Friday, 2 January 2004

Good morning, and welcome to the New Year.  How wonderful that the new year was ushered in without any terrible terrorist attacks - let's hope the rest of the year continues in a similarly safe manner.  Today's newsletter is both later and shorter than normal, for obvious seasonal reasons.

Thank you to everyone who completed the reader demographic survey last week.  Many of you are just like me - a case of  'Birds of a feather flock together', perhaps.  A kind way to describe us might be 'no longer youthful of body, but still youthful of spirit'.  Which leads to a surprising idea from a couple of the survey responses - suggestions that we should create some group tours for readers to go on together, and probably with myself acting as tour host.

What do you think?  Is the idea crazy or compelling?  And, if of interest, where would we all go?  Please share your thoughts and ideas about this in a travel survey now online.

If you've ever been to Disney's MGM Studios in Orlando, you'll know that one of the fun rides there is themed on the old Twilight Zone television series.  You travel through an allegedly haunted former hotel, and end up in an elevator that plunges down to ground level.  All good fun, and the ride has been operating since 1994.  Is it now to fall victim to political correctness?  In Thursday's Rose Parade in Los Angeles, Disney had a float promoting this ride, which will shortly be opening in its rather unsuccessful California Adventure park.  This attracted the ire of various people, who claimed it might be 'trivializing injury and possible death' and who further claimed it would upset the families of the WTC disaster of 9/11.

Talking about Disney, did you know that from the second week in January through the first week of February, Walt Disney World in Orlando is at its least crowded, making it one of the best times of year to visit?  Consider taking advantage of some of the special low airfares at present and treating yourself to this fun experience, something that can be enjoyed by children of all ages.  And, if you're going to do this, you'll definitely benefit from a good guide book, which brings us to :

This Week's Column :  Book Review - Luxury Guide to Walt Disney World :  This encyclopedic 510 page book tells you everything you'd want to know about the WDW complex.  It is full of helpful and sensible advice, and is valuable to everyone seeking any type of Disney experience.  Recommended.

This week's column is also notable for an unrelated reason.  It is the first feature article published using the new style design of the website.  Older articles will be progressively converted to this new style as time allows.  I hope you like the new layout.

By the way, various people added comments to their survey responses last week, but did not leave an email address for me to reply to.  You are always welcome to send me an email, anytime, about anything.  And some readers reported problems completing the survey, perhaps due to an incompatibility between their Mac OS and the survey layout.  If you succeeded (or failed) in completing the survey last week with a Mac, please let me know so I can better understand the cause of this.

Dinosaur Watching :  I hope you weren't flying Delta on Christmas Day.  They canceled or delayed more than 30 flights, mainly from Atlanta, due to flight attendants failing to report for duty.  Delta flight attendant Andrea Taylor said it was not a sickout, but she also said many flight attendants were taking sick leave before the end of the year.  A very subtle distinction, and with the same effect for the thousands of stranded passengers on a day when they least wanted to be stuck in an airport.

US airlines have been quick to blame their problems on many things, including the Gulf War.  But did you know they received $2.4 billion from the government in 2003 for transporting troops and equipment to the Middle East?  A military spokesman said the revenue generated per flight was similar to what the airlines and cargo carriers would have earned on regular transatlantic flights.  It is projected that a similar amount will be paid in 2004.

I received a note from a reader who said :

I am tired of hearing about how wonderful jetBlue is with their very limited schedules. Travel bargains are great but not when they are aimed at such a limited market. The "dinosaurs" may have their faults, but they really used to try and serve many, many people. I am not impressed by the fact that an airline tries to skim the most populated areas. Let jetBlue come into places like SFO and CVG (where I travel most.)  Thank you for the opportunity to voice my displeasure with your affection for this airline.

Does this reader truly expect jetBlue could build a successful airline by first flying unprofitable routes?  Should jetBlue be obliged to service communities at a loss, rather than creating profits for its shareholders?  And does this reader truly believe that the dinosaurs fly any route on which they lose money, other than for strategic and selfish reasons (ie to keep other carriers out, or to protect an overall route system)?

Resurgent airline America West should be a poster child to the dinosaur airlines.  A couple of years ago it was struggling to survive, and so it did a desperate thing.  It cut its fares and simplified its rules.  What happened?  Only good things, ever since!  It has now announced that it will expand its business by 10% in 2004, and is hiring another 1000 employees.  Truly, with airfare pricing, it seems that 'less is more'.

Three and four weeks ago we reported on Expedia increasing its standard $5 booking fee up to $9 when selling US Airways tickets.  This was a public expression of negotiations between the two companies as to how much commission Expedia could get for selling US tickets.  Continuing this strategy of negotiating in public, US then cancelled its ticketing agreement with Expedia entirely.

Now the two companies have made up, and US tickets are for sale on Expedia once more, with only the standard $5 fee charged.  Although not hesitating to make their contract negotiations public, neither company is willing to say who gave in to the other.

I wrote last week about a new Polish low cost airline offering roundtrip tickets from Warsaw to London for $28.  Reader Seth wrote in to say that the lowest fare he could find from London to Warsaw was about $70, and wondered what happened to the $28 fare.

What Seth experienced is very common.  Although, in the US, a roundtrip ticket between two cities usually costs the same, whichever direction you are taking the journey, internationally this is rarely the case.  In this case, the airline sensibly understood that it would be easy for London residents to afford $70 to travel to Poland, but more difficult for Warsaw residents to pay the same fare, hence the different prices.

