[Web version of this newsletter]  [Newsletter Archives]  [Website Home Page]  [Please Donate Here]

Friday 21 January, 2005 

Good morning

The new Travel Insider blogging feature is almost ready to have the wraps removed and made public.  I've established a blog and indeed in the last couple of days have already published 20 articles on it - a rather lonely experience, due to currently only having one reader (hi, Fred!).

I'll make the blog public next week; currently I'm waiting on my designer to resolve various layout and feature issues I'd like to have finessed before its public debut.  However, if any of you are confirmed RSS junkies and would like a sneak peak before the final version appears, let me know and I'll pass its url to you.

It is already plain that the blog will impact on the newsletter.  It is difficult to write about the same thing twice - once in a blog entry, eg, on Monday, and then in a slightly different format, for the newsletter, on Thursday night.  I suspect this means the blog will take over a lot of the 'news' items and the newsletter may become more focused on opinion and analysis, and also shorter in length.

Nothing is cast in stone yet, and your feedback will of course shape what happens.

We will also be having three or four readers add their own blogs to the site.  If you'd like to suggest a blog you would write yourself, by all means let me know.  There are several remaining user licenses available with the blogging software I purchased.

This Week's Feature Column :  Vote for the 2004 Best Travel Technology Product Awards :  Our annual roundup of the best items reviewed during 2004 allows you to choose which items earn Travel Insider awards.

I'll announce the winners next week, so please go vote now.  The voting will be closing in only a few days.

Dinosaur watchingUnited Airlines continues to desperately search for ways to cut its costs so it can stop losing money and viably consider exiting bankruptcy.  Like its dinosaur colleagues, it keeps coming back to the 'take money back from the workers' concept.

But there's one employee benefit that appears to be untouched and untouchable.  A $100 million 'Success Sharing' bonus program, allowing senior management to earn up to an extra 40% of their salaries if goals are met/exceeded.  By comparison, rank and file workers are eligible for bonuses of up to 5% of their much more humble incomes.

United has come up with an interesting twist on the pre-paid travel concept.  They're offering three stored value cards that respectively have $5,000, $10,000 and $20,000 of prepaid travel stored on them.  If you buy one of these cards, you get immediate entry into the Premier, Premier Executive, or Premier 1K elite levels of their frequent flier program, complete with all the privileges associated.

Just two small catches (in addition to paying cash up front to a bankrupt airline that continues to lose money).  Firstly, the cards expire on 28 Feb, 2006, with penalties associated with any balances still unused.  Secondly, you can only use the cards to buy travel for yourself personally, not for other people.  But, if these issues aren't a problem, it seems a good deal.

Profit figures are coming in for the December quarter and full year.  Delta is winning the booby prize for biggest loss - $2.2 billion, and that is just for the December quarter alone ($5.2 billion for the full year, compared to $780 million loss last year).  Other airlines have also been reporting worse results than for the same time in 2003.

Southwest Airlines reported a $56 million profit.  But they qualified this with the observation that their fuel hedging saved them $174 million during the quarter.  Do the math, and - on the face of it - it might seem, if they weren't hedged for fuel, Southwest might have lost $118 million.  But, is this really what would have happened?  I suggest not.  They'd have acted like the rational carrier they are, and simply increased their airfares to cover their increased costs.

The bottom line is the bottom line, and in this case, it is a $56 million profit.  Southwest itself doesn't seem too fazed by this situation, and announced a planned 10% increase in their capacity in 2005, with the addition of another 29 airplanes.

My comment about America West (HP) upgrades for sale last week drew a couple of interesting responses.  Gary Leff ('View from the Wing' blogger) explained that these days, with a much smaller discrepancy between first and coach class fares on HP, they sell more of them normally, but they still upgrade their elite level fliers prior to day of departure, so any remaining first class seats available for sale at check-in are truly spare.

