Friday 26 September, 2003

Good morning.  On Tuesday we passed another of those annual seasonal events - Fall Equinox - the day where there is equal day and night, throughout the world.  This day traditionally marks the start of autumn in the US, although in some countries this season (or its mirror image in the southern hemisphere, spring) is said to start on 1 October.

Equinoxes are important dates for travelers to understand, because your travel strategy should vary depending on which side of each equinox you're traveling on.  To find out more about this topic, please visit my column this week, the second part of the series started last week :

This Week's Column :  When is the Best Time to Travel? :  Change your travel dates by just one week, and you might get an extra 45 minutes of daylight every day.  Change your travel plans by a month, and you might avoid monsoon season.  This week, I tell you how to plan your travels so you get the best weather on your journey.

In last week's newsletter I quoted a person who objected to my using the word 'niggling' in its correct dictionary meaning, due to it being too similar to what I'll this week refer only to as the 'n' word.  Many of you didn't get to see the newsletter at all, because automatic censoring programs at your mail server rejected it due to my including the 'n' word itself (in an appropriate and scholarly discussion).

In some cases, when I complained about this to the people that administer your mail servers, I was told that the people who manage your email have no control over what it censors and what it does not!  Other administrators referred to corporate policy and refused to send my email on unless I removed the offending word or replaced one or two letters with asterisks.

Did you know that your email might be censored, and, more interestingly still, that no-one might actually admit responsibility to what is censored and why?

But most of you did get the email last week, and several of you responded.  Thanks in particular to Carolyn, who wrote :

I got a good laugh out of your e-mail today. As an African-American, let me assure you that any reasonable person knows the difference between racial epithets and the word "niggling", and takes no offense at the use of the latter. I would be greatly offended if you burned a cross on my lawn or denied me service because of the color of my skin, but I wouldn't blink an eye if you used the word niggling in context. However, I have to warn you that I might dispute being called niggardly; I am not cheap or stingy, I'm just thrifty.

Some of you may also recall the case of a teacher who lost his job after using the word 'niggardly' in its proper sense, due to it sounding too much like the verboten 'n' word.  It is interesting to note that the word 'niggardly' predates the 'n' word by almost 200 years, and the two words are entirely unrelated.

Although the 'n' word has become increasingly censored, the 'f' word is becoming increasingly common in reputable publications.  Just this week saw three of Britain's leading newspapers print it in its full four letter form without any asterisks or other concessions to the faint hearted.  The Guardian, Independent and Financial Times all quoted this word without apology, as did BBC Online, when talking about diary notes of a British political advisor.

Talking about common sense, Joe Brancatelli pointed out the difficulty that many readers have in trying to find some of the past feature articles I've written.  Although, with a bit of pain and suffering, just about every column can be found from this page, I agree that pain and suffering are not good things, and so I've added a new page that is a master list of every column ever written, indexed in date order.  Note that this is a listing of the weekly feature items only.  Newsletters are not officially stored on the site for non-subscribers to access, but if you want to look back at an earlier newsletter, here is the private link to all past newsletters.

Last week I recommended the Alexa Toolbar to readers as a way to control popup windows happening in your browser.  Many readers spoke in favor of the Google Toolbar, and I now agree with them.  The Google Toolbar is better at controlling popups - and I have both installed in my browser.

I'm working through your responses about spam issues, and playing with some solutions.  Meanwhile, a quick comment.  Although few of us believe the government will effectively stop the flood of spam, California's governor, as part of a flurry of pre-recall legislation, signed into law the nation's toughest anti-spam law.  It is now illegal to send spam to CA residents, or to send spam from CA to anywhere.  Penalties range up to $1000 per piece of spam, up to a maximum of $1 million per campaign.

Sounds good.  But how will the CA government successfully sue a spammer in China or Belarus?

I occasionally get emails from travel agent readers who tell me '...a good travel agent would do all this ...'  I agree with them, and there is no more ardent fan of these wondrous creatures (good travel agents) than I.  But - how do you find a good travel agent?  In the situation where anyone can call themselves a travel agent, and where there are very few financial rewards to encourage high calibre people to remain travel agents, I must concede that good travel agents are sadly outnumbered by not quite so good ones!

Can I ask you to pass on to me any ideas or suggestions as to how you go about finding a good travel agent?  It might make a useful future column.  Just one thing :  Please don't suggest 'choose an ASTA agent'.  Many travel agents themselves have a very low opinion of ASTA, as this item records.

