Friday 26 December, 2003

Good morning, and Happy Boxing Day to you all.  I hope your Christmas was a happy and joyful one, and how thankful we all can be that, to date, the elevated terrorism alert hasn't been underscored by any new atrocities.  Today's newsletter is both later and shorter than normal, for obvious seasonal reasons.

In addition to traditional presents such as socks and shirts, I got a very useful little gadget this year.  A new SearchAlert lock that the TSA can unlock if they choose to inspect your suitcase contents.  This particular model has an ingenious feature - if the TSA unlock it, then an indicator changes color from green to red (you can reset it back to green again yourself).  The lock is only $10, or two for $18.  I liked it so much I quickly wrote a review to share this with you.  Recommended.

I feel a great amount of satisfaction at now having finished my series on Boeing, and also some surprise as to how it ended.  When I started writing it, I was motivated by a desire to record the sad and unnecessary decline of this great company, and felt that it would be necessary to conclude the series with some suggestions for what Boeing should do to reclaim its strength in the future.  But I had no idea what those suggestions would be.

As the series developed, I started to get a general understanding that Boeing needs some new type of revolutionary leap ahead in airplane technology, but thought all I could do was make this rather empty and nonspecific statement, without being able to quote specifics.  And then - all of a sudden, as I continued to read through countless background and resource material, I spotted it!  The ideal future project for Boeing.

And - get this - it is a project that Boeing has already been working on, jointly with NASA.  But (and this is truly unbelievable) the head of Boeing Commercial Airplanes doesn't personally like or approve of the project; indeed, he has such a dislike of this project that he refuses to even be briefed on it by the man who headed it up!!!

And so, please enjoy with me :

This Week's Column :  Where is Boeing Going (parts 4 and 5) :  2003 marks the first year that Airbus ever delivered more airplanes than Boeing, and it has 1500 planes on its order books, compared to only 1100 for Boeing.  A Boeing spokesman asks 'What does this mean?'.  I explain, and offer suggestions for Boeing's future.

Can I ask for your help?  If you have five minutes, please would you answer this Reader Survey.  I'm hoping to add more product reviews during 2004, and when approaching suppliers for review samples, they generally ask who the readers of the review will be.  At present, I find myself answering 'I have absolutely no idea' - an answer that fails to impress!  None of the information you supply can be used to personally identify you - the form doesn't ask for your name or address or email - so you won't find yourself on still more spam lists.  Many thanks if you can help with this.

Dinosaur WatchingFrontier (definitely not a dinosaur airline) announced an ambitious development last Friday.  It plans to add a new minihub in Los Angeles, making a major expansion for the airline that, for its ten years of life until now, has been based only in Denver.  Frontier will start with two daily nonstops each between LAX and St Louis, Kansas City, and Minneapolis on April 11.  It already has six daily flights between Denver and LAX.  Frontier will also add flights between Denver and Dulles, Anchorage and El Paso.

And, as if by amazing coincidence, within hours of the Frontier announcement, both NW and AA were announcing increases in service on some of these routes, and lowered fares as well.  Coincidence?  Fair competition?  Or???  Lowering fares to match a competitor is fair, but adding extra flights can not be justified.  If you are operating, eg, four flights a day on a route at present, with normal load levels, when a competitor appears and adds two new flights, it makes no fair business sense to turn around and add more flights too.

However, courts have consistently ruled that such actions are fair, so who am I to criticize our learned judges and their doubtless vast knowledge of how our airlines operate.

In related Frontier news, it has become the first airline to repay in full its post 9/11 government guaranteed loan.  While United is still struggling to qualify for one of these loans, Frontier has applied, been granted the loan, used the loan, and now repaid it back again as well.  Frontier CEO Jeff Potter said 'The employees and the loyal customers of Frontier Airlines are grateful to the U.S. taxpayers for this temporary financial assistance.  This loan helped us to weather the challenges following 9/11 as well as the impacts of a stagnant national economy.'  Well done, Frontier.

