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Friday 28 May, 2004 

Good morning

As an advocate of travel, perhaps I should not say this, but I'm always delighted to have completed my journey, and after returning from London Thursday afternoon, it is indeed great to be back in the beautiful Pacific Northwest once more.

I flew Aeroflot roundtrip London - Moscow, and was upgraded for the London to Moscow flight, allowing me to enjoy their business class on a nice A310.  This was extraordinarily better than BA's short-haul business class - BA's Club Europe (business class) is a pathetic product and only slightly better than coach class, often with almost identical seats and seat pitch.  By contrast, you get true big seats that recline a long way and with generous spacing between them on Aeroflot.  No business traveler in their right mind would ever choose BA's business class over Aeroflot's for travel within Europe (an amazing but true statement!).

I experienced a moment of pure terror on this flight.  It was a 3.5 hour red-eye, and I was lightly sleeping as best I could.  I was vaguely aware that we had started our descent into Moscow, but the cabin remained dark and all the passengers were stretched out in their seats, also trying to sleep.  The flight was reasonably smooth and uneventful.  Then, all of a sudden, I almost jumped out of my seat!  The entire plane shuddered and shook in the darkness (as if struck by a missile, I wondered) and a horrible big noise was heard.  The plane jerked up in the air, and then fell down and again, this horrible noise and shaking.  When this happened for the third time, I finally realized what had happened - we had landed, very roughly, in Moscow!  There had been none of the usual 'seat backs upright and tray table stowed' type announcements and so I at first mistook the sudden surprise of an unexpected and rough landing with a couple of bounces for some sort of mid-air disaster!

My return flight to London was on an Ilyushin IL96-300.  This is a modern Russian wide-body plane, but suffers from two massive disadvantages.  Firstly, there are tiny overhead bins and only on the outboard sides - there is no central bin space above the middle block of seats.  This makes the plane spacious and airy, but leaves very little space for carry-ons.

Secondly, there are no individual seat lights.  So, although it is the middle of the day, I'm writing these lines in semi-gloom.  An extraordinary omission.

Completing my return home was on a totally full BA flight in business class, getting off to a bad start with a 35 minute wait in line to check in for the flight, and ending with an equally frustrating 40 minute wait for baggage in Seattle.  A good job I'm not a keen computer gamer - their in-flight gaming system was not working, and my amazing ability to become invisible yet again came to the fore - for some strange reason they didn't give me a menu.

BA seem to have discovered new ways to save money in their business class cabin.  They provide bread rolls - but no butter.  And with their main meal, they no longer give out salt or pepper.  One's taste buds are less sensitive in the lower pressure of a plane's cabin, making seasoning - for me, but not, apparently, for BA - close to essential.

The Moscow metro system is very simple to use, with a single flat fare - about 25c - good for travel between any two stations.  In London, a one way journey costs a minimum of $3.50 and can cost much more, depending on how far you travel.  I realized, while in London, that I had twice overpaid for traveling on the 'tube' - their underground metro system.  Being both chagrined and embarrassed, I used this experience equally for my own benefit and yours, and so offer you this week's column :

This Week's Column :  London Underground Fare Guide : I analyze twelve different types of ticket for traveling around London, and help you choose the best value way to use London's underground.

Dinosaur Watching :  What would you think if the pilot of a plane said, part way into the flight 'ooops, I made a mistake.  We only have enough fuel to get us half way, so we're going to have to make an emergency landing and refuel'?  You'd be outraged at his incompetence, wouldn't you.

So what then to think about US Airways and their senior management?  During its eight months in Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year they claim to have cut $1.9 billion in costs before emerging with what they said was a viable business model for the future.  Now they say they need to cut another $1.5 billion by 30 September if they are to survive.  How can the senior management (now largely departed....) have so seriously misunderstood their company and its cost structure?  For this they get paid their multi-million dollar salaries and massive bonuses?

US Airways have released what they call a 'transformation plan' to ensure their survival.  They hope to recapture the number one position in the East by offering more direct flights between non hub cities and a stronger focus on LGA, BOS, and DCA and their Shuttle operation.  Bravely, they say that Philadelphia will remain the 'core' of their network.

This plan also hints at some liberalization of fare rules, and says 'reductions in reservations call times and in customer hold times will naturally result as change fees and other rules are eliminated'.

Meanwhile, Mesa Airlines - a regional airline partner of US Airways - doesn't seem to have much confidence in the US Airways transformation plan.  They are in the preliminary planning stages for developing their own low cost operation out of US Airways' hubs in the event that US might cease operations.  During its quarterly conference call, Mesa executives said they were considering 'contingency plans for several alternative scenarios' if US Airways were to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection again.

