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Friday 23 July, 2004 

Good morning

Thanks to everyone who responded to Wednesday's Fall Travel survey.  It seems most of you plan your vacations further in advance than I do, and few can find the time for a September tour.

If you might be interested and haven't already done so, please send in your thoughts via the survey as soon as possible.  I'll make a go/no go decision on Monday and will then advise everyone who expressed interest and gave me their email addresses as part of their survey response.

Here's another option with a bit more lead time, and also on my 'I've always wanted to do this' list, kindly suggested by John Nigro of Vineyard Travel :

A seven night/eight day Christmas market Danube river cruise, with stops in Vienna, Durnstein, Melk, Salzburg, Passau, Regensburg and Nuremburg.  Cruise cost, including all taxes and fees and plenty of shore excursions, of $1459/$1559 for the two best categories of cabins; you can add your own air or include it for another $600-800 + $150 tax, depending on where in the country you live.

This is with Conde Nast award winning cruise line, Viking River Cruises.  More details on the Viking River Cruises website.  I'll add a pre-cruise night, a welcome dinner, and a small surprise gift at no extra cost so we'd all meet each other before joining the cruise the next day.

Interested?  If so, please choose the dates that would be most convenient for you (Thanksgiving is 25 November) and on Monday I'll let you know the outcome.

Can only do Saturday 20 November - Sunday 28 November

Prefer Saturday 20 November - Sunday 28 November

Either set of dates would be fine

Prefer Saturday 27 November - Sunday 5 December

Can only do Saturday 27 November - Sunday 5 December

This Week's Column :  A Permanent International Cell Phone Number : Here's a great service that gives you a lifetime international cell phone number for only $19, or $49 including an international GSM phone, too.  Great for infrequent international travelers.

In other cell phone news, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration now recommends that drivers not use cell phones at all, except in an emergency.  A WSJ article on Monday reported an NHTSA finding that using headsets and speaker-phones doesn't improve safety because it is the mental distraction of talking on the phone, not the physical holding it, that causes the greatest danger.

This is probably true.  But let's consider other sources of distraction for drivers that are not presently under threat of being banned :

Talking (arguing) with other passengers in the vehicle
Fighting/crying children in the back
Eating, drinking, smoking
Listening to and adjusting the radio/CD/tape

For most people, the opportunity to convert wasted drive time into productive phone calls is invaluable.  Don't let modern day Luddites take this away from us.  Until such time as drivers are mandated to drive in total silence and neither listening nor speaking to/with any type of person or device, it is unfair that cell phones should uniquely be the focus of restrictions.

Dinosaur watching :  Second quarter results are coming out, with some good and bad surprises.  Good surprise = a small profit from American Airlines.

Bad surprise = a $2 billion loss from Delta.  Although the largest part of this loss was due to one-off writedowns rather than an actual operating loss, the magnitude of the loss caused JP Morgan analyst Jamie Baker to revise his prediction of a DL Chapter 11 from 25% to 50%.

Delta's pilots responded by more than doubling their offer of wage concessions.  Their earlier offer was valued at about $300 million, the new offer is valued at $650-700 million a year.  But DL management are seeking more than $800 million, and CEO Grinstein described the pilots' offer as 'a good start' while adding that deeper cuts are needed for the carrier to survive.

Although Delta's share price remained fairly stable (it has dropped about 20% since June) that can't be said for Air Canada's share price, with trading volumes up and the price plunging in the last week, now at levels about one third of the ridiculously inflated $1.20 or so it had been moderately stable at for the last several months.  Can it be current shareholders have finally worked out that when the airline exits its Chapter 11 their shares will be of very minimal value?  I first said this over a year ago, on 13 June 2003.

It is understood that current AC shares will be exchanged for new AC shares at a rate of 11,000 old shares = 1 new share.