Reader Charles has a perspective on why it is perhaps fair there is a much reduced price difference between first and coach classes these days.  He writes

On my Denver to Seattle flight on Alaska Airlines last Saturday, the AS gate agent offered last minute upgrades at $50 just before boarding (I'm assuming all the elites were accommodated already - I know I was).

One fellow rushed up and purchased. What he didn't know but was soon to find out :

  • Despite a 2 hour 20 minute flight time, there was no meal ... just a single packet of pretzels in FC for the entire flight (it appears even peanuts are now gone from AS, even in FC)

  • Coach had only 40 passengers (meaning every such passenger had an entire row to themselves), but a body was crammed into every FC seat (not known for comfort on the 737-400)

  • A one-year-old lap baby screamed on and on from row 2 (the middle of the 3-row FC cabin) for the entire flight -- even I was tempted to forgo my free upgrade seat, and trudge to the rear of the coach cabin ... at least I didn't pay $50 extra for the AS FC experience!

Reader Evelyn tried to take advantage of the BA mileage bonus offer mentioned last week.  She writes

Is British Airways screwed up or am I crazy? I tried to register by clicking on the link, only got to the home page with no reference whatsoever to that offer, and when I wrote to the customer dept., I got a "standard" answer saying that U.S. passengers cannot make a baggage claim on the customer form and must get a specific baggage claim form!  Also, it took so long for the link to open, that I booted the computer up twice, thinking something was wrong at my end!

Of course, anything is possible with BA and their website, or perhaps, better to say that, with BA, sometimes nothing is possible.  You may remember my inability to book a flight from London to Moscow through their website, because they only let you book flights from the country you live in.

And you may also remember the extraordinary situation back in November when I had to pay BA $208.90 up front so they would agree to subsequently refund me an unused $1400 ticket.  They said this would take six to eight weeks.  It is now more than eight weeks, and no sign of my money coming back to me yet.

The US airlines have a twelve point 'Customers First' commitment in which they undertake to refund tickets within seven days.  I have my doubts as to if this is always achieved, but BA's pathetic undertaking to refund in 6 - 8 weeks, followed by an inability to even achieve that outcome reveals a deep underlying contempt for their customers and the notion of customer service.

Talking about contempt for customers, here's a commentary from Bob Bestor of Gemutlichkeit, recounting his recent experience with UA last Wednesday evening :

UAL: (talking off mic to another person for a few seconds before answering my call, then...) Hello, United Airlines.

Bestor: Hi, my 86-year-old mother is on a flight from Maui that's going to land in San Francisco in about an hour. She is then supposed to transfer to a flight up to Medford, Oregon...

UAL: (interrupts to quickly say·) That flight's canceled.

Bestor: Yes, I saw that on your website. What I'm wondering is what United can do for her since she'll have to overnight in San Francisco.

UAL: I don't know, probably nothing. What's her name?

Bestor: Lois Bestor

UAL: If it's weather, we don't do anything; yes, she's been rebooked on a flight tomorrow morning.

Bestor: O.k., but what about a hotel?

UAL: We don't do anything.

Bestor: Did I mention that we're talking about an 86-year-old woman, who is liable to be confused and not know where to go? Can't you at least help her find a hotel and get her to a taxi or shuttle?

UAL: Look, I'm not at the airport. There's nothing I can do. She can go to the counter.

Bestor: I think I'd like to be connected to a supervisor·

UAL: I told you, we're not at the airport; there's nothing I can do, nothing a supervisor can do.

Bestor: I understand you're not at the airport and you're obviously not interested in helping me, so I'd like to talk to a·...

UAL: Thank you for calling United.  <click>

This is the essence of the conversation as I recall it. The bare words on the page do not convey the note of triumph in the woman's voice when she informed me United would do nothing. They also cannot portray her totally off-hand, flippant attitude and how I was continually interrupted before I could complete sentences.

I pray the call was recorded.

I phoned back immediately and a more agreeable person, after about 5 minutes of waiting while she researched, gave me a phone number I could use to page my mother in the airport.

