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Friday 4 February, 2005 

Good morning

It is now over ten weeks since BA agreed to refund me an unused $1400 ticket.  Still no refund.  But I'm not alone with such hassles - reader Leah wrote in to tell how it took her six months, with continual contact to BA, to get a much more expensive business class ticket refunded.  Perhaps I'll have a long time still to wait.

Several readers suggested I take BA to Small Claims Court, or write letters to the CEO or various other senior people.

It is difficult (but not impossible) to file a Small Claims Court action against BA for just being slow in refunding a ticket.  It isn't as though I could sue BA for thousands of extra 'bonus' dollars in damages; and the last time I filed a Small Claims Court action I had to request two extensions to the hearing date due to being unexpectedly out of town each time, and the other party also filed one extension too, so it ended up taking almost six months and massive inconvenience to hear the case.  There's some up-front expense and plenty of time-cost involved, too, followed by a half day in court if BA still hasn't paid by the time the hearing comes around.

Even after getting judgment in my favor, I'm still no better off until such time as BA chooses to pay.  A Small Claims Court win is not the same as getting the money, which is a whole separate procedure.  The Small Claims Court win merely confirms my entitlement to the money, a point which - so far - BA is  not disputing.

Yes, I could write letters to senior BA personnel, and still might do so, but for now, I'm finding it interesting to share with you how BA chooses to mistreat an ordinary passenger with no obvious special bargaining leverage.  It took Leah six months to get a business class ticket refunded for her boss (who was an elite level BA frequent flier) and so far it has taken me ten weeks to get nothing at all.  Keep these experiences in mind next time you're choosing a trans-Atlantic carrier.

Well, if you clicked on the link above to reader Leah's BA problem, you'll already know what I'm about to tell you next.  Yes, our blogs are now up and live.  At last!

We have developed two blogs ourselves - one being a cousin to the newsletter, with a general theming on travel and travel related technology, which we call the Travel Insider Blog (no surprise there).

The other blog is more like a distant relative than a close cousin.  This blog - we call it Dot Something - is a pastiche of the unusual, the thought provoking, the stupid and the amusing things we stumble across.

Our blogging home page also has links to five guest blogs that will be authored by other Travel Insider readers (these will be starting probably next week), plus a helpful How to Best Read these Blogs page to explain blogging and the RSS feeds that should be used to deliver them.

Please visit, and do sign up for RSS feeds, too.  It looks like most days will probably see one or two entries in the Dot Something blog, while the frequency of posts to the other blogs will vary from day to day and week to week.

Some people have said 'I hate blogs, therefore I'll hate your blogs too'.  A better line of reasoning, I think, is if you like my newsletter, you'll love my blogs.  :)  And the best line of reasoning is to simply try them and decide on their merits rather than prejudge them one way or the other.

Last week's featured column on your rights when your luggage is delayed was very popular, and so I'm very pleased to bring you part 2 this week :

This Week's Feature Column :  Your Rights if your Bags are Lost :  What and how much can you claim if an airline loses your bags?  It all depends, and although the airline won't want to give you the straight scoop, I do.

Oh - if you are wondering why the newsletter colors are different this week, it is a small acknowledgement of the tremendous success of the Iraqi elections last weekend.

Afghanistan.  Georgia.  The Palestinian Authority.  Ukraine.  Iraq.  Even, to an extent, Libya.  Who next?  How nice to see the 'domino theory' working for freedom and democracy, rather than against it.

Dinosaur watching :  More than 1.4 million domestic flights were late by more than 15 minutes in 2004, according to Dept of Transportation figures released on Thursday.  This represented 20% of all flights for the year, and contrasts with a 16% lateness rate in 2003.  More than a quarter million of these late flights were very late (ie over an hour late).

Here's an interesting analysis :  These delays represent, in total, almost exactly the total elapsed lifetimes of 100 people (one planeload).  What would we do if we were told about some other weakness in our air system causing 100 deaths a year?

Why is there such a sharp increase in delays?  Look to another statistic.  Air travel is up.  Our airways are becoming congested again.  More than 619 million people took flights in 2004, compared to 564 million in 2003.  That's a staggering 10% increase in passengers in a single year.

However, let's match this with another statistic for 2004 :  The eleven major US carriers, in total (and allowing for the profits from three of their number - Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue), lost $9.21 billion during 2004.

Would you be surprised to learn that the airline with the highest rate of passenger complaints was US Airways?  The lowest rate of complaint (almost seven times fewer complaints per 100,000 passengers) was at Southwest.  See - you can be both profitable and meet your customers' expectations for service.

Although passenger numbers overall, were up 10%, passenger complaints for all airlines were also up - two and a half times as much (25%).

