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Friday 20 February, 2004 

Good morning

It has been a hectic week; I hope your own week has been more relaxing.  But, there have been fruits from my labors, some of which I can tell you about now, and some of which I plan to proudly reveal next week.

More than two thousand of you voted for your favorite travel and technology products - thank you.  Analyzing these answers took a lot of time, but it was time well spent and now the winners can be announced :

This Week's Column :  2003 Best Travel Technology Product Awards :  Which products came out on top? Click on over to find out the well deserved winners.  If you don't already have these goodies, you'll want to add them to your travel kit before your next journey.

Touring Update

Space still remains on our  Scotland's Castles and Monsters  tour, but we're getting near when we have to finalize numbers and names.

If you've been thinking about this, please do register while still possible.

There's an interesting article in today's Scotsman.com about the latest tourist product for sale in Scotland - small cones of material that, when burned, recreate the smell of burning peat in a Scottish cottage.  The Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, close to the Castle in Edinburgh, suggests the smell is the ideal companion to a glass of whisky.

What do you think?  Come with me in May, and let's find out together!

Here's a very quick and simple question I hope you might answer for me.  When you're using a cell phone (or ordinary phone) do you have a preference as to which ear you hold it to?  I'll tell you the reason for my question next week.  Please click on the appropriate link to send me an empty email (the subject line will be prefilled in with your answer).  Your answer :  strongly prefer left ear  -  slightly prefer left ear  -  have no preference  -  slightly prefer right ear  -  strongly prefer right ear .

Dinosaur watch :  Imagine this.  Your airline is in bankruptcy and losing billions of dollars.  Competitors are snapping at your heels, and you need to make major structural changes to the organization if you're to regain a chance of profitable trading.  So, what do you do?

Well, if you're United, you decide to take drastic and positive aggressive steps.  You - ummm - repaint your planes in slightly different colors.  But, very slowly.  On Wednesday UA unveiled a new branding campaign, including a new paint scheme for its planes.

United says it will have about 72 of its planes repainted by the end of the year.  At that rate, and with 400 planes in its fleet, it will take five years to complete the project.  I'm not sure if UA ever finished its last fleet repaint, and certainly there are still planes bearing its ill-fated Shuttle livery to be seen.

United did not explain how the new paint job will improve its market share, or lower its costs, or really help in any way at all.  Do you choose your airline based on the color of the plane?

About the only time when the paint on the plane mattered to me has been when I've been privileged to fly on Wunala Dreaming - a lovely Qantas plane that has an extra ton of paint on it.  When Wunala Dreaming was first unveiled, it was a stunning innovation and while other airlines (and even Qantas itself with Nalanji Dreaming and Yananyi Dreaming) have tried to imitate, it remains - for me - the high water mark of 'flying art'.

Closures galore :  Northwest has decided to close all remaining 25 city ticket offices so as to 'reduce operating costs while still providing the service our customers expect', said Tim Griffin, executive vice president of marketing and distribution.  Huh?  Northwest's customers expect to no longer be able to go to a city located ticket office?

Well, in fairness to Northwest, it is true that with the advent of electronic ticketing, there is much less need to physically visit a ticket office than before.

Southwest is closing three of its reservation centers, following a decline in telephone sales volumes.  It will close reservation centers in Dallas, Salt Lake City and Little Rock, which still leaves six other call centers open.

And BA is closing two of its five call centers in the UK.  In both cases, the airlines point to increased booking through the internet reducing the need for 'old fashioned' telephone reservation centers.

However, the big surprise is not the closures, but why Southwest continues to operate six call centers, and why BA keeps three open.  Now that long distance calling can be had for as little as 1 a minute, and of course people calling have no knowledge where their call is answered, there seems no reason to have more than two call centers (giving emergency backup in the case of power or phone line outages).

Airline service cutbacks :  Air France said crews on medium and long haul routes will be reduced by one flight attendant to help it save as much as $433 million a year.

This is probably a coincidental announcement, rather than having anything to do with it just having purchased KLM to become the largest airline in the world.