And now, after this lengthy preamble, on to dinosaur watching :  United might have had a good month in August, and is reporting an 'operating profit' of $105 million, a positive cash flow, and a net income of $68 million, excluding special items.  Add the special items, though, and the net income switches and becomes a $46 million loss.

Their press release announcing these numbers is worrying vague, and includes the magic phrase 'EBITDAR' in some places, so I'm not sure if the $68 million is a true absolute bottom line figure, or if it is a bit of accounting trickery prior to deducting interest, taxation, depreciation, amortization and, amazingly, rental costs (eg on planes).  An EBITDAR profit is no big deal.  A true profit, after all expenses and allowances and adjustments is a much bigger deal, and it seems that, best case scenario, UA actually lost $46 million in August, and possibly much more if this is an EBITDAR figure.

Would you buy shares in an airline?  Perhaps you should have, earlier this year.  The Amex airlines index is up from a low of 25.83 in March and currently is showing about 60.  If you'd bought into AA when they were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, at $1.25 a share in March, you'd be very pleased with your return - today the share closed at $11.72, nearly ten times higher.

But is there more upward opportunity in the airline industry?  This article from Forbes quotes several analysts who seem to be guardedly optimistic, but significantly, they prefer the new breed of low cost carriers rather than the old dinosaurs.

Boeing sells eight Airbus A340s.  No, this isn't a joke, and neither is it the latest evolution of Boeing's changing approach to manufacturing and selling airplanes.  Boeing had to accept these A340s as a trade-in on a large order of 777s from Singapore Airlines in 1999.  Rumor has it that they may have been sold to Emirates, but Boeing is being very tightlipped :  'Those airplanes are no longer available," said a spokeswoman for Boeing's aircraft trading unit. "As to who they are going to, I can't say.'  This person should be more accurately described as a non-spokeswoman.

Airbus isn't quite so secretive about sales, and reported this week a sale of 17 more A320s to turned around airline Aer Lingus.  These 17, together with options for another ten, are being used to replace Aer Lingus' fleet of 737 and 757 planes and for fleet expansion.

The good news of the last couple of years in the US aviation sphere is that the nation's overloaded transportation system has enjoyed a reprieve.  Reduced numbers of passengers, and even greater reductions in the number of flights, have allowed the system to step back from the brink of total meltdown.  Flight delays have massively diminished, but now that passenger numbers are increasing again, the system is getting closer to gridlock once more.

A report tabled this week by the National Research Council says that major changes will be needed to allow for a doubling of demand for air travel in the next 10 - 35 years (let's not be too specific).  This is hardly news to anyone (except the NRC, perhaps).  But after stating this home truth, the report starts to stray into the crazy fringe when it advocates new technologies such as new propulsion methods (hydrogen fuel and advanced fuel cells), cleaner quieter planes (which it somehow believes will improve capacity - something I'd have thought was more likely from bigger faster planes, not cleaner quieter ones), supersonic business jets (as if they will be clean and quiet!), giant flying wings as cargo transporters, and planes that take off and land vertically (essentially impossible for anything other than light military fighters).

This is all great stuff, of course, but wildly impractical within this time frame.  As contrast, remember Boeing's comment a couple of weeks ago that their possible new 7E7 plane would last through to the 22nd century!  Plainly Boeing isn't planning on massive changes in technology any time soon.  And while a supersonic plane to replace Concorde would be lovely, Boeing couldn't even get the support to offer a slightly faster than normal plane, let alone a supersonic jet.

If you really want to see crazy, the report spoke approvingly of a European report that called for the development of a 1200 seater supersonic jet by 2020!  By comparison, Concorde seated 100 passengers.  A 747 seats about 400, and the new Airbus super-jumbo, not due out until 2006, will hold 555.

Readers might be reassured that the Government believes itself to be on top of all these issues and requirements.  'The council raises valid questions and the Transportation Department and FAA are applying the same foresight to answer the question of what a future aerospace system might be,' said FAA spokesman Greg Martin.  Hmmm...

A very successful retailer in New Zealand built their company with the slogan 'It is the Putting Right that Counts'.  Their theory was that problems inevitably occur, and the key thing was to correct them in an effective manner.  This is true in public relations as well.  Bad news crops up, even about the best run companies, but an adroit response to such problems can turn the initial negative story into a positive outcome.

So how well did JetBlue respond to the story last week that it released 5 million passenger flight records to a government contractor?  Colossally poorly.

