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Friday 26 November, 2004 

Good morning

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving, whether it was spent at home or somewhere else, and trust you're now taking advantage of all the sales and getting a good start on your Christmas shopping!

I flew out of Seattle on Wednesday afternoon.  I expected a nightmarish airport experience, but amazingly the entire airport, at 4pm, was reasonably empty and there wasn't any line at all to go through security.  By all accounts this was unusual compared to waits for flights of up to three hours at some airports (due to bad weather combined with peak traffic), and my only nightmarish experience was an argument immediately prior to boarding with unhelpful BA staff who were trying to charge me for a change fee I'd already paid.

Interesting question - how can you prove you've paid for a ticket and/or a subsequent change fee when it was all done on-line or over the phone with their own reservations center, and you have no 'old fashioned' receipts or paperwork?

I think I've discovered how BA is making such a large profit at present.  I wanted to cancel a ticket I won't now be needing.  To cancel the $1400 ticket I first had to pay a $208.90 change fee, and then after doing that I was told I'd have to wait 6 - 8 weeks to get a refund of $1200.

I did wonder why I had to pay more money today and then wait up to 8 weeks to essentially get it (and some more) back again, and also wondered why it would take as long as 8 weeks to press the 'refund' button on BA's computer (this was all done electronically, there were no paper tickets to manually process) and send the money back to me, but of course the person at the other end of the phone had no answer to these questions.  The answer lies somewhere between incompetent inefficiency and exploitive greed.

I'm in Prague for a couple of days, prior to boarding our Christmas Markets cruise on Sunday morning.  And the theme of travel, and water based travel, has some bearing on this week's two (!) feature columns.  We have finally released the itinerary for next year's Scotland's Castles and Monsters tour.  This will be very similar to the successful tour this year, with just a couple of itinerary tweaks based on what we learned.

And, new for 2005, we're offering a second tour, immediately after the first, so you can combine both if you wish.  The second tour is of the Hebrides - the islands off Scotland's west coast.  This is what I was having a fun time researching a couple of weeks ago, and will give you a rare opportunity to go places that 99.9% of other tours never visit.  You'll see Scotland at its purest and least 'contaminated' by throngs of tourists (ourselves excepted, of course!).  And with a maximum group size of 18, we're hardly going to be a throng.

This Week's Feature Columns :  Join me and other readers on either or both of our 2005 tours of Scotland.  Our Scotland's Castles and Monsters Tour and our Scotland's Islands Tour, both in May, are now online with full details for you to review.


I just received an urgent tip-off from Joe Brancatelli.  His sources indicate that BA will be announcing an extraordinarily generous sale on their Business Class fares, but for three days only - this weekend, Friday-Sunday.

Details should appear on their website on Friday morning, and are believed to be $1999 roundtrip from the East coast and $2399 from the West coast and Florida.  This represents about a third to a quarter the cost of their usual fares - while a lot more expensive than coach, they are extraordinary value for business class fares.

It is further believed there will be no blackout dates and these fares can be used for most of 2005.  Amazing.  But they're only on sale for three days.

Needless to say, it is a wonderful opportunity to fly yourself to/from Britain in comparative luxury to join up with either or both of our Scotland tours!

Our 2005 tours are of course slightly more expensive than the 2004 touring.  Apart from the inevitable slight increases in travel costs, the major factor is our ever weakening dollar.  It seems to currently be in free fall, and has now hit an all time low against the Euro (it cost $1.31 to buy a Euro on Wednesday), and my own humble guess is that there remains more downside exposure - some people are predicting the Euro will cost as much as $1.50 within a year.

Whether applying the Economist magazine's Big Mac theory of currency relativities (ie the expectation that the cost of a Big Mac should cost the same everywhere in the world, and where it is more expensive, this implies a currency is over-valued, and where it is less expensive, this implies a currency is under-valued) or more formal economic theory, it seems our dollar is weaker than it should be.

But, no matter if for business or emotional reasons, the dollar has lost a lot of appeal to other nations and currency investors/traders, while our deficit continues to require us to sell dollars on the currency markets every month at whatever price we can get for them.  While the low dollar helps our exports, it sure doesn't help us as international travelers.

Suggestion - pay for international travel costs in advance to lock in exchange rates before the dollar weakens even further.

Dinosaur watching :  I wrote a couple of weeks ago, expressing concern about new FAA regulations that would, in certain limited situations, allow airlines to fly planes with less of a fuel reserve than before.  I received a couple of well written notes from professional pilots assuring me that there would never be any compromises on safety, because the pilot has the final word on how much fuel is loaded onto their flights.

Their comments were honest, fair, and well meant, and I hope they're correct.  But.

