Friday 10 October, 2003

Good morning, where today I'm writing to you from Moscow, meaning a shorter newsletter than normal.  Needless to say, my travels were not without their problems, missing my first flight in Seattle due to security problems (see below).

Another week, another struggle with profanity filters.  Something in last week's email seems to have tripped the filters again.  Last week there were 3174 words in the newsletter.  One word, repeated once, out of these 3174 words was enough to cause some filter programs to reject the entire email.  But at least I can become increasingly strict on my self-censorship, unlike reader Mayer Nudell, who writes :

You might be interested in my own regularly recurring experience with email filters. Some of my clients have filters that occasionally malfunction and take the first 4 letters of my last name as a reason to kick out my mail as "pornographic." This usually only takes a few hours to fix, but like Richard's experience, can be annoying--especially when I am sending something to a client that is time-sensitive.

Another reader wrote in to say

I think your comments about filters miss the point.  The filter is only the tool.  A human being is making the decision as to what to filter out. It would be interesting to know at what level this decision is made in organizations and whether it is on the IT side or on the functional side .  It would also be interesting whether the organization even lets its employees know what they are filtering.

He is correct (and I'm made this point earlier, also) - filtering problems are due to badly adjusted filters, a problem that is largely the result of people poorly applying technology.  And these problems are almost certainly the result of incompetent and ill considered actions by junior IT staff, rather than formal corporate policy.  Company management need to be brought into the decisionmaking on such things.

Not everyone appreciated my travel agent article last week.  Indeed, one travel agency owner described it as the most pitiful attempt at journalism ever written - by anyone!  Lest anyone accuse me of censoring contrarian opinions, I posted his email, unchanged and in its entirety on the user forum.  Methinks he doth protest too much - could it be I hit a raw nerve and exposed something that he doesn't want his prospective clients to know about?  I can't promise that part two of this series has similarly contentious content, but here it is :

This Week's Column :  How to Find a Good Travel Agency (part 2) :  Here are another nine factors to consider when choosing the best agency to help you with your business or personal travel needs.

Thank you to the various readers that wrote in with stories for the New York Times.  Perhaps the worst horror story was this one from reader Thomas.

I am an American Airlines Executive Platinum (100,000+ miles a year). I have been actually PULLED OFF THE PLANE twice in the Third Quarter after boarding and had the plane leave without me.

At one point they gave me a boarding pass in Dallas (had it printed and waiting at gate) and I boarded the plane. I was then approached right before they closed the door and I had to surrender the seat - they said that I really wasn't assigned the seat (even though I had a boarding pass that they printed for me showing the seat number I was seated in).

On a second occasion, I had a confirmed aisle seat (8B) reserved six weeks earlier for a flight from Tampa to Dallas.  The flight was delayed and oversold, so they moved me to first class.  All was fine until we boarded (2 1/2 hours late).  Right before departure, they pulled me from pthe lane and said someone had paid full fare first class for the ticket and airline had cancelled their confirmed seat by mistake - thus I had to deplane.

I demanded my original seat back but they said they had installed oxygen for the passenger in my ex-seat and refused to remove them, so they pulled me from the plane.

They rescheduled me for next plane out, which was diverted to Oklahoma City. The trip finally ended after 13 hours.

So that's how AA are treating their "best" customers and how their "best" customers are inconvenienced by the airlines.

Dinosaur watching :  First prize for most puzzling announcement this week goes to Continental, for a curiously worded statement that they will stop cutting their ticket prices to offset government fees.  CO would hope us to believe that they have been reducing their fares to reflect the cost of ticket taxes, and now they will do this no longer.  Personally, I find it hard to believe that they have ever sold a ticket for less than what they believe to be the maximum possible price, and I doubt that this (sensible) policy is about to change in the future.  But - hey!  Why not blame the government and taxes for what is nothing more than a fare increase.

I'd commented about the circular links that start with Northwest, then go to KLM, then to Air France, and then to Delta.  This week Air France and KLM say they might ask the Justice Dept to permit DL and NW to join in one large transatlantic marketing partnership.