Here's a very sad time line of how the story has been unfolding :

Asked on 15 September if they were participating in testing the CAPPS II internal border control system, JetBlue's response was, "That's not public information".  Err... yes, it was.  TSA chief Admiral Loy told a meeting that very day that JetBlue would test CAPPS II.

On 16 September, JetBlue CEO David Neeleman came out with the following statement : "No JetBlue customer information has been shared with the US Government with respect to testing the CAPPS II program currently under design."

Confronted later in the day with incontrovertible evidence that JetBlue violated the privacy of 5 million passengers, JetBlue issued fervent denials for over 24 hours before they half-heartedly conceded the truth on 17 September.  Neeleman claimed that JetBlue violated its customers' privacy rights only once, and as part of a secret project to help the US Army protect their bases.  Unfortunately, there was no mention of either the Army or base protection in the presentation that has circulated around the internet like wildfire!

On September 18th, JetBlue decided to try something different.  Everyone who now emails a complaint to the airline receives a 'personal apology letter' from David Neeleman.  But this letter is also not fully supported by the facts.

The letter says

Thank you for writing to JetBlue so that I have an opportunity to apologize to you personally and set the record straight.

Most importantly, JetBlue has never supplied, nor will supply, customer information to the Transportation Security Administration, or any government agency, unless we are required to do so by law -- not for CAPPS II or for any other purposes, whatsoever.

However, I regret that, more than a year ago, we responded to an exceptional request from the Department of Defense to assist their contractor, Torch Concepts, with a project regarding military base security.

This project had no connection with aviation security or the CAPPS II program and no data files were ever shared with the Department of Defense or any other government agency or contractor.

We provided limited historical customer data including names, addresses and phone numbers. It DID NOT include personal financial information, credit card information, or social security numbers. ...

But - wait a minute.  Although promising to set the record straight, in the second paragraph Neeleman says that no information was supplied to a government agency, and in the third paragraph talks about a request from the DoD - surely a government agency?

And then there is the claim about this having no connection with aviation security, 100% at odds with the facts as they now appear.  Some of the other claims in the 'setting the record straight apology' are also a bit dubious.

And so, perhaps to explain the inconsistencies in this letter, JetBlue have now come up with a novel explanation.  They are saying that David Neeleman was not informed about, and did not know, that JetBlue passed this information on!

A spokesman for JetBlue, Gareth Edmondson-Jones, declined to identify the executive or executives responsible for the release of the passenger information last year, and he said that no one would be disciplined for the breach of the company's privacy rules.  "I don't think it's important," he said when asked to identify the executives. "The decision was made as a company. I don't think it's relevant."

Some of us might think the growing number of lawsuits, including at least one class action, that are now being filed against JetBlue to have some importance.

Furthermore, on the probable basis of 'hide behind someone else' JetBlue proudly announced that they have hired Deloitte & Touche to help analyze and develop their privacy policy.  Get real!  What part of their present privacy policy, which reads

The financial and personal information collected on this site is not shared with any third parties, and is protected by secure servers.

needs to be studied or developed any further?  It just needs to be implemented!

Meanwhile, in unrelated news (???) David Neeleman was named to a prestigious FAA advisory panel this week.

Do you remember, years ago, when first seat belts and then air bags became mandatory in passenger vehicles?  Auto manufacturers complained at the extra cost that these features would add to the sticker price of their new cars.  Detroit should take lessons from our airlines.  Guess who has paid for the cost of reinforcing cockpit doors on planes?  This safety enhancement is not being paid for by the airplane manufacturers, and neither is it being paid for by the airlines.

The government paid for it.  In total, $197 million has now been handed out to 58 domestic carriers.  TSA head James Loy said 'The reinforcing and hardening of cockpit doors is just one example of how the government and private industry have partnered in our efforts to keep the skies secure.'  Admittedly ex Coast Guard Admiral Loy is a military man, not a business man, but how can any reasonable person proudly describe such an unbalanced relationship as a 'partnership'?

Bad news for the cost of air tickets.  The $2.50 per segment security fee, which was temporarily lifted in June, will resume in October.  You may remember that as soon as the segment security fees were lifted in June, the airlines all increased their fares by almost exactly the same amount (another airline/government partnership, perhaps!).  Who wants to bet against me that when the $2.50 fees - return, the airlines will not then drop their fares by the same amount they increased them in June?

