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Friday 13 August, 2004 

Good morning

Friday the 13th - let's hope your day is a lucky one not an unlucky one, especially if you're traveling.  Reader Tom sent in some interesting background on the 'Black Friday' concept.

Surprisingly, the concept of this combination of day and date being unlucky is a relatively recent invention, as is the TGIF concept that many people now award to Fridays.  Unlike modern customs to greet Friday with relief, Fridays have traditionally been considered bad days to start projects or to start travel, and the number 13 is a longstanding unlucky number.  But as recently as 1898, the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, while having entries on both topics, made no mention of the two being combined to create 'Black Friday'.  Experts (don't ask me which ones!) estimate that almost $1 billion is lost because of pervasive Black Friday fears each time the day/date occurs.

On a more positive note, we have one cabin remaining on our Danube River Christmas Markets Cruise.  If you would like to join our small group for this cruise, please let me know urgently.

The latest Magellan's catalog arrived in my mailbox and, as always, it is full of tempting goodies and gadgets.  Here's a review of several of the things that caught my eye :

This Week's Column :  Wrinkle Free Clothes When Traveling  :  Are the new wrinkle free clothing items really wrinkle free?  This article includes photos that show exactly what happened after I washed, spun dried, dropped on the floor, and finally hung up to finish drying a wrinkle free shirt and pair of trousers.  What do you think?

Dinosaur WatchingUnited has now asked for an extension of time until 31 December to file its exclusive reorganization plan.  Its current deadline is 30 August.  Curiously, in its request, UA said it believes it 'may require six months or more to complete the foregoing exit process and other restructuring initiatives'.

Six months from today would take them through to mid February next year.  So, if they think it might take six months or longer, why are they only asking for a 4 month extension?  Or perhaps someone simply can't count up to six?

This was an expected filing by United, and ordinarily it would be allowed by the court with no fuss or comment.  But United's actions in deferring payments into its pension plans has stirred up a hornets' nest among its employee unions, and on Wednesday, the Intl Assoc of Machinists & Aerospace Workers filed a motion with the bankruptcy court asking for a trustee to be appointed to oversee United's restructuring.  The trustee would in effect replace the current CEO and take control of the airline.

This motion is unlikely to succeed, and serves little good purpose other than allowing the IAM to make a public statement of discontent that might help its members feel slightly better.  It is one of three filings by the IAM.  They had earlier filed a complaint charging that UA and its senior executives were breaching their fiduciary duties to employees and retirees by reneging on pension plan payments.

IAM has also filed a motion objecting to UA's request for a four month extension of its ability to exclusively reorganize itself.  If the motion is successful (unlikely) this would allow creditors to submit their own plans for the future of UA.

While IAM has been busy in the courts, United's other unions have 'expressed outrage' at UA's decision to defer its pension plan payments.  Most amusing is the action by United's pilots.  I urge you to go back and read the several paragraphs of my 16 July email where I pointed out the extraordinarily sycophantic comments of the UA pilot union, who not only made such delightful comments as

United Airlines is one of the best airlines in the world and is uniquely positioned to leverage its route structure, its alliances and its modern fleet to become one of the strongest airlines in the world.

but then went on to contentedly accept UA's first pension plan payment deferral.  As reported by Micheline Maynard of the NY Times, a pilot spokesman said

They are trying to do the responsible thing, to conserve cash and get themselves situated to come out of bankruptcy

and also

From our point of view, we see this as a nonstory...

But now, as again reported by Ms Maynard, a pilot union spokesman says

The pilots of United Airlines have the following message for the company, the media and the financial markets :  We will use every resource at our command and every legal means available to prevent the company from destroying the pilot pension program

So what has changed so amazingly in just under a month?  As I pointed out on 16 July, UA's first default didn't affect the pilots' pension plan at all.  But UA's latest default and the threat of widening defaults into the future definitely does.