Which leads to my suggested Airline Passenger Rights Charter.  Many thanks for your wealth of excellent ideas and comments.  I plan to collate these ideas and present a draft charter for your further comments next week.

Back to US Airways, though.  US Airways will probably fail in 2005.  This hardly startling statement came on Tuesday from Roger King, a debt analyst at CreditSights, a company specializing in airlines.  He said that high fuel costs and declining yields (average ticket prices) 'should push US Airways into liquidation'.

In response, a US Airways spokesman mildly conceded 'we still face a number of challenges'.

However, one of US Airways' burdens has just been lifted.  On Wednesday, that fairy godmother to the airlines, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp, came to US' rescue for the second time.  In 2003, during the airline's previous Chapter 11, the PBGC took over the pilots' pension plan; now it is taking over the underfunded retirement plans for flight attendants, machinists, and other non-union workers.  The tab?  We taxpayers have just shouldered another almost $2.5 billion in liabilities.

I'm sure we can all expect an extra big smile and sincere 'thank you' next time we meet a US Airways employee.

This - how else to describe it but as a taxpayer bailout - will save US Airways about $100 million a year in pension costs.

Analyst Roger King is also projecting Delta to enter Chapter 11 in the fall of this year.  Delta also has massive pension plan shortfalls - can you guess where this is going to lead?  Better stop giving to tsunami relief and send in an extra contribution with your taxes in April.

Reader Al wrote in with an interesting perspective on bankruptcy law.

Under bankruptcy laws, when a railroad goes bankrupt, they 'throw the bums out', or at least the CEO.  An independent trustee is appointed to run the railroad--and they do.  In other words, the same incompetents who drove the railroad into bankruptcy (and like every bankruptcy, it's always a management failure) are not permitted to continue with their poor management practices.  Not every trustee has been a superb manager, but the track record is very good--as compared to the airline industry.

Sounds perfectly sensible to me.

Talking about railroads, Amtrak's never ending struggle for federal funding - a struggle it never wins sufficiently for it to put itself into profitable shape for the future - is facing the latest round of government threats.  This time, instead of haggling over how many hundreds of millions of dollars in annual subsidy, President Bush' budget for next year is rumored to contain absolutely no Amtrak operating subsidy at all.  See this NY Times article for details.

The government's approach to Amtrak, ever since its founding, is akin to giving a starving person half a ration of food each day.  Their short term future life is prolonged, but their overall health is deteriorating.  To extend the analogy, Amtrak has been having to practice self-cannibalism, selling off its few good assets in an attempt to keep operating.

And then, after having been inadequately funding Amtrak in a manner which makes it impossible for the railroad to offer a quality product or to build a successful operational base, the government blames Amtrak for failing.

Not very fair.

IATA (the International Air Transport Association) is projecting an industry profit of $1.2 billion for 2005.  Reassuring?  Alas, no.  IATA bases this projection on the assumption that there'll be an average price of $34/barrel for oil.  Or maybe this is a deliberate mistake - so that when the airlines end up losing bags more money in 2005, they'll be able to say 'it isn't our fault, it is the fault of the unexpectedly high cost of oil'.

Memo to airline executives :  Stop playing 'let's pretend'.  Oil ain't gonna average $34 a barrel this year.  Your losses are and will continue to be your fault, no-one else's.

JetBlue might have given us a clue as to what they plan to do with all the lovely Embraer regional jets they'll be taking delivery of, starting from October this year.  The airline has signed a long term lease for the 11 gate facility at Boston Airport's Terminal C.  Currently they have two gates in Terminal E, and operate 19 flights a day.

They plan to start using five gates in Terminal C (and 14 ticket counter positions) in May 2005; then, from 2006, JetBlue will add one extra gate every six months for the next three years.  Assuming JetBlue can get up to 20 flights out of a single gate each day, that is a huge amount of growth.

JetBlue currently has 70 Airbus A320s in its fleet.  During 2005, the airline will add another 14 A320s, plus the first 7 of its Embraer E190s.  All those planes have to fly somewhere, and it seems a lot of them will be regularly visiting Boston.

Reader James wrote in a comment after last week's article about delayed baggage.

On a recent trip from overseas to Albuquerque I arrived in the US at Dallas and flew AA on to ABQ.  Alas, my bag did not fly with me.  I was told it would get to ABQ the next day, a situation that is sadly far from being unusual.

What was unusual was AA's way of handling it.  I live in a suburb of Santa Fe, NM; about 10 miles from the city center.   AA said they would not deliver to this area because they don't deliver outside of Santa Fe, even though, as I know,  they do deliver late bags to all the little communities 40-50 miles away from Santa Fe and much further from the airport.

So, I arranged to meet the delivery guy (over the cell phone) nearer Santa Fe and went there as scheduled. When I saw him arrive he was coming from a direction (which he later confimed) that took him within 300 yards of my house. He said he would have been happy to stop but AA wouldn't let him.