Reader Dick asks

How can you bargain with a particular hotel over the Internet, e.g., ask for better rates, or meals, or an upgrade room? I recently made a week's reservation with Renaissance Hotel on Maui over the Web, and the best I could do was accept their AAA rate of $215, because I had no one to talk with. Would it have been better to call the hotel, or the chain's 800 line?

I use the internet for research, but then try and book, either through a travel agent (who might have access to a special rate program), or otherwise both through the (800) central booking service and directly to the hotel's front desk.  Sometimes I get a better rate from one of these three sources, sometimes from another.

Just remember - if you see an internet rate of, eg, $150 a night being offered on a website that is not the hotel's own website, then the chances are that although you are paying $150 a night for that room to the web company, the hotel might only be getting 80% of that money.

So I typically call up the hotel and if I feel I'm talking to a sensible person, I'll say 'Look, I've seen your rooms for sale on the internet for $150.  I guess that means you're only getting $120 or so yourself, and probably not being paid until some months after my stay.  Why don't we split the difference, and I'll pay you, directly and when I check out, $135 a night.  You get more money sooner, and a happy guest.  And I get a slightly better deal, too.'

Try it.  Sometimes it works.  And, of course, sometimes it doesn't!

As Amtrak continues to lurch from financial disaster to even worse financial disaster, suffering from severe neglect at the hands of Congress, other countries continue to invest heavily in their rail services.  Australia has just completed a new 870 mile rail line between Darwin and Alice Springs, at a cost of US$840 million.  The $840 million paid for, amongst other things, 2 million railway sleepers (ties) and 97 bridges.  This will make for a wonderful train journey, with the line now stretching all the way from Adelaide to Darwin.

Australia has very sensibly 're-invented' its long distance passenger trains as upmarket experiential tourist events rather than as downmarket transportation.  Amtrak could learn from this (and could also use the $840 million to invest in some track, too!).

And in Britain, the already existing Eurostar line linking London and the Chunnel has been upgraded, enabling the journey time to be reduced by 20 minutes.  This was gained by upgrading 46 miles of track to now allow trains to travel at 186 mph, and the cost of these 46 miles was US$3 billion.

A further 22 miles of track are also to be upgraded, at extra cost.  When this is complete, a train ride between London and Paris will take only 2 hours 15 minutes - little more than it takes to drive from downtown London to Heathrow on a bad day!

Why is it that Britain happily invests $3 billion to upgrade 46 miles of track, and Australia spends $840 million to build 870 miles of new track, but here in the US, Amtrak can't even get the money it needs to continue operating at its present woefully unsatisfactory levels?  I wrote about this eighteen months ago.  The situation remains unchanged - and unresolved - today.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Olive oil is more dangerous than alcohol?  Read Matthew's story in our user forum about how he was not allowed to take a sealed commercial bottle of olive oil aboard an Air France flight, due to it being 'potentially explosive'.  Matthew wonders if all the bottles of duty free alcohol and perfume aren't at least as explosive as his olive oil.

Here's a story we haven't heard the end of.  The airline industry group Air Transport Association estimates that US carriers will lose $231 million in potential revenue this year due to having sky marshals flying in first class seats that they could otherwise sell to passengers.

I'd like to see how that figure was calculated - sounds like voodoo economics to me.  As we all know, a great number of first class seats are not sold, but instead are given away, for free, to frequent fliers, or 'sold' in return for frequent flier mile 'payments' that have minimal underlying cost to the airline.  How many potentially full fare paying passengers have been turned away due to the presence of a sky marshal (or two) in first class, and how many times have the sky marshals simply taken seats that would have otherwise been given away as free upgrades?

Normally I complain when passengers are arrested and charged for ridiculous and imaginary offences caused by making inappropriate comments while passing through airport security.  But here's a story about a woman that tried to take a loaded gun in her handbag through the X-ray machine at Denver, and in excuse said she simply forgot the gun was there.  She was not charged.  Could this be at all related to the fact that her husband is the security screening manager, and she herself works in the airport's HR department, I wonder?

Political correctness has yet to dominate the air in Malaysia.  Malaysian Airlines is grounding air hostesses (or, should I say, 'flight attendant') over the age of 40.  The airline had no intention of discriminating against women, the general manager for corporate services, Mohammadon Abdullah, was quoted as saying in the New Straits Times.  He added: "Let's face reality. Customers prefer to be served by young, demure and pretty stewardesses, especially Asian ladies."

Safer not to comment on that!

And, no comment either on this new airline website -  Thanks to reader Scott at the Alaska Travelgram for being first to pass it on.  Could this be the future of airline travel?

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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