will be blood on the tarmac.'

The ripples of the AirTran/AA slugfest will likely ensnare Delta, too.  DL has a 20% market share at DFW, and in the certain scenario where the other two airlines drop their fares, DL will find itself forced to match.  At present, the airport's average yield - the money airlines collect from paying customers - is 47% higher than the national average.  You can bet that this is going to change when AirTran starts ramping up its service.

Although AA and DL can both afford to lose substantially more money than AirTran in any low fare based competitive struggle, AirTran's costs are lower than AA and DL - it can still profit on low fares that AA/DL lose money on.  On average, it costs AA 10.2˘ per passenger mile, and DL 9.7˘, but AirTran pays only 8.3˘, 19% less than AA.

Airline analyst Ray Neidl estimates that AirTran's presence at Delta's Atlanta hub is costing DL $1 billion a year in lost revenue that DL could otherwise have earned through greater market share and higher fares.  By all accounts, AA now needs to prepare for a major reduction in its earnings out of DFW, making it harder for that airline to return to profitability.

AirTran is going through a major growth spurt at present, having ordered 110 new planes as part of a $6 billion contract with Boeing.  Expect to see more of this high quality carrier in the next 12 - 24 months.

Boeing is of course very pleased with its $6 billion contract with AirTran, but it must be feeling increasingly less pleased about its crumbling proposal to lease 767's to the Air Force.

An airline mouse that is now trying to roar is Spirit Airlines.  This is the largest privately owned airline in the US,but still very small - it flies to only 14 destinations.  It has however become the second largest airline flying from Detroit, it is growing, and is about to spend $2.5 million promoting itself as a new national player.

An entirely  new airline is planning to start operations in February 2004.  Primaris plans to start operating with five 757s, increasing to 15 by the end of 2004, and offering first class seats only (does this sound familiar?) but at low prices - one way fares of between $300-350 for coast to coast flights.  Primaris believes it can squeeze 120 first class seats onto a 757, and will have seat-side internet access for its passengers.  Strangely, its operational headquarters will be in Las Vegas and the administrative headquarters in Phoenix, but the airline will not initially fly to/from either city!  Let's hope the rest of their business plan is more logical.

Dinosaur failure story of the week has to be awarded to Delta's subsidiary Atlantic Southeast, which ranked last in four major categories of the latest DoT Travel Consumer Report.  ASA had the lowest percentage of on-time flights (65%), and operated 14 of the 16 flights that were most chronically late, including flight 4193 between Atlanta and Myrtle Beach which ran late 94% of the time!  It also scored worst for most bags lost (15.8 reported lost bags per 1000 passengers, compared to an industry average of 4.4), and had the highest level of denied passenger boarding.

Does this mean that the CEO of ASA will be giving himself a pay raise and bonus, I wonder?

My Qantas story continues to be clarified.  Last week I suggested that Qantas has never suffered a passenger fatality.  Knowledgeable Australian reader Ben tells me that QF has indeed had passenger fatalities, and that the correctly qualified version of the original claim about its very high passenger safety record (made famous in the movie Rainman) should be 'Qantas has never had a passenger fatality on any of its passenger jets'.

Ben says, and unsurprisingly, that in its early pioneering days (Qantas being the second oldest airline, with only KLM being older) of providing bush air service in the 1920s Australian outback, it did indeed have some passenger fatalities, and there are contradictory stories about one other accident shortly after WW2 as well.  I have however now checked a database of all air accidents that dates back to 1943 and there are no relevant Qantas entries in it, so I'm reasonably hopeful I won't be making another correction to this claim next week!

The most successful people in the travel industry consistently tell me, over the years, that one of the secrets to their success is in providing customer financing packages, making it easy for people to buy holidays from them.  These days everyone has credit cards and access to another credit line is no longer as important as it once was, but new innovative ways of helping people to finance their leisure travels are sure to always pay off.  One such innovation is being deployed by Carnival.  They will become the first cruise line to let customers pay for their cruises through automatic payroll deductions.

