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Friday 7 May, 2004 

Good morning

And greetings from London, where the weather seems hopefully favorable for our Scotland tour, due to start in two days.

My BA flight in World Traveler Plus from Seattle was inevitably not without its problems.  When I discovered, to my disappointment and disbelief, that nowhere on board the plane did they have a single drop of British beer (only Grolsch or Stella Artois) I resolved to work steadily all flight long.  But that was not to be - the in-seat power to keep my laptop alive proved inoperative.  Because the flight was (I think) oversold in coach, BA filled up the WTP cabin with random seeming free upgrades and there were no empty seats to move to and I only had two hours of work before the battery died, giving me several hours to again enjoy the extra comfort provided by my First Class Sleeper.

I do love watching my suitcases come off the luggage carousels, with their Mytag luggage tags immediately signaling them as being mine, only mine, and definitely no-one else's.  Such a simple concept, but so effective.

You heard it here first!  Late Friday afternoon last week, I sent out a special newsletter about the lowest ever Qantas fares to NZ and Australia.  Qantas itself sent out their promotional piece on Monday morning - two and a half days later, and a significant delay when you remember the special ends today (7 May).  You all had a two and a half day headstart over most other people in the country, making it easier to find seats on the travel dates you wanted.  If you're one of our 319 kind donors, thank you very much for helping make this happen, and special  thanks to reader David R for, once again, being first with the news and sending the scoop on to me.

One of the most popular series on the website is the noise canceling headphone reviews.  The six sets of headphones reviewed to date have ranged in price from the far side of $300 to the low side of $40.  Imagine my surprise to now see a set of $15 headphones for sale through Amazon.  So, spending some of the money generously contributed, I bought a pair, and offer you :

This Week's Column :  A $15 set of active noise reducing headphones :  Costing little more than a cheap generic pair of standard headphones, these could be either the biggest bargain out there, or a waste of $15.  Which are they?  Click the review to find out!

Dinosaur Watching :  Several readers suggested I was unfair in my critique of US Airways last week.  I did not mention that the new low fares being introduced into their Philadelphia hub will be released system-wide in the future.  These readers thought the promise of some time in the future, extending these fares to other cities, was a positive point in US Airways' favor.

I disagree.  There is no reason why US couldn't have immediately released their lower simplified fares everywhere.  The inimitable words of their senior VP of marketing and planning 'we've heard our customers loudly and clearly .... we need to do something about that -- and we are' are contradicted by the reality that they are only doing something about it at one airport - the same airport that coincidentally has Southwest making a concerted push into.

The truth is that US Airways may have heard their customers loudly and clearly, but unless those customers have been saying 'we're completely happy with fares everywhere except PHL', the reality is that US is ignoring and not doing anything about the complaints of their customers everywhere else in the US.

One other thing about US - when I spoke last week about their new campaign featuring 'unbelievable acts of kindness', I neglected to mention that this was not a new initiative they dreamed up all by themselves, but rather it was a response to Southwest, who has had their employees barnstorming through Philadelphia for some considerable time, standing on street corners handing out giveaways, and generally doing everything to make the start of their service this Sunday as well known and successful as possible.  They start off with service to six destinations, and add another seven destinations by midsummer.

US Airways has to be very concerned that history will repeat itself.  In 1993, Southwest moved into Baltimore, competing directly against US.  US ended up substantially shrinking its operation there, while Southwest grew and Baltimore is now a core Southwest, not US city.  The competition will be even more challenging this time, because Southwest is now a larger airline than US Airways (as measured by traffic).  Look down at the cost comparison table, and then wonder/worry how can US possibly compete and respond to Southwest's assault on their Philadelphia hub.

One thing is for sure.  Southwest is playing very aggressive hardball in Philadelphia, with a massive advertising budget much larger than for any previous city launch, and a much larger staffing level.

Expressing something other than confidence in his future with US, CFO Neal Cohen has now joined his former boss, CEO Siegel, in resigning.  Apparently Cohen also had what was discreetly referred to as 'an employment contract that permitted him to leave the company with certain benefits'.

