Friday 31 October, 2003

Good morning, where I'm writing to you from Moscow yet again.  I am promising myself that next week will see me back at home, although the threat of a baggage handler's strike in Heathrow on the day I fly through there (Tuesday) makes this a little uncertain.

My comment about hotel phone rates last week brought a reply from reader David, who forwarded a horror story from a person who stayed at the Ramada Inn Eastgate in Kissimmee, close to Disney World in Orlando.  They were being charged $10 for a phone call from the hotel to Disney World, less than ten miles away.  Makes my $1.50 a minute seem almost cheap.

I've never yet found a hotel in Britain that offers broadband internet service to guests.  There is a reason why hotels have been quick to offer this service in the US, but slow in the UK.  In the US, where it is normal for local calls from a hotel phone to be close to free, hotels make more money by selling broadband access and save money by not needing so many regular outside phone lines.  But in the UK, hotels make a huge amount more money by selling normal phone service (and sometimes with very very slow connection speeds) at up to $1.50 a minute than they'd ever make by selling broadband at a flat rate of perhaps $10/day.  Shame on the British hotel industry.

This newsletter is short, due to continued traveling.  With the thought of flying home next Monday/Tuesday, I'm of course anticipating the long flight between London and Seattle.  Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a review based on a roundtrip experience in BA's business class (what they call 'Club Class') which was quite critical of their service and my experience.  I flew Club Class to London again several weeks ago, and have updated my review to reflect the experiences of the extra flight a year later.  Has BA got better or worse?

This Week's Column :  BA Business Class Review :  BA have retired Concorde and are cutting back on flights offering first class.  Increasingly, their Business Class is the 'best' service they offer.  But - how good is it?  I take another BA business class flight and report on the experience.

Dinosaur WatchUnited Airlines reported a vastly reduced loss in the last quarter.  Before restructuring costs, their loss was a mere $37 million, and after these one-time charges, it increased to $367 million, but still vastly reduced compared to $889 million for the same period last year.  Could it be that the present slump is now behind us?  United is projecting it will exit its Chapter 11 status in the first half of 2004.

United continues to press on with its plans for a new low fare airline.  The airline, as yet unnamed, is now projected to commence operations in February 2004, from a Denver base.  Service will initially be offered to Reno, Ontario (California), Phoenix, New Orleans, Orlando, Las Vegas and Tampa.  Tickets are said to go on sale in mid November, so presumably some time in the next two weeks the airline will get a name.

Southwest has announced plans to move into Philadelphia.  On the face of it, this is merely the next step forward in Southwest's seemingly unstoppable growth.  But look beneath the surface, and what this also may be is a serious challenge to US Airways, striking into the heart of US's network and potentially killing the struggling carrier's chances of building its higher yielding business.  The implications for US Airways are very serious.

Do you remember, shortly after 9/11, when the government rushed to make ex gratia payments totalling $5 billion to the airline industry to compensate them for lost business?  At the time, I observed that several airlines were paid more than their estimated losses related to 9/11.  The government apparently took note, and is now negotiating with 16 carriers to get some of their money returned.  To date, one carrier - FedEx - is challenging the government's attempt to take back its gift, and the matter is now before the courts.  FedEx was given $101 million and the government now wants $32 million of that returned.

Letter of the week comes from a reader, who posts in the user forums the following message

My husband is fighting in the war on terrorism, and has been since day 1, pretty much. He is finally getting to come for Christmas, but only for 21 days. When I called AA and Delta, both of the airlines told me that if he were to miss his flight because the Air Force won't be able to get him to Baltimore in time, he'll have to pay $100 + a $25 fee to be moved to another flight. And there would be no guarantee that he could even get on that flight.

All of this just so he can come home from the war for a few days. Now, correct me if I am wrong, but isn't it partly the Airlines' fault that all of this happened? If their security had been tighter, the whole terrorist attack wouldn't have happened and my husband would be home. Thanks for your support, AA and Delta. You REALLY know how to take care of your customers.