Continuing to talk about cruising, what do you do when offered shore excursions?  The latest newsletter from Cruisemates suggests that, wherever possible, you should arrange your own shore excursions.  This will often give you a better experience and possibly a better price, too.  Help with this type of planning is often available from a good travel agent, but never available if you're booking direct with the cruise line!

These days, if you send something overnight, you *really* need it to get where its going on time.  I'd long ago learned that the most reliable way to send things overnight in my local area is actually to use UPS ground service.  If using any of the overnight air couriers, they would send the item by air freight to some central hub, and then ship it back by airfreight to the Seattle area before delivering it the next morning.  This made for more trans-shipping problems and also the possibility of delays on at least two flights.  But regular UPS ground never left the Seattle area, and so was less subject to delays.  And on the (admittedly rare) occasion when something was shipped overnight and did not arrive at its destination the next day, trying to claim a refund from the courier company was often difficult.

With this in mind, it is disappointing that Federal Express chose not to honor its Money Back Guarantee for delayed shipments in 1997.  The problems occurred when UPS drivers went on strike, and many shippers rushed to use Fedex and other companies instead, causing these other companies to become overloaded and shipping delays to occur.  Fedex refused to honor its service guarantee in such cases, claiming in part that an exemption in its guarantee fine print that related to strike related delays covered not only strikes by its staff but also strikes by the staff of other companies (!) and now a class action against it has found, on appeal, for Fedex.  Does this mean that if anyone is on strike, anywhere in the US (or world) Fedex does not need to honor its guarantee?  Wow - the airlines could learn from this, couldn't they!

Strangely (perhaps) the airlines are finding their own liability for some things is increasing.  The United States has become the 30th nation to ratify a new international air accident liability agreement. The pact takes effect on November 4. Under the Montreal Convention agreed to in 1999, families of victims killed in air accidents will be eligible for immediate compensation with no limits on some liability claims against airlines at fault.

This is a huge change in standards for compensation compared to the earlier rules of the 1929 Warsaw Convention which limited airline liability to $75,000 for accidents involving death or injury and in which the airline is proved negligent. The new convention requires airlines to make immediate payments of $135,000 for each victim killed or injured, regardless of whether the airline was at fault. It also removes all caps on liability if the airline is at fault.

I spared you the prophetic worryings last week about a possible new outbreak of SARS this winter.  But now, this week, bad news from Singapore - one new confirmed case of SARS has been reported there.  And reader Tom replies to my Singapore story at the end of last week's newsletter to advise that Singapore recently removed its prohibition on chewing gum.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  As I write this on Thursday 11 September it is two years since you-know-what happened you-know-when.  Since that time no further terrorist acts have occurred in the US, including on both the first and second anniversaries (and thank goodness for this blessed non-event!).  So how does President Bush respond?  By easing off on the worst and most costly of the new restrictions on our freedom and downgrading the current Yellow level national security alert?  Sadly, no.  On Thursday he called for still more 'anti-terrorism' powers (that abridge our increasingly fragile rights and freedoms) to be given to various law enforcement bodies!

One new and highly controversial surveillance measure is proceeding towards implementation, and that is the Transportation Security Administration's plan to link into many different commercial and federal databases to research information on every airline passenger, and using this information, to guess at who might be a potential terrorist.  Passengers will be categorized as either green (no risk), yellow (can you say 'full body search at security'!) and red, with red category passengers prohibited from boarding when they check in, and subject to potential police questioning and arrest.  The TSA predicts that up to 8% of passengers will be coded yellow and 1-2% will be coded red.

The system 'will provide protections for the flying public,' said TSA spokesman Brian Turmail. 'Not only should we keep passengers from sitting next to a terrorist, we should keep them from sitting next to wanted ax murderers.'

There are almost 250,000 people traveling every day.  That means that 20,000 people will be getting major hassles at security every day, and up to 5,000 people will be refused to fly entirely.  Are there really 5,000 potential terrorists trying to fly every day?

