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Friday 5 March, 2004 

Good morning

It has been a hectic week here, with two major media mentions plus a radio interview, and next week I'll be giving a presentation in Austin (you're all invited - see below).  Meanwhile, there's lots to tell you about, and some really great new gadgets that I'm in the process of reviewing.

One 'gadget' was particularly easy to write about, because it is very simple, very effective and inexpensive.  It is something you should have.  And so,

This Week's Column :  MyTag Baggage Tags : Here's a great product that ensures you recognize your bag on the carousel, and discourages other people from taking your bag either accidentally or deliberately.

We had half as many again answers for last week's 'how far in advance do you enter the airport terminal prior to your domestic flight's departure' instant survey as we had for the previous week's survey on which ear you hold your phone to.  Thanks to everyone who sent in a response.

As you can somewhat see from the results chart, the mean checkin time is 81 minutes, the median slightly less, and the mode is 60-75 minutes.  Not shown on this chart are three brave people who said they arrive outside the terminal less than 30 minutes before flight departure, or the one person who arrives more than 3 hours early.

I wanted this information to help me with research for a presentation I'm giving to the Austin Business Traveler's Association in (of course) Austin on Tuesday 9 March.  My topic is 'The Future of our Transportation System' and the ABTA have graciously invited non-members (ie you) to attend this event, too, at their discounted member rate.

If you'd like to come and have lunch, and listen to my talk, then please do so - it would be nice to meet some more readers.  You can sign up on the ABTA website.  Show in the 'Additional Info' part of the signup that you're requesting the special Travel Insider $20 rate, and pay when you turn up on Tuesday, 11.30am at the Holiday Inn Northwest.

This week's mini-survey is about RSS/XML feeds (I'll tell you why next week).  Please click on one of the following links to send an empty email that indicates your response in its subject line:

Last week we held a competition to spoof BA's decision to renumber and reschedule its flight between London and Dulles that had been subject to repeated delays and cancellations.

You sent in some excellent entries, and it was truly very difficult to choose one clear winner.  However, my prize budget only extends to one prize (two SearchAlert locks) and so I'm deeming the winner to be this entry, submitted by Bernice Emery.  She lives in Ontario, Canada, but will doubtless find the SearchAlert locks useful on her various travels 'south of the border'.

Bernice's entry reads

British Airways has announced it now understands what is prompting terrorists to target certain flights, in particular, the flight formerly known as 223. After hiring a prominent airline consultancy, they determined that a hidden message in the flight number appears to be the source of the problem.

Cryptologists have ascertained that the total of these three numbers, when combined with BA, seem to imply that this particular aircraft is "bait". Simply put, the sum of 2+2+3 is 8, which, combined with BA, becomes "BA8", or "bait". British Airways in no way intends to label their planes as bait, so has declared a ban on any flight numbers that would indicate vulnerability through coding of any kind.

Due to almost no flight numbers remaining after this ban, BA expects to shortly announce the total discontinuation of all flight numbers in the future. Passengers would not see any flight numbers on their itineraries or boarding passes. They would simply pick a gate and hope for the best. This new procedure would make it impossible for terrorists to find flight 223 and therefore eliminate any risk of terrorist attack. Passengers would be free from the fear of being on a "doomed" flight, and the surprise at the end of their journey, when they discover exactly where it is that they were destined, will be a story to happily share with their grandchildren for many years to come.

Although the theme of removing flight numbers was fairly popular in your entries, Jonathan adopted a different approach.  His entry included this strategy

All flights will be renumbered as Flight 888 and always leaving at 11.11 am or pm

One of my favorite parts of another entry came from Michael, who included this delightful thought

When pressed for a clearer explanation, BA's public relations labor union went on strike, claiming it was unfair for management to expect them to explain such a complex system. They added that the new flight numbering system was developed by the same executives who developed BA's fare structure -- which has also defied explanation.

I also liked the obfuscation to confuse terrorists suggested in Dan's submission, which in part included

Departure times for two London to DC flights which currently depart at 9:45 am and 2.30 pm will now depart at a quarter to ten and half past two.

Bob Bestor, publisher of the Gemütlichkeit Travel Letter for Germany, Austria and Switzerland has kindly contributed a couple of articles about Leukerbad Spa and Mountain Resort in Switzerland, to the website.  Better still, he also has offered Travel Insider readers a special saving on subscriptions to his excellent newsletter.  I reviewed his newsletter a while back.

