Friday 3 October, 2003

Good morning.  Last week I spoke about profanity filters preventing the previous week's email from getting through to some of you.  To my surprise, last week's email also ran up against these computerized censors.  What was the problem?  In the email, I mentioned getting a letter from a reader.  The reader's name was Richard, but he calls himself by a shorter form of his name that begins with the letter D.  I can't tell you what his very common Christian name is because if I do, those same profanity filters will unthinkingly decide again that you need to be protected against exposure to this gentleman's first name!

Perhaps the most frustrating part of these mindless filters is best expressed by an email from reader Jamie, who says :

It is very interesting what the servers choose to censor. They have no problem censoring our language, but they refuse to censor any pornography that comes into my email box, no matter how bad it is.

My thanks to all the readers who sent in suggestions for how to find a good travel agent - including the many travel agents who provided insider secrets about how to tell between the good and the not so good agents out there.  My plan to write a single short article on this topic has now expanded to a three part series, with this week being :

This Week's Column :  How to Find a Good Travel Agency :  A good travel agency - and a good travel agent - is worth its weight in gold.  Here are nine factors to consider when choosing a travel agency.

May I now ask for readers who are qualified pilots (including current/ex military pilots as well as commercial and GA pilots) to help me prepare a new article about defenses against SAM attacks on passenger planes.  I have some novel ideas that would cost a lot less than the multi-billion dollar plans currently being proposed, and which might also be very much more effective.  Before publishing this, I would like to do a 'reality check' and so would appreciate feedback from pilots.  I'll send you a draft of my idea if you let me know.

Would you like to help the New York Times?  One of their business reporters is looking for quotes from travelers who have experienced inconvenience due to the higher loads on planes, more crowded lounges, etc.  If you have a story to tell, send it to me along with your name and day contact phone number and I'll pass it on to the reporter.

Most of the over-crowding at present is due to major airlines having reduced their flights by a greater percentage than their loss of passengers.  But even with these reductions, the total airline system is close to overload.  For example, Atlanta's airport is currently serving 40% more traffic than it was designed to handle.

Dinosaur Watching :  Does he read this newsletter, perhaps?  Congressman John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, was quoted in the Financial Times as telling a group of airline executives and lobbyists earlier this week :  'You can only feed dinosaurs for so long.  The way to be attractive is to have a profit - you guys haven't found that out yet.'  He described some of the major airlines as existing on life support while being in effect 'brain dead'.  He added 'The best thing that could happen to the major carriers is being forced into bankruptcy'.

Never corner a wounded dinosaur?  A Lehman Brothers report on Tuesday speculated 'The risk of competitive retaliation by the major airlines is growing.'  Lehman's airline analyst Gary Chase was alluding to a possible price war in which the dinosaurs might attempt to squeeze the weakest low-cost carriers out of business by reducing fares to rock-bottom levels.  All that's needed to spark an industrywide assault on budget airlines 'is for one carrier to take that step,' Chase said.  'In that environment,' he added, 'we believe that many marginal carriers would be unable to withstand the retaliation.'

That said, Chase made clear that a price war would not be effective against Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways and AirTran Airways, the three low-cost carriers that have inflicted the most pain on the big hub-and-spoke carriers.  He considers these airlines well-financed, well-liked by travelers and poised to hold 'for decades' the market share they've grabbed from the nation's biggest carriers.  In 2002, low-fare airlines had 27.8 percent of the domestic market, up from 26.2 percent in 2001 and 9.3 percent in 1991, the report said.

A spokesman for JetBlue Airways said the current market aggression of carriers such as American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, which launched a low-cost subsidiary, Song, suggests the industrywide retaliation is already underway.  'When you look at American's choice of routes and marketing choices, you could certainly say some sort of retaliation is already there.'

Talking about JetBlue, they're about to expand into Boston, and by early next year will be offering three daily flights to Orlando, two to Tampa, and one each to Fort Lauderdale and Denver.  CEO David Neeleman, doubtless delighted to no longer be uttering the changing defense du jour of his company's privacy violations, said 'Low fare doesn't have to be no-frills anymore' and added the bold offer 'We don't charge for snacks either - and you can have as many as you like'.  This was quoted in a 30 September Business Wire story, so if you have any problems asking for your third or fourth bag of blue chips, quote this at the flight attendant!

In New York, JetBlue are hoping to use the old TWA terminal at JFK as part of an expansion in their operations.  The terminal was designated a city landmark in 1994, and while neither the New York Port Authority nor JetBlue think it practical to make it a major part of JetBlue's operation, it is hoped that there will be some use that will allow it to remain in an airline related working role.

September traffic figures are starting to arrive already.  AirTran is reporting a 37.6% increase compared to the same month last year, and Southwest an increase of 10.6%.  Continental also managed to report a small 2.7% increase, but plainly, the low cost carriers are continuing to steal market share from their dinosaur relations.

