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Friday 3 September, 2004 

Good morning

Thanks to everyone who tested the link to a possible new hosting service last week - most people reported the speed as average or good, but unfortunately, the hosting service disqualified themselves from further consideration when it transpired they had a buggy implementation of Microsoft's web server software, causing my site to occasionally crash, and they refused to update the software (a free update) to the latest dot point release.  Amazing.

A particular mention goes to Sarah from Bonjour Paris who very kindly offered to host my site on her server.  This was extremely generous of her, but proved impractical.  Please visit her encyclopedic site, full of information about Paris and the rest of France, if you're considering a visit to that country.

A long promised series of articles I've been meaning to continue is on the theme of luggage.  Many of us are never sure whether it is better to buy cheaply or expensively, and what to consider when choosing luggage, and so :

This Week's ColumnHow to Choose Wheeled Carry-On Luggage : Carry-on bags range in price from under $30 to over $750.  With the help of comments from 30 (!) readers, I provide what I hope to be the definitive guide to choosing carry on luggage.

Special thanks to everyone who wrote in earlier with luggage comments.  As you can see by the three pages of material linked from this week's column, it was all very helpful.

Noting the upcoming Labor Day Weekend, I'll keep this week's newsletter short.  (Updated some hours later - another failed attempt at brevity!)

Dinosaur watching :  One step forward, two steps backward?  On Tuesday, United announced plans to recall 375 flight attendants who are currently on furloughed status.  This is in addition to the currently scheduled return to service of 371 flight attendants at the end of October.  To put these numbers in perspective, earlier this year UA had 5,100 flight attendants on 'voluntary' furlough and about 15,300 working.

A day later, United announced plans to cut 6,000 more jobs from its current 62,000 person workforce.  To put that number in context, United's employment is down from about 104,000 at the end of 2001.

How do the flight attendants feel at having almost 750 more of their number return to work over the next several months?  Not very positively!  Still smarting at the threats (and realities) to their pension plans, union leaders unanimously passed a resolution of no confidence in UA's senior management and vowed to take all possible legal steps to seek their replacement.

United Master Executive Council President Greg Davidowitch said 'We have concluded that there is no choice but to seek new leadership possessing the competence necessary to prepare a workable and fair business plan for the successful reorganization of our airline.'

AFA International President Pat Friend added 'United management appears determined to run this proud airline into the ground, taking its workers and customers along with it'.

The resolution also records their sense of unfairness at CEO Glenn Tilton taking a $130,000 increase in annual salary in May, at the same time that United was reducing medical benefits to their retired employees.

Seems like the flight attendants have some good points.

US Airways self-imposed deathwatch countdown :  There are now only 14 days remaining before the deadline set by their CEO.  You'll recall he said if there isn't a new cost-cutting agreement with the unions in place by mid-September, the airline might have to be liquidated completely.

No agreement has yet been announced.

More bad news from Alitalia.  They announced a loss of 329 million ($400 million) for the first half of the year.  While that is small compared to some of the losses by US dinosaurs, the airline reports it had a mere 72 million cash on hand at the end of July, which is only sufficient to fund operations through the end of September.

Alitalia has the same 15 September deadline for new labor agreements or closure imposed on it by its majority shareholder (the Italian government with 62% ownership) as US Airways does.

Meanwhile, Alitalia's future has become more marginal due to the Italian government dropping its demand that competing airlines should charge more on routes where they compete with Alitalia.

In an attempt to save face, the Italian Civil Aviation Authority said it will withdraw the requirement, but only as long as other governments don't turn around and force Alitalia to increase its fares on other routes.  This seems like a very safe proviso.

After a week of miserable customer service and cancelled flights, BA announced a generous compensation plan, giving free two free air tickets each to 17,500 people who suffered 'additional pressure' during this time.

There's only one small catch.  BA is not giving these tickets to the tens or even hundreds of thousands of passengers who were inconvenienced by unexpected flight cancellations.  Instead, it is giving the tickets to BA's own employees!  BA has not announced any compensation plan for passengers.

BA used to describe itself as 'the world's favorite airline' but a poll last week conducted by Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper shows that people now rate BA worse than Virgin in areas such as cleanliness of aircraft and courtesy of staff, and as bad as budget carrier airlines easyJet and Ryanair for punctuality, comfort and baggage handling, among others.  Overall, 73% of Virgin's passengers rated their experience as good or excellent, compared to 61% who felt the same way with BA, and 50% for easyJet and Ryanair.