There has been a steady level of debate continuing in the reader forums about travel agency profitability and how easy it is to earn big commissions in return for little work.  I do agree, for most agents, and most of the time, big easy commissions are about as easy to get as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

But, from a surprising source, comes heartwarming news that things are going well for some travel agencies.  ASTA President Richard Copland is quoted in this interview as saying that 'the health of travel agents these days is better than often believed'.  Later in the article, he also confirms that travel agents earn as much as 18% commission on selling cruises (and with $18 billion in cruise sales for 2003, that adds up to a great deal of commission)!  I can understand why many travel agents choose to play up the difficulties and challenges they face.  I don't understand why ASTA's President adopts the opposite strategy.

Here's a great idea that will (hopefully) never happen.  The DLR Aviation Institute in Germany says that the climate change caused by air travel could be halved if planes fly below 30,000 ft (planes presently fly anywhere from 30,000 to almost 40,000 ft).  While not quantifying how much climate change is presently caused by air travel (a very unclear issue) they say that flying at lower altitude would be better.

Why will it never happen?  First, because flying lower consumes more fuel (which surely causes more pollution, too!).  No airline is going to want to spend any more than it unavoidably must on fuel.  Second, because air is sometimes more turbulent at lower altitudes (and if 30,000 ft becomes the max altitude, that means some planes will be stuck down at 20,000 ft).  Third, in some places, losing the extra flight levels above 30,000 ft will add to traffic congestion.

Gary Leff passed on an interesting article that suggests that Boeing's 757 (now being taken out of production) was actually an aircraft version of the Edsel, and the key moment in Boeing's history that allowed Airbus to grow and prosper.  Stated briefly, the 757 was to replace the 150 seat 727, but instead of also having 150 seats, it was built as a 200 seater.  The airlines didn't want 200 seater planes at that time, and the gap in the market was exploited by Airbus.

Thanks also to Gary for referring readers of his column to this coupon.  Print it out and you'll get a 20% discount at any Borders store on purchases between 11/14-17.  I've used them before - they're great.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A novelty toy dog that, ummm, 'breaks wind' as it bends over created a major security alert at Norfolk when owner Dave Rogerson tried to carry the gift on board.  Apparently the gaseous emissions from the dog caused the explosives detector to classify them as highly explosive (there are so many jokes I could make at this point, but won't....).  Armed police surrounded both the toy dog, which was placed in an 'isolation zone' and its owner, and FBI agents participated in evaluating the threat posed by the novelty item.  Eventually the dog was returned to Rogerson who had to take a later flight, because he had been detained for several hours for questioning about the incident.

Have you noticed how well equipped with metal-detecting wands most airport security points are these days?  Thanks to reader Peter who sent in this amusing story that perhaps explains why they need an ample supply of spare wands  :

So I'm in DC on Sunday, heading from National to LGA, to catch my flight to LA.  Go through security at the Delta Shuttle, and I'm picked out for a more thorough inspection.  After going through all my stuff, opening my carryon, etc., they clear me, and I walk over to the elevator to the crown room. I get into Delta's Crown Room, grab a soda, and go to repack all the stuff they moved all around.

I unzip my carryon, and what do I find?  A metal-detector wand - you know, the kind that was just used on me? On top of my clothes, zipped up, in my bag.


So I take it, and after trying it out (I mean; come on, they are cool...) I go downstairs, and call over one of the brilliant minds working the randoming process.

"Hi. I just got randomed, and I think someone didn't mean to put this in my bag."

"Oh, yeah. That's happened before. Thanks for returning it."

I watch, dumbfounded, as she takes it, walks away, shows it to someone else, points to it, and they both laugh.

I'm a publicist, and it's rare that I'm at a loss for words. This was one of those times.  Gee, I just feel safer and safer. The real bummer was that I wasn't going straight home, or I TOTALLY would have kept it.

Did you know that your car might have a 'black box', just like a plane?  It records simple information about your vehicle, such as its speed, whether the brakes are applied, and various other data.  Why is this important?  Because the police and insurance companies are starting to subpoena your car's black box information to determine if you were driving your car safely and lawfully in the case of an accident.  See this article for more details on this developing technology.

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.

An archive of previous emailed newsletters can be found here
If this was forwarded to you by a friend, please
click here and subscribe to the newsletter yourself
If you ever wish to unsubscribe, simply reply to this email and set the subject line to say 'unsubscribe'.