British Airways said it would look again at their long sought merger with American Airlines if regulators clear the Air France/KLM merger.  The airline also said it might merge with Iberia but would wait to see how European Union regulators rule on the Air France/KLM union.

Response to the AF/KL merger also comes from the French Railroad company, SNCF, who is offering to add high speed rail service between the two airlines' hubs in Amsterdam and Paris.

More airline traffic results for September.  United reported a 4.1% decline in passengers compared to a year ago.  Northwest had a 2.9% decline, and Delta a 2.6% decrease.  Compare these results with a 66.9% increase by JetBlue.  Frontier had a 37.9% increase and ATA had a 25.2% increase, and WestJet in Canada showed a 33.8% increase.  Alaska Airlines also had an increase of 9.3% and America West an increase of 5.7%.

Startling news from Southwest.  They are considering implementing assigned seating, due to technological advances which they say would enable them to do this at no appreciable extra cost.  They have not said when this might occur.

Sir Richard Branson has hotted up his interest in the US by talking about potentially investing in Atlantic Coast Airlines, a regional carrier that seeks to move from its former role as a United Express operator to an independent low cost carrier.  Atlantic Coast Airlines is also a target of a takeover offer by Mesa Air Group.

JP Morgan analyst Jamie Baker said that by the end of 2006, low cost carriers (LCCs) will increase their US market share up to 40%.   He went on to predict that 'given the rate at which LCCs are expanding, the devastating pricing impact they possess and the network carriers' myopic refusal to question their own business model, we believe low cost carriers will eventually inherit the earth.'

Shrugging off comparisons to earlier periods, Baker noted that today's LCCs are much larger than in the mid-1990s at the onset of the last industry profit cycle.  He identified 17 such airlines in 1994 and noted they operated a total of 2,705 departures per day, representing 17% of domestic departures and 12% of domestic capacity.  However, the group was highly fragmented : Only two operated more than 25 aircraft.  Today AirTran, America West, ATA, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit operate 776 aircraft - all have at least 25 - and they account for 32% of domestic departures and 26% of domestic capacity.

Perhaps the most significant impact however, is in the effect that the growth of LCCs have on the dinosaurs.  'With each successive LCC route, so goes the network carriers' last grasp on pricing power,' he stated.  For example, when AirTran enters the Atlanta-San Francisco market next month - Delta's ninth-largest US market in terms of revenue - the one-way walkup fare will plunge from $1,167 to $254.  Newark-SFO is Continental's sixth-largest domestic market in terms of revenue (it was the largest prior to the meltdown) with a last-minute walkup fare of $1,233 each way, but when ATA Airlines enters the market Oct. 26 with two daily roundtrips, Continental's highest walkup fare will fall to $454.

More information on related trends can be found in this article.

Internet Issues :  Are you self-disciplined or weak-willed?  Self-pitying or self-satisfied?  Answer these and eight other questions on this web site and in return, the website will then tell you which US carrier would be best suited for your travel needs!  Sounds to me like a ruse just to get your email address, with the results not being immediately displayed but rather emailed 'within one business day' - why is that?  Anyone clever enough (?) to be able to base an airline recommendation on such questions could surely program their webserver to immediately display the results on another web page.

My love-hate relationship with the internet continues.  I was booking a hotel in London through the British discount hotel site earlier in the week.  Somehow, their website made a mistake (truly it was not my mistake) and forgot about the arrival and departure dates I'd entered, and instead defaulted to arriving on the same day I was making the booking.  This only became apparent after I'd paid for the hotel room with my credit card, on a no changes no refunds type arrangement.

Do you think there was a phone number I could use to then call some sort of customer service person?  No, nowhere on the site was there any way to contact a real person.  There is no way that anyone would agree to work on this basis with a regular travel agency.  So why do we willingly subject ourselves to such ridiculously hostile customer disservice on the internet?