Readers may recall a few months back when Boeing convinced a bankruptcy judge to replace the airline's management with a trustee to oversee the company due to peculiarities in a company buy-back of shares.  The SEC has now opened a formal investigation into the company and several of its officers.  On 31 May 2002 the company bought back 5.88 million shares that predominantly were owned by managers and their affiliates for $4.25 per share, at a time when the company's financial condition was declining.  The company subsequently entered Chapter 11, and shares currently trade at $1.32.

Airline consolidation - long overdue, but constrained due to the special rights given to a country's national carrier(s) to operate domestic services - is starting to occur in Europe.  A week ago we saw struggling Swiss join arms with BA and become a oneWorld alliance member.  This week Air France has announced what is essentially a take-over of KLM.  Italy's national airline, Alitalia, may also join these two other airlines to make a very large combined operation.

The merged Air France/KLM airline would rank first in the world in terms of sales, and third in terms of traffic (behind AA and UA).  But don't expect to see this new airline anytime soon.  Regulatory approval is pending and not 100% assured.

Follow this chain of logic and see where it leads.  Northwest has anti-trust immunity with KLM and so shares pricing and network planning information with that airline.  KLM merges with Air France and so this information will naturally flow through to Air France as well.  Air France has anti-trust immunity to share information with Delta.  But, NW and DL have no anti-trust immunity to share information between themselves.  Ooops.

The airline industry is increasingly incestuous in one form or another.  Here's another example.  Rono Dutta, former president of United Airlines, went to work for the Alabama Pension Fund to advise them on how to run US Airways.  He has now left them and is working for Cerberus Capital, one of the two companies chosen by Air Canada to compete in refinancing the airline when it comes out of bankruptcy.

I've expressed dismay before at Amtrak's typical negotiating ploy for more government money - threatening to close down the operation if they don't get the money they need.  A more crazy approach is now being adopted by Amtrak's employees.  Members of unions that represent 8,000 of Amtrak's 21,000 employees threatened to walk off the job today (Friday) to protest the chronic underfunding that Amtrak suffers.  This would affect intercity services as well as some commuter trains.  CEO David Gunn described the strike as both illegal and ill-advised, but the unions said they would fight a restraining order seeking to keep them at work.

A court delayed the strike until after 20 October, the date set for a hearing on Amtrak's motion for an injunction against the strike.

The disruption caused by an Amtrak strike will deepen its losses and harden opposition to giving more money to the organization.

Interesting results from a survey done for Enterprise RentaCar.  More business travelers are choosing to drive when traveling on shorter regional trips.  More than 65% of surveyed business travelers said they've taken a business related driving trip of 300 miles or less in the last year, and 44% say they're doing so more than before.  The main reasons for more driving - saving money (78%), reduced flight choices (39%) and corporate policy changes (38%).

People seemed to generally enjoy driving, however, with benefits cited including time to think (86%), feeling in control of their schedule (84%), building relationships with passengers (75%) and basic enjoyment of driving (50%).

Drivers said that as well as driving, they often do something else, including listening to music (98%), planning and prioritizing work (89%), business conversations on a cell phone (78%), gossiping with co-workers (68%), singing (64%) and discussing personal problems with co-workers (53%).

The latest survey of best and worst cities for traffic congestion has just been released.  After considerable lobbying, the survey changed some of its criteria, and so my home city of Seattle has improved from fifth worst to twelfth.  Sure doesn't seem like any improvement to me, however - who cares about criteria.  Why not just measure lengthening commute times!

About the only saving grace of being stuck in traffic is being able to use one's cell phone.  But another new study is now adding its findings to the growing evidence that cell phone radiation is harmful.  The cell phone industry's response?  In a stonewalling series of responses that sound remarkably similar to those uttered by the tobacco industry fifty years ago, they say that this new report doesn't prove anything, and/or generally refuse to comment.

So I'm finding it hard to feel too upset that I can't use my lovely new Nokia 3650 with T-Mobile service as much as I thought I could - at least I'm protecting my health!  I've now given up on any further attempt at trying to send and receive email through the phone.  After spending hours with their Customer Service people, it seems that the unofficial consensus amongst the people that have to support these services (as opposed to those that sell them) is that unless you sign up for an additional $20/month optional extra service, email just plain doesn't work as you'd hope it to.  Although in theory email can be sent/received without paying this extra $20 a month, the reality seems somewhat different.

All the more reason to cheer on 24 November.  That is when cell phone numbers become portable - you can take your phone number with you if you change suppliers.  I've got an old cell phone account that I'm keeping active purely so I can, on 25 November, take its nice number and transfer it to my new T-Mobile service.