But the loss of one French flight attendant (some might think this makes for better service, not worse!) per plane is nothing compared to what no-frills Irish carrier Ryanair is doing.  They're going to change their seats for non-adjustable, non-reclining versions.  And new planes will no longer be fitted with window blinds.  And seats won't have headrests.  And seats won't have seat back pockets, either!

This will save them the cost of having to repair about 40 broken seats each year, and will save them almost $250,000 per new plane for no blinds (how can a set of maybe 100 plastic shades cost a quarter million dollars?).  And not having to clean the seat pockets will reduce their labor cost and allow them to turn planes around faster.

But Ryanair would like you to know that they're not doing this just so they can make more profit.  They explain this will help them to achieve their goal, within five years, of  giving away half their seats, entirely for free.  Of course, if they make things much more uncomfortable, they might need to start paying you to fly their planes!

A tantalizing hint of possible things to come was given by low-cost carrier ATA, predicting they might become the first low-cost carrier to provide scheduled service from the US to Europe.  ATA currently operates international charters for the US government, and so already has the planes; it just needs to establish appropriate routes.  Their vice chairman, James Hiavacek, said that no market niche remains safe from low cost carriers.

Bold words - James Phillips, Boeing VP and head of their 717 program (what was formerly the MD90 of McDonnell Douglas) says the 717 program is alive and well.  He added that he is committed to ensuring that Qantas doesn't junk its 717s (inherited when QF bought out another airline).  My prediction is that the 717 is unlikely to see any notable additional sales, Qantas will junk their 717s just as soon as they get delivery of the Airbus planes they bought to replace them, and Boeing will have to close down their production line.

However, Boeing has one ace card up its sleeve.  Boeing hopes that Cebu Pacific Airlines might upgrade some of its fleet of DC9s with newer 717s.  When an airplane program is reduced to the uncertain hope of sales to Cebu Pacific, it can hardly be called 'alive and well'!

Almost there - but not quite.  On 17 July, 1996 (nearly eight years ago) TWA flight 800, an early model 747, exploded mysteriously, shortly after departing New York for Paris.  Even though many eye-witnesses reported seeing missile trails streaking up to the plane just before it exploded, and notwithstanding official explanations that were laughable in their inconsistency, it was eventually claimed that the plane exploded as a result of sparks in an empty center fuel tank igniting an explosive fuel-air mix in the tank.

This explanation is inconsistent with many of the apparent facts, but it has been officially declared as what happened.  A Google search for TWA 800 crash will present you with thousands of web pages, many cogently arguing against the official version of what occurred.

But - what if maybe, against all odds, this is what really truly did happen to the plane?  230 people died as a result of the mid-air explosion of the empty fuel tank.  What has the NTSB and FAA done about this, to make future air travel safer?  Ummm..... nothing.  Well, a solution to this genuine danger has been offered, even before the TW800 disaster - simply replacing the air in empty fuel tanks with an inert gas such as nitrogen.  But these ideas were rejected as being too expensive.

How expensive is too expensive?  It would cost under $200,000 to retrofit such a system on a plane (less than the cost of the window blinds, and not much more than the cost of the cockpit's security door).

Now, nearly eight years later, the dynamic quick moving individuals at the FAA have announced they are planning to possibly introduce, some time in the future, a new requirement for planes to use these nitrogen flushing systems.  However, any new regulation can take years to finalize, and then, once finalized, the FAA would allow airlines seven years to retrofit their existing fleets.  So, if we're lucky, perhaps on the twentieth anniversary of the TW800 disaster, our airlines will have finally responded to the official cause of the crash.

Electronic checkin - now commonplace at most airports, is coming to hotels as well.  Hilton Hotels revealed that 10%-12% of the guests at their New York and Chicago hotels are now using self-service kiosks to check in.  Hilton plans to add kiosks to 25 more of their central city hotels by the end of this year.

I wonder how you schmooze a self-service kiosk to get an upgraded room on a concierge floor on the view side of the building?

I wrote last week about how over 4.5 million people have abandoned their regular home telephones, exclusively using their cell phone instead.  This has had some unintended consequences, and my T-Mobile contact told me they've had to modify their credit approval procedure.

