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Friday 4 June, 2004 

Good morning

I don't understand why (a great opening phrase!) but website traffic continues to increase amazingly.  Daily visits have doubled in the last two months, and are more than five times the level of this time last year, with Friday last week seeing a new daily record.  Amazing, and very gratifying.  Thank you, everyone.

Meanwhile, I'm suffering a mild dose of a cough, cold, and sore throat - a side effect that often seems to accompany a long plane flight.  No matter what the airlines claim, I believe recirculated cabin air is a bad thing.

My last three weeks traveling were marked by having even more gadgets with me than ever before.  Some I've written about in the past, some I'll be writing about in the future, and this week I want to introduce an item that is so small and simple as to seem trivial and not worth a column, but which had a major (positive) impact on my travel experiences.

This Week's Column :  Non-slip Travel Coin Purse :  Foreign currencies, with coins instead of low value notes, quickly fill your pockets to overflowing while traveling.  Here's a feature filled small wallet that conveniently solves this problem for you.

My comments in last week's newsletter about the relative qualities of service with BA and Aeroflot drew a mix of comments, with plenty of readers passing on their own recent BA horror stories.  Reader Jim, for example, wrote

Their Club Europe product is awful.  On flights from London to Lisbon and return, it was hard to distinguish economy class from Club World.  Cramped seating and awful food.

And reader Dick wrote in with a strange story of what seems to be deliberate uncooperativeness on BA's part.  He flew with a group of friends from Dothan, AL to Edinburgh, flying first a DL connection then DL between Dothan to Atlanta to Gatwick, and then BA from Gatwick up to Edinburgh.  They checked their bags in Dothan and collected them in Edinburgh.

But, on their return, BA in Edinburgh refused to check their bags on to the DL flights.  Although DL will check bags through to a BA flight, BA is apparently refusing to reciprocate.  BA's refusal meant the unexpected delay of having to collect bags then recheck them at Gatwick caused Dick and his 15 fellow travelers to miss their flight on back to the US.  Dick says

The attitude of the British Airways agent and her superior in Edinburgh was cavalier to say the least.  All over Scotland we heard the merchants complain about the lack of American tourists. Perhaps they might suggest to BA a course in customer relations for their employees.

However, there was also one strident defender of BA, reader and airline pilot Norm, who after trying to strangely explain away my lengthy wait to check in for a BA flight at Heathrow as being due to TSA security (wrong, TSA have nothing to do with BA's simple lack of counter staff at Heathrow!) went on to say

Any seasoned traveler that knows anything about Aeroflot's history would certainly sacrifice a few degrees of seat recline to arriving in one piece. I would take a horse and buggy before traveling on Aeroflot. Even its modern A310 with wonderfully reclining seats.

You are going to compare BA and Aeroflot and endorse an entirely unsafe airline to your educated readers. No rules, no regulations and a bunch of killed passengers.

When a person describing himself as a commercial airline pilot with decades of service uses such strong language about airline safety, one sits up and takes notice.  But, alas, Norm is as totally wrong about this as he is about the TSA having jurisdiction over airline check-in counters in London (or anywhere else).

It is true that Aeroflot, during Soviet times, had a deservedly bad safety record.  But it is also true that in the last decade Aeroflot has had a perfect safety record, with the only recorded accident being when a parked plane at Anchorage was hit by a taxiing Asiana 747 - entirely not Aeroflot's fault and with no injuries.

My point, which Norm completely failed to accept, is that Aeroflot today is a modern westernized airline, operating modern western planes to modern western standards - indeed, it has to do this if it is to be allowed to operate flights to countries such as the US.  It is unfair and incorrect to judge Aeroflot today on the basis of what happened with a totally different airline, different planes, different pilots and management, and in a communist dictatorship, many years earlier.

I asked Norm to provide facts and figures to back up his assertion about Aeroflot's lack of safety, but received only abuse in return.  I sure hope he's not flying my next NW flight.

