Friday, 16 January 2004

Good morning

Alas, I did not win my fortune in Las Vegas last week.  But, on the bright side, I didn't lose a fortune, either.  Indeed, I found myself unable to spend money on the slot machines at many of the casinos.  They have made their machines coinless - the machines will take notes or some sort of electronic paper money, but not coins.

I can understand how this makes it faster for gamblers to lose money, not wasting time cramming coins into the slots, and more efficient for the casino, not needing to provide change runners, but it has also made the gambling atmosphere sterile and soulless.

Only a a few years ago, slot machines were designed to make 'happy noises' when coins clattered into their winnings hoppers, so that anyone walking through a casino would be sure to hear an almost constant background noise of people winning money.  In theory, this would encourage people to keep betting.  But now, there is no sound at all when someone wins money, and for an uncommitted gambler like myself - willing to empty their pockets of quarters, but unwilling to spend 'serious money', this can no longer be done.

Truly, progress is a strange thing, and nowhere more so than in Las Vegas.  The city has also become tangibly more 'adult' than the last time I visited - more topless shows, and at my favorite show (Jubilee) more of the dancers are now topless (27 compared to 12, in case you wondered), and at both shows, not just the late show.

I visited some of the new mega hotel/casinos.  The Venetian is probably my favorite, but Paris, the Bellagio, and the updated/expanded Caesar's Palace all rate highly too.  What a profusion of very expensive upmarket shops in these hotel shopping arcades - and none of them looked at all busy.  But at the prices they charge, they probably only need to sell one or two items a day in order to be profitable!

As you may recall, I was primarily in Las Vegas to attend the Consumer Electronics Show, which this year had an estimated 130,000 attendees.  This was a huge show, filling the entire convention center plus several of the hotels, and after three days of walking around booths, there was still a lot unseen.  However, there was also a lot I did see, and I'll be regularly writing about some of the interesting new things I found in the weeks ahead.  Here's one great gadget, offered as this week's column :

This Week's ColumnProtective Pouches for Cell phones and PDAs : Our phones and PDAs have become take everywhere items. Sometimes we even take them places we shouldn't - like the beach. This week I review a $13 accessory that enables you to take - and use - your phone and PDA almost anywhere.

Touring Update

There have been positive changes to all three of the May tours in the last week.

The Scotland tour is now 99% finalized.  We've improved the itinerary, adding more activities, changed one of the places the group will stay at, arranged a lovely hotel in Edinburgh for the last two nights (I think/hope - waiting on formal written confirmation of our telephone negotiation) and - best of all, dropped the price!

You can now see a complete itinerary for the Scotland tour here, and you can add your name(s) to join this group.  I'm looking forward to the Scotland itinerary very much (my own background is as much Scottish as English) and looking forward to meeting with 24 of you on this tour.

The English tour is evolving more slowly, but still positively (summary itinerary here).  I'm juggling a couple of hotel alternatives in the beautiful Cotswolds region and hope to have this presented to you in final form next week.  I will accept pre-registration now, however, if you want to confirm your place on this and the Scotland tour together.

The Russian tour has had major development (summary itinerary here).  In response to requests, we have added one extra night in Moscow and one extra night in St Petersburg (for a total of nine nights in Russia as a group, extendible if you wish), allowing for much more time to see and do things.  We've been given indicative pricing, but do not yet have hotel availability confirmed - this is the absolutely best time of year to be in St Petersburg, due to the 'White Nights Festival' when the sun barely sets, and rooms are very scarce.  I'm having to call in some major favors to get good rooms at a good price.  If all comes together in the next few days, the Russian tour, two days longer than before and with more included, will end up costing no more than before!


Death Watch :  There's a lot of airlines eager to feast at US Airways' funeral.  As if to underscore the foolishness of selling off valuable assets, Continental, Delta, Northwest, Mesa and Sir Richard Branson have all expressed interest in buying any of US Airways assets that might be for sale.

US Airways' latest retreat was announced on Wednesday when they said they would consolidate Allegheny Airlines into Piedmont Airlines and might eliminate Allegheny altogether if they can't reach agreements with their unions on a consolidation plan.  Allegheny has been operating commuter flights for US Air since 1973.