Delta's new CEO, Gerald Grinstein, said that it won't give cash bonuses for 2003 to its top executives.  Although this had been foreshadowed earlier in the year after former CEO Leo Mullin came under fire for giving bonuses and benefits to senior executives while the airline as a whole was losing money, it is good to see that new CEO Grinstein understands that loss making companies shouldn't be paying bonuses.

He also announced a voluntary scheme that would allow some executives to delay their retention bonuses.  It is unknown how many executives will choose to participate in this program!

Time for a reality check :  US Airways is proudly informing us they will start selling 'signature menu items from Wolfgang Puck' on their flights from 1 January.  They will have 'restaurant quality' meals on board.  Their VP of in-flight services, Sherry Groff, tells us 'US Airways is dedicated to providing our customers with quality meals onboard' - something that will come as surprising news to most people that have ever flown on US Airways.  An executive from LSG Sky Chefs with a title that is 19 syllables long adds 'By creating meals adapted from Wolfgang Puck restaurants in-flight, we continue to raise the bar regarding the level of culinary excellence that air travelers can expect from our In-flight Cafe program'.

This sounds sadly familiar.  From time to time, airlines go through a phase where they make ridiculous claims about serving their business and first class passengers with gourmet restaurant quality food, and they contract with super-star chefs to act as consultants.  But although I've eaten hundreds of such first and business class meals on planes over the years, none of them have been memorable, and if I was in a gourmet restaurant, I'd be sending the food back and definitely not tipping for the service!

If you blinked last weekend, you might have missed American Airlines' attempt to increase fares.  Except they prefer not to call it a fare increase, but instead labeled it as a more politically correct increase in their fuel surcharge.  Did you realize that most airlines have a $20 fuel surcharge on their fares at present?

When fuel prices went significantly up, some years ago, airlines introduced fuel surcharges.  Guess what happened when fuel prices returned back to their pre-surcharge levels?  Yes, the surcharges remained.  And now AA decided that a $20 surcharge was insufficient, and tried to raise it to $26.  No other airline matched, so AA quickly reduced their surcharge back down to 'only' $20 again.

When you fly to San Francisco, do you have a strong preference between using the SFO airport or the Oakland airport on the other side of the Bay?  ATA is hoping that people generally prefer to fly to SFO rather than to OAK, and has started an advertising campaign promoting the fact it flies to SFO while competitors (such as JetBlue) 'only' fly to OAK.  Here's an interesting story.

More low cost carriers.  This time, Air Polonia, from Poland, has started offering service from Warsaw to London, competing against Poland's established airline, LOT.  A roundtrip ticket is $28.

Korean Air announced this week that it was to buy nine B777-200ER planes from Boeing.  This is interesting, because back in October, the airline also signed up for eight Airbus A380 planes.  I have a feeling that some airlines recognize it would not be in their interests to allow Airbus to grow too strong, and so are splitting their orders, giving some (smaller) orders to Boeing to keep some competition alive.

Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines, tells a story about his negotiating style with Boeing.  Southwest has an all Boeing fleet, and one time, he wanted to send a subtle message to Boeing that they should not get complacent.  He obtained a cigarette lighter from Airbus and 'accidentally' dropped it in front of some Boeing executives, who apparently understood the message very clearly.

Last Friday (19 December) saw Airbus reach its stated goal of 300 airplane deliveries for the year, and they expect to deliver 'a few more' before 31 December.  This is an historic event - it is the first time, ever, that Airbus has delivered more planes than Boeing.  Boeing expects to deliver 280 planes this year.  Three years ago, Boeing was delivering twice as many planes as Airbus.

Washington State successfully enticed Boeing to assemble its new 7E7 in Everett by offering an incentive package valued at between $3 - 3.5 billion.  In return, the Boeing assembly project will create a puny 800-1200 jobs, for a twenty year period.  Yes, do the math - the state is paying about $3.25 million per job, or $162,500 for each of the 20 years those jobs are projected to last.  Some people feel this is a ridiculous amount to pay.  Certainly, if the state offered to pay me $162,500 a year for twenty years for any new jobs I created in Washington, I'd be delighted to do so.  Here's a Seattle Times article that offers, amongst other nonsense, two ridiculous justifications for why this money is well spent - firstly, 'think how bad we'd feel if we didn't have Boeing stay'; and secondly 'Boeing workers make a net contribution to the overall IQ of this town'.  No comment.

Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) is in the news again.  This potentially fatal side effect of sitting motionless and uncomfortably for long periods of time on a plane was originally called 'Economy Class Syndrome', with the implication that only people in the cramped coach class seating would suffer it.  Here's a new survey that shows that it doesn't seem to matter where you sit on the plane, and 1% of all travelers are affected by it.  Very nasty indeed.

Meanwhile, the airline strategy has changed from first of all ignoring DVT and pretending it doesn't exist to now simply claiming they are not liable.  This seems to be succeeding.  You're pretty much on your own with DVT.  Exercise as much as you can, drink lots of water, and consider taking aspirin for a day or so before and during your flight (thins the blood and reduces its tendency to clot).

This Week's Security Horror Story :  After traveling through five airports, going through twelve security checkpoints - and being selected for secondary screening twice, one of our readers who wishes to remain anonymous discovered he had a massive Swiss Army Knife in the bottom of his carry-on bag.  No-one, during either the regular or the secondary screening, noticed it.  Details here.

Did you read the headlines about a man arrested on Monday at Miami Airport because he was carrying a razor blade and hacksaw blade in his shoe?  Sounds like a justification for searching shoes, doesn't it, and sounds like we were very fortunate that the TSA managed to save a flight full of people from some new crazy terrorist.

Not necessarily so.  Did you also read the follow up story?  The man is a Christian missionary, based in Brazil, returning back to his home in Philadelphia for a vacation.  He said he last wore the shoes a year ago, and had secreted the items in his shoes back then because he lived in a dangerous neighborhood in Brazil and had been receiving death threats.  He simply forgot that he had the items hidden in his shoes when he flew back home.  Miami-Dade police say they believe his story (although they're still charging him with a misdemeanor charge of carrying a concealed weapon).

I know people who habitually carry weapons, and they tell me they're terrified that one day they'll simply forget to remove their weapons before going to an airport.

More drunk pilots.  This time, the captain of a VS flight was removed from the cockpit shortly before he was to fly it from Washington to London.  This forced the cancellation of the flight, and it departed a day later, after VS had flown a new crew over from London.

One can't blame the company for the reprehensible act of its employee.  Indeed, VS's actions were incredibly fair and generous.  Passengers were accommodated overnight in local area hotels, and all passengers were given a free ticket for a future roundtrip anywhere VS flies.  When they arrived back onboard the next day, they also were given personal apology letters from VS's chairman, Sir Richard Branson.

I'd expressed mild surprise and disbelief last week about the TSA survey suggesting average wait times to go through security are only two minutes at ORD, IAD and DFW.  This is all the more surprising when you understand the methodology.  The TSA was measuring the total time from arriving at the end of the line, going through the line, showing your boarding pass, putting your carry-ons through the X-ray, going through the metal detector, collecting your carry-ons, perhaps taking your shoes on and off, and leaving the secured screening area.  Surely it takes more than one minute to do all of this, even if there is no-one in line in front of you, no delays, and no need to take your shoes off?  To report an average of two minutes is stretching one's credulity.

Reader Jim feels a similar feeling of disbelief, and notes that while the TSA says that the two worst airports (Los Angeles and Miami) had only a 7 minute average wait, his daughter experienced delays of 35 minutes in LAX and 40 minutes at MIA recently.

Lastly this week, here's a fun web page.  (Click on the interactive box link on the right hand side.)  You can play an interactive game where you pretend to be a security screener.  You watch X-ray images of passenger bags and try to spot guns, knives, and explosives inside them.  I managed to score 100%.  See how well you do.

Next time I write, it will be 2004.  My very best wishes to you for the year ahead - may your flights always be on time, and your hotel reservations never missing.

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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