United's time in Chapter 11 looks likely to extend much further.  Their summer 2004 exit now looks likely to stretch out until possibly June 2005, making for a total 30 month period.  UA have just secured $1 billion in new bankruptcy financing to give them this extra breathing room.

The $1 billion came primarily from their two major current lenders, which reminds me of the saying 'When you owe a bank $1 million, the bank owns you; when you owe a bank $1 billion, you own the bank'.

BA had a three day fare sale earlier this week.  'Europe from $89' was the headline on their ads.  I decided to take advantage of this, but my ticket price, alas, ended up as a bit more than that - $1056.01 plus taxes (don't ask me why the extra cent on the end).  The really astonishing thing was the taxes - $159.69 (nearly as much as the cheapest roundtrip airfare by itself).  Fifteen years ago (as best I remember) taxes were $12.95 - taxes have increased 1233% over those 15 years.

Interestingly, my BA e-ticket has no breakdown of taxes, and when I asked them how it was made up, they couldn't consistently tell me, and suggested I call the British Embassy and ask them!  I did something more sensible, and called a travel agent - thank you, Sally and Walter.  Here's the horrifying list of fees and taxes :

$ 5.00  US Customs Fee
$27.40  US Government tax
$ 7.00  US Immigration Service Fee
$ 3.10  US Dept of Agriculture
$ 2.50  US Security Surcharge
$ 4.50  US (Seattle) Airport Fee
$19.44  UK Passenger Service Charge
$74.75  UK Air Passenger Duty
$16.00  BA Insurance/Fuel Surcharge - not really a tax or fee, but goes straight to BA, who hope you won't notice they're hiding this in with all the other items

Give it another year or two and the taxes will be more than the cost of a ticket to London.  This outrageous situation almost makes one feel sympathetic for the airlines, who seem to increasingly be unpaid tax collectors for the governments of countries they fly to.

And talking about reading the fine print on tickets, and using the services of travel agents, I heard an amusing story from a US Airways pilot on Thursday.  Upon landing his plane in Portland, ME, after flying it up from Philadelphia, he was accosted by an irate passenger, accusing him and his airline of somehow tricking her into getting on to the wrong plane.  She said she was traveling to Portland, OR, and suggested it was the airline's fault for not noticing she was getting on the wrong plane.

So the pilot looked at her ticket, which clearly showed her booked on his flight, from Philadelphia up to Portland, Maine.  Puzzled, he asked her why she thought she was going to Portland, Oregon.  She said she knew that was where she was going, because she booked the ticket herself, on the internet....

Do you think she should have used a travel agent?

An unsurprising headline - the General Accounting Office published a report last Friday accusing the FAA of not being tough enough in protecting the safety of airline passengers.  The report calls for better management controls to ensure the FAA properly does its job of enforcing safety rules, and revealed the FAA does not evaluate its own enforcement actions and, therefore, has no way of knowing whether they are effective.

So you might wonder what type of qualifications and background a person requires to get a senior position at a government regulatory body that oversees airlines.  It is interesting to note the background of the person appointed this week to head the European Joint Aviation Authority.  Andre Auer was formerly the head of Switzerland's civil aviation authority - an appropriate background, perhaps.

But, curiously, the Swiss government terminated his contract amid accusations that he let safety standards slip to a dangerous level, and is now refusing to pay his severance pay.  There were three fatal air accidents in Switzerland over the last four years.

Sir Richard Branson has yet to get his US operation off the ground, but is already looking at the next part of the world to launch yet another Virgin airline.  After his UK, European, and Australian operations, and with his US operation probably starting within the year, where do you think would be the logical next location to base an airline?

Sir Richard has always been a creative non-conformist, and so perhaps his country choice is not surprising.  He believes that Nigeria has substantial market potential.  The new Nigerian airline would fly to Europe and the US, which would make it easier for us to go visit the kind people who keep sending us emails generously offering to share millions of dollars.

