Friday, 9 January 2004

Good morning, and hello from Las Vegas.

Many thanks to everyone who completed a travel survey, and apologies to people who unsuccessfully tried to do this on Friday morning for about thirty minutes around 10.30am Pacific time.  One of the side effects of sending out a newsletter during the day rather than at night is that everyone gets it at more or less the same time, and so there is a sudden flood of people visiting the site.  If you tried and failed, or if you haven't yet done a survey, it is still online here and you should have more success this time.

Preliminary results from the survey are encouraging, and based on the responses, I have now put together three sample itineraries for tours in May.  They are 8/9 day tours in Scotland, England, and Russia - three countries I'm intimately familiar with, and also among the most popular requested destinations that people want to tour.

These tours run one after the other, making it possible for you to take one, two, or all three of them.  I've tried to be very sensitive to the feedback that has come from you, and so have made them as different as possible from 'ordinary' group touring.  The total group sizes will be small, and the quality high while not being extravagant.  Itineraries will be very flexible, with a hopefully ideal compromise of organized structure and free time.

If these prove popular, I'll add additional touring, and to other places, in the fall and at other times.  But, on the basis that every project starts off first with a single small step, I'm keen to see how much interest there is in these three tours.

I think they're great itineraries, with some interesting and unusual inclusions.  But, more important than what I think is what you think!  And so, may I ask you to kindly now look at a page I created that provides quick outline itineraries and costings for these three tours, and which asks for your opinions.  If you can provide feedback, this would be very much appreciated.

If sufficient interest continues, I'll get these tours all confirmed and described in more detail, available for you to join within the next week or so.

Please email me any other questions or comments you might have.  Truly, no-one has ever before designed tours with such a high level of participant feedback going into their planning!

If you're considering travel to any country in which English is not the main language, you probably are wondering how to handle the language issues.  I've usually relied on local people speaking English, and sometimes take a phrase book with me, although in truth, the phrase books get very little use!  I've often looked at some of the better types of electronic translators, and wondered if one of those would be a sensible purchase.  Which brings me to this week's column :

This Week's ColumnLingo Pacifica Talking Translator :  In theory this is an amazing device that will translate words and phrases from any of ten languages into any of the other languages.  It even speaks the words and phrases for you.  But is this $200 device better than a $10 phrase book?  Read my review and surprising conclusion.

I'm typing this part of the newsletter while sitting waiting for my flight from Seattle to Las Vegas.  It took 'only' 17 minutes to go through security (my normal sized belt buckle was enough metal to set off the metal detector -  the first time, anywhere, it has done this) and so after only 5 minutes to check in and 17 minutes for security and 5 minutes to walk to the gate, Alaska Airlines' insistence I should arrive two hours before departure is looking rather silly and an irresponsible waste of their passengers' time.

My Wi-Fi card tells me it is receiving a good Wi-Fi network signal from a 'Wayport Access' Wi-Fi service in the terminal, but there seems no way for me to log on to it.  The T-Mobile Hotspots very sensibly tell new users, when you open a web browser, what to do to log on.  But this Wayport Access just gives you an error message.  Frustrating.  And stupid.  If they'd made it easy for me, I'd have signed up for their service and spent money with them while waiting for the flight.

But this is a mere pinprick of frustration compared to the more than three hours on the phone, primarily to D-Link technical support, earlier today, trying to get my laptop to communicate, using Bluetooth, with my phone.  It used to do this, but something changed and it no longer works.  After speaking to T-Mobile support we agreed it was a problem with the D-Link Bluetooth device  plugged in to my PC.

So, over the next 3+ hours of speaking to many different people at D-Link, guess what the resolution of the problem was?  Eventually, a supervisor said 'we're not responsible for getting our devices to work with any other devices, all we're responsible for is ensuring they connect to your laptop.  D-Link refuse to help any further, and the best they could suggest is for me to check internet newsgroups and maybe I'll find someone there to help me.  Unbelievable.  And unsatisfactory.

Deathwatch Alert :  Is US Airways entering a grim death spiral?  They announced on Thursday that they are looking to sell assets, including one of their three East Coast route hubs (Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Charlotte), in an effort to reduce costs.  They're also considering the sale of their Boston-New York-DC shuttle service, and their US Airways Express regional jet services.

