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Friday 28 January, 2005 

Good morning

Continued delays with design and functional issues mean I'll hold off the blog release another week.

Thank you to the several people who wrote in expressing concern about the blog.  I understand and appreciate your points, but in my own defense, just because many other blogs are admittedly very junky indeed; it does not automatically follow that mine will be of a similar low standard!  If I can't offer a quality product, I'll not waste my time or yours.

Talking about wasting time, it is now over nine weeks since my application for a BA ticket refund, accompanied by making an upfront payment to them of $208.90.  Still nothing received, and, as a practical matter, there's little or nothing I can do about this except (im)patiently wait.  What else can I do?  Sue them?  Even if I were to do that, the costs of the legal action, and the hassle and inconvenience, would far outweigh the $1400 they owe me, and they'd probably delay paying me until a day before the court case.

This clearly shows we need a Passenger Bill of Rights.  Airlines should be compelled to refund passengers at almost the same speed with which they take our money in the first place, and if they fail to make timely refunds, should be required to make massive penalty payments to the inconvenienced passenger.

What else do you think should be in a Passenger Bill of Rights?  What has happened to you that you feel to be particularly unfair and which a Passenger Bill of Rights could help prevent in the future?

Please tell me your thoughts about this.  I feel the possibility of building a grass-roots movement to give us otherwise helpless passengers an entitlement to fairer treatment by the airlines.

There are some rights we have at present, of course.  One of these is a right to compensation when our bags are delayed or lost.  Which leads into :

This Week's Feature Column :  Your Rights if Your Bags Are Delayed :  You know the sick feeling as you watch the carousel revolve, and other passengers happily leave with their bags, while your bag never shows.  What can you expect when you make your way to report your bag missing, and what can you fairly ask for?  In the first part of a two part series, I answer these questions and more.

Last week I invited you to cast your vote for the Travel Insider 2004 Product of the Year awards.  A glitch in the survey prevented some people from voting, so if you couldn't vote, I've left the poll open for a few more days.  Please do go and vote now to ensure the results are as broad based and accurate as possible.

Dinosaur watching :  One more comment about my problem getting a refund from British Airways.  Travel agent Ilene points out that if I'd bought my BA ticket through a travel agent, I'd have been able to get an almost immediate refund of the ticket, in less than a week.  Instead, I'm at 9+ weeks and still waiting.

I complained last week about the rude US Airways pilot and radio travel show host who invited me on his show and then hung up on me when I suggested that airlines would sometimes cancel flights to suit themselves.  Last weekend, his airline cancelled 1800 flights, apparently due to the snowstorm in the Northeast.

With a touch of probably unintended irony, immediately after these cancellations, US embarked on an advertising program with full page advertisements in major east coast newspapers showing a picture of a plane flying in a clear blue sky, and in the text referring to a promise of 'clear skies ahead'.

We should not automatically give airlines a 'Get out of Jail Free' card for weather related cancellations.

It is extremely rare that weather, alone, forces a flight cancellation.  What causes most cancellations is the inadequacy of response by airlines and airports to adverse weather conditions, not the weather conditions themselves.  Lack of snow removal capabilities, inability to maintain simultaneous operations, lack of latest landing and navaids, all of these things have solutions.  But as long as airlines - and, more specifically, airports and the FAA Air Traffic Control system - can cancel flights due to their inadequate weather management systems, they are under no pressure to improve them.

Good news for older airline pilots :  Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-NE) introduced a bill in Congress this week raising the mandatory retirement age for commercial airline pilots from 60 to 65.  Now their retirement benefits aren't quite so good, I guess they'll want to keep flying a bit longer.

Winners and losers.  More results for the last quarter of 2004 are being published.  AirTran made a small profit of $1.1 million for the quarter, and $12.3 million for the entire year.

JetBlue also turned a profit of $2.4 million for the quarter, and said they expect to be profitable in all quarters of 2005.

Later this year sees an exciting new chapter in JetBlue's growth.  They start taking delivery of small Embraer 190 regional jets, each holding 100 passengers.  Until now their fleet has been exclusively 156 passenger Airbus A320s.  The smaller Embraer will enable them to operate on 'thinner' routes - routes where there are fewer passengers likely to travel, and will help JetBlue spread into new cities they don't yet service.  Which makes it equally exciting for the (as yet unnamed) cities, too.

JetBlue expects to start flying the Embraers in October.

I wonder if JetBlue's positive 2005 projections have allowed for increased competition from Delta's Song subsidiary?  Delta is giving Song 12 more 757s and will double its daily flights from JFK.  Interestingly, DL is replacing its mainline flights from JFK to LAX, SFO and SEA with Song services - the interesting thing about this being that the Song planes don't have a first class cabin.

Question :  If you're a DL elite frequent flier and normally get upgraded on DL's coast to coast flights, how will you feel at losing this privilege?  Will  you switch to a different airline - either JetBlue with their generally superior all coach class, or a different dinosaur who can still give you upgrade privileges?

