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Friday 6 February, 2004 

Good morning

Maybe it is the new format, but for whatever the reason, web site visits are enormously up on this time last year.  We have three times as many visitors every day as we did the same time in 2003.  The Alexa web rating service now shows us as the 47,732nd most popular site on the internet.  When you consider that there are probably hundreds of millions of web sites (the lowest rating I've seen Alexa give a site is beyond 4,000,000) this is a very credible result.  Please continue to visit.

Last week's column generated some controversy.  Several readers claimed that it was 'the perfect manual' for would be terrorists, telling them how to take over a plane.  Reader comments, and my rebuttal, can be seen here.

If last week's column was indeed the perfect manual for terrorists, this week's column is hopefully the perfect manual for our security services.

This Week's Column :  Protecting Planes Against Terrorist Attack part 2 :  Our aviation system is clearly at risk, even from attacks by unarmed terrorists.  This week we look at possible answers to the problem, and end up recommending a very old fashioned and low tech solution.

Touring Update

I have now closed off the tours to England and Russia.  They may be repeated in the fall, or otherwise, next year.

Space still remains on my favorite of the tours -  Scotland's Castles and Monsters.

Two items of interest.  Firstly, several travel agents have asked if they can sell these tours.  Yes, indeed you can, of course!  Please contact me for details.

Secondly, I've added a clever new feature to the Scotland tour page.  If I'm online, you can click a button and instantly start chatting with me through a special window that opens up.  So if you have a question or two about the tour, simply click the chat button and if I am there, I'll answer it for you on the spot.

I'm traveling to Britain early, spending extra time in London before the start of the Scotland tour.  Feel free to join me if you'd like to do the same.


Dinosaur Watch :  Congratulations to American Airlines.  It is amazing to think that around a year ago they were literally within hours of filing for Chapter 11, and now they are regaining strength and vitality on all fronts.  They have just announced their January traffic results, which show an impressive 3.8% growth in passengers compared to last year, making a total of 6.95 million passengers for the month.

Continental had an even better January result, with a 5.8% growth in revenue passenger miles.

This confirms my belief that things have bottomed out and are now generally improving, pretty much for all airlines.  But how then to explain the surprise result from Southwest, reporting a 1.5% drop in its January traffic?

JetBlue showed a massive 40% increase in its January passenger numbers.  And future growth by JetBlue is now likely to involve operations out of LaGuardia as well as JFK.  The FAA has approved their application for five daily flights to/from LGA.

Can you guess which major commercial airline operates the world's oldest airline fleet?  No - not Aeroflot!  Try a bit closer to home.  The world's oldest fleet, with an average age of 18.1 years each, including 165 DC-9s with an average age of 33 years (!), is Northwest.  The good news - if it wasn't for the DC-9s, NW's fleet would have an average age of 9.7 years.

Have you driven a 33 year old car lately?  Do you want to fly in a 33 year old jet?  And remember this is the average age - some will be even older.  The survey attempts to reassure us with the claim that such planes can fly for 'about' 45 years.  Nasty word, that - 'about'.

In good Northwest news, you can now standby for earlier same day flights (up to six hours earlier) for free, but only if you check in using a self-service kiosk.

Delta's new CEO, Gerald Grinstein, demonstrated the priorities he is bringing to overseeing Delta this week.  The airline hired noted fashion designer Richard Tyler to redesign the uniforms for all Delta employees, except pilots.  In designerspeak, we are told this will give Delta a 'classier, and in some cases, sexier look for flight attendants, airport agents and other workers.  Employees will look sexy and great, while keeping "that classic look" as well'.

Today is 6 February, 2004.  Give the designer a month or two to design and get the new uniforms approved, and then allow another couple of months for a company somewhere in the East to make them.  So you'd expect the new look to be out there in time for summer?  Ah, no.  The new uniforms will debut in 2006!  Don't ask what the two years of delay is for.

But, while CEO Grinstein is getting involved with making his employees, with the sad exception of pilots, look sexier (I wonder how many spam filters are going to spit out the newsletter today because of my use of the 's' word!), Grinstein has at the same given orders to put the expansion of its low-cost carrier, Song, on hold.  This story was scooped by Joe Brancatelli last week, and finally made it to the national media yesterday.

While rushing out a multi-million dollar investment in new uniforms in only two years, he is putting the expansion of their so-called low cost airline on hold.  Oh - the reason for deferring the expansion of the low-cost part of Delta's operation?  Delta is, we are told, looking for more ways to cut costs company-wide, and so, apparently, it makes sense to stop expanding the low-cost part of their operation.

John Selvaggio, President of the Song subsidiary, displayed an understandable element of confusion about his operation's future, when he told the Wall St Journal on Thursday that after a company wide review, to be completed in June, Song 'may be larger, it may be smaller.  It's not really decided.'

Isn't it amazing that the company can plan for a uniform change two years into the future, but doesn't have a vision for its main new operational initiative, Song, even four months ahead.  If you don't understand the good sense of all of this, well, that proves you don't have the rare and unique qualities that are needed to be an airline CEO.

I wrote an article about Song when it was first announced.  Although I was skeptical about the concept, in general Song has exceeded expectations - at least, as far as the traveling public is concerned.  But, from Delta's internal perspective, the doubts I expressed on 22 November 2002 remain as valid today as they were then.  I've slightly updated the article, and it can be found here.

JetBlue shares quickly rose 5% on the news that Song's expansion plans are on hold.