And what exactly is a 'certain benefit'?  $2.5 million.  This might sound like a lottery prize sized sum, but remember that Siegel got twice that much.

It is a crazy world when people get paid millions of dollars to stop working for a company.  Millions of dollars for adding hundreds of times that much value to a company - that is understandable.  But millions of dollars to do nothing at all, and from a company that is chronically unprofitable and on death's doorstep?

Question to airline boards of directors :  Is offering massive golden parachutes as a reward for leaving the best way to hire, motivate, and retain your top executives?

Good news and bad news from United Airlines.  Good news = their first quarter result is a $602 million improvement over the first quarter last year.  Bad news = even after a $602 million boost to their bottom line, they still lost $459 million.  Their CEO, their chairman, and their president  - coincidentally, all the same person (why is it I'm reminded of the Gilbert & Sullivan comedy, The Mikado, I wonder, when confronted with such a self important person who assumes three different titles) said 'We are doing exactly what we said we would do to be able to succeed in the new revenue environment -- maintaining a relentless focus on reducing costs and improving efficiency'.

Only an airline would feel good at losing almost half a billion dollars in 90 days.

Here's a fascinating and self explanatory table that shows the respective operating costs of most US airlines in the first quarter.

Rather to everyone's surprise (or, at least, to my surprise) Air France is now the world's largest airline in terms of revenues, having acquired 89% of KLM's shares.  This is the first merger of two major 'flag carrying' European airlines, and is accompanied with intricate structuring so as to preserve the legal semblance of two independent airlines, protecting each airline's national landing rights.

But is bigger necessarily better?  When they're not blaming their woes on any other scapegoat, major airline executives are predicting (or, perhaps, wishfully hoping for) consolidation in the industry, as if this will solve their problems.  At an industry conference last week, Gordon Bethune from CO and Richard Anderson of NW said the US can no longer support six major carriers.  Why not?  What has changed to make this impossible?  Air travel continues to steadily increase, moving past the 9/11 dip and reaching all time records; surely with the growth in travel, it should be possible for more airlines to succeed, rather than fewer.

And do two wrongs make a right - when you merge two failing airlines, is the net result a bigger airline, failing even faster, or does some mysterious transformation occur to somehow solve all the problems that the two airlines could not solve, alone?

Certainly there is no evidence of any economies of scale in the cost chart above.  But there are reasons why major airlines would like to become larger.  As discussed before, the major airlines are no longer big enough to safely bully their smaller, lower cost competitors.  But if the majors were to consolidate, they could safely once again kill off competitors without harming themselves unduly.  This is the main benefit the major airlines see if they grow larger in size - they can once more control the marketplace with impunity.

With KLM becoming part of AF, does that mean the title of being 'world's oldest passenger airline' now passes to Qantas, I wonder?

An exciting development for all of us occurred earlier this week, when a federal judge allowed millions of NW, DL & US passengers to participate in a lawsuit against the three airlines.  The lawsuit seeks about $1 billion in damages, and alleges that the airlines unlawfully conspired to violate federal antitrust laws by prohibiting 'hidden city' ticketing.  But don't expect any result anytime soon - the suit was first filed in 1996, and a trial date has yet to be set.   Is it too much to hope for a resolution of this suit in less than another eight years?  More details on this court case here.  And I wrote a three part series on airfare loopholes here.

Still more airline service to Bermuda.  It seems Bermuda is growing strongly in popularity with American tourists, and now American Airlines are adding seasonal nonstop service from La Guardia to Bermuda, with an introductory low fare of $289.  AA is also adding a third daily service from JFK.  Tempting - even from the west coast.  Similar fares exist to Jamaica.

I finished last week's newsletter with a passenger service horror story from Africa that had a sting in the tail of it.  I wondered whether to edit this out, but decided to leave it in as a reflection of the way many people perceive service on board all airlines these days.  This occasioned a flight attendant to write in, saying

As a 20 year flight attendant with Continental I have never witnessed such outrageous behavior by a fellow flight attendant. As I read the story I too sympathized with the passengers on the plane and thought how can anyone accept such poor conditions and service, but when the writer slammed US flight attendants I was amazed. I agree examples of poor service should be shared but twisting a story to slam our country's flight attendants is just unacceptable!