Dinosaur Watching :  I wrote three weeks ago about the Irish airline that ceased operations after only one week of flying.  It seemed to be a new record, but this has been trumped by a proposed new British low-fare airline, Now Airlines, that was placed into receivership before its first flight was to depart.  No word as to the fate of the half million dollar regional development grant it received from the East of England Development Agency, or of any of the other monies invested into it.

I'm regularly critical of airline executives, but I've never suggested they're drug lords.  However, US authorities seem to be suggesting this of Fernando Zevallos, the founder of Peru's largest airline, Aero Continente, saying that he supplied the late Colombian cocaine lord Pablo Esobar.  The President of Aero Continente (who also happens to be Fernando's sister) said 'there isn't an illicit dollar in the family and Zevallos companies'.

The US move makes it a crime for any Americans to fly on Aero Continente and forbids US companies to support and maintain the airline's largely Boeing fleet.  Peru is the world's number 2 cocaine producer.

Scandal of a different sort saw the chairman of Aer Lingus step down.  He resigned after being named in the Irish Times as one of ten Allied Irish Bank current or former executives who invested in tax-dodging schemes in the 1990s.

An interesting development from Southwest - although they've proudly boasted in the past that they've never laid any workers off during their entire 32 year history, and although they remain profitable with modest increases in passenger numbers, they have now offered a voluntary retirement program that 33,000 of their 34,000 employees would qualify for.

Across the board retirement programs are invariably a bad idea.  The best and most readily re-employable people take advantage of such offers, while the worst, the most over-paid, and the least re-employable staff desperately stay and hang on to the jobs they have.  Sometimes good staff accept the buyout package, only to be re-hired a month or two later by the same company.  Although Southwest has offered limited buyout packages in the past, but they've never had such an open ended deal before, and with no limit on the number of people who can accept.  Their decision to offer this program is surprising and of dubious sense.

The standard airline practice of overbooking - of accepting more reservations for a flight than there are seats on the plane - gets a lot of bad press, usually unfairly.  Overbooking benefits us all by enabling airlines to get more revenue per flight from more potential passengers.  Do you know the only airline which never overbooks any flights?  If you don't know the answer to this question, it confirms my belief that their decision not to overbook is giving them very little commercial advantage, while having a major associated cost.

Anyway, the one airline (Jetblue) is now being joined in this policy by new startup low cost carrier Independence Air.  Independence also says there will be no limit on the number of seats on all flights available for frequent flier award redemption - now there's a policy I can support!  And, strangely, Independence is also saying it won't participate with online booking services such as Orbitz and Travelocity, because they are too complex and too costly.  I guess that means they have no plans to pay commissions to travel agents, either.

Talking about Jetblue, thanks to reader Bill for passing on this article which clearly shows why Jetblue is so successful - senior management that keeps in close contact with the reality of their operation, their staff and their customers.

EasyJet claims on Wednesday to have set a new record because all 108 passengers on one of their flights, even passengers with baggage (112 bags in total), checked in electronically rather than using traditional check-in staff.  The flight departed on time.

I complained last week about the lengthy check-in for my BA flight back home.  Virgin Atlantic (VS) have an innovative new approach to checking in for flights - their new 'Check In, Chill Out' program allows passengers flying from selected Barbados and St Lucia hotels to check in for flights and pass over their luggage while still at their hotel.

A VS employee visits the hotel with a suitcase-size computer along with boarding passes.  It is plugged into an Internet connection, and they sit face-to-face with each passengers who wants to use the service. ID can be verified, seat changes made and passengers bags checked.  The new units offer all of the capability and security of a standard airport check-in counter.

Some interesting background to the roof collapse at the Paris CDG airport is emerging.  Apparently the architect is the subject of a fraud probe over his role in the construction of an opera house in Beijing.  He has, however, designed more than 50 other airport terminals, all of which are still standing.  And rather than coming as a surprise, the roof collapse was merely the last of a series of problems over the last two months, including cracked plaster, falling concrete, and burst water mains.

Officials are now very sensitive to such reports, as was shown last week, when a plastic beaded bracelet worn by a baby snapped and popped beads around another terminal at CDG.  One hit a man on the back of his head and he thought it was a piece of ceiling falling.  Officials saw the beads on the floor and evacuated the terminal for 45 minutes while investigating what they were.