Here's a classic example of why more and more people find themselves hating BA.

ATA Holdings Corp, parent company of low cost ATA Airlines, was given three months to regain compliance with Nasdaq listing requirements on Monday.  If it fails to comply within this time, it will be delisted.

I received a message from reader Tom on Thursday evening wondering why American Airlines has not cancelled any flights on Saturday in/out of Miami.  As you doubtless realize, a massive hurricane is expected to be sweeping over south Florida at about that time, and other airlines have already cancelled their flights.

What does AA know that the weather forecasters and other airlines don't?

Perhaps the most amusing of the various notices from airlines about their cancelling service to FL came from Alaska Airlines.  The name of the contact person at Alaska?  Lou Cancelmi.

Displaying the curious disconnect that exists between European trade unions and their employers, a the International Transport Workers Federation in Europe is attempting to promote the unionization of discount carrier Ryanair along with increased employee earnings and benefits.  Have these people never heard the story of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs?

My narrative last week about the paradox in hotel pricing (less included in higher costing hotels) struck a responsive chord with many.

Reader David pointed out this logic also applies to hotel fitness centers, although he has had success in complaining and getting charges reversed 'for this one time only'.

Keep complaining, David (and everyone else).  This is the only sort of feedback we can give to influence such unfair charging.

Reader Eric points out other examples of charges increasing at more expensive hotels such as hotel parking fees - ranging from free at a Motel 6 to outrageously expensive at five star hotels.  He also advocates staying in condos rather than hotels where possible - more comfortable and often less money.

A different Eric writes

Reading your newsletter occasionally rewards me with wonderful "Aha" moments, and this week is no exception.  Your paragraphs about the relationship between hotel amenities and the "exclusivity" of the hotel is right on the mark.

As a pilot, I sleep in hotels at least half the nights of each month.  When I started flying professionally, I was naturally excited to see the names of exclusive hotels listed on my schedule.  Over time I've come to the point that I groan in disgust when I see those names.  In addition to the ice bucket scam you pointed out, these hotels also typically have grossly overpriced restaurants.  The LAX Hilton, for example, charges $3.95 for a glass of orange juice!  They actually make Starbucks at the airport look like a good value.

I agree with you that moderately priced hotels are by far the best value.  My favorite example is the La Quinta chain.  Most of their properties have been renovated within the last few years, almost all have pools and exercise rooms, many feature a complimentary breakfast (the breakfast at the Tucson airport property is amazing), and I have yet to find one that doesn't have in-room broadband internet access.

I should mention that I have a particular fondness for one high-priced hotel chain.  Doubletree hotels are usually very nice, particularly due to the warming drawer full of delicious chocolate chip cookies at the front desk!

Reader Art shares another experience :

I recently stayed at the Four Seasons in Houston (out of necessity, not choice).  The cheapest room was $300, and they added $10 for internet access.  Two other hotels, a short three blocks down the road had $95 rooms and free internet.

I asked for a government rate, and showed my government ID.  Their response:  "we are a Canadian company, and don't give government discounts."

No room anywhere is worth $300 and up for the privilege of sleeping in the dark for seven hours.  The furniture and amenities were no better than the $95 chain hotels, and the snotty attitude was bothersome.

Reader Terry even had to pay for ice during an expensive hotel stay

We were on a Vantage tour two years ago and had to spend a couple of nights in a Vienna Hilton.  As you also found, no fridge and no ice machine, but not only did I have to tip the bellman who brought the ice, I also had to pay 3.50 for the ice he brought.

Reader Ron has a hopeful suggestion at the end of his note

Just wanted to say thanks for touching on my pet peeve in this week's newsletter - expensive hotels. You didn't mention charging for telephone calls. $1.00 for a local call - robbery!  I also had the same epiphany you did. 90% of the time I now stay in "economy" hotels (usually Holiday Inn Express) and enjoy the free internet, free phone calls and free breakfast (and yes, they have ice makers).

Think you'll be "dinosaur watching" the full service hotels soon?

