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Friday 9 July, 2004 

Good morning

Thanks to everyone who found time during the last week to send in comments about carry-on luggage.  Your very well thought out and helpful replies will definitely improve the luggage review when it appears.

But, for this week and perhaps next week too, a diversion onto a different topic.  It seems that much of the time, we're using our cell phones in very noisy environments, making it hard to hear and be heard.  I wrote about a $150 headset that helped in such cases in December 03, but it had some limitations.  I've now found a generally better product at less than half the price.

This Week's Column :  How to Use Your Cell Phone in Noisy Places :  The Ety-Com noise isolating headset makes it easier to hear what people are saying to you and easier for them to hear what you're saying when you're talking on your cell phone anywhere noisy.  The headset is small, portable, and affordable.  Recommended.

Dinosaur watching :  As anticipated, June has been a great month for all airlines except US Airways.  All other major airlines reported strong increases in passenger traffic for the month, but US Airways experienced a very small drop (0.4%).

More on the travel boom in this article.

Possibly the impacts of the low cost carriers at US Airways' Philadelphia hub are why US Airways didn't share equally in these good figures.  On Tuesday this week Southwest (WN) doubled its PHL flights from 14 up to 28 a day.  Although WN has not officially disclosed figures for its PHL traffic, CEO Jim Parker described it as 'the most successful market opening we've ever had' and it is generally understood that some days the airline had every seat filled on all 14 flights.

This is WN's fastest ever buildup of service in a new city, and the airline points out they can grow further, up to 40 flights a day with their present four gates in PHL.  It looks like the worst is yet to come for US Airways.

Southwest is going through a period of intriguing hyper-activity at present.  I've written before about the extraordinary early-retirement offer they made to all staff.  Those flight attendants who chose to take early retirement might now be regretting their decision, because the airline has finally reached a tentative agreement on a new employment contract, after two years at the bargaining table.  The agreement will raise compensation an average of 31% over the six year deal, and is claimed to make WN flight attendants the leaders in industry pay and work rules.

A quite extraordinary situation - most airlines are cutting back on staff pay and benefits, but low cost airline Southwest has surged ahead and now looks to have the highest flight attendant costs in the industry.

Southwest also announced an unusually broad fare sale on Tuesday, cutting fares systemwide, and by as much as 65%.  The fares are available for sale for an entire month (until 5 August) and are good for travel 16 August to 29 October.  Included are incredible bargains such as $99 each way fares from coast to coast.

The across-the-board nature of these discounts, the long period of sale, and the long period of travel all make this a major event and one which the dinosaur airlines will not be able to ignore.  The lower fares that this sale will bring is certain to result in even more depressed earnings for the major airlines.

But do you want to bet whether the dinosaurs will say 'Our losses are deepening due to our inability to compete with low priced competitors'?  Or might they possibly blame it on fuel costs?  Or security costs?  Or any other 'it's not our fault' type excuse?

An interesting bit of contrarian market analysis - a Goldman Sachs analyst is predicting that shares of the dinosaur carriers will outperform those of the low cost airlines for the rest of this year, thereby ending a three year series of the low fare airlines beating the dinosaurs.  Part of the reason for this is that the major growth spurt in international travel benefits the dinosaurs while barely impacting on the lower cost carriers.

But don't plan on that situation remaining for too much longer.  Low cost carriers are already operating to Mexico, the Caribbean and Canada, and are now looking further afield.  ATA plans to fly to two or three cities in Europe next year, and rumors abound of other discount carriers considering international destinations.  JetBlue, already serving some Caribbean destinations, is also thought to be looking at more international flights.

Competition may also come from low cost carriers in other countries.  For example, Australian upstart carrier Virgin Blue is talking about adding flights from Australia to the US - perhaps to San Francisco, where Virgin America will have a hub and where Virgin Atlantic already flies.  This would enable Virgin branded airlines to offer round-the-world service, flying two or possibly three different airlines all under the Virgin brand.

I've spent the last three weeks writing articles on airline luggage policies.  Ryanair yesterday announced plans to eliminate checked baggage on their flights entirely.  They say this will save them 5 per passenger.  And what about the passengers?  CEO Michael O'Leary says 'With the savings you make on our fares, you can afford to buy your hairdryers and things when you get there.'!

He may not be exaggerating.  Ryanair also announced details of their latest airfare sale, selling one million seats at only 99p each way.  Yes - we pay $99 and feel good about the fare; but in Britain, you can sometimes get flights for 99p.  Amazingly, Ryanair is profitable.

Lost luggage may become less common on Delta flights.  Not because they too are going to eliminate checked bags, though!  They have committed to spend $15 - $25 million over the next two years to equip all their airports so that every checked bag gets an RFID chip placed on its tag, enabling Delta to track the physical whereabouts of every bag.  At present only 0.7% of the bags DL transports go missing, and so you might think it very altruistic of DL to add this helpful extra service.

But that 0.7% represents 800,000 lost bags every year, and it costs Delta $100 million every year to resolve lost bag problems.  A $25 million investment to massively reduce the number of lost bags and the associated problems when bags do go missing won't take more than a few months to pay for itself.

RFID promises to become one of the 'next big things' in many parts of our lives.  More details of the Delta program here.  Thanks to reader Kristen for passing this on.

Good news for Boeing :  The Airbus A380 is proving to be about 5% heavier than had been anticipated.  This means the plane will use more fuel to fly, and will not be able to hold as many passengers and freight, and/or not have as great a range.  Although Airbus says the plane will still meet its fuel efficiency targets (81 miles per passenger per gallon), it would have been able to exceed its targets if the plane was built on or below its weight estimate.