Let's first of all put the importance of fuel in context.  A plane can continue to fly if an engine fails.  It can continue to fly if pieces of the plane fall off, if control systems fail, and if all sorts of other problems occur.  But it absolutely can not continue to fly if it runs out of fuel.  All it can do is a fairly steep glide down to ground level and hope that somewhere within its gliding range there is somewhere to land.  From this perspective, fuel is the most important thing to get right when planning a flight.  With as much as triple-redundant backup for less critical systems, and other components over-engineered by a 100% margin, why are we trimming back on fuel safety reserves?  (Answer = cost saving, of course)

News broke this week that adds a sharp perspective to the danger of trimming the fuel margin too fine.  A Delta shuttle flight from Reagan National Airport in DC advised air traffic controllers more or less as he was taking off from DCA that they were low on fuel, and so were given a more direct routing to La Guardia.  And then, nearing LGA, they had so little fuel left they were unable to comply with an ATC request to make a turn away from the airport so as to take a place in the queue.  The pilot declared a fuel emergency and so got to fly directly to LGA and land immediately, which he did safely.

FAA regulations require domestic flights to have at least 45 minutes of spare fuel on board when departing for a destination.  DCA to LGA only takes about this long, so the pilot should have had at least twice the needed fuel on board, but he was advising of a fuel problem as he was taking off.

The FAA is investigating whether the flight took off without enough fuel.  I can spare them the investigation.  It sure did take off with not nearly enough fuel.  But, the bigger question is - how did this happen?  The pilot plainly knew he was under the legal requirement, and also under the prudent good sense level before taking off, so why didn't he return back to get more fuel?

Most people are bribed by their employer to turn up to work each day.  But the 'bribe' is simply the promise of continued employment and wages for the time worked.  It is sufficient to motivate most of us to carry out our side of the bargain and to report for work each day.

US Airways needed a different approach.  Anticipating a likely informal sick-out of employees (who feel harming their struggling airline makes strange sense) this weekend, they felt they had to bribe employees who managed 'perfect attendance' for both the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with two positive space free tickets, good for travel any time in the following year.

While airlines are always fairly generous with free or nearly free travel for employees, it is usually space-available rather than positive space, meaning that the staff fly for free only on flights where there are remaining unsold seats after all fare paying passengers have been accommodated.  To offer an across the board incentive like this, and to allow the free tickets to potentially displace fare paying passengers, shows a large measure of desperation on US' part, and a potentially significant revenue hit in the future when the free travelers use their tickets.

More government subsidies of our airlines.  While the airlines are fast to ask for more government assistance, they're slow to admit to all the assistance they currently receive.  The government is extending its subsidy of airline insurance premiums for another year, saving the airlines as much as $560 million a year in the process.

Reader Tom passed on these two dueling newspaper stories :

Southwest Airlines chief executive Gary Kelly, in a Q-and-A with the Houston Chronicle, described the company's relationship with employees as "outstanding." Houston Chronicle (11/22)


Flight attendants at Southwest Airlines said they will honor a national strike if US Airways is allowed to void its contract with its flight attendants. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (11/23)

I commented negatively last week about the Flight Attendants Union (AFA) and their plans for a CHAOS (Creating Havoc Around Our System) series of wildcat striking.  In answer to a couple of emails, and in case you too were wondering, this type of unannounced short term semi-random industrial action is bad for the union, bad for the traveling public, but actually good for the airlines!

Why is that?  Simple.  If the AFA announces a formal strike, weeks in advance as it must, then the public has plenty of time to book away from the affected airline.  This minimizes the harm to the public, and maximizes the harm to the airline.  It starts suffering the effects of the strike from the day it is announced, and many times will come back to the negotiating table and sweeten their offer before the strikes takes effect.  This is also good for the union members, who get what they need before the strike occurs.

But with CHAOS, union members are losing their pay, and travelers are arriving at airports to find their promised flights cancelled.  They have no warning and so can't/don't book away from the affected airline, and the airline then simply re-accommodates them on the next flight within their system, so the airline loses only small revenue.  However, the public comes to hate the flight attendants for the hassle they're experiencing.

So CHAOS has less impact on employers, more impact on flight attendants, more impact on the innocent traveling public, and is a public relations problem for the flight attendants, who risk losing popular support for their position.

This is why CHAOS is a bad strategy.

A flight attendant wrote in to put the current attempts by the AFA to unionize Frontier's flight attendants in perspective.  She advises they have already tried - and failed - three times before

My various comments were and are not intended as union bashing.  I bash both unions and employers, equally and without favor!  And to prove this, here's a delightful comment from the Transport Workers Union, who are asking that American Airlines reduce their management staffing levels as well as their employee staffing.  The TWU points that since the airline's restructuring agreement in 2003, employee numbers have been decreasing while management numbers have been proportionally increasing.  There are now fewer employees per supervisor.  The TWU further points out that their members took deeper wage and benefit cuts than management.  Between 12/02 and 4/04, management numbers were reduced by 12.7% while TWU members were reduced by 18.1%.

Bad news on the legislative front.  The protection for passengers holding tickets on bankrupt airlines, requiring other airlines to transport them, space available, for no more than $25, has now expired and legislation to extend this provision did not pass.

Congress returns in early December and hopefully may extend this provision at that time.  If you want to encourage your congressman and senators to act on this, you should refer to the National Intelligence Reform Act, S.2845, which includes extension of section 145 of the 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act.  Goodness only knows what else has been stuck into the National Intelligence Reform Act, but this provision is definitely a part we'd like to see pass.