My comments about frequent flier award tickets being anything but free last week also drew some responses.  One reader disputed my suggestion that miles are worth about 2c each - he calculated they are worth as little as $0.0006 each, but when I offered to buy miles from him at that price, did not respond further.

Reader Tom had an interesting insight into why it is so hard to redeem frequent flier awards - he says

The airlines already made the money; they consider the person utilizing the award as a cost and a nuisance to be discouraged and avoided. They have absolutely no incentive to give away any more award seats than the minimal necessary to keep the level of complaints below that which would cause the various regulatory bodies and State Attorneys General from investigating them.

Reader Jack adds

It's time for Eliot Spitzer (NY State Attorney General) to spring into action here. Tons of free tickets to Little Rock and one a month to Hawaii may keep the overall free ticket ratio up but it ain't fooling us.

I also wrote at length last week about Northwest's moves to charge fees to people who book NW flights direct with NW's phone reservation centers ($5 fee), through travel agents and their computer reservation systems ($7.50 fee) or directly at NW airport ticket counters ($10 fee).

The interesting thing about this was NW's advance warning of its intention to charge these fees.  Some critics said NW was illegally 'signaling' its competitors - ie, NW was floating a trial balloon, and then had time to wait and see if it were to be joined by other full fare airlines or not.  If no other airlines matched, NW could back down from its fees before they took effect.  This used to be a standard trick played the the airlines to 'negotiate in public' for joint fare increases, and was outlawed by the Dept of Justice.

As possible proof of the assertion this was signaling behavior, NW has now been joined by AA, who said they'll also charge $5/10 on tickets booked by phone or at airport ticket counters.  However, AA said it would not charge fees to travel agents booking through their computer systems.

So guess what NW promptly did?  Unabashedly, and without explanation, said it was lifting its CRS fee policy.

It would seem that NW's unexplained reversal confirms the earlier allegations it was signaling its competitors.  The claimed need for the fee - competing with low cost carriers - has surely not changed at all in a week.

I did some internet booking of my own this week, with not very positive results.

'You can't get there from here' - not if you live in the US and are trying to book flights from London to Europe on the BA website.  Neither is it possible to buy the ticket at the advertised price.

BA charge $10 per ticket if you book through their (800) number, and tell you to go to their website to make bookings and avoid the fee.  But the website only allows you to book travel from the US, not originating anywhere else.

When I asked BA how to avoid the $10 fee, the second person I spoke to confirmed it was not possible (the first person was unable to understand what I was saying).  Upon asking to speak to a supervisor about the absurdity of this situation, they said 'we can create a booking for you, hold it overnight, and give you our Customer Relations number to speak with about getting a waiver'.

I asked them to duly make the booking, but somehow the res agent 'misunderstood' and proceeded to immediately charge my credit card for the full fare and fee, then argued vociferously with me as to whether she had undertaken to just book, not issue tickets and charge fees!

I then called the Customer Relations number she gave me, but they're only open 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday, Eastern time.  They were already closed (the res agent omitted to tell me that).

My next task was to book a hotel in Vienna for one night (before our Danube River Christmas Markets cruise).  After doing some price comparisons, it seemed the lowest cost for one night at the Bristol was $256 on Travelocity.  I made a booking, but only after I'd given my credit card number did I notice the rate had changed - there was $78 in taxes and fees now added to the initially quoted rate (a 30% increase).  Why didn't they show these taxes and fees on the initial page quoting rates?

I called Travelocity immediately to cancel, and was told 'if you cancel within 365 days of making your booking, a one night cancellation fee will apply'.  My booking was only for one night, so this meant there'd be no refund at all after their display tricked me into booking a room that I thought would cost $256 and which actually cost $334!  I asked why, if they knew how much the taxes and fees would be, they didn't show them at the start of the booking process, a question to which they had no credible answer.

I asked to speak to someone who could waive this fee due to me making an honest mistake based on their misleading display which I had immediately called them to correct.  I was told no-one in the company would be able to waive the cancellation fee.  I asked if the CEO would be able to waive the fee, and was told he couldn't do that, either.

I then spoke to a supervisor, Joanne, who said she had never had anyone call up to complain about the unexpected addition of taxes to a hotel rate before.  Plainly I wasn't going to get any straight talk from her, either.