Passengers will not be told how their category rating was determined, and it is unclear how an incorrectly rated yellow or red category passenger can correct their status.  One in every ten passengers can expect problems.

And, alarmingly, note the 'mission creep'.  This system isn't just about detecting terrorists anymore.  It is now about detecting 'wanted ax murderers' as well.  So how long before it will also be used for detecting people with unpaid parking tickets and library fines?  And is the TSA now expanding from anti-terrorism to domestic law enforcement?

And also note the completely new concept of protecting the public against sitting next to wanted ax murderers.  While none of us would enjoy such an experience, I'm sure, how long will it be before we are having still new controls imposed on us so wanted ax murderers (of which I suspect there are very few!) won't be found next to us in bars, or in movie theatres, or in shopping malls, and so on?

Freedom to travel used to be a right, now it seems to have become a privilege, and a control point where we have to submit ourselves to secret government scrutiny and approval.  I can travel more freely in Russia than I can in the US.

Perhaps the best commentary about our obsession with building a 100% secure system, but only on one small part of our air transportation system was unwittingly provided by Charles McKinley, who provided a brilliant illustration of the complete lack of credible controls on air freight shipments when he shipped himself from New York to Dallas in a crate!  What is the point of making life a misery for ordinary passengers when terrorists have largely unrestricted access to air freight?  Here's another good article about gaps in other parts of the nation's security.

Furthermore, the Department of Homeland Security now agrees with one of my claims.  They now acknowledge that new terrorist attacks in the US might use tactics not employed here in the past, such as car bombs or men dressed as women to avoid scrutiny.

Let me make a gruesome prediction :  If/when another terrorist attack occurs in the US, it will not involve terrorists hijacking passenger planes on scheduled services and flying them into buildings.  We are protecting ourselves against yesterday's threat when we should instead be anticipating and defending against tomorrow's new threat.  At present, terrorists have the initiative - they do something, then we respond.  While we're spending $9 billion and more on protecting ourselves against another 9/11 type attack, we're completely overlooking dozens of other vulnerabilities.

It seems that one by one, the icons that made America the shining example of the best society in the world are being demolished, while countries we used to describe as being totalitarian are trending increasingly towards a more liberal and fairer world-view.

Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, it is difficult to now claim that our elections and the voting procedures are fair, sensible and unbiased.  But how about our judiciary?  Surely justice is still a carefully protected commodity, that is carefully dispensed to all in our country by a highly qualified judicial system with plenty of appeals processes to protect against error.

Try and reconcile that belief with this reality :  A woman was a visitor to a Charleston SC court and while sitting in the courtroom's visitor seating, her cell phone rang.  There was a sign outside the courtroom requiring visitors to turn off their cellphones but she forgot to do so.  Sure, inappropriately ringing cell phones are a dreadful annoyance, but so too are traffic jams and many other things, and I also know that once or twice I've forgotten to turn mine off when I should have.  Keeping in mind some old fashioned notions like due process and bans against cruel and unusual punishment, what do you think the judge should do in response to the ringing of a cellphone in his courtroom?

The judge sent her to jail overnight for criminal contempt of court!  But, wait - the story is only starting.  The next day the woman was brought back in front of Judge Markley Dennis.  She apologized and asked to be released, but the learned judge then sentenced her to two days in the county jail for her offence.  Ms Floyd is 25 year old cosmetologist and has three young children, but spent two days in jail with no proper court hearing or opportunity for appeal.  This is justice?

As I find myself repeatedly saying, things like this make Russia look like an enlightened country.

Lastly this week, one of the bugbears of life on the road is the never long enough life of batteries in cell phones and laptops.  US scientists at the University of Massachusetts have now come up with a bacterial battery - a bacteria that consumes sugar and creates electricity as a by-product.  Such power sources could conceivably be developed to work in under-developed communities, using sewage as a feed stock for the bacteria, and powering household appliances, as well as being a compact long-lived power source for phones and computers.

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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