I guess AA has chosen to pick and choose which passengers they look after when they mess up.  Perhaps they don't need my money.

Looking for somewhere different to go this summer?  If the high cost of the Euro and Pound have you concerned, maybe consider South East Asia, where costs can be gloriously low and values very high.

Malaysian Airlines have some deals to Vietnam for as little as $699 from the west coast, and Taiwan's EVA Air are adding flights to Vientiane in Laos.

As I get older, I find myself taking more and more interest in the sometimes strange goings on at AARP.  Probably the main reason most people join AARP is for the discounts they negotiate for their membership.

But the wide range of AARP travel discounts, which until now could be booked through any travel agent, are now being limited and will only be available if pensioners choose to book their travel though Travelocity.  Yes, AARP is now forcing its members to turn their backs on local travel agents and agencies and go online to buy their travel.  This seems a strange approach to member service, particularly for a sector of the population likely to be more comfortable with face to face dealings with travel agents and least comfortable with online booking.

One can only speculate if there's some murky benefit to AARP which has eclipsed the clear benefit to its members.  If you belong to AARP, and have an opinion on this, you might care to share it with their head office.

Note to travel agents belonging to ASTA :  What has ASTA done in response to this?  As best I can tell, and in clear contrast to ARTA, they have done nothing at all.

Widely expected, and now confirmed, are some new airplane orders from China.  Airbus secured an order for another five of its A380s from China Southern Airlines, giving it now 15 customers and 154 orders for the new super-jumbo.

Boeing announced a large order for 60 of its new 7E7 planes, split among six different Chinese airlines.  And, in a widely anticipated move, Boeing has now officially numbered the 7E7.  See if you can guess what its official number is (hint :  they already have planes numbered 707, 717, 727, 737, 747, 757, 767 and 777).  Yup - the suspense is finally over, and Boeing has now numbered the airplane formerly known as 7E7 as its 787.

Let's hope this also means they stop referring to the plane by the asinine name of 'Dreamliner'.

Meanwhile the NY Times felt compelled to issue an editorial about the A380 on 31 January that was full of nonsense from start to finish.  Headed 'Is Bigger Really Best' it starts off with an analogy to iPods and small cell phones as if there is some relevance to airplanes. It then puzzlingly says 'the biggest ship sank a long time ago' - this will be news to the passengers currently on the Queen Mary 2!  Not content with this, or suggesting that the A380 is 30,000 tons heavier than a 747 (wrong by about 29,985 tons); the editorial tells us, in case we wondered, that the fastest jetliner is retired (what has that got to do with the conventional subsonic speeds of the A380?), and for good measure says the tallest skyscrapers don't have as much glamour since 9/11.  And their point is?

It goes on to compare the maximum possible seats in an A380 (840) with the minimum possible in a 747 (416).  The editorial failed to point out that all the announced cabin configurations for A380s seem to involve only 490 - 500 seats, and also failed to point out that a 747 can cram as many as 568 passengers into the plane.

Which means, when it closes on its plaintive note 'we'll just hope that somewhere along the way, an airline maker will think of little things like breathable air and something that at least resembles legroom', they should be rejoicing, because there'll be much more room per passenger on the A380 than on any other plane in the air today.

We won't bother pointing out to the editorial writer that it isn't the airline maker who decides how many seats go into a plane, either.  That is a decision the airlines make.

What a waste of dead trees.

More bad news about cell phones.  Up to 5% of Irish people may be suffering from the effects of cell phone radiation, according to a group of Irish doctors.  Details here.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A couple of readers responded to last week's horror story.  One reader said

A BA person told me recently that I should never anticipate the security questions as it creates an impression of either careless disregard or, worse, deliberate disregard. She was quite serious about this and sincerely trying to offer advice. I find it all fairly amazing. This canít possibly be a behavioural tipoff. Mr and Ms Terrorist are going to be trying to be invisible, and certainly not trying to show that they know the drill.

and another reader wrote

Every time I flew out of Gatwick I got asked similarly stupid security screening questions (not to list my friends though) although I have a UK passport.

So I now fly out of Heathrow, where I'm not asked them.

Good news or bad news?  Rep John Mica, R-FL, wants to get rid of all TSA screening staff and limit the TSA's role to simply setting hiring and training standards for private screeners.  He says the TSA is too bureaucratic and only marginally effective.

It is probably true that private companies would have more flexible working rules, enabling them to more closely match screening staff to the peaks and troughs of passenger traffic.  But, realistically, the chances of seeing this massive new government organization implode in on itself are close to zero.

Lastly this week, how did you treat your waiter last time you ate out?  Here's a cautionary tale.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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