Which just goes to show - there's a reason Delta lost $5.2 billion last year (I still can't get over that number; it is, I think, the largest loss of any airline, ever), and it sure isn't management brilliance.

Talking about brilliant management and losing money, United Airlines also posted its Q4 result on Thursday.  Strike another $644 million off the ledger for its fourth quarter, and in total for the year, a $1.6 billion loss.  Pretty good compared to Delta, but if you're a despairing UA creditor, don't go expecting to see any of your money returned to you any time soon.

Indeed, on last Friday United won another three month extension of time in which to file their reorganization plan with the bankruptcy court.  UA, which declared bankruptcy in Dec 02, now has until the end of April to submit a plan, but will probably be asking for yet another extension, come April.

I wish my high school teachers were as lenient as bankruptcy Judge Wedoff is to United.  'Please teacher, can I have my homework deadline extended?  And again?  And again?'

In 2002, United lost $3.2 billion dollars.  Then, after filing for bankruptcy at the end of that year, United has lost a further $4.4 billion in the two years subsequently.  I wonder how its creditors feel about that, watching UA's net realizable assets (and their likely return on the moneys owed them) dwindle further and further and further.

When will Judge Wedoff draw the line and insist UA give up and wind up?

US Airways has also won itself an extension of time for when it needs to file its bankruptcy reorganization.  Its Judge has now given them until 31 March, but a separate deal with major creditor GE Finance requires them to submit a plan by 15 Feb.  US Airways says it will meet this deadline.

No word on its Q4 results, though.  It is one of the later airlines to report.

Boeing's consistent refrain for the last five years has been that there is no market need for any plane larger than a 747.  Well, it got that statement half-right - there doesn't seem to be any remaining market for the 747 at all.  There have been no sales of passenger model 747s since a China Airlines order for four back in 2002; the very few sales since then being for freighter models.  It seems likely that Boeing will have to close its 747 production line in 2006.

Unless....  unless Boeing does something to revive the 747.  Third time's a charm, and Boeing is, for the third time, talking about releasing a new enlarged version of the 747, even though as recently as last week it was continuing to feast on its self imposed meal of sour grapes by maintaining there is absolutely no need for larger planes.  The growing number of A380 orders (a new order from China being expected any day now) of course puts the lie to Boeing's ridiculous statements, but this clear contradiction doesn't seem to still Boeing's naysayers.

And so, even while saying there's no sense at all in building bigger planes, Boeing is ruminating about extending, yet again, its tired old 747, adding another almost 12' of length to the plane, and increasing its passenger capacity from 416 to 450 passengers.  It is calling this unimaginative non-event of an upgrade the '747 Advanced'.  If this represents 'advanced' in Boeing's thinking, then they may as well close up shop now.

However, in a stunning display of unrivalled innovation, Boeing was recently granted a US patent for a truly advanced concept in passenger plane design.  What is this stunning development, that surely will revolutionize air travel as we know it?  Building a passenger plane with - count them - not one, but two aisles.  Isn't that amazing?

Perhaps what is amazing is that Boeing can patent the idea, giving yet another indication of how the current patent law desperately needs updating.  There have been twin aisle passenger planes since the late 1960s - strangely Boeing overlooked the opportunity to patent the concept for 35 years.  And now, Boeing's startling new and patented innovation is a twin aisle on planes with less than 200 seats.

Boeing's first plane to take advantage of its new patent will be its ...... ummmm...... well, actually, Boeing hasn't announced any planes that will actually use its patent.  But it has the patent, and perhaps in the Boeing paradigm of what constitutes good sense, it is sufficient to simply block other airplane manufacturers from developing innovative ideas into production model planes.  There is less corporate investment and risk when you simply block technology rather than develop and apply it.

And talking about broken patent law, here's an interesting twist on a patent dispute between the Canadian manufacturer of Blackberry handheld combination wireless email devices/cell phones and a US company claiming Blackberry is infringing on its patents.

Blackberry says that US patent law shouldn't apply to its Canadian product, even though :

  • The products are sold in the United States

  • The products are used by Americans, in the United States

  • People using the product's email services feed through US telephone circuits and American wireless carriers

A US patent is close to useless if a foreign manufacturer can ignore it and sell infringing products in the US, seeking exemption merely because the company itself is headquartered elsewhere.  Imagine if, well, Airbus were to make a twin aisle small passenger plane and sell it to US airlines, claiming exemption from Boeing's patent, just because Airbus was European?

Two interesting airplane sales this week - interesting because both Air China and Northwest Airlines chose to buy Airbus A330s.  This is the plane considered most vulnerable to competitive pressure from the 7E7, and also from Airbus' own new A350.  But quite likely the simple pragmatic consideration that the A330s are available sooner, and fit in with existing fleet better, overruled the future benefits of the A350 or 7E7.