'We've made that proposal to unions. We need to have a contingency plan,' said Mesa's CEO Jon Ornstein, confirming the company's plans but declining to give details. 'Time is of the essence here, and if we're doing anything, we have to move quickly and be ready to move quickly.'

New low cost carrier Independence Air, due to start services in June from Dulles, has announced an interesting variation on frequent flier programs.  Instead of awarding one point per mile flown, they are simply awarding one point for ever dollar spent (including taxes and fees).  This is easily understood and very fair, and is more akin to earning points with hotel frequent guest programs.  It sure beats the vaguely unfair-seeming rules of how miles are accumulated based on the type of fare you're buying with many of the other airlines.  1500 points will get you a free roundtrip to a destination up to 1500 miles away, and 3000 points gets you anywhere further than this.  The awards will not be capacity controlled and so should be easy to redeem.

Congratulations to El Al, reporting a $4.5 million net profit for the 2004 first quarter.  This is both a turnaround compared to their $33.5 million net loss in the year-ago period and also its first profitable winter quarter since it began publishing quarterly results in 1990.  Revenues rose 33% for the quarter.

Not such good news for some carriers in the US.  We continue to hear the 'b' word bandied about, with Citigroup Smith Barney analyst Daniel McKenzie now saying that a bankruptcy by Delta is a credible threat.  He projects that Delta will end the year with $880 million in cash - a princely sum for most of us and the companies we work for, but, he says 'an inadequate level for a carrier the size of Delta'.

What does Delta have in common with Enron and Global Crossing?  All three hired the Blackstone Group.  Blackstone is one of the top five debt restructuring advisory firms, and often helps its clients into and through a Chapter 11 process as part of the restructuring process.  Delta's hiring of Blackstone was confirmed two days ago.

Not yet sure which Presidential candidate to vote for later this year?  You might be interested to know who the Air Line Pilots Association have chosen to endorse, after a unanimous vote of their Executive Board.  Noting with approval his efforts to restrict foreign ownership of US airlines and to prevent them from flying domestic services in the US, and his opposition towards binding arbitration in contract negotiations, ALPA have endorsed John Kerry, saying that President Bush' record adds up to an unending string of actions that have hurt pilots and the unions that represent them.

Some people might consider these same points strong reasons to differ from ALPA's endorsement.

Meanwhile, a graver threat to pilots than any presidential candidate continues to develop -  pilotless and remotely piloted planes.  With some modern planes now being only 'flown' by hand, by a pilot, for no more than the first couple of hundred feet and the last couple of hundred feet of a flight, and with an unknown but significant percentage of airplane disasters caused by pilot error, do we still need two pilots in every cockpit?  Do we even need one?

NASA is launching a program that could place robot planes into commercial airspace as early as 2008.  Yes, in the past, remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have had some spectacular failures, but technology is advancing relentlessly and we could see, within ten years, robot type planes operating non passenger services such as firefighting, border patrol, domestic security, and perhaps even regular freight, in addition to their expanding military role.

I had a quick stay in London at the De Vere Cavendish Hotel.  This hotel, allegedly a good four star property, and in a great location, was a major disappointment.  The bathroom/toilet had no door, making the bathroom cold when stepping out of the shower and of course the toilet not quite as private as one might sometimes wish for.  The fact that flushing the toilet caused little more than a thimble full of water to trickle into the toilet, with unsurprising lack of functionality, added further to the unpleasantness, and the blocked drain in the shower stall meant one's shower had to be quick before the water level overflowed the tray.

In the room was one of the automated mini-bars.  I removed several of the items so as to make room for a bottle of water I'd bought at a local store, and was unable to return the items to their places afterwards, and the act of removing them triggered the automatic billing of the items to my account.  Although the room had high speed internet, it was poorly implemented and with port filtering in place, limited one's internet access essentially to only email and web browsing.  Not recommended.

Good news for Boeing?  Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Alan Mulally said that 20 airlines have asked for proposals that could be worth potentially 400 orders for the new 7E7.  To date, however, Boeing has just one order (for 50 planes), from All Nippon Airways.

Bad news for Boeing.  New Asian discount carrier JetStar Asia announced it has chosen the Airbus A320 for its new fleet.  The company is expected to need as many as 40 planes within three years.

This new startup shows the increasing degree of interconnection between airlines.  Shareholders include Qantas (49%), the Singapore government's commercial arm Temasek (19%) and private investors.  Temasek also owns 56% of Singapore Airlines (a major Qantas competitor) and 9% of SQ's soon to be launched low-cost carrier Tiger Airways (likely to be a direct competitor to JetStar Asia).  Qantas also owns two of its own low-cost carriers (one with international service into Asia and one for domestic service in Australia).