It was not my intention to slam FA's, but they need to realize this is the way a great many fliers now perceive them.  And while the reader may never have seen this exact type of outrageous behavior, I wonder if she's gracious enough to admit that she has also seen an increasing number of 'less than perfect' actions by her coworkers.

Indeed, as I write this, on board my BA flight, I've just watched a flight attendant push a passenger out of the aisle, without comment, and then ram into her heel with the duty free cart, back up, then move on, still with no comment or apology.  A minute later, she came back down the aisle and in a treacly voice asked the lady if she'd like to buy any duty free goods!

The FAs allow themselves to become the meat in the sandwich.  When a passenger asks them if they can have another drink, instead of snapping out a 'No!', why don't they say 'If I was allowed to, of course I'd be delighted to give you as much to drink as you wish, same as we used to, some years ago.  But our airline's management have required us to only pour one small drink per passenger, and it is more than my job is worth to give you a refill - for all I know, one of the other passengers around you is a management staffer auditing this flight and my performance.  If you don't like this policy, please pass your thoughts on to our management and customer service people'.

Rather than going on strike and inconveniencing a public that is growing steadily less sympathetic, flight attendants need to separate their personal feelings from their job duties, and encourage passengers to see them as helpful caring people given a difficult job by a less caring management.  They need to change the focus of stories people tell about bad flights from 'the flight attendant wouldn't .....' to 'the flight attendant wasn't allowed to ...', with the flight attendant a sympathetic fellow sufferer, and the airline management the villain of the story.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Our government is quick to criticize other countries for having poor passport security, and uses this as an excuse for making it painfully difficult for people to get visas to travel to the US, and as a further excuse for treating too many visitors unfairly like criminals when they arrive.

But what of our own passport security?  Until this week, the US government has declined to give information on lost/stolen US passports, for 'security' reasons.  They have now admitted that there are as many as 400,000 lost or stolen US passports out there, and have passed the information on to Interpol, which now has a database of lost and stolen passports, including 188,609 blank passports that are missing.

Here's some more detail on the Briton who was detained in chains by US airport security last week.

Who is responsible for checking ID when passengers go through security?  I had to show my ticket and ID a record five times when flying to London - first when checking in, once to be allowed to enter the security line, again to the girl loading the X-ray machine, a fourth time to someone restricting access out of the security area into the terminal concourse, and lastly before entering the jetway.  But whenever a person with wrong or no ID is found inside a passenger terminal, no-one seems prepared to accept responsibility for allowing them in!

While waiting in the mercifully short security line, I watched two uniformed TSA guards presumably reporting for the start of their shift.  They walked through the metal detector.  It enthusiastically beeped.  They gave cheery hellos to the other TSA people and walked away, without any secondary screening.

Immediately before them, two pilots had removed their shoes before going through security.  One of them beeped anyway and had to go to secondary screening.

Let me ask the TSA this :  How many pilots have been found to have arrest warrants outstanding and past felony arrests?  And how any TSA screeners?  Hint - the answers are 'next to none' and 'hundreds, if not thousands'.  So why should we give TSA screeners carte blanche to ignore security screening, but insist that pilots - the men who we trust with our lives, who have access to a huge big fire axe in the cockpit, and who could crash the plane anytime they choose by simply pushing forward on the control column - go through rigorous screening, for fear they may have an illegal nailfile in their pocket?

Next observation :  Anyone who went through the metal detector with their shoes on was 'randomly selected' for secondary screening.  I refused to take my sneakers off, and although the metal detector was silent, was also randomly selected.  With over two hours before my flight, I felt I could enjoy myself a little, and so asked why I'd been selected for secondary screening.  The woman said 'I have to keep a steady flow of people to secondary screening'.  I said 'but all the people you are sending there have their shoes on.  I don't think that is random.'