So, when UA decides to short change the other employee pension plans, the pilots describe it as a responsible action on the part of UA management.  But when their own pension plan is at risk, it becomes something they will use every resource at their command and every legal means available to fight.  Does that sound hypocritical to you?

It is interesting to note the wording of this statement, uttered by Mark Bathurst, chairman of the master executive council of the United pilots' union.  '...every resource at our command and every legal means available...'?  I understand the second part - every legal means available - but what about 'every resource at our command'?  Surely Mark isn't hinting at additional and not quite so legal means?  Go slows?  Sickouts?

You think the pilots would have learned their lesson before they consider such actions again.  Their misbehavior in 2000, culminating in a nightmarish summer of delayed flights. and then pay rises that were self-evidently unaffordable, materially weakened UA and helped contribute to UA's bankruptcy in December 2002, and UA now defaulting on pension plan obligations.

If the pilots play their go-slow games again, they could well kill United completely.  And they'd lose their jobs and seniority in the process - hard to see the good sense in that.

While I'm not supporting UA's reprehensible actions in mismanaging itself to a point where it must now renege on important commitments, making the company still weaker through industrial action will not solve these problems, but will only make them worse.  If the pilots have changed their minds and now feel it is no longer responsible for UA to defer pension payments, they should join with the IAM and seek to replace UA's present management with a trustee, and again join with IAM to sue UA for breaching its fiduciary duties.  They absolutely should not threaten any industrial action or do anything that would further harm the already very weak airline.

One last thought for UA's pilots to consider.  Is it remotely possible that their enthusiastic support of UA's first pension deferment encouraged UA to do it again, and on a broader scale?

Delta makes public moves closer to bankruptcy.  In its quarterly SEC filing it said

If we cannot make substantial progress in the near term toward achieving a competitive cost structure ... we will need to seek to restructure our costs under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code

Delta's solution to its problems?  Money back from its pilots.  It is seeking  $1.02 billion in annual wage, pension and productivity concessions, including a 35% pay cut.  The pilots have offered between $655 million and $705 million, including a 23% pay cut.  The pilots not unreasonably say they want to be reassured that DL is seeking to cut costs in all areas of its operation, not just with their pilots.  Look for some minor drama on this before the two sides get to a suitable mid-point.

Delta's shares have been trading at their lowest level in more than 20 years, and the company has had another ratings downgrade.

Last week I printed a table of average operating costs per mile for US airlines.  Reader Tom points out the data in this table could be misleading.  The low cost carriers typically have short average flight lengths, the higher cost carriers have longer stage lengths (including some very long international flights).  Longer flights have lower operating costs per mile.  Tom says a better comparison would be to compare operating costs on similar length flights, in which case the difference between the low cost and high cost carriers would be much greater than the table indicates.

This Week's Amazing Coincidence :  US Airways drops its fares by 40% on the Washington to Charlotte route on 1 October.  At the same time, new discount carrier Independence Air starts to offer flights between these cities.

This is what the dinosaurs call free competition - a wonderful thing, isn't it, especially if you live in Charlotte, NC after 1 October.  But not, apparently, if you're in Italy.  The Italian government has ordered all 40 airlines that compete internationally with Alitalia (of which it is the largest shareholder) to increase their fares, so as to allow Alitalia to become profitable.  39 airlines have happily complied.  The 40th - British Airways - is resisting.

One has to wonder whether the Italian government is acting in the best interests of the Italian people by insisting that airlines charge them more than they otherwise would to Italian travelers.  This also perpetuates an inefficient loss making airline that doesn't deserve to survive.  Alitalia has lost money for 11 of the last 12 years, and was losing money at the rate of 2 million a day in the first half of this year).

Absolutely as everyone would expect, the talks on easing flight delays at O'Hare are not going well. They ended last Friday with American saying United wasn't willing to reduce enough of their flights, and United blaming American for boosting the number of flights in and out of the airport last November.  However, one thing the two airlines could agree on :  both carriers put the blame on new Independence Air starting service to O'Hare, saying the government should not have allowed them to fly there as that added an additional 24 take-offs and landings.