Temasek, and its owners, the Singaporean government, can be excused, however, for placing a bet every different way.  They are desperate to reverse Singapore's steady decline in tourism - since 1993, tourism receipts have dropped by 21% and tourism as a share of GDP has halved from 6% to 3%.  In comparison, other countries in the region such as Thailand, Malaysia and China have all been enjoying growing tourism, and Dubai is experiencing an annual growth in traffic of 30% a year.

The collapse of part of the Terminal 2E ceiling structure at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport was and is puzzling.  An investigation into the cause is expected to take 5 months to complete, and initial indications all imply that nothing should have gone wrong.  The $900 million development commenced construction in 1999 and the first phase was only opened a year ago, but there is now a thought the entire terminal may have to be demolished.  This could be a problem for airlines planning to use the new A380, because this was to be the terminal capable of handling the super-jumbo jet.

A week prior to the collapse, Virgin Atlantic announced it was delaying its deliveries of the A380.  It claimed the reason for the delay was that LAX would not be able to handle the planes when they first started flying, but puzzlingly, LAX authorities deny this and maintain they'll be ready to handle the plane when it starts service.  No other airlines planning A380 service to LAX are delaying deliveries for this reason.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  An America West flight from Phoenix to Washington DC was evacuated due to a bomb scare.  The suspected bomb?  An MP3 player.

Planes were grounded at Heathrow on Wednesday after a member of the public reported machine gun fire from underneath the Heathrow approach flight path.  Twelve policemen and a police helicopter scrambled to where the shooting was reported, to find a BBC film crew at work filming a shooting scene at one of its regular outdoor filming locations.

Here's a security story with a difference.  Reader Ram writes in to point out that his corkscrew should have been confiscated but was allowed.  He says :

At the security check in, they screened my hand luggage and noticed something. The TSA inspector asked me if I had a cork screw.  It dawned in me that I indeed had one in my shaving bag from my previous week's drive to Chicago. I said yes and pointed to it. I also told him that I do not need it and he can take it and dispose of it. He said he has to check with his superiors anyway and left me.

This is a solid stainless steel T-shaped cork screw and definitely could be a deadly weapon.  But the TSA inspector came back and told me it was okay to take with me!  I then showed him my ID as a volunteer law enforcement officer after all the decisions have been made and to show my concern. To which he said: "I wish you had shown this to me earlier. I would not have even needed to refer this to my superior"

During peak periods, passengers at Atlanta airport are being given clear zip-topped plastic bags into which they can place metal items from their pockets, in the hope this will speed up the security lines.  The plastic bags have small openings in them, through which change can fall out.  Ooops!

You've heard about 'air rage'.  How about cruise rage?  The Diamond Princess was delayed leaving Seattle for an Alaskan cruise due to the need to carry out emergency repairs, and so it had to cancel two port stops.  This upset its passengers, a situation made worse by apparently chaotic conditions at the port and little information being given to the waiting passengers.  Princess' customer relations says that the situation got out of control and the crew became afraid of violence.

Air rage is too frequently used as an excuse by airlines and their staff for their own arrogance and incompetence, and now it seems cruise lines are eager to do the same.  A group of intending Alaska cruise passengers do not strike me as a typical group likely to violently attack the ship's crew, and suggesting otherwise reflects poorly on Princess and its apparent inability to provide the slightest amount of customer service.

A passenger on a flight ignores flight attendant instructions.  He refuses to sit down as the plane is in the final stages of landing, and well after the seat belt sign has been turned on.  He slaps another passenger and ruffles his hair.  He is described as acting drunkenly and boorishly.  What happens next?

(a)  Flight attendants, assisted by passengers, wrestle him to the ground, tie him in restraints, and a doctor on board sedates him.

(b)  The plane lands at a far part of the airport and armed police storm the plane, leading the passenger off at gunpoint.

(c)  Police arrest him, charge him with federal offences, and the airline bans him for life.

(d)  Nothing.

Although outcomes (a), (b) and (c) have commonly occurred in the past, on a recent Qantas flight, outcome (d) was the net result.  Not only did nothing happen, but Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon subsequently told a group of journalists that he did not regard the incident as serious and the matter was now closed.

Oh, - the passenger was an Australian member of parliament.  But, if you're thinking it is one law for the politicians and another for ordinary people, you have Geoff Dixon's word this is not so.  'There are no two sets of rules, I mean people are not treated any different, I don't think Qantas does that' he said.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and - unless you are a politician - behave yourself

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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