Friday 19 November, 2004
I'm writing once more from Seattle, enjoying a brief week at home before returning to Europe for our Christmas Markets cruise next week.
Today is a very significant day. It is - as you are surely aware - World Toilet Day. There is a website maintained by the WTO (not the one protesters get upset about; the other one) to commemorate this auspicious occasion, and here's a pun filled article.
My return flight from London on Virgin Atlantic was excellent. It really is a wonderful experience to have seemingly limited amount of empty open space stretching out in front of one with no seatbacks anywhere to get in your face, and no fellow passengers on either side. Virgin's herringbone seat alignment in their Upper Class makes this a reality.
Usually I've found that airlines over-describe their food and under-deliver on what their menu promises, but the main meal on my flight was a wonderful surprise. Their menu offered a choice of four entrees and I selected the item described as 'braised lamb shank and mashed potato with leeks served with roasted vegetables and mint gravy'. It was a wonderfully piquant dish showing the influence of their consulting chef, Andy Varma (winner of the 'Best Indian Restaurant in Britain and Europe' in Zagat's 2004 guide) and unusually generous in size. Absolutely scrumptious.
One of the benefits of the eight flights I've been on in the last three weeks has been a chance to do some comparative testing of noise cancelling headsets on actual flights. I'm intrigued at seven different brands of noise cancelling headphones, all looking nearly identical, but with slightly different manufacturer's claims and pricing. And so for this week :
This Week's Column : Noisebuster's New Headphones : After 18 months with no product, one of the original noise cancelling headphone suppliers now offers another identical seeming set of headphones, while claiming that the internal electronics are vastly better than those in competing headsets. I match them up against the similar looking Plane Quiet and report on which is your better choice.
Dinosaur watching : I was a bit critical of the Flight Attendants' union last week. This week they're taking a much more aggressive approach to things, but this is not necessarily an improvement. AFA's National President Pat Friend was quoted on Tuesday threatening a nationwide strike against all airlines if any labor contracts are abrogated by any airline (in bankruptcy).
How stupid is this? What about an airline that has been doing the right thing, keeping out of bankruptcy, and negotiating in good faith with its flight attendants, and now finding its unionized flight attendants walking off the job for no reason related to that airline? The financial damage and harm might propel it into bankruptcy and force it into unilaterally laying off flight attendants and cutting back on wages and benefits for those remaining.
Later in the week, the executive committee unanimously authorized holding a strike vote among their members at United, US Airways, Hawaiian and ATA. It will take about two weeks to complete the voting and if a strike is approved, attendants would be prepared to walk out if one of their contracts is abrogated.
To ensure that not only airlines suffer, but so too do ordinary travelers, the union has now gleefully announced the incipient onset of their CHAOS (Create Havoc Across Our System) strategy; striking intermittently without notice as to flight, time, day or airport. I'm sure this will add a delightful element of mystery and surprise to all our respective Thanksgiving travel plans.
However, even the AFA at their worst isn't quite as myopic as the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Employees. On Tuesday, a passenger train derailed in Queensland, Australia. Subsequently, a joint statement by the Police Commissioner and the CEO of Queensland Rail said the train was traveling at 112 km/hr in a 60 km/hr zone at the time it came off the rails.
Unfortunately, this simple statement of fact caused AFULE's secretary (I wonder if that is pronounced 'A fool') to claim the drivers feel victimized and now want to go on strike for 24 hours.
The union had no comment about how the passengers on the derailed train might feel after being driven at almost twice the posted speed by a union member driver.
Here's an interesting new development. America West is now offering credit card sized gift cards. They are simple 'stored value' cards such as many department and other stores have been increasingly selling over the past few years.
They are a great deal for America West, of course and should provide a nice boost to their cash flow and cash float. Presumably they get the cash the minute the card is purchased, against which the future travel may not occur for a year or even never (if the card is lost or expires). Like other stored value cards, they will be sold in a wide number of retail outlets.
Interesting derivative issue - and possible opportunity for travel agents : These stored value cards presumably earn the retailer a margin on every sale. Now that the airlines aren't paying commission on regular ticket sales, perhaps travel agents should become stored value card resellers, and get their commission on travel sales that way instead.
More proof that the day of the dinosaur may be ending. Southwest carried more domestic passengers during the January-August period than any other domestic airline. Southwest boarded 54,826,178 passengers to the end of August, about one million more than the second largest airline (Delta).
Among its many other growth plans, Southwest revealed five new flights from Midway, to commence on 17 March 2005 - two to new destinations and three extra flights to present destinations. Those ATA gates at Midway are looking less and less attractive with every passing day.
Here's an interesting story about Southwest and their Love Field operation in the Dallas area.
American Airlines giveth (or at least, selleth)... AA is test renting portable entertainment systems to passengers. The units would have about 12 movies, 24 music videos, some recorded tv programs, audio books and digital newspapers loaded on them, and would rent for about $10-12 per flight. Not quite as good as free programming on, eg, JetBlue, but still a welcome diversion for many travelers.
Of course, if the passenger in front reclines his seat, all bets would be off and you might find yourself with no room to place the unit on your tray table.
American Airlines taketh away... perhaps in anticipation of all passengers now staying wide awake watching rented video systems on their flights, AA has decided to eliminate the provision of pillows from all their MD-80 planes. This would save money and may also help AA speed up the turnaround time between flights.
AA tries to reassure us that the MD-80s are only used on shorter flights, where, presumably, comfort is not so important. I've flown AA MD-80s from Seattle to DFW, and that is not what I'd call a short flight.