Now let's put the congestion problem at O'Hare into context.  At present there are 2,900 flights a day in/out of ORD.  The government wants to eliminate a mere 60 of those - 2% of the total.  Why is this difficult?  And how are 24 flights by Independence Air a material factor when UA and AA have almost one hundred times as many?

Here's an easy way to manage access that allows the free market to operate.  Put all takeoff and landing slots up for auction, with airlines bidding to secure, say, three months of usage per slot.  If AA absolutely must have five slots at 8am, let it pay for them.  And if Independence Air wants to enter the Chicago/ORD marketplace, let it fairly pay whatever price its slots sell for as well.

This will stop airlines abusing their slot rights.  Some carriers take as many slots as possible, not because they need them, but simply to keep them away from their competitors.  But if airlines have to bid in an open auction for each slot, you can be sure such distortions would quickly disappear.

Long time readers will know that one of my preferences is to fly in a plane with lots of engines.  I feel safer when I can see four engines on the wings, and would feel safer still with six or eight.  Some people have joked at this, and tell me modern jet engines are as close to 100% reliable as is ever possible.  There is no need for more than two engines, I'm told, and some people have even gone as far as to say there have been no engine failure related crashes in the last decade (or possibly longer).

I find this reassuring, but then I read of an Amsterdam to Zurich flight operated by Swiss this week that had to make an emergency landing in Frankfurt after two of its four engines failed.  So the good news is that, yet again, there was no engine failure related crash.

But I can't help wondering what would have happened to that plane if it did not have four engines to start with.  Well, actually, I know what would have happened, and wrote an article on this subject some time back 'What happens if an aircraft's engines fail'.

This issue is one of the key points of difference between Airbus and Boeing, with the Airbus four engined A340 competing against Boeing with its two engined 777, and was quoted by Sir Richard Branson as one of the reasons why Virgin chose the A340 over the 777 in their large order last week.

I've pointed out a couple of times the double standard that has safety regulators pressuring to limit cell phone use in cars, while allowing people to do other things that are equally (or more) distracting and dangerous.

The absurdity of a related situation was highlighted this week in Alaska.  A driver was tried on two charges of second degree murder after killing two people in an oncoming car after he crossed the center line and hit them head on.  The murder charges were based on the allegation he was watching a DVD at the time (even though it is not illegal to watch DVDs while driving in Alaska!).

He was acquitted.  In his defense, he said he was not watching a DVD, but instead, was reaching over to get a can of soda.  Apparently it is only illegal to kill people if you're watching a DVD, but not if your car swerves while reaching for cans of soda.  I wonder how the two dead people and their surviving family members feel about that?

I wrote on 23 July that the NHTSA was recommending cell phones not be used in cars at all.  They said using a headset did not reduce the danger of talking on a cell phone.

And now a new study has been released that says using a headset does reduce the danger.  71% of drivers steer more accurately while using a headset, 92% maintained a more consistent speed, and 100% had faster brake reaction times.  The study was commissioned by noted headset manufacturer, Plantronics...

The Japanese city of Nagoya has outlawed cellphones on its subways.  The reason?  Japan's Ministry of Health believes that if a cellphone gets within 9" of a heart pacemaker, it can interfere with its operation, and in the intensely crowded subway, that is likely to happen quite often.

No known cases of cellphone induced pacemaker problems have occurred.

Here's an interesting alternate view of the cost of cell phone service :  78% of the wireless minutes paid for (ie included 'for free' in monthly plans) are unused each month.  And the average cell phone user pays $17.75 more than the advertised monthly rate in the form of fees, taxes, and extra charges.