The most recent issue of Gemütlichkeit has a fascinating story about Bob's own recent experience renting a car in Berlin.  He arrived to find that the Avis office had no record of his reservation and no spare cars.  After reading this article, you'll know and also be able to use the simple strategy Bob used both to quickly and easily solve the problem, and to end up driving away in a E-class Mercedes Benz.

If you've ever found yourself in a foreign country with a messed up car reservation, you'll definitely agree that this one piece of advice is worth several years worth of Gemütlichkeit  subscription!

Dinosaur Watching :  UA announced its January results, and proudly stated it has met its bankruptcy filing requirements for the twelfth consecutive month.  You have to wonder exactly how onerous those obligations are - it has consistently lost money since entering Chapter 11 in December 2002, and in January had a net loss of $252 million.  Only an airline would consider this a good thing.

United is boastful of its recent achievements.  Their CFO, Jake Brace, told analysts on Tuesday (referring to actions after going into bankruptcy) 'We've actually run the airline better than we have in our history'.

And adding further evidence of his insight and future vision, he added that UA will get out of bankruptcy 'one way or the other'.  But showing that all was not yet crystal clear to him, in talking about UA's request for a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the government, he did concede 'I don't know how that would play out if the ATSB turns us down'.

UA has already been turned down for this loan once, but Brace is apparently not yet willing to consider alternatives.  'I'm not really going to guess why we might not get the loan and therefore what to do to fix the situation, but we are going to get out of bankruptcy one way or the other' he said.

It used to be that the dinosaurs pretended they didn't care about the new breed of low cost carriers.  They had a dozen different excuses for why the low cost carriers were unimportant and irrelevant, and another dozen reasons why people would always prefer to spend way more money on a more expensive ticket on a dinosaur airline.  Well, you don't hear many people singing that song these days; indeed the new tune seems to be 'we'll beat them at their own game by creating our own low cost subsidiary airline', and some airline CEOs have gone on record as admitting the obvious - passengers will no longer pay a large premium over the cost of a low cost carrier's fare to travel on a dinosaur airline.

And then there is Delta.  Delta's new CEO, Gerald Grinstein said that his airline needs to cut costs in order to compete.  Currently, it costs DL an average of 10.25c per available seat mile to operate its planes, and low cost carriers such as JetBlue have costs down in the 6-7c range.

And so, Grinstein says 'You've got to be at about 9c to be an effective competitor.  So we've got to get at least to that level in the near term.'

9c a mile is 50% more than 6c a mile.  In this universe, you can't be an effective competitor if your costs are 50% higher than your competitor's.

I wonder what Delta's President, Fred Reid, thinks about this.  Reid has been rumored to be Sir Richard Branson's choice to head up the new Virgin USA low cost carrier.  Seems to me that if Reid agrees 9c is a fine cost level to aim for, then Sir Richard might have some major problems.  And, if Reid disagrees, then he should be a bit more effective in helping set policy in present job.

Delta plans to lose $300-350 million in its first quarter this year.

David Siegel, CEO of struggling US Airways, predicts that there will be a consolidation and  shakeout, leaving only three major US airlines plus a number of low cost carriers.  Would US Airways be one of the surviving three?  All he could say to that was

When the inevitable forces of consolidation kick in, it is equally important that we have a competitive cost structure. Otherwise we will be the awkward teenager at the school dance, hoping someone will come talk to us, but going home disappointed and lonely.

I wrote last week about America West dropping the price of its first class fares - for example, roundtrip between LA and NY for $998 instead of $2262.  The airline is now advising that after having these low fares on sale for two weeks, first-class ticket sales are 130% up on the same time last year!  As I said last week, truly 'less is more'.

Here's an interesting articleFive of the new breed of low cost carriers (AirTran, America West, Frontier, JetBlue and Spirit) have formed their own lobbying group, the Air Carrier Association of America.

The first mission of this new group?  To urge the government to stop subsidizing the money losing dinosaurs.  They claim that a proposed bill to provide special pension relief to the major carriers is 'selective subsidization' and 'the worst form of intervention that wastes limited public funds and harms consumers'.  The main focus of this is United, who very much needs relief from its pension fund liabilities in order to perhaps qualify for the government $1.6 billion guarantee, so that it can get out of bankruptcy.

Doesn't this also seem a bit circular?  UA needs one branch of the government to give it support so that it can turn to another branch of the government to get more support.

Let's all wish the best of luck to the ACAA's efforts.