If Sir Richard finds it currently difficult to contact people in Nigeria by phone, this might be because there is currently a fear sweeping that enlightened country.  People are worried that they might be struck dead when they answer their cell phone if the call is from certain numbers.

While the Christmas markets river cruise I'm proposing at the start of this newsletter will be tremendously different an experience to a 'big ship' cruise; if you join me, you'll be following the trend towards cruising as a vacation activity.  Cruise lines carried 2.3 million passengers on North American cruises during the first quarter this year, an amazing 13.6% increase on the same period last year.

There's a lot of aviation news this week, due to the biennial Farnborough Air Show in Britain.

In a great illustration of why they're falling so far behind Airbus, Boeing's marketing experts have proudly unveiled their latest innovation they hope may boost Boeing's sales.  A new model of plane?  A response to Airbus' A380 super-jumbo?  A successor to Concorde, perhaps?

Unfortunately, none of the above.  Instead, they've redesigned the paint job that Boeing paints its planes.  But, as this article politely points out, the chances are you'll probably never see it.  Strangely - and perhaps Boeing failed to realize this - airlines choose to paint their planes in their own corporate colors.

Can you answer this question?  Which plane will have greater US content?  Boeing's new 7E7, being assembled in Seattle?  Or Airbus' new A380, being assembled in France?

As this article describes, there'll typically be more than 50% US content in the A380, compared to 35% in the 7E7 - a tragic indictment on how Boeing has emasculated its US manufacturing tradition.

Both manufacturers have been announcing new sales this week as part of the hype surrounding the air show, although Boeing says it no longer deliberately times announcements to coincide with air shows.  Airbus has scored another order for four A380 super-jumbos, while Boeing hasn't announced any new orders for its new 7E7.

Don't confuse the A380 and 7E7 as competitors - they are not.  They are very different planes, for very different applications.  The closest Airbus equivalent to the 7E7 is their A330-200, and although Boeing has been unable to confirm any more orders for the 7E7, Airbus has rung up orders for the A330-200, including five to Turkish Airlines and twelve to Etihad Airways (a relatively new and rapidly growing Middle Eastern airline).  More about this here.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The TSA has 45,000 screeners for managing passenger access to airport terminals.  But how many people are tasked with controlling access to the secure ramp areas of airports?  More than a million airport and vendor employees have access to these 'secure' areas.

The TSA has only 358 people (less than one per airport) inspecting these access procedures.  Message to terrorists :  Don't be a passenger.  Be a ramp worker, instead.

Better security might have prevented this incident, when a man wearing only pyjama bottoms broke into the ramp area and drove away on a luggage tractor.  Suspicious airport workers asked the man for official ID, and when he failed to produce any, took him to the police.

Classified security papers containing counter-terrorism plans for Heathrow, including an analysis of 62 different sites from where missile attacks could be launched, went missing last week.  They were found by a motorist in a freeway rest area, not far from Heathrow.

The colossal failure of security on 9/11 was thrown into sharper focus when September 11 victim families bringing lawsuits against the airlines and security screening companies obtained access to airport security tapes showing five of the hijackers passing through Dulles security that morning.  Three of the five hijackers set off the metal detectors, and two of them set them off twice.  But even after setting off these alarms, the airlines and security screeners failed to examine the hijackers' baggage, as required by federal regulations and industry mandated standards, or discover the weapons they would use in their attack.

This lapse is all the more serious because the CAPPS screening system had, quite correctly, flagged all five men as being suspicious.

Tuesday marked the 35th anniversary of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon.  Some of us think that noteworthy, but the Library of Congress' Today in History page ignores it, choosing instead to feature, for the second day in the row, the fact that the First Woman's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, was held on those two days in 1848.

By the way, the Neil Armstrong joke is an urban legend.

Air rage with a twist - Two or possibly three drunken flight crew beat up a passenger on an Aeroflot codeshare flight within Russia.  The passenger complained the attendants were not serving meals.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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