And talking about being interrupted by an airline person, occasionally I'm a guest on radio shows.  Most recently, I was asked by a friend to help a friend of his, and was pleased to oblige.  His friend, airline pilot Cy Emerus, is trying to build a new travel related radio show and website, and I gave him some pointers and suggestions, and also agreed to be a feature guest on his show, even though it meant getting up before 6am on a Saturday morning.  We discussed what we'd talk about, and Cy said he wanted me to talk about passenger rights.  I was happy to do that, and sent him some background material and, at his request, suggested questions he could ask me on the topic.

So, there I am, live on his show, and only a little alarmed that in the minute before we went on air, Cy was asking me what we were going to be talking about and what my website's url was (at least he remembered my name).  We started with a general chat, then focused in on passenger rights.  I briefly spoke about the need for passenger rights - rights which are currently notable by their absence - and gave the example of an airline arbitrarily choosing to cancel a flight simply because it didn't have enough passengers on it.  This has happened to me more than once, and probably to most of you, too (even though the airlines often go out of their way to avoid confessing the real reason for the cancellation).

Emerus then said 'I work for an excellent airline.  Based on my 38 years of experience, that just doesn't happen', cut me off, and ended the live interview before I had a chance to ask him how he could explain the up to 1500 flights cancelled every month by his 'excellent airline', let alone the vastly larger numbers cancelled throughout the entire US airline system.

If he is to be believed, not only is US Airways - the airline he works for - excellent (ha, ha), but in 38 years, they've never cancelled a flight due to light loadings.  Maybe the best measure of a man is not that he's worked for 38 years, but how much he's learned in that time, and how honest he chooses to be with that knowledge.

And as for my thoughts on passenger rights, they'll be more fairly aired in an OpEd piece I'm writing in the NY Daily News this Sunday.

A lot of airplane news this week, with your humble scribe even being included in a television feature discussing Boeing vs Airbus this Sunday.  Not much of the news was good for Boeing, though.

Boeing announced, to no-one's surprise, the ending of 717 production next year.  This plane - an inheritance from their MD merger, was never a success.  Over half the production was 'sold' to AirTran - the quote marks indicating that the deal was a sweetheart arrangement that would be hard to justify on pure commercial grounds, and in total, only something like 150 planes will be produced.

The really big news though was to do with the really big plane - the Airbus A380, which had its official roll-out on Tuesday.  It is amusing to see Boeing recycling all the arguments which had been levied against itself and the 747, and now attempting to deploy them against the A380, although to absolutely no effect whatsoever.

This article includes a couple of nonsense allegations, including the quoting of unnamed 'safety experts' who worry about how so many passengers could be evacuated in an emergency (hint - the plane has more emergency exits), and quotes from Boeing shills such as former employee Gordon Bethune, the just retired CO CEO, who wonders out loud

What's in it for me to sit on an airplane with 500 other people, wait for my bags with 500 other people, check in with 500 other people

Gordon probably doesn't realize this, because he probably doesn't check in with normal people, but most airlines have more than one plane departing at a time, meaning that there are likely to be way over 500 people already needing to checkin.  Similarly, most airports handle more than one arriving flight at a time, so there is likely to be more than 500 passengers waiting for baggage, too.

Who really cares if there are 500 other people on the plane with you if your own personal space is more comfortable and roomy.  Using Gordon's reasoning, the best plane in the world would be a cramped little 25 seater regional puddle jumper.

When the 747 first came out, its passenger capacity was about 330 passengers, and it was replacing 707s with a passenger capacity of little more than half that number.  Naysayers said it would be impossible to handle twice the passenger numbers.  They were wrong.

In comparison, the first A380s will have 500 passengers, and they will be replacing 747s with 360-420 passengers.  This is merely an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary change.  The A380 promises to be a lovely plane, and - thus far - the airlines are avoiding the temptation to replace the lovely spacious layouts with more and more seats.  Indeed, while Boeing continues to proclaim that no airline in its right mind could possibly want such a huge plane, several airlines are already pressuring Airbus to come out with a new and still larger model plane!