And in a good example of 'biting the hand that feeds it' US Airways will start charging a fee when its frequent fliers use airport lounges of partner airlines.  Other airlines - who apparently value the business their frequent fliers give them - have not copied this move.

Dinosaur Watching :  Those of us who long suspected that airline employees are ruder than most other people now have it confirmed.  An American Airlines pilot was arrested in Brazil on Wednesday, and subsequently fined $12,775.  When being photographed as part of the new entry requirements for American citizens, he 'gave the finger' to the camera.  Apparently the rest of the crew then failed to show sufficient contrition, and the Brazilian authorities arrested them, too.

We all know what giving the finger to an official is intended to mean.  But different cultures have different value systems.  And the American Airlines culture is perhaps quite different to ours - a statement from them stretches one's credulity to breaking point when it claims

The captain and other crew members certainly meant no disrespect

Although AA doesn't consider giving the finger disrespectful, you should not do this to any AA employees (or TSA officials) yourself!

It will be interesting to see how this pilot's career progresses.

I wrote last week about an incredible deal with AA - a free ticket anywhere in the world they fly after only two roundtrips in the US, and widely believed to be a move against jetBlue.  This week, jetBlue comes out with a deal of its own.  Coast to coast tickets for only $79 each way.  Incredible.  I've never seen a fare this low.

Bad news for Delta.  It is the first carrier to report fourth quarter and full year earnings.  They lost $327 million in the fourth quarter, and $773 million for the entire year.  Last year they lost $363 million in the fourth quarter and $1.27 billion for the entire year.  CEO Grinstein called the results 'disappointing' (I'd use a slightly stronger term if it was money I was responsible for).  Meanwhile, he is pointing his finger (horizontally or vertically, I wonder) at Delta's pilots, claiming that Delta needs to reduce pilot salaries so as to become competitive.

Delta announced a new boarding process that will become effective on January 21.  The airline will begin boarding passengers by zones rather than rows on most flights.  Passengers will be given a zone number at check-in.  First Class and Medallion will be boarded first as usual.  The airline said it tested this new process in several cities and it worked successfully, allowing passengers to board the aircraft faster.

One of my pet peeves is people who board before their row number is called, so that when I lawfully board, the overheads are already full not just in the back rows of the plane but in the front too.  Hopefully this new zone system will make it harder for the gate agents to ignore people sneaking on sooner than they should.

There's a bit of a bun-rush (or should I say, bun-fight) going on for extra services to/from Reagan Airport in DC.  So far, United, Aloha, Alaska, America West, Delta, US Airways and American have all applied for 22 new slots at the airport that allow for flights to operate more than 1250 miles from DCA.

Spot the trend :  The Department of Transportation released an industry report on Monday showing low cost airlines have increased their share of the domestic market to 22% of available seats in December.  That figure is up from 16% in December 2000, 19% from 2001 and 20% from 2002.  That compares with 54% of seats sold by the major carriers and 24% by other airlines (such as regional, commuter and foreign airlines).

Solid steady growth for the lower cost carriers, for sure, but the 'big six' are still very much bigger. Dinosaurs take a long time to die.

The US airlines repeatedly reduced the commissions they paid to travel agents, and then zeroed them out entirely, while the travel agency community passively accepted such actions.  Not so in Switzerland.  Swiss travel agents boycotted the sale of tickets for their national carrier, Swiss, after it reduced their commissions.  The airline has now settled with agents, allowing them immediate access to the low Internet fares that had been reserved for Internet users, and will also pay commission of 7% for all sales until early 2005.  In return agents have ended their boycott and will treat the airline as a preferred supplier.

Britain's railway companies are considering a new way to improve the punctuality of their trains - lengthening their journey times.  Although this has long been standard for the airlines (peak hour flights often have extra time built into their schedule to allow for delays), the railway companies in Britain, under widespread criticism for poor performance, now seem prepared to admit defeat and go backwards, making journey times on some routes longer than they were ten or even twenty years ago.

The most popular tourist destination in Europe?  This title has long been claimed by Paris, but new figures show that London trounced Paris in 2002, with 11.6 million visitors, compared to less than 9 million to Paris.  Next most popular cities were Amsterdam, Rome and Dublin.