Some industry analysts are already wondering if perhaps airlines won't respond to this by cramming more seats into the A380.  It will be very interesting to see if the projected and promised amenities and open spaces survive commercial reality with any of the airlines.

One unasked question has me fascinated :  With these days of incredibly precise computer modeling, how is it possible for such a major error to only be discovered when literally  bolting the bits of the plane together?

More good news for Boeing :  They have announced two more airlines signing up for their new 7E7.  Two charter airlines - Blue Panorama in Italy and First Choice Airways in the UK have committed to buy ten planes between them.

This article suggests that more than two dozen additional airlines have put down deposits on 7E7 orders that have yet to be confirmed or announced.

Seabourn Cruise Line says it will equip its 'Pride', 'Spirit' and 'Legend' ships with Wi-Fi, with access costing 50c a minute.  They are also dropping the cost of making satellite phone calls, reducing the rate down to 'only' $4.95 per minute.

Suggestion :  If on a Seabourn cruise, use a VoIP phone to call through their Wi-Fi and pay only 50c a minute instead of the $4.95 rate.

I hate dining alone in a good restaurant when traveling out of town - maybe you do, too.  Here's an interesting new service that creates small groups of travelers who can then dine together instead of alone.  Some dinners have interesting networking themes, others are general, and anyone can attend any of them in return for a reservation fee and the cost of the dinner.

If you're in Rome this summer, be warned that the police have been ordered to get tough in enforcing laws that forbid people from putting their hands (or feet) in the city's fountains.  Apparently some visitors dive into the fountains, perhaps to cool off in the worst of the summer temperatures (which can exceed 100F in midsummer).

Another surprising cell phone statisticSweden has 8.8 million people and 9.07 million cellphone lines in service.  Here in the US, only (?) 50% of the population have cell phones.

Which makes this article about the correlation between cell phones and teenage 'leisure' activities slightly less worrying for American parents.

Airship applications continue to appear from time to time, but while they're almost always imaginative, they never seem to get off the ground.  The latest concept being mooted is to use them as high altitude relay stations for internet and other data transmission.

The advantage is that because the airships would only be about 13 miles up (65,000 ft), there wouldn't be the same annoying delay as with regular satellite transmissions.  The airships would be solar powered, and could stay on station for about 180 days at a time, being fully remote controlled from the ground with no crew onboard.  More details here.

Should this ever happen, and with affordably priced service, it would be another reason to see the end of public Wi-Fi networks.  However, until the demise of Wi-Fi (which will happen just as soon as good 3G high speed data service through cell phones is made available) T-mobile is pressing ahead with plans to integrate the mish-mash of different Wi-Fi services, much like the way cell phone services integrate into a seamless roaming agreement.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Two federal training coordinators for the TSA at Buffalo Airport were helping out with luggage screening during the Thanksgiving rush last November.  They watched screeners repeatedly failing to screen bags, and when screened bags showed possible explosives, screeners gave them only the most cursory of inspections.

They told their boss about their concerns.  He said they were responsible only for assisting screeners, not for supervising them.  So they wrote a letter setting out their concerns to TSA headquarters.  Two months later, the TSA responded to their complaints - by firing them both!

The TSA, seriously understaffed, said their jobs were eliminated due to a staff reorganization.  The two men have now filed for federal whistleblower protection status, joining 43 other TSA employees who have already been forced to do the same.  Details here.

Meanwhile, an AAA official revealed survey results showing that the primary concern of most travelers today is not security dangers, but rather security hassles.  In Congressional hearings, a Homeland Security Department representative also testified, indicating the TSA can no longer meet the 10 minute security screening delay, and said 45 minutes is a not unusual delay on a normal day at many US airports.

The Air Transport Association says 90 airports are short staffed for the busy summer travel season.

One of the things many people complain about with TSA security screening is that screeners spend too much time selecting middle class white businessmen for secondary screening, and too little time selecting people that 'look like' terrorists.  What then to make of this story, indicating that over 400 non-Arab lawyers from the US and Europe sympathize so strongly with Saddam Hussein they're volunteering to defend him for free.  (Time for your favorite lawyer joke, perhaps?)

Reader Randy writes

I was booked on a simple Tulsa-San Antonio flight with AA last week.  The plane was late getting in, and as we finally board - now two hours late - I see maintenance crew coming onboard and conferring with the pilots.

So we wait fully boarded....they finally come on an hour later saying some drip test failed and they can't fix it so we have to find another plane....and of course by the time we do the crew has gone over their hours...so they need a new cockpit crew.

We take off about 4 hours late for a drive I could have made in this time.  At last, we are landing in San Antonio and the flight attendant is going through the typical 'seat backs upright' speech but modifies it....where she shouldn't have.

She said "We are sorry for all the delays....we are just as frustrated as you. We know when you travel you have a choice in airlines and we hope to see you again on another airline.....errr American Airlines flight"

The entire plane yells "Freudian Slip"

More drunk pilots :  A British citizen and pilot of a Royal Brunei Airlines flight due to leave Heathrow failed a breathtest and was arrested.

More luggage thieves - this time five security workers at London's Gatwick airport have been charged after some 50,000 worth of items went missing in March.

And there has been a mysterious luggage theft in Anchorage, too.  The thieves should quickly become easy to smell, however.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and if you spot anything fishy, you know what to do

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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