The largest bridge at any airport in the world – tall enough for a Jumbo jet to pass underneath – was opened at Gatwick earlier this week.

Meanwhile, in more bridge related news, in France the world's highest bridge is about to open. The Millau Bridge over the river Tarn in the south of the country will open in December after three and a half years of building work.

The bridge’s final span was put in place earlier this week, completing the 1.6-mile structure and making it the world’s highest bridge. The highest concrete pillar on the bridge is 80 ft higher than the 900 ft Eiffel Tower.

Let's hope it doesn't collapse.

What's wrong with this Reuters item? :

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. gasoline pump prices may drop as much as 10 cents by July, partly because OPEC (news - web sites) has vowed to increase production, U.S. energy analysts said on Thursday.

Gasoline prices on the wholesale market are already sliding, down 16 cents a gallon since mid-May, and those discounts are likely to reach consumers in the coming weeks, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said in a weekly report.

Let's see :  Wholesale prices have already dropped by 16c a gallon, oil prices dropped more today and are expected to continue to decline, while oil stocks in this country are at a two year high.

So why is the best that we as consumers can hope for a 10c/gallon drop in price during the next month or more?  The 'spread' between the cost of the oil to make a gallon of gas, and the cost of the taxes, compared to the at-pump price, is greater now than it has ever been before.  Let's not only blame the high cost of crude oil for the $2.50+/gallon prices at the pump today.

It is an ill wind that blows no good, however, and Boeing is likely to be one of the major beneficiaries of the continued high jetfuel prices.  All of a sudden, the improvements in fuel efficiency promised by their new 7E7 seem more important than they did three and six months ago, and make a stronger case to airlines considering replacing their older less fuel efficient planes.

However, Boeing still remains vulnerable with its 7E7, which offers only a short term rather than long term advantage.  Its major feature - improved fuel efficiency - is based in large part on new engine technologies.  And now, after Boeing declined to partner with it for developing engines for the 7E7, engine builder Pratt & Whitney said it will be developing engines to sell to other airline manufacturers, using 7E7 type technology.  President Louis Chenevert coyly said 'We have spoken to other customers. Obviously there is one other very large customer that we have entertained discussions with'.  No prizes for guessing which company he is referring to.

Boeing now has a second customer for the 7E7 - my own home country's airline, Air New Zealand, who announced it was ordering two of the new planes (and eight 777s).  Unbelievably, Air NZ, with a current fleet of 18 long-haul planes (8 747s and 10 767s) announced plans to buy as many as 42 more long-haul planes from Boeing, in addition to these ten firm orders.

Suggestion to Boeing :  Don't go counting those 42 options as firm sales any time soon!

Expect to see more announcements from Boeing about its 7E7 in the next several weeks.  A major international air show at Farnborough near London opens on 19 July, and Boeing is trying its hardest to spin the 7E7 as positively as possible so as to win the unofficial 'one-upmanship' contest with Airbus for new orders announced at this show.

Good news for road warriors.  Hyatt has teamed up with T-mobile to install Wi-Fi in nearly all of their 200 plus hotels and resorts by the end of this year.  Expect to pay $10/day for access, unless you already subscribe to T-mobile's service.

Other news for road warriors.  Sony is discontinuing its Clie range of PDAs, a move which confirms industry surveys showing a slowing down in PDA sales.  More and more of the functions formerly found on a PDA can now be found on a cell phone, and new phones such as the dazzling Sony Ericsson P900 combine the best features of both a phone and a PDA in a compact package no larger than many cell phones.

Disappointingly, the P900, which has been sale for so long in Europe that it is about to be replaced by a new model, is only just now about to be released for sale in the US.  We continue to trail far behind the rest of the world with cell phone technology.

Be careful when putting your Priority Club membership number into a hotel booking.  One person recently put in the wrong number, which caused the booking system to automatically 'correct' the booking and change the name of the person booked to that of the person with the other Priority Club number.  The real guest arrived at the hotel to be told he didn't have a reservation, and that his confirmation number belonged to someone else.