AA also tells us their MD-80s have convenient headrests built in to the seats (so therefore you presumably don't need pillows). Reader Randy says that, after unsuccessfully asking for a pillow on Wednesday, the flight attendant told him the plane had 'new headrests with pillows built into them'. Randy pointed out the headrests were at least five years old, whereupon the flight attendant admitted this was so, but said because few people knew how to use them, they were sort of like new.
American Airlines tricketh... The good news is that AA have dropped their walkup fares on flights to Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. They are also offering reasonably priced one-way fares rather than requiring you to purchase roundtrip tickets.
This is a positive step, but reader Tom, upon receiving an AA promotional email encouraging him to take advantage of the new low one-way fares wondered what would happen if he were to be as foolish as to buy a one-way ticket. As most readers know, buying a one-way ticket is one of the triggers that encourages the TSA to consider you a potential terrorist and so subject you to intensive secondary screening.
A new startup carrier, calling itself Atlantic Express, has applied for DOT permission to fly from JFK to European destinations that will accept new air service. This could include airports in Netherlands, Germany, and the UK (but not Heathrow or Gatwick).
They say they'll offer low-cost fares, and apparently have $70 million in financing - an adequate amount if things go well, but a laughably inadequate amount if things don't go as hoped for (ie if the major airlines simply drop their fares to pressure them out of the market).
I haven't seen their business plan, but it is very difficult for an airline without 'feeder service' to and from other cities to survive with traffic from just one gateway city.
My feature column last week was debunking the airline excuse that their problems are currently due to overcapacity. The latest rebuttal comes from projections that suggest 2004 will be a record year, with more people flying than ever before - up 3% compared to the previous record (in 2000) and up 6% compared to 2003.
I mentioned last week about the danger of airplane collisions on runways. Amazingly, another near collision occurred last week and was disclosed this week, and again at LAX. This time it was not just two planes that were sent to the same runway but three! A landing corporate jet was cleared to land on the left hand of the two parallel runways but mistakenly thought he was to land on the right hand runway instead.
The near-miss could have been detected if a runway safety radar system was operating, but it had been switched off several weeks earlier after issuing a false alarm, and had not yet been checked and restored to operation.
So not only are we lacking in effective measures to protect against such dangers, but the measures we do have are apparently not always deployed.
Here's one for the record books. Contradicting the inexorable trend to more and more travel taxes, the Danish government is planning to abolish its Copenhagen airport tax of US$13 per passenger. Bravo.
What nausea inducing nonsense.
Winning an award for the luckiest flight of the week is BA239 on Monday. The Boeing 777 from London had landed and pulled up to the jetway in Boston when a fire was discovered in its electronics compartment. All passengers and crew safely deplaned, but five firefighters were injured while battling the blaze.
And winning an award for the fastest flight ever is NASA's X43A scramjet, which reached a top speed of almost 7000 mph - Mach 9.7 - during ten seconds of powered flight.
This Week's Security Horror Story : Last week a screener reported a suspicious image on his X-ray machine at Dulles, and so a terminal was evacuated and passengers rescreened.
A day later, 5000 passengers were evacuated and flights delayed for sometimes more than two hours after a gun image appeared on an X-ray screen in Miami.
What do these incidents have in common (apart from the obvious)? According to the NY Times, in both cases, the gun images were deliberately inserted onto the screen to test the screeners. They were not real guns, but electronic images added to the pictures of baggage. Unfortunately, in both cases, the fact that they were just test images got overlooked.
David Forbes, president of airline security consulting firm Boyd Forbes apparently knows more about such things than us. He says 'It amazes me how many times we see evacuation of an airport' for such reasons.
Another way too common reason for airport evacuation surfaced again on Wednesday night this week. A baggage-scanning machine at Seattle airport failed, causing the TSA to order as many as 5,000 passengers to be rescreened which, of course, delayed outgoing flights. Passengers on incoming flights were also held onboard their flights for a short period of time. Some 10 to 15 bags got through the checkpoint before anyone noticed the machine was not working.
How closely is a screener looking at his monitor if it takes 10 - 15 bags worth of activity before he realizes that the machine isn't working?
Do you like having to check in two hours early for an international flight? Get ready for the two hours to become 2.5 or even 3 hours next time you're flying back from another country. The TSA wants to get passenger data sooner than it currently does, and is suggesting that passengers should be required to board flights at least an hour before departure.
At present, the TSA get passenger lists 15 minutes after take-off.
Requiring passengers to be onboard their flight one or more hours before departure has widespread ramifications. Not only does it make a long flight even longer for us, but airplane turn times will become slower, and airlines will need more gates.
A few weeks ago I was alongside a woman in an airport shop, buying a toy for her crying child. She said that his bright yellow plastic toy gun was confiscated as they went through security, and so now she had to buy something else to placate him.
Which makes the presence of two Uzi style machine pistols sitting on top of a video game machine inside the secured area at Fresno airport all the more surprising. Thanks to reader Eric for sending in the picture.
Further to your comments the last two weeks about continued problems with the TSA refusing to accept, or cutting off the Travel Sentry locks which they themselves have approved and have keys for, reader Mike reports another aberration on the part of the TSA. He writes
But on the 'beat this' scale, reader Jonathan's story ranks near the very top :
All of which makes a press release received from Travel Sentry, the company that coordinates the TSA approved locks rather puzzling. In this release, commemorating the one year anniversary of the release of these new locks, they refer to
They must be writing about a parallel universe.
Reader and pilot Eric replied to my story last week about rebooting the 777.
And talking about Microsoft execs, don't you feel sorry for the person who gets four million emails every day and is probably the most spammed person in the world? Poor guy.
I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving next week. I'll be in Prague but plan to get a newsletter your way if all goes well. The following week will see me on our river cruise and there will almost certainly be no newsletter on Friday 3 December.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels
David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider
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