There is an extension of this multiple pricing concept.  A ticket for travel between two places can vary in cost depending on where in the world you buy the ticket.  The same logic applies - a 'wealthy American' can afford to pay more for any given ticket than perhaps an impoverished Armenian could.  Some skillful travelers use these cost differentials to their advantage and selectively buy tickets in lower cost countries.

Now the European Union has started an investigation into such practices.  Regulators have asked 18 European airlines to explain their pricing practices, and depending on their responses, may consider legal action.

Ever since 25 November, I had been struggling to get my cell phone number transferred from AT&T to T-Mobile.  Inefficiencies in AT&T's transfer processes delayed this beyond the 2 hour suggested time that it should take, and it ended up taking 24 days to be completed.  On 18 December, I thought I was finally finished.  But, not so.

AT&T did not de-activate my service, and so I had two different cell-phones, with two different service providers, both with the same phone number, for another ten days.  This was surprising, but the most surprising thing of all?  In none of my many calls to AT&T in attempts to resolve this issue did any of their staff ask me why I was transferring away from them and taking my business to a competitor, or try and persuade me to stay with them.  I guess AT&T truly don't care.

Last week I wrote about the very clever new SearchAlert suitcase lock that the TSA can open with a master key, and you responded so enthusiastically that Outside the Box sold out of their entire stock in only a couple of days (they have since replenished).  Some people can never be satisfied with any progress, however, and the NY Times published an article about these new locks with the headline 'Luggage Lock Program Not Without a Few Hitches'.  However, a careful reading of the article shows there have been a total of only three problems in the six weeks the locks have been on sale.  I'd call that a remarkably positive and trouble-free launch to this new concept, and with the 'we'll replace your lock if the TSA cut it off unnecessarily' guarantee, these three problems were of minimal importance.  But good news doesn't make for as interesting a headline.

Note that although there are a growing number of different TSA approved locks, only the SearchAlert locks have the indicator that tell you if the lock has been opened or not.  They're the same price as the others, but have this extra feature, making them clearly the best choice.

Here's an excellent article on the Connexion by Boeing 'internet in the sky' service that is being trialed at present.  Amusingly, many months ago one of the Connexion program managers had tried to get me to write about their product, but unfortunately, Boeing's mail servers reject all my emails as spam, and so it was not possible for me to get back in touch with him.

Talking about spam, a reader wrote in to tell me that her copy of this newsletter has started appearing in her AOL Spam folder.  I had thought I had solved this problem with AOL some months ago, but perhaps it has re-occurred.  If you're an AOL subscriber, please let me know if the newsletter is appearing in your spam folder, too.

In related Boeing news, provisional counts for aircraft orders in 2003 show that Boeing received orders for 243 planes and Airbus for 293.  Boeing's best seller was its 737 series, with the -700 scoring 132 new orders.  Airbus' best seller was its A320, scoring 115 new orders.

The marvelous new Queen Mary 2 has now been delivered to Cunard.  The massive ship - the largest cruise liner in the world, is 1132 ft long.  It can carry 2.620 passengers, and can travel at up to 34.5 mph - more than fast enough for people to water-ski behind!  Here's an interesting article on this wonderful ship.

However, a worrying threat hangs over the QM2, and potentially any/all other cruise ships too.  Cunard confirm that they have received a terrorist threat against the QM2's maiden voyage to Fort Lauderdale in January, and US spy planes have observed the disappearance of scores of acoustic sea mines from a high-security naval base in North Korea.  It is thought that these mines might now be on board 28 ships built by al-Qaida in the past year.  These mines could be used against any cruise ship.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Only the smell betrayed it.  A BA pilot was doing a walk-around inspection of his plane at JFK and noticed a strong odor coming from one of the wheel wells.  The smell turned out to be a dead body.  It is thought that the dead man smuggled himself onto the plane when it was in Lagos, Nigeria.  The plane then flew, with the man hidden in the wheel well to London, where the presumably now dead man was not discovered.  It then flew on to JFK, and only the smell of the decaying body caused it to then be discovered.  A BA spokesman would not 'speculate' on any 'possible' breach of security.

This was the second dead body discovered on a plane last week at JFK.  Just as well they were 'only' dead bodies, rather than live bombs.

After a long-running dispute, the EU has given in to pressure from the US and will now hand over personal data about people flying to the US.  An astounding 34 different pieces of information will be given on each passenger.  But, observing ridiculously misplaced political correctness even in this matter, the EU will not reveal information on requests for special meals, for fear that this could cause the passenger's religion to be revealed!

And perhaps even these 34 pieces of information are not enough.  You've doubtless read, in recent days, of flights being cancelled or ordered to turn back, or being shadowed by F-16s while flying through US airspace, due to worries about potential terrorists on board.  But it appears that not all the 'terrorists' were as threatening as they seemed.  In one case, a child's name was confused with the head of a Tunisian based terror group.  Two other 'terrorists' turned out to be a Welsh insurance agent and an elderly Chinese woman!

Quite apart from the ridiculous inability to distinguish between terrorists and insurance agents, who really believes that terrorists would fly using their real names?

Looking for somewhere different than a traditional boxy hotel with cookie-cutter identical rooms to stay in?  How about the Aurora Ice Hotel, close to Fairbanks, AK.  As this story tells, opening of the hotel was delayed due to problems with fire safety.  Incredibly, the local fire marshal felt that there was a danger of fire in the ice structure.

Lastly this week, having a heart attack is seldom a pleasant experience, and there are few places worse than on board an airplane to suffer such an event.  Except in this case, when it seems to have been the best possible place for the lady in question.

I'll be writing to you from Las Vegas next week, assuming no problems connecting to the internet to send the newsletter.

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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