Here's a picture the cruise lines don't want you to see.  The new ship being built for NCL, 'Pride of America', is sinking in the shipyard after water leaked into its engine room.

Welcome back, Captain Kirk.  Priceline announced details of a new advertising promotion, to start on Monday, that will feature William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.  Dedicated Trekkies can see previews here.  Shatner was formerly a Priceline spokesman but was dropped from their advertising a couple of years ago.

Remember how everyone's cell phone used to sound the same?  When a phone rang, everyone in the room would reach for their phone in confusion.  And now, of course, everyone's phone sounds different.  Those downloadable ring tones that are sold for $1 or so each totaled an incredible $3.5 billion in sales last year.  Amazing.  We're all in the wrong business.

And another round in the 'do mobile phones emit dangerous radiation' battle occurred this week.  In a brilliant example of straddling the fence, a British scientific report said that mobile phones appear to be safe, but notwithstanding what was doubtless a lengthy and expensive study, the scientists try and bet both sides of the field, by adding that more research is needed.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A man flying out of Portland, Maine, was traveling with his electronic bagpipes - an object that looks a bit like an electronic flute, and packed for safety inside a piece of plastic pipe.  The security screener saw it on his X-ray and thought it might be a pipe bomb.  He hit a panic button, and armed police swarmed to the security point and surrounded the middle aged, middle class, frequent business flier.

Guess what happened next.  Did they ask the man what the object was; did he laugh and say, 'oh that is my electronic bagpipe chanter', show it to the various officials, play a quick tune, and then proceed to take his flight?  Of course not.

Instead, they ignored his explanation, evacuated the airport, and ordered parked planes to move away from the jetways to remote parts of the tarmac.  Eventually, members of the Maine bomb squad, in consultation with federal explosive disposal experts, determined the musical instrument did not pose a threat and the man was allowed to reclaim it.

Officials described their response as appropriate.  <sigh>

A less appropriate response occurred at the Washington Monument on September 11, 2003.  In broad daylight, investigators from the Interior Department placed a suspicious looking large black trash bag at the rear of the obelisk for 20 minutes, and then moved it to a security checkpoint and left it there for another 15 minutes.  No one reacted to it, and the only park policeman they saw seemed to be asleep in his patrol car.

Security screeners detained a man at Heathrow who had five bullets in his pocket on Wednesday.  The interesting thing about this story - the man had just flown in to Heathrow from Dulles.  It seems that security at Dulles failed to notice the bullets.  And, for all we know, the man merely forgot they were in his pocket when he put his jacket on.  A simple error?

He is now being charged with 'committing an act of terror'.  Apparently, we now consider traveling with bullets accidentally in one's pocket, harming no-one and doing nothing is an 'act of terror'.

The Department of Homeland Security was formed so as to coordinate and centralize a lot of the fragmented different security functions in our country.  Think of every security agency in the US you can, and then guess as to how many of these different agencies were checking passenger lists from British Airways' flights last week?  Let's see - Homeland Security, TSA, FBI, CIA, NSA, Secret Service, maybe Army Intelligence, Navy Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence.  Not Customs and not Immigration, they're merged into Homeland Security now.

But who else?  BA CEO Rod Eddington is complaining that 22 different agencies wanted to check one passenger list last week.

So who are all the 22 agencies that are protecting us?

Remember a few weeks back when the TSA evaluated itself and announced unbelievably short queue times through security?  Compare their claimed average of 2 minute wait times at Dulles with the wait times that Delta reveals on its website -  15-30 minutes, not 2 minutes.  And LAX, which the TSA said was the worst airport in the country, with a 7 minute average wait, is reported at being between 40 - 60 minutes.  My own home airport, Seattle, shows as between 15 - 75 minutes, and the worst I've found so far is Orlando, between 30 - 75 minutes.

Lastly, this week's award for attempted overachievement goes to the passenger who passed a note to a flight attendant on his flight, saying that there was a bomb on board, and demanding the plane be diverted to Australia.  And what was it that won the man the award?  The fact that the flight was an American Eagle commuter plane operating out of New York.

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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