The A380 will first see service between London and Sydney, with the first airline to accept a plane (in 2006) being Singapore Airlines, followed closely by Qantas.  Both airlines also hope to operate the plane on Sydney - Los Angeles services.

Let's hope the A380 will have better drinking water than current airplanes.  Despite government ordered sanitation improvements, water quality on board planes is getting worse, not better.  Testing in November and December had one in six planes failing to meet federal standards, compared to one in eight planes failing in Aug/Sept.

However, EPA acting assistant administrator Thomas V Skinner was able to put a positive spin on this.  Sure, one in six planes had water deemed unacceptable.  But - what the hey!  Skinner pointed out that the vast majority of planes were within limits.

Question to Mr Skinner.  One in six planes - that's a bit like the odds in Russian Roulette.  Fancy a spin and a pull of the trigger?

And now for the real stunner.  Notwithstanding this deteriorating performance, the EPA does not plan to conduct any further tests.

Drunk Armed pilots :  An AirTran pilot was charged with operating an aircraft under the influence after a TSA screener at Las Vegas smelled alcohol as the pilot passed through the checkpoint.  Police arrested him in the cockpit shortly thereafter.  Adding an element of drama to the proceedings was the fact that the pilot is a 'Federal Flight Deck Officer' - ie an armed pilot.

Has anyone else noticed a quiet revolution underway in space technology.  While NASA continues to fuss around, attempting to get its ridiculously inefficient, extraordinarily expensive, and plainly dangerous Space Shuttle back into the air, private companies, with small budgets that wouldn't even cover a single space shuttle and one launch, are developing amazing new approaches to space flight.  Low cost and practical.  Even Amazon is in on the act.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The TSA refused to allow a Mr Ciaran Ferry to take his flight on 21 December, because his name was on the 'No Fly' list.  For a change, the TSA got it right - Mr Ferry is indeed an IRA terrorist.

But, the flight the TSA refused to allow Ferry to take?  It was his deportation flight out of the US.  Ferry was being escorted out of the US by two federal agents from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who were to fly with Ferry.  Even though ICE and TSA both are parts of the Department of Homeland Security, the TSA refused to allow the ICE agents to fly with Ferry and out of the country.

Thanks to reader Brian for passing this story on.

Here's an interesting series of messages, starting off with a traveler wondering why the TSA impounded a series of miniature Allen wrenches from his carry-on.  A 1mm and 2mm (0.05 and 0.1 inch) Allen wrench were deemed to be 'tools' and therefore automatically banned.

I wrote about, and included a picture of, a video gaming machine at Fresno Airport recently.  The machine, inside the secure area, boasted a couple of realistic machine pistols.  Reader Eric writes to say the machine has now been moved out of the secure area.  Do we have a reader at Fresno Airport, perhaps?

It's a small world, and there are Travel Insider readers everywhere.  I received an email from a reader last week who said he was on a regional flight in India.  He is an airline executive, and got into discussion with the person seated next to him.  His companion said 'Being as how you're in the airline industry, you really should read The Travel Insider'.  Imagine their shared surprise at discovering they were both already readers.

Traveling to Australia any time soon?  You'll doubtless be pleased to know that the Australian taxpayers have been spending a few pennies to bring you this helpful internet resource to relieve you of any stresses.

Usually the first thing that is done to a crashed plane is that the airline owning it rushes out with a few cans of spray paint to white out their logo and color scheme.  Because, if they didn't, well, something like this could happen.

Lastly, reader Randy has a cry from the heart about the injustices of travel

Why is it that luggage....and especially luggage straps.....break on the first leg of a long trip.....and not on the last?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

If this was forwarded to you by a friend, please click here and subscribe to the newsletter yourself
If you ever wish to unsubscribe, simply reply to this email and set the subject line to say 'unsubscribe'.