Of course, their Pittsburgh 'hub' is no longer quite as vital an asset to them or anyone else as it formerly was.  On Monday US Airways said that they would now only lease ten gates at Pittsburgh on a long term basis, down from an earlier 50 gates.

Cutting major chunks out of the business has been tried before, by other airlines - airlines that no longer exist.  It is a dangerous move.  While cost control is important, more important is creating a viable business plan and profitable opportunity to flourish and grow.

Dinosaur WatchingAmerican Airlines announced on Wednesday an incredibly generous promotion.  Simply make two roundtrip flights between New York or Boston and California or Florida, and AA will give you a free ticket good anywhere they fly.  Yes - anywhere, including all their international destinations as well!  Fly four times and get two tickets.  Qualifying flights must be complete by 15 April, and the free tickets are valid for travel through April 2005.

This is believed to be the most generous promotion AA has ever offered.  And what is the reason behind their generosity?  Could it possibly be an attack on jetBlue, who operates similar routes to AA's qualifying routes?

The pot calling the kettle black (you decided which is pot and kettle!).  I've chronicled several times the controversial actions of the former managers and part owners of Hawaiian Airlines, allowing the airline to cash them out of their shares.  As a result of this, Boeing successfully persuaded the Bankruptcy Court judge presiding over the airline's subsequent Chapter 11 filing to replace the CEO with a trustee.  Boeing said that it could not rely on the actions of the then CEO.

But now the former CEO and related shareholders have lodged their own motion, asking the Court to deny the Trustee's salary request.  Trustee Joshua Gotbaum had asked for a $840,000 a year salary, plus a success fee assuming a successful conclusion to the Chapter 11.  Although Gotbaum criticized the salary paid to the former CEO, it is interesting to note that Gotbaum, a gentleman with apparently little airline management experience, is seeking to give himself a 40% increase over the $600,000 salary that was paid to former CEO!

This would make him the second highest paid executive in the US airline industry.  The filing claims that bankruptcy law requires Gotbaum's compensation to be commensurate with the trustee's professional experience and current job responsibilities, be market-based, and be reasonable. Hawaiian Holdings says it believes Gotbaum's requested compensation doesn't meet these criteria.

A spokesman for the claimants said

The trustee has no experience as a corporate manager or director of a multi-million dollar private enterprise-and only marginal experience in the airline and restructuring arena.  Despite serious questions about his background and the fact that he inherited a very experienced and competent management team, he wants to be paid at least a quarter-million dollars a year more than his predecessor.

December passenger numbers are coming out, and the low cost carriers are doing well.  AirTran reported a 20% increase compared to December 02, ending a very successful year with total year's growth of 28%.

AirTran also was in the news when it retired its last DC-9 this week.  And probably the plane was well due for its retirement.  It was built in 1971, and in its 32 years it logged 69,788 flights totalling 77,900 flight hours.

I'm continuing this newsletter now in my Las Vegas hotel room.  For the last couple of weeks I've been writing about the new SearchAlert TSA approved luggage locks.  Last week I mentioned that several people had encountered problems with TSA staff not being sufficiently trained to recognise and know what to do with these distinctively marked locks.  Reader Jenny wrote in to say

I am one of those three passengers referred to in your newsletter that had the lock cut off. I quote "These three problems were of minimal importance." Indeed, the incident was of GREAT importance to me! I arrived in Cancun on December 8th to find not only my lock (brand new and expensive) cut off, but also the TSA moron who had cut it off also cut off the zipper tabs, disabling the ability to close the zippers all the way and even use cable ties.

I will tell you, on the positive side, that I had Joe Brancatelli's email address with me and immediately contacted him to ask whet I should do next. It was wonderful-within a couple hours I heard back from him and also from the TSA customer service manager at SeaTac, where the deed had been done. I was very impressed with the courteous and helpful email from TSA; he wanted to know all the details about exactly when I had checked in, where, what time, etc, so that he could figure out which moron had been working then. Hopefully that person has had to go look for another job, but I doubt it.  I have NO confidence that TSA will be more vigilant about these locks, frankly. Human ignorance is the glitch in this lock situation, no matter what brand or style.