This new portability also underscores the good sense of buying an unlocked GSM type phone, where all you need to do, if you want to change services/suppliers, is simply pull out the account chip ('SIM') and replace it with a SIM from another provider.  Currently T-Mobile is the only company that will unlock your GSM phone.  Other GSM service providers are AT&T and Cingular.

Strategy - next time you're getting new cell phone service, buy from T-Mobile (if they're in your area).  If you subsequently seek to change from T-Mobile, you can keep your phone and just swap SIMs, using instead service from AT&T or Cingular.

The TSA specifically lists Golf Clubs as prohibited items that you can not take through security into an airport's 'secure' areas, or onto a plane.  Which makes Delta's announcement that it is setting up a practice putting green in its Crown Room Club on Concourse T at Atlanta Airport rather puzzling.  Although apparently illegal, putting golf clubs and golf balls will be provided for members to play with.  Additional putting greens are planned for Crown Rooms in Washington DC, Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, W Palm Beach, Phoenix and JFK.

The TSA also specifically lists on their website that passengers may carry Nitroglycerine pills or spray for medical use.  Which makes this week's security horror story all the more outrageous.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Reader Phil writes :

I was flying MIA/CLT/BOS and was selected by the TSA agent for a secondary search.  No problem - or so I thought, and I emptied my pockets as directed.  I carry "Nitrolingual spray" in my pocket, for a heart condition.  Some people use nitro tablets, I find that the spray works well for me.

The agent saw the word "NITRO" printed on the bottle and stopped everything.  He called his supervisor, who called the Miami Police, who called the Dade County Sheriff.  I am glad I was early for the flight - I was there for almost an hour trying to explain what it was for.

They wanted to know when I use it, how often, and where it comes from.  They should have looked at the printed label on the bottle!  I have been traveling with it since June of 2000, but have never been asked to take it out of my pocket before.  For a while there I thought I was going to jail!

I still vividly remember the outraged response from a reader a year ago when I referred to US Air Force planes potentially firing on hijacked passenger jets.  This person insisted that this would never happen.  In actual fact, such an event would very definitely happen, if the situation demanded it, and here is an interesting article about the Air Force's training for such an eventuality.

TSA chief James Loy has admitted what we already knew and agreed that there are gaps in airport security.  He had little choice after a GAO report said that the TSA isn't keeping close enough track of its airport security screeners' performance.  Exact findings of the GAO investigation have been kept confidential, but, as this article details, Rep John Mica said after reading the report 'You wouldn't want to know. ... It's gruesome.  We have a huge army (of screeners) that's not working well.'

Loy said that the agency is focused on researching and developing better technology to solve these problems, which he described as 'a technology issue more than it's a screener performance issue' but acknowledged that the TSA had cut most of its $75 million research budget for 2003!

The GAO disagrees with Loy's suggesting it is primarily a technological problem, and as this article explains, the TSA is conducting less testing of its employees than was the norm when private contractors were providing airport security!

More strange weather and its side-effects.  The Rhine - Germany's most famous river - is almost literally drying up after too long with no rain.  In places one can almost cross the normally large river by foot.  In some places there is less than 15" of water, and several ships have been stranded due to lack of water depth.

AA pilots are arguing about whether they should change their uniform so they can appear topless.  That is, topless as in hatless.  Hat supporters say that it is an issue of professionalism, and that their hat is a symbol of this, much like their wings.  Opponents say a hat is outdated, and point out that bus drivers no longer wear hats, and never had authority when they did.

Although a compromise might be to allow hats to become optional (like at Southwest), AA management says that it is an all or nothing proposition.  I wonder why?

Please be advised that I'm going to be on the road from 6 October through at least 28 October.  Monday sees me taking the long way to Moscow - instead of the convenient nonstop from Seattle to Moscow, I'm flying first down to San Francisco, then to London, then to Moscow.  Ah, the things I'll do for a story (and an upgrade!).  I'm splitting my time between Britain and Russia, and will not be able to offer the usual lengthy newsletters.  Normal service will resume in November.

With my upcoming time in both Moscow and  London's metro systems in mind, I should mention that I always carry a tiny pocket flashlight with me on underground commuter trains, in case the trains stop and power fails.  While this is exceedingly rare, it isn't unheard of (a half hour outage afflicted much of London a month back).  And on the relatively common situations when the train stops between stations for no apparent reason, this little micro-flashlight is very comforting to feel in my pocket.

And here today is news of a problem on the London Underground that delayed thousands of passengers, although probably they didn't suffer the loss of power and light.  A trainee driver fainted after two instructors discussed an intimate male surgical procedure (I can't tell you what for fear of having the newsletter censored, but if you can't guess, click on the link).  He asked them to change the subject, they ignored him, and he fainted shortly after.  He was taken to hospital and treated for head and chest injuries after falling from the cab of the moving train.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and be careful what you overhear

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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