Unusually strong language from the NTSB appeared in their report on the crash in January 2003 of an Air Midwest commuter plane.  John Goglia, a senior board member and former mechanic, said the worst maintenance-related case he had investigated was the 1996 ValuJet crash in Florida but that 'This accident, with the sheer number of people who failed to do their job, set a new low.'

The NTSB's final report contains 21 safety recommendations for the FAA to consider, including improved surveillance of airline maintenance programs, more effective weight and balance procedures, and airline accountability for all contract maintenance work performed.

Travel agents win out against the internet yet again.  Why is this such a secret?  Conventional wisdom is full of the savings people are getting by booking on the internet.  But, according to the annual Topaz analysis, in 2003 travel agent fares were, on average, $69 lower than internet fares.

Leading VoIP company, Vonage, is to start selling its VoIP phone service through 600 Circuit City stores as well as through the internet.  This is a major step forward in terms of bringing VoIP telephones to the masses, and another nail in the traditional telco coffins.

Good news from Visa.  Their consumer credit cards will now provide auto rental Collision Damager Waiver cover for free.  Check out the exact terms and conditions with your card service provider, and hopefully you'll no longer need to pay the rental car companies their outrageously overpriced CDW fees.

Talking about insurance, remember how airlines rushed for government assistance to help cover the costs of increased terrorist insurance premiums?  Many airlines impose an insurance surcharge onto their ticket prices.  The costs of such policies have fallen by more than 50% since 2002, and are expected to fall a further 10-15% in 2004.  I wonder when the airlines will remove the insurance surcharges.

I've been suggesting for some time that the airline industry has passed the worst of the present downturn and travel is rebounding.  Here's another pointer that supports this conclusion :  The passport office says applications went up 13% between last October and this week.  If submissions continue at the current pace it could be the biggest year ever for passport issuance.  The number of passports issued fell in 2001 and 2002 and then increased only 1% last year until October when applications started to spike upwards.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Let's imagine that you are a terrorist and your name is John Johnson.  Now, if you want to avoid detection while flying somewhere, and you had a choice of three IDs under which to travel, which would you choose :

(a)  John Johnson (your real name)

(b)  Jon Johnstone (a cunning variation on your real name)

(c)  Robert Wilson (nothing like your real name)

The TSA evidently thinks the correct answer is (b), because, as this article details, people with names similar to those of known terrorists continue to get problems when trying to fly.

One of the reasons I started writing these newsletters was because of the outrage I feel when reading disgusting 'non-statements' from large companies that can't bring it upon themselves to simply and honestly say 'we did something wrong and bad, we're sorry, and we won't do it again'.

American Airlines provides the latest example of this type of corporate doublespeak.  As this article describes, four Roman Catholic Carmelite nuns, born in India, were recently taken off an AA flight and not allowed to travel.  They had done nothing wrong, but were told that crew members and the pilot were uncomfortable having them on board and they did not want them on the plane.

So how does AA describe this situation?  Spokesman Carlo Bertolini says 'Our policies prohibit discrimination of any kind. This was not a discriminatory situation. It was basically a miscommunication over the screening process.'

On a lighter security note, reader Mike writes

I was flying out of San Francisco, andI was pulled out to be routinely "wanded".  When the young man was behind me (I am also male), I distinctly heard him say, "May I touch your bag of nickels?" I was shocked even though we were in SF. I acted naive saying, "I don't have a bag of nickels."  He laughed and spoke both more loudly and distinctly, "May I touch your BACK and ANKLES."

A nice touch on Emirates Airlines flights when they approach Gatwick Airport in London is that they are shown live video of the countryside, thousands of feet below, and rushing past at hundreds of miles an hour.  This might soon have to cease.   Villagers in Dormansland, Surrey, are demanding the filming stops.  One said: 'I sunbathe and don't like being shown to strangers.'

A California Court of Appeals panel rejected a lawsuit against several airlines by the Tall Club of Silicon Valley. The suit sought preferential seating in exit rows for men at least 6' 2" tall and women 5" 10" tall.

Thanks to Mark for passing on information about a new Pocket PC PDA and cell phone with built in GPS unit.  It is being built in the United Arab Emirates, and the GPS unit will help the faithful know which direction Mecca is when it is time for their prayers.

I've worried about the radiation dangers from cell phones for quite some time.  But there's no cloud without a silver lining.  This article tells of a new cell phone - the Prophy-Lectric phone - with a very different feature.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and may your cell phone reliably work as designed at all necessary times

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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