Also be careful that you're booking exactly the hotel you want.  I've twice booked what I thought was the Holiday Inn I wanted, only to arrive and find out that, no, I'd mistakenly booked myself into a Holiday Inn on the other side of town, and my confirmation number, rather than confirming a booking at the hotel I wanted, obligated me to go stay at the other hotel!

This Week's Security Horror Story :  An AA flight from Dallas to Boston made an emergency landing in Nashville last week after a threatening note was found on the plane.  The note said there was a bomb in the plane's cargo section, and so the plane was escorted by fighters to an emergency landing in Nashville, where armed police met the plane.

Now you might guess the reason this story makes 'Horror Story of the Week' is the stupidity at having fighter jets escort a plane that might have a bomb (but apparently no terrorists) on board, or why armed police would surround the plane upon landing (other than so they too could be killed if the bomb exploded).  If you guessed this, you'd be wrong.

Neither also is the reason for featuring this story because the plane was diverted to an airport (one of many available) that also had Air Force One on the ground.  Great idea - send a potential bomb laden plane to where Air Force One is parked.  No, that's not the reason either.

But guess who wrote the bomb threat note?  Ooops.  One of the flight attendants on board!  This is definitely the wrong time to continue the discussion of several weeks ago about whether US flight attendants are friendly or not!

More security delays in Atlanta.  Delays exceeded two hours on Tuesday due to a rush of post-holiday travelers.  This is after two similar problems in May, and in spite of months of warnings and pleas from airport officials to the TSA, asking for more staffing.  59 more screeners have been promised, but have yet to be hired.  Airport officials say to expect more delays during the busy summer season, which promises to be the busiest ever at Hartsfield Airport.

One possible element of good news.  As from 19 November 2004, airports will be free to choose between either TSA services or contracting with private companies instead to provide security screening that complies with TSA procedures.  While the pre-9/11 private security contractors were generally of poor quality, the dual accountability of new private security contracts - accountable both to the TSA for quality control, and to the airports and airlines for service standards - sounds very good to me.  100 of the 445 airports with TSA screeners have already expressed interest in making their own arrangements as soon as they can.

Reader Fred writes

Your story last week about letting somebody keep a corkscrew is exactly opposite to what happened to me.  I was passing through security in San Jose, CA with my carry on bag containing items that had passed through security screening numerous times without incident. My bag was selected for detailed examination due to something the scanner found. After the searcher started looking at items at random, I asked what he was looking for. He said a wrench. I remembered I had a small (about 2 1/2 inch), thin, almost toy, wrench in my toilet bag and told him where to find it.

I commented this was hardly a weapon, neither sharp nor pointed, and weighing less than an ounce.  It had passed through security many times before.  He showed it to the supervisor who said to confiscate it.  I politely questioned the decision and the supervisor came over and said that ALL tools of any type were illegal! He also said that passing through security many times only meant that he was doing his job properly! (?)

What they took was of no great importance or value, but shows the lack of reality in the security screening game.

We hear a lot about how new visa restrictions cause inconveniences to people wishing to travel to the US.  But did you also think about the inconveniences caused to US companies seeking to have foreign staff members, or foreign clients, or foreign prospective clients come and visit them?  This BBC article suggests these costs, in the last two years, have exceeded $30 billion.

Note the reference at the bottom of the BBC article to a new $10 billion contract for managing the screening database for foreigners visiting the US.  More on this program can be found here.  Three quick observations - firstly, this is a contract for 'between $10 million and $10 billion'.  How's that for a tightly defined and cost-controlled project?  Care to guess whether it will end up costing closer to $10 million or $10 billion?

Secondly, how is it possible for any database development project to cost $10 billion?

Thirdly, while we're spending $10 billion to document and monitor legal visitors to the US, what is happening to our Mexican border?

Lastly, while we might be making it harder for foreigners to visit, we're far from perfect at issuing passports to ourselves.  Reader Terri recently received her new passport.  One slight problem - the picture in the passport shows an Asian lady, looking quite unlike Terri.  Ooops.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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