Normally an airline drops its fares for one reason only - because it was forced into it by competitive pressures.  However, airlines usually like to maintain the illusion of lowering their fares as a voluntary act of caring and kindness, because they are such nice organizations.  In a rare flash of candor, in commenting on his airline's major reduction in fares to/from Miami, American Airlines' VP for revenue management Scott Nason had this to say :

The customers have forced us into this action.  What we're reacting to is a marketplace that is deciding that our fares out of Miami were too high, and that they were willing to drive quite a distance and go through a fair amount of trouble to get a lower fare someplace else.

Here's an encouraging piece of news.  In this USA Today story, we are told business fares are 11% down from last year's levels and 16% down from their highest points (in 2001).  Some observers now believe that low fare carriers now have so much strength in the market that they are able to influence and cause business fares (ie more expensive fares with less advance purchase and fewer restrictions) to be permanently lowered.

Sometimes it seems the cost of getting between the city and airport is not much less than the cost of the flight itself.  And surely the most expensive airport-city service is that offered in Baghdad, where the 15 mile journey in an armored car convoy costs almost $5100.

Here's an interesting 'end of an era' technology story that isn't getting much attention.  Farewell, the VHS VCR.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Churchill said that people get the form of government they deserve.  Modifying that to present day issues, perhaps we get the type of airport security we deserve.

I received the following email last week from a reader :

Why do you criticize TSA so much?  I work for a major airline and I feel very safe and comfortable when I travel knowing that our bags and persons are being scanned and checked so thoroughly.  Thousands of guns have been confiscated throughout the nation thanks to TSA.  They're doing a great job and people just don't give them credit where credit is due.

Some of the stories you report seem to be very far fetched and hard to believe.  Of course people will believe anything you print true or not.  I know better.

I did reply to the writer, asking which stories were untrue, and observing that, with a documented failure to detect rate of 20%-30%, the thousands of guns which have been detected implies another fewer number of thousands of guns which weren't detected, but got no reply to these comments.

The writer was also probably reassured to read of the latest arrest of a person attempting to smuggle a gun through security.  A 79 year old lady was arrested in Fort Lauderdale for having a derringer and seven bullets in her carry-on.  She says she simply forgot it was there.  But unlike policemen who have also sometimes been similarly forgetful and let off with a laugh and a warning, she was arrested and now faces the possibility of up to five years in prison and a $5000 fine.

There is a growing number of reports from women passengers complaining about what they consider to be a too intimate search, often requiring them to remove outer layers of clothing - in public - and sometimes with men doing the physical pat-down.  Here's a good recent article on the topic.

The TSA's justification - plastic explosives aren't detected by metal detectors - is both factual and flawed.  True, plastic explosives do not register on a metal detector, and it is further true that the curves on a woman's body are more conducive to hiding the small amount necessary to destroy a plane (in total, think of a pound of butter, smoothed out and molded into bra cups, cleavage, or wherever else you inventively chose to hide it).

But this is another example of the TSA navigating its future direction by looking in the rear vision mirror of what has already happened.  It is using the two Russian plane bombings as the panic event for these new security measures, whereas in reality there is nothing new about plastic explosives and their invisibility to metal detectors.  The vulnerability has been present for decades, but the TSA has ignored it until now and has not done anything about deploying new 'sniffer' type portals into which you walk and pause while the device blows air on you and tests the air that bounces off you for traces of explosives.

This is the main reason why we should all resent the TSA's latest intrusion on our personal privacy.  Because it represents another testimony to their inefficiency and lack of foresight and imagination.  It seems the only way the TSA can perceive a security threat is after terrorists have already exploited the vulnerability, not before.

Note to the TSA :  Here is a way to get more than enough plastic explosive past the security screeners, on one's person, that would be undetected even with a physical patdown.  Hide it in a plaster cast.  So are you now going to cut open every plaster cast?

I know of other, even cleverer, ways, too....  The TSA needs to expedite the deployment of the new sniffer portals.  Nothing else will protect us.

One of the travel advisories for Thanksgiving travel was recommending that passengers in some airports should remove candy bar wrappers and cigarette packets from their pockets before going through the metal detectors.  It seems that the metal detectors are set so high that the small fraction of an ounce of metal in these items would be enough to set them off and trigger a body search.  Question to the TSA :  What terrorist weapon has only 0.1 ounces of metal in it?  Why not set the metal detectors to a more realistic sensitivity?

Here's a damning story about the LAX Airport Police and how officers would even ignore emergency calls while enjoying cups of coffee in the food court.

Lastly this week, if you did fly somewhere for Thanksgiving and you're one of the 28%, 24% or 14% mentioned in this article, I hope you achieved the desired outcome.

As for me, I'm usually one of the 41%, and on my last flight could be seen feverishly swapping four different models of headphones while evaluating some new products.

Please note there will be NO NEWSLETTER next week.  I'll be incommunicado on board the river cruise.  Meanwhile, my laptop's hard disk has started making noises, raising an interesting question :  How do you backup a failing laptop with gigabytes of critical data (my mail file alone is 2.1GB at present) when traveling?

Until the next newsletter, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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