Eventually I got through to a third level supervisor, Holly, who agreed to lift the charges immediately.  Holly was pleasant, sensible and helpful, but isn't that what the two people below her in the hierarchy are paid to be?

Instead, they lie to me and try and bully me into accepting an unfair situation.  While I'd hate to see Holly lose her job, does no-one at Travelocity understand that if they employ and empower sensible front level customer service staff, they won't need to also employ two more levels of supervisors above them, and can quickly and positively resolve issues that otherwise cost a lot of time and generate a lot of ill-will?

All of which confirms a recent British study that challenged consumers to use the internet to self-package a holiday.  The study showed that travel agents can source a cheaper holiday in less time.

The study pitted consumers against independent travel agents to find a holiday for a family of four, or a break for two adults from various UK airports.  Agents took an average of 15 minutes to source a package holiday versus an average of 111 minutes it took consumers searching the internet.  The agents found a better deal in over half of the trials.

The study showed that consumers found the internet to be confusing, repetitive and a 'bottomless pit'.

And talking about travel packages, beware of so-called 'package discounts'.  I read this item with cynicism :

A travel industry analyst for Forrester Research says online travel agents can make margins above 20% on vacation packages, compared with 15% on individual hotel room bookings, and consumers can save about 15% by booking a package over individual reservations.

One of the seminal events that caused me to start my own travel wholesale company back in 1990 was looking through the brochure of a (soon-to-be competing) wholesaler and noting their three night Sydney package was more expensive than buying the individual items separately (transfers, accommodation, and day touring) - and also for sale in their brochure.  I asked the company's president how it was the package was more expensive than the individual components and he said 'That is because of the extra work and extra service that goes into creating the package'.

Of course, many travel packages do give genuine savings, because they provide a good way for suppliers to hide who is discounting what.  But simply referring to something as a package does not automatically guarantee its good value.  Caveat emptor.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  They've slept on the job, tested positive for alcohol or drugs while on duty, lost their weapons and falsified information.  Nope, we're not talking pilots!

Perhaps worst of all, in many cases, the federal air marshals the previous paragraph describes have often been given administrative leave with pay for extended periods of time while such transgressions were investigated (how much investigating does it take to say 'yes, the test was positive, you were drunk on duty'?).  This report alleges there were 753 incidents of misconduct by air marshals during an eight month period in 2002.

At least they're not stealing from passengers.  Unfortunately, the same can't be said of all TSA employees, as this NY Times article reports.

Illegal intruders are causing problems at some airports in Australia, with damage being caused to planes sometimes running as much as $200,000 per incident, and a number of deaths.  However, Australia's Transport Safety Bureau says that no investigation is required.

The intruders at the Snowy Mountains Airport are kangaroos, and the damage and deaths are caused when planes collide with 'roos on the runway while taking off or landing.  The local council attempts to shoot as many as possible prior to scheduled flight take-offs and landings, but unscheduled services, particularly at dawn and dusk, can run into problems.

An unknown number of hundreds of thousands of people illegally cross from Mexico into the United States each year.  The 9/11 commission has warned that terrorists might choose to join the flood of people spilling into the US, and Robert Bonner, US Customs and Border Commissioner describes the border as in a period of 'increased risk'.

So how to reconcile, then, the comments offered by US Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar, who on Tuesday maintained the border is secure?  Does his definition of 'secure' coincide with that found in any English dictionary?  More details here.

Lastly this week, and perhaps as confirmation of the Border Patrol's efficiency, 19 year old college student Jesse Huffman was cited for criminal mischief by border agents after he crossed the Canadian border back home into the US at the Port of Sweet Grass, MT border point.  The vehicle he was a passenger in was stopped for a random search, and while this was occurring, he asked for permission to use the public bathroom, which is apparently kept locked for 'security reasons'.

A short time later, a port inspector (no prizes for guessing what he is in charge of inspecting) discovered the toilet was clogged and so charged Jesse with criminal mischief.

Jesse was nonplussed at this, his first ever brush with the law, and when he finally stopped laughing and realized it was not a joke, offered to flush the toilet again and plunge it, if necessary, but was told there were no plungers available within 40 miles of the toilet.  And so he was charged with criminal mischief.

Until next week, please have a great holiday weekend, enjoy safe travels and .... no, I'm not going to go there.

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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