And here is a fascinating article about the internet travel companies.  The key challenges for online travel companies is that they are selling a generic product to a clientele that has no loyalty but extreme price sensitivity.  Doesn't sound like a great business environment to me.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The test that prospective TSA security screeners must pass before being qualified to work in airport security was described this week as seeming more like it was written by Jay Leno's scriptwriters than by a testing agency.  Here is one stunning example :

QUESTION :  Why is it important to screen bags for "improvised explosive devices," commonly referred to by security experts as I.E.D.'s?

a.  The I.E.D. batteries could leak and damage other passenger bags.
b.  The wires in the I.E.D. could cause a short to the aircraft wires.
c.  I.E.D.'s can cause loss of lives, property and aircraft.
d.  The ticking timer could worry other passengers.

Notwithstanding such ridiculous questions, the US Inspector General also found that many of the questions were rehearsed with trainees before they were tested.  He called the practice 'extremely disturbing'.  More details here.

On Saturday in Denver, up to a dozen flights were delayed and a concourse sealed off when an FBI agent discovered he had somehow lost his personal firearm and identification in the terminal.  They were found half an hour later in a restaurant in which he had eaten.

And in Seattle on Monday, the airline profiling system detected a potential terrorist and caused him to undergo 'secondary screening'.  Due to the delays in this process, he was unable to make his flight to San Francisco.  But what about his checked luggage?  Surely there is no way that Alaska Airlines would send unaccompanied luggage belonging to a potential terrorist on a flight without the passenger also being on board?  Well, alas, that is exactly what they did.  And, in case you haven't guessed, the suspected terrorist was me!

While of course the exact criteria for choosing who to subject to extra screening is a carefully guarded secret, I was puzzled why I should be chosen.  I had booked my travel well in advance, not at the last minute.  I had paid for it by credit card, not cash.  I was on a roundtrip itinerary, not a one-way flight.  I am a member of Alaska Airlines' frequent flier program and have been flying regularly with them for something like 15 years, rather than a person with no travel history.

It was interesting, while standing in line with the other suspected terrorists, to see who they were.  In front of me, and behind me, were other men looking generally similar to me.  Middle aged.  Generally clean shaven, and either wearing suits or respectable casual dress.  A group of middle class European Americans, people that would look at home mowing the lawn on a Sunday afternoon in any suburb in the country.

So - why choose me - and them - as potential high risk travelers?  If the police pull you over, they are obliged to tell you why they have done that.  But in the airport, you have two choices - comply with any and all mindless indignities inflicted upon you, or be prepared to suddenly find yourself being accused of making jokes about bombs and being banned for life from flying.

Does anyone feel more secure in their travels, knowing that boring middle aged frequent flying white men such as myself are being singled out for special extra screening?  Oh - the 'special' screening?  Nothing particularly special at all.  My carry on bag was bulging with electronics, none of which was taken out of its various bags, none of which was turned on or examined at all!  Indeed, not all the compartments in my flight bag were even unzipped!  Yes, my shoes got a lot of attention, but the many pounds of electronics were untouched.  Memo to terrorists - don't hide explosives in shoes any more.  Put them in MP3 players and PDAs and computer power supplies.  The special screening is a laughable travesty that does nothing other than delay passengers and cause them to miss their flights, while not adding any extra security check at all.

The TSA used to have a motto proudly emblazoned on its website that said 'Freedom to Travel'.  After I repeatedly mocked the disgraceful lie that this represented, the motto disappeared.  Let's face it, folks.  We have no freedom to travel.  The only freedom related to travel these days is that which the authorities have to do anything they like to us, without having to justify their actions to anyone.

After that, here are two light hearted stories to end the week.

Taxiing down the tarmac, the 767 abruptly stopped, turned around and returned to the gate. After an hour-long wait, it finally took off. A concerned passenger asked the flight attendant, "What, exactly, was the problem?"

"The pilot was bothered by a noise he heard in the engine," explained the flight attendant. "It took us a while to find a new pilot."


"TWA 2341, for noise abatement turn right 45 Degrees."

"Center, we are at 35,000 feet. How much noise can we make up here?"

"Sir, have you ever heard the noise a 747 makes when it hits a 757?"

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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