Previously, they'd ask a new subscriber for their home phone number as part of the credit granting procedure.  Because so many customers now no longer have a home phone number, they've had to abandon that part of the process.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Mr Julian Morris flew from Heathrow to Venice on 12 February, and flew back a few days later.  He naturally was required to present his passport several times when checking in for his flight, when arriving in Venice, and then when returning from Venice and arriving into London once more.

Mr Morris is 57, 6' tall, slightly overweight, and greying.  His wife, Marilyn, is younger, brown haired, described as 'petite' and much shorter.  The relevance of this?  He accidentally took his wife's passport and flew with that.  Neither airline nor airport staff, nor immigration officials, at either airport, noticed that the passport picture, description, gender and name, did not match that of the man carrying it!

I wrote a month ago of the Arab man who was discovered, at Heathrow, to have five bullets in his possession.  He was arrested on vague charges of being a terrorist - not because he was a terrorist, but just because he had bullets in his carry on luggage.

An FBI agent has now been caught, while changing planes in Hong Kong, with fifteen rounds of undeclared ammunition in his carry-on bag.  He was arrested, then freed on bail, and then released with all charges dropped after he apologized.

It is not known how the ammunition managed to slip through the security screening process in New York, where his journey commenced.

I bet the hapless Arab wishes he was an FBI agent.  Apparently they can forget about ammunition in their carry-ons and then simply apologize if caught, whereas the rest of us can not.

Indeed, the TSA has just announced, this week, that it is going to start fining passengers with illegal objects in their carry-ons.  Fines can range anywhere from $250 upwards, with extra penalties being added for passengers with 'bad attitudes' or who 'artfully conceal' illegal items.

So, be doubly respectful next time you're passing through security, and if the screener discovers something you shouldn't have in your bag, be abjectly apologetic.  Otherwise, you could find yourself getting a double penalty, having committed the unspeakable crime of having a bad attitude.  If you want to appeal the penalty, you'll have to do so in front of a Coast Guard judge, and who do you think he's going to believe?  You, or the uniformed TSA person?

Our highly trained regular police have no power to arbitrarily fine people, and absolutely no power whatsoever to increase the fine if you have a bad attitude - all the regular police can do is cite you for a violation and require you to appear before a judge.  The judge determines if you're guilty or not, and what your punishment should be.  But we've apparently decided that a TSA security screener - and, to be blunt, few of them are likely to ever be judges, let alone police officers - has more power than a police officer and in some respects more than a judge.

Does this make you feel safer?  Will the threat of a $250 fine, if caught, discourage Al Qaeda from plotting future terror attacks?  Or is it merely another gratuitous erosion of our precious freedom and due process, for no good purpose?

Incidentally, the TSA was caught out in a senior level lie this week.  They'd earlier denied any involvement in having JetBlue give confidential passenger records to a defense contractor.  It now turns out, as this article explains, that they actually were involved in the transaction.  A TSA spokesman said he was unable to comment.

I recently wrote a two part series advocating armed marshals on all flights.  In part, I wrote this out of frustration and disbelief at the EU's refusal to do exactly this.  On Wednesday, the Justice Ministers of France, Germany, Britain, Italy and Spain agreed to allow armed guards onto planes.  Maybe they read my articles?

Do you remember how the TSA tested itself and claimed that average wait times going through security were laughably short, even at times of peak travel?  When I was at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, delays to get through security when the convention guests were leaving stretched out to three to five hours for many people (yes, they did miss their flights).  Last weekend, two smaller conventions resulted in two hour delays.  The TSA has an excuse, however.  It says that there were just too many passengers to process them all quickly.

Gee - that sure makes me feel good about the prospect of a two to five hour wait.  It is my fault, for being an unwanted passenger.

Lastly this week, as a reminder that flying is sometimes a lot more than standing around, here's a stunning video clip (it is a large 1.3MB file) of a lovely F-14 Tomcat making a supersonic pass by an aircraft carrier.  For more information than you ever really wanted to know about the visible shock wave, and another stunning picture, read this.

Ah - how I miss Concorde and its Mach 2.02 flight.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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