After Jenny's experience, you'd hope that all Seattle TSA staff had been given remedial training on these new locks.  Alas, this seems not to be the case.  I put a SearchAlert lock on my (largely empty) suitcase.  When I claimed the bag in Vegas, the lock had been cut off.  Fortunately the zippers weren't also destroyed, but the lock sure was.  Although Outside the Box say they'll replace any locks so destroyed for free, Outside the Box should not have to pay for the TSA's mistake.  I'll be pressing my claim with the TSA accordingly - stay tuned for ongoing details on what is likely to be a non-simple situation.

Here's a quick head's up for readers in the Seattle area.  Ten days ago I went to Amazon's offices in Seattle to participate in a usability study.  This was a fun thing to do, and at the end of a two hour session, I was given a $100 Amazon gift certificate.  If you'd like to do one of these studies as well, send an email to [email protected] .

Last week a reader wrote in to complain about my admiration for jetBlue, and claimed that jetBlue was just picking the low hanging fruit, flying easy profitable routes, while the public-minded Dinosaur airlines were providing valuable public services by flying on less popular routes.  I printed the letter and some rebuttal from me, and then received a note from the Dean of Travel Writers, Joe Brancatelli himself.  Joe feels quite strongly on the subject, and says :

This reader is a fool (and you're welcome to print this).

As for where he flies, has he heard of OAK? I fly into and out of San Francisco frequently and I'd rather use OAK than SFO. SFO's weather stinks, thus has much more frequent delays. And it's faster to drive from OAK to downtown San Francisco. And there is an easy train link. Why should jetBlue use a less convenient airport?

Now, as to jetBlue not flying to small towns, also absurd. jetBlue flies real jets to Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and Burlington, Vermont. The airlines flying to these cities previously from NY were using props. Not regional jets, but PROPS.

JetBlue opened up Long Beach, an airport long ignored by the majors. It also opened up NY-San Diego, a market served with just one daily flight before jetBlue arrived. It also flies NY-Ontario, California, a market no other carrier serves.

And then there is this: jetBlue launched in February, 2000. As of this recent listing, it is 2 percent of the US market. NO airline has grown that fast in the history of aviation.

Since Joe wrote this, jetBlue has also announced new service between JFK and Sacramento, making it the only airport to offer nonstop service between these two airports. 

I also mentioned last week about my surprise that AT&T didn't try and keep me as a customer or at least ask why I was moving when I changed my service from them to T-Mobile.  Robert wrote in with this interesting explanation :

Per FCC rules carriers are not allowed to try and keep your business when you ask to transfer to another carrier. They can only read from a canned script about the process.

The trick to getting a better deal from your current carrier is to call and say that you're considering switching to another carrier, but *do not ask* about transferring your phone number. They can then pull out all the stops to keep your business (or not, as the case may be; Verizon didn't offer me anything special to keep me from switching to Sprint, so I did--it took about 10 days).

This Week's Security Horror Story :  There are so many to choose from this week.  How about the woman who was prevented from taking a flight from Paris to the US because she was wearing a heated motorcycle jacket - a common enough item of clothing that has a heating pad and small battery built in to it.

I can understand the caution, but the woman missed her flight while the French authorities 'investigated'.  Worse still, even though it was determined that it was a perfectly ordinary, safe and legal heated motorcycle jacket, US fighter jets shadowed the plane for a while, and, when the plane landed, all the passengers went through additional special security screening!

Another contender was the Chief of the TSA at Dulles Airport.  He made the news when he was arrested for drunken driving on his way home from work late one night.  Except - it wasn't quite late enough.  It appears that not only was he drunk, but he was also sneaking away from work an hour before his shift ended!  This was on New Year's Eve, with security forces all around the nation, and particularly in the DC area, supposedly on very high alert.

But perhaps the worst outrage of all is now being inflicted on passengers flying from Australia to the US.  The US TSA, which seems to think it has jurisdiction over an Australian flag carrier flying in international airspace, is now requiring Qantas to restrict passengers to their seats.  No more standing up, walking around, stretching your legs, chatting with other passengers and the friendly flight crew, and, most alarming of all, perhaps, no more queuing up to use the toilets!

Inevitably, just after meals and movies, there is always a rush of people to the toilets.  And on a fifteen hour flight, you can't wait until after you land.  No word from the TSA as to how they suggest passengers and flight crew should manage this new requirement.

Lastly this week, some light relief from reader Joyce, who passed on this list of awards for the stupidest things in 2003.

Assuming I don't win several million dollars, I'll be back next week, writing to you from Seattle once more.  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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