This study was commissioned by a company that sells pre-paid wireless service, whereby you buy a block of airtime, and then, when you've used it up, buy another block.  Although the cost per minute on these plans is quite high, the company's contention, based on this analysis, is that when you actually divide your true monthly service cost by your actual minutes of usage, the cost per minute on any wireless plan is already very high and comparable to their charges.

Reader Pamela had a follow up to my final item last week about Cingular's new Escape a Date Service.  She says there is another service that will print up business cards for you with a special phone number on them.  Pass them out to people you don't want to hear from again, and when the person dials the number to call you up, they get a strong message telling them they have been 'totally blown off'.

Pamela didn't tell me if her familiarity with this service is due to giving such cards out or having received some herself!  And here's an interesting article on the Escape a Date service.

Lastly on the topic of cell phone service, the Mobal international cell phone service I wrote about a couple of weeks ago (a service with all the benefits of pre-pay, plus the added advantage of only paying after you use your minutes rather than before!) has just improved their offer.  They've upgraded their $49 phone, and now offer a tri-band international phone for the bargain price of $99.

Because there are absolutely no ongoing monthly costs, a Mobal phone is great to have as an 'emergency phone' in the US for people who rarely need to use a cell phone.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Deja vue?  I wrote on 30 July about the wrong pilot being detained for allegedly flying into restricted airspace near President Bush's ranch.  On Saturday, F16 fighters were scrambled and buzzed the skies above Montauk, NY, searching for an airplane that apparently intruded into restricted airspace.  They eventually identified a single engine Beechcraft as the offending plane.  They were wrong.  The FAA later apologized, but also says they don't have any information about the incident.

More deja vue?  Two terminals were closed at Philadelphia International Airport yesterday for 80 minutes.  Flights were delayed and passengers had to be evacuated and rescreened.  Why?  Three men were thought to have walked in to the secure area via the exit lane for exiting passengers, avoiding security screening.  They were never found.

More pilot contributions to aviation security?  The captain of an El Al flight from London to Tel Aviv last Tuesday caused an overnight delay to the flight because he and his crew suspected the taxi drivers taking them from their hotel to Heathrow Airport were possible security threats.  The incident occurred when the crew of a scheduled El Al flight from London to Tel Aviv was picked up from their London hotel for a trip to Heathrow on Tuesday.

Suspecting that the taxi driver was a possible security threat, the captain refused to ride in the cab.  Another taxi was called for and the captain was equally suspicious of the second driver.  Both men were described as being of Middle Eastern appearance.  By the time the crew arrived at Heathrow for their scheduled flight, the delay was such that the flight was not permitted to depart and had to be rescheduled for the next day.

Still more security conscious pilots :  A Belgian flight made an emergency landing after a passenger managed to get into the cockpit and attacked the copilot.  The passenger wandered around the cabin then slipped into the cockpit while the door was open for meals to be delivered to the pilot and copilot, became agitated and nervous, and then scratched the copilot's arm before being overpowered and detained.

The pilot decided to return to Brussels as a precaution.  Doubtless very prudent of him.  Oh - one small thing :  The passenger in question was a cat.

I wrote last week about the problems with our unprotected northern and southern borders, and how political correctness was interfering with the otherwise straightforward task of securing these borders and making it more difficult for illegal aliens to enter the country.

Good news this week.  This article proclaims that border patrol agents will be given 'sweeping new powers' to deport illegal aliens they catch sneaking into the US.  After recovering from my surprise that they couldn't do this already, I read further, only to find that the border patrol will not be deporting Mexicans or Canadians that sneak across the border illegally.  Which makes the whole thing really rather stupid.

Talking about really rather stupid, how else to describe this man's new tourism business?

Lastly this week, picture yourself on a scenic cruise.  You're gazing - open mouthed - up at the beautiful architecture rising from both sides of the river as you go through the city, and the boat is slowly passing under one of the bridges that cross the river.  What happens next is politely hinted at in this article.  I hope this should not happen on our Danube Christmas markets cruise!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels on Black Friday and all the week ahead

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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