Two aisles wouldn't be enough for me if I was stuck on one of the two flights from the Dominican Republic that were temporarily quarantined in Canada on Tuesday due to concerns that the highly contagious Norwalk virus might be on board.  Health Canada decided to keep 200 passengers onboard the first plane for three hours after a passenger became sick and eight others showed similar symptoms.  A second flight had passengers detained for two hours.

Imagine this :  You're on an airplane with 200 other people, eight of whom have a highly contagious virus.  Now tell me how pleased you'd be upon being told that you're going to have to stay on board for another three hours, up close and personal with the eight infected passengers?

The Mobal global phone people have some super discounts on worldphones that come complete with their permanent international phone numbers.  Three phones and SIMs are now priced under $100 each.  I review their service here and their special offers are here.

There's a lot of anti-smoking legislation being passed around the world at present.  Perhaps the most surprising country to now ban smoking in offices, shops, theatres, cinemas, buses, taxis, schools and all air-conditioned buildings, and to require special cordoned off sections for smokers in restaurants and clubs is Cuba.  Cuba - famous for its cigars - even gives a ration of specially discounted cigarettes to all people 50 and older.

The idiots are running the asylum :  A local government consortium in Australia, made up of 70 councils in tourism hotspots, want to levy an  A$200 (US$155) per person tourism levy on visitors to their communities.

This would surely kill off much of their tourist business.  Tourism is the major economic force in many of these regions, and creates jobs and brings in business.  Why do these people want to kill the goose that is laying their golden eggs?

Which is a question that also needs to be asked to the good folks in Alaska.  As regular as clockwork, they try and levy per head taxes on cruise ship visitors, most recently in the form of a ballot measure that would - if passed - add a $50 per passenger tax.  An extra tax would be levied on the profits the cruise ships earn from their on-board casinos.

23,460 people signed a petition to put the measure on the ballot, but this is only 174 more than the minimum required.  The North West Cruise Ship Association, together with 14 Alaskan based groups, are contesting this, saying the state didn't properly check the voting status of the signatories, contending there are more than 174 non-qualifying votes.

This is almost certainly true.  Most petition gatherers know that - to be safe - they need to get 10% more signatures than the minimum.  To submit a petition with fewer than 1% extra signatures is foolhardy - unless, of course, the petition organizers had reason to believe their petition wouldn't be scrutinized too closely by a state government keen to introduce this new tax.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Being a Canadian flying from London to Dallas apparently is sufficiently suspicious as to trigger a close security inspection by AA security staff at Gatwick Airport.  This letter to AA details what happened next, and tells of the stupid lies told to the traveler at Gatwick, and this follow up blog entry reports on AA's clumsy attempts to lie still further and extricate itself from the hole it had dug itself.

Yet again, 'security' is used as a shield for idiocy and dishonesty.

The Wall Street Journal (subscription required, so no link) reports that one in seven passengers now face secondary screening at airports.  At the same time, passenger complaints about screening have roughly doubled every month since August.

I'm conflicted about the sense in deploying anti-SAM technology on passenger planes.  Not only would this be expensive, but the ugly truth is that it is unlikely to be very effective if a multi-missile attack were launched against a passenger plane.  A new RAND Corp study recommends that airplanes not be fitted with missile countermeasures.

Of course, the unspoken counterpoint to this topic is we've never yet had a successful missile attack on a passenger plane in the US, combined with the hope this might never happen.  Which makes this article, coming out only two days after the RAND Corp recommendations, rather timely.  It suggests that anti-US terrorists may already have purchased SAMs on the black market in Nicaragua.

One of the more popular gadgets I wrote about last year is the Steripen.  If you live in Phoenix, you'll have recently been warned to boil all water before drinking it.  Perhaps you need a Steripen.

A reader who writes 'PLEEZE, do NOT publish my name for fear I will appear on a "suspicious" list.' has this story to tell

I was flying out of Newark Airport, passing through security en route to Hawaii for a week of scuba diving.  I always carry my underwater video equipment in a shoulder bag, and never check it in for fear of damage. In the bag I carry a small plastic kit of miniature repair tools, including a teeny-weeny screwdriver like the one you use to tighten the screw on your eyeglasses frame.

The TSA agent picket it out and told me he would have to get approval from his supervisor. In a couple of minutes he returned and said his supervisor told him the only way I could carry the repair kit on board would be if I could prove I was an underwater video professional. A PROFESSIONAL no less!

Thinking quickly, I showed him my business card on which is fortunately written the word "optical" as in "optical engineering". "That's good enough for me, Sir", said the young TSA agent, offering his handshake, which I gratefully accepted.

As soon as I get home I am going to print some business cards that identify me as a "professional underwater video producer".  Just so I can carry my repair tools with me.

Lastly, while researching my article on delayed luggage, I came across this image.  And this one.  And - one more for luck - this one.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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