So she tried story two :  'I have to send people that fit a screening profile to secondary screening'.  I said 'is the security profile the fact that they have their shoes on?'  She coughed and spluttered inarticulately and started to make threatening noises.  I asked for a supervisor.

Eventually George 11714 - allegedly a supervisor, but not wearing anything I could see to suggest he was anything other than plain George with a strange last name turned up, and after some questioning, he told me that shoes fitting a certain profile would result in secondary screening, with the implication that my plain generic sneakers fit within that profile.  I asked what that profile was, so I'd know which shoes to wear next time.  Answer :  Any shoes with soles more than 1" thick.

How many shoes do you have with soles that do not appear to be more than 1" thick?

After having my shoes checked for explosives, I was allowed to proceed.  Memo to terrorists :  Keep the explosives out of your shoes, guys - or, if you must use your shoes, be sure to send them through the X-ray machine.  Chances are very good they'll pass through, explosive and all, undetected.  Meanwhile, the security screeners will be distracted, while they hassle middle class shoed white men.

Random airport thought :  I write this while waiting for my flight to London in the far end of Seatac's South Satellite Terminal.  Have just heard a PA announcement calling a BA passenger to the BA baggage office.  But the page did not say where this was - answer = the other side of security, back in the main terminal, at baggage claim, and neither did the page consider the implications of what could be as much as a one hour journey for the person due to incipient boarding of the flight to London.

Here's an interesting story from reader Mick

I was traveling with a friend who is disabled, and flying out of Barcelona on March 1.  My friend was placed into a wheelchair (he uses leg braces and walks with a cane, but is ambulatory) by a skycap, and we headed off to the security checkpoint metal detector. When we got to the detector (with both police and Spanish armed forces in attendance) my friend made a movement to get out of the wheelchair so that we could proceed through the checkpoint normally.

He was told to sit back down, the skycap took my carry-on bag, along with my traveling companion's, and placed them in my friend's lap in the wheelchair. I was told to follow them through the detector, and as we went through with the alarms buzzing loudly, nobody even blinked. I was given back my unchecked bag, and off we went to the gate.

'It is always darkest before the dawn' is a slogan that the Athens Olympic Games organizers should adopt as their own.  With less than 100 days until the start of the games, an incomplete main stadium building, poor levels of ticket sales, and mounting threats of terrorist actions, the pundits are predicting doom and gloom.  It would seem surely unthinkable that Greece would not have everything ready for the games - it has had nearly eight years to prepare for this highest profile and most prestigious of international events.  The games are scheduled for 13 - 23 August.

However, one thing that Athens is doing is adopting Singaporean type rules against littering, with a new force of 600 multi-lingual anti-litter police now on the streets, fining anyone who drops a cigarette butt an immediate $24.  People who park on sidewalks and motorcyclists without helmets will also be fined, and the local taxi drivers are to be given classes in etiquette.

Talking of taxis, fares in New York went up 26% on Monday. The increase was to give drivers more compensation and to pay for installing new technologies in cabs, allowing dispatchers to track cabs electronically and let customers pay by credit card. There will also be a $1 surcharge for using a taxi between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. The cost of traveling from JFK to Manhattan increased $10 to $45. Although hefty increases, these are the first increases in eight years.

Lastly this week, one of the great secrets of the airline industry is the not infrequent situation in the cockpit when the pilot - and indeed sometimes both pilots - are asleep at the controls, relying on the auto pilot and the sound of any alarms to wake them if needed.  It seems that while officially prohibited, most airlines and oversight bodies tend to turn a blind eye to this.

But what to make of the story doing the rounds of a pilot who fell asleep twice while flying a 767 for All Nippon Airlines?  The reason we know about this particular incident is due to the fact there was a Transport Ministry official on board for a routine inspection, directly behind him in the jump seat!  The airline is conducting an investigation to determine whether the pilot was negligent or is suffering from a sleeping disorder.

All going well, I'll be writing to you from the small village of Beauly in the Scottish highlands next week.  Until then, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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