Strong words from United's flight attendants, who asked the bankruptcy court to investigate what they called the airline's 'scheme to defraud thousands of retirees'.  UA wants its retired staff to pay $600 more every month, and for fewer medical benefits, than at present.  Flight Attendant union president Greg Davidowitch points out, not unreasonably, that many flight attendants accepted early retirement based on UA's earlier promises for what their benefit package would be.

I support the flight attendants on this.  It is one thing to renegotiate a salary with a current employee, who can always change jobs.  But it is much less fair to cut back retirement benefits for people that no longer have the choice of changing jobs.  The flight attendants, poking fun at United's Ted subsidiary, are mounting a campaign using the slogan 'cheaTED'.  Good luck to them.

I wrote about Canada's wonderful airline, Westjet, a couple of weeks ago.  Good news for those of us south of the border.  They have now announced plans to add service to Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando in the fall, and will add Phoenix and Palm Springs in winter.

I write a lot about airlines; here's a quick update on the cruise industry.  Royal Caribbean reported 2003 net earnings of $280.7 million, down from the $351.3 million in 2002.  Gross revenue increased by 10.2% due to more ships and increased shipboard revenues (yes, those drinks keep getting more expensive) while lower fares (also due to more ships) contributed to the decline in income.  Cruise vacations are a tremendous bargain at present.

The count-down to the first A380 super-jumbo flight continues (expected next year).  China has now announced it will upgrade the runway at Shanghai Airport to have it ready for A380s by the end of this year.

Something new from Virgin Atlantic Airways.  Not content with in-flight massages, they are now bringing an in-flight meditation program to their planes.  A series of 'meditative journeys' will be programmed into the audio systems.

Personally, I think the best thing about a VS flight is the bar in their Upper Class cabin - I'd rather meditate, propped on a bar stool, and gazing into a glass of whisky!

Avian Flu - this year's SARS?  Hopefully not.  Although the WHO has advised that Avian Flu is spreading so quickly that no part of Asia is safe, the real danger is not so much in what it is, as what it could become.  Currently, humans can catch Avian Flu from birds, but not from other humans.

The danger is that an infected person may be simultaneously infected with regular flu, such that the two virii mutate to form a highly contagious and very virulent new strain.  What are the chances that this might happen?  Hard to say, but obviously, the fewer people that get infected with Avian Flu, the lower the chances.  Here's a helpful Q&A on Avian Flu.

I've written about VoIP telephones as a replacement for normal telephones; here and here.  Market leader Vonage reports that they have doubled their customer base in less than five months, and now have over 100,000 subscribers.  They hope to pass the quarter million mark by the end of the year.  If you have broadband internet into your home or business, this is a technology you should consider.  But my preferred service comes not from Vonage but from Packet 8 (the second of the two services I review in the links above).  Better technical service and lower rates.

'I'm from Microsoft and I'm here to help you'?  Microsoft has jumped on the 'anti-spam' bandwagon, and are proposing a new way of controlling spam, making people that send email 'pay' for each email.  The payment would either be in the form of a computer processing delay, or, instead, real cash (but probably only a small cost per email).  Sound like a good idea?  Beware of wolves in sheep's clothing!  You can bet that any system Microsoft is proposing that involves money changing hands will inevitably have the larger part of each financial transaction flowing to Microsoft!

Free email has revolutionized all our lives.  This newsletter you're reading now would not be possible if either of us had to pay for every issue.  And I'd be less likely to send out super fare alerts if that meant that either you or I had to pay for the extra email.

Don't let Microsoft take over and control email, the same way it has taken over and now controls operating systems and so many other parts of our computing world.  Microsoft's spam 'cure' would most definitely be worse than the ailment.  Instead, insist that the federal government now enforce its new 'Can Spam' law that makes most of the spam we all receive now illegal.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Airport screeners in Albuquerque pulled aside the passengers aboard Sen. John Edwards' chartered campaign plane over the weekend for extensive searches, causing the Democratic presidential candidate to arrive in Oklahoma City an hour late for a campaign stop.

The senator willingly surrendered what federal screeners described as a "corkscrew with a knife on it," and TV crews accompanying the candidate gave up several small tools they carry for aligning their equipment.  I wonder how private charter planes can operate without corkscrews - one suspects that fine wine is an essential part of their flight experience!

Perhaps we should all hope that Sen Edwards becomes our new president, now that he has had a first hand experience of the mindlessness of airport security.  And, should he become a frequent passenger in Air Force One, I'm sure he'll be allowed free use of a corkscrew once more.

Here's an interesting and amusing story of the FBI at work, leaving no stone unturned in tracking down potential terrorists.  The, ahem, Jewish immigrant fortunately managed to convince them that he did not fit the typical profile of an al Qaeda operative!

You know that if you have a problem going through an airport screening point, you can always ask to speak to a supervisor, don't you.  And, hopefully, the supervisor will be better trained and more sensible than the front line person giving you the problem.  Not so, at least, not if you're going through Seattle's airport, where a petition signed by 206 of the 1100 TSA employees there claims, amongst other things, that employees have paid bribes to be improperly promoted Details here.

Thanks to reader Joel for sending in this article that exposes mammoth problems with the TSA and air marshal programs.  Very unsettling.

Here's an interesting article about the debut of new train service between Adelaide and Darwin.  That's a train I definitely want to go for a ride on.

And here's an article about how the train was greeted, upon arriving into Darwin at the completion of its first journey.  They do things differently in Australia.

Lastly, many of us love the  Fawlty Towers tv series.  Here's a story that indicates the spirit of Basil Fawlty lives on, not in Torquay, where Fawlty Towers was set, but just a short distance away in Newquay.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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