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Friday 11 February, 2005 

Good morning

Is it my imagination, or is spring just around the corner?  Maybe it is instead the extra spring in my step now that I've finally received my BA refund.  Indeed, it turns out that BA refunded this ticket back on 14 January, but to a credit card I had canceled due to fraudulent charges appearing from the Netherlands.  So the last couple of weeks of apparent delay were not BA's fault.

But what about the time between 24 November and 14 January?  Someone finally tipped BA off to my problem, and I had several emails from their headquarters people on this point last Friday, and so I asked if they could explain why a ticket that was purchased directly, electronically issued, paid for by credit card, and never used, could not be refunded almost as quickly as it was first charged.

Hopefully their answer to these questions will arrive more quickly than their refund did.

Reader Jim wrote in with his own BA experience :

You certainly are not alone, and BA does not seem to discriminate regarding relatively large claims versus small claims.  BA misplaced my luggage on a flight from London Gatwick to Frankfurt.  They told me to buy necessary items.  I spent about US$40.  It took well over six months to get repaid, with correspondence flying back and forth across the Atlantic, apparently because  my trip originated in US, but the loss occurred in Europe.  All for $40.

I've now collated and published the results of our 2004 Travel Awards, based on your voting.  The 'Best of the Best' award went, again this year, to Plane Quiet, for their new model NC-6 noise cancelling headphones.  Last year their earlier model won this award.

Coincidentally, at the same time I was writing up the 2004 Travel Awards, I was also finishing off a review of Plane Quiet's latest headset product, and it seems to be almost assured they'll win this year's awards too.  Why do I think this?  Which leads to -

This Week's Feature Column :  The Bose-busters :  Plane Quiet's new Solitude noise cancelling headphones test out to be as good as their $300 Bose competitor, but are priced $100 lower.  And Travel Insider readers can get a special 25% (= $50) discount off this price, so you could buy two pairs for the same price as a single set of Bose headphones.

A word about this very generous 25% discount.  It is being offered by Bob Bestor's son's company, Travel Essentials, down in lovely Ashland, Oregon.  Bob (the father) is best known to us all as the publisher of the excellent Gemutlichkeit newsletter, and a long-time friend of The Travel Insider and its readers.  Hopefully, like father, like son; Bob (the son) wants to get on everyone's radar screens by doing something wild and crazy.  So this is what he is offering - a 25% discount off the new Solitude headphones, PLUS free shipping (on this or any other order over $100), AND a 25% discount on everything else in his entire online store (that isn't already on sale).

Wow.  You won't see a deal like that come your way again for a long time.

Being based in Oregon means no-one pays sales tax when ordering from Travel Essentials, and if you add all this up, you've got one tremendous bargain from an established and reputable company.  Travel Essentials are also the people who introduced me/us to the lovely Steripen, a product which although only reviewed near the end of last year, still scored very strongly in the Product of the Year voting.

This is, of course, a limited time deal - they've agreed to hold it open for two weeks, and you have until 25 Feb to take advantage of this any which way you can.  Simply use the discount code 'Solitude' (without the quotes) when completing your order.

Oh - if you buy up large and save a bundle, you might also consider visiting this page and 'doing the decent thing'.

Instant reader survey :  Would you please click on the link to send an empty email to me that best describes how you read the weekly newsletter (your answer is in the email's subject line) :

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Dinosaur watchingUS Airways tried a different approach to ensuring it was fully staffed this weekend.  Apparently concerned that the Super Bowl would encourage absenteeism, they offered workers who reported for scheduled duty a chance to win nine televisions, ten pairs of first class tickets anywhere the airline flies, and ten jerseys.

It seemed to have worked, and there's good news down the track - the airline has hired 400 more employees into baggage handling and customer service positions.  It will take a while to deploy these new hires due to the need for background checks.

US Airways has 'temporarily suspended' the serving of hot meals in its first class cabins, and instead is offering free snack boxes (the same as coach class passengers can buy).  Suggestion - temporarily suspend flying first class with US until such time as they bring back decent meals.

And here's some stunningly good news (or so we are expected to believe).  US Airways is now expecting a return to profit in 2006.  They are projecting a $50 million profit in 2006.  Previously they had been projecting a $25 million loss.

Sounds good?  Yes, but.....  Their earlier projection had a $200 million loss in 2005 then a $25 million loss in 2006, followed by a profit in 2007.  In other words, at the end of 2006, their change in position would be a $225 million cumulative loss.

Their new projection has a $288 million loss for 2005, followed by a $50 million profit in 2006.  In other words, at the end of 2006, their change in position will now be a $238 million loss.

This is US Airways' idea of progress?

Amazingly, it appears that someone actually might want to buy US Airways.  An unnamed foreign investment group has filed a brief with the bankruptcy court declaring their desire to buy the airline, or at least as much of it as foreign companies can buy of a US carrier (just under 50%).

According to a Dow Jones story, 'officials at US Airways weren't immediately available to comment'.

You don't think the foreign investor could be Sir Richard Branson, do you?  Seems like he's going nowhere building his own Virgin America airline.  Here's an interesting chronology of all Virgin America press releases to date :

  • Press release, 12 March 2004 :  Projected first flights in the first quarter of 2005

  • Press release, 4 June 2004 :  No launch date mentioned

  • Press release, 15 June 2004 :  'scheduled to begin service in 2005'

  • Press release, 15 July 2004 :  No launch date mentioned

  • Virgin website Q&A, sighted 31 Dec 04 :  'We hope to start flight operations sometime in mid 2005'

  • Reported in the San Francisco Business Times, 6 Feb 2005 :  'Our research shows that in the best-case scenario, we could launch between nine and 12 months after we file with DOT," said Virgin America spokeswoman Stacy Geagan. "We still have a few months when we could launch in 2005, but as we get later in the year it's possible it will be in 2006".'

I'm taking bets from anyone who wants to wager that Virgin America will operate its first passenger flight anytime this year.  I say they won't.

Virgin America, which was fast to appoint a bunch of executives, still doesn't have the US majority partner that it must have to be approved to operate domestic air service.  When might that happen?  The airline will probably want to have $100 million (or more) in equity.  Senior VP of Flight Operations, Bob Weatherly, in a speech last week before San Mateo convention and visitors officials, said the airline is "well into the equity process" but declined to elaborate.

Two British newspapers, citing Sir Richard Branson, reported within the last month that Virgin America's financing will be concluded over the next few months. Virgin America's spokeswoman would not confirm the reports.

It isn't really the best of times to be starting a new low cost airline.  As the major carriers pull down their own costs, and as the current low cost carriers get bigger and stronger, the opportunities for new entrants become smaller and smaller.

Once a US partner has been signed up, it is then a tortuous process to get the necessary approvals, including the requirement to answer some 22,000 questions as part of the Department of Transportation application.

Virgin America says it expects to take delivery of some Airbus A319 and A320 planes later this year, but declined to say how many it will receive.  I wonder if they even know how many, themselves?

The Japanese have always been a bit more direct about accepting blame and the consequences of mistakes.  After losing $35.6 million in its third quarter, Japan Airlines plans to restructure its businesses drastically to cut costs and increase financial stability.  The airline is starting with reducing the number of board members and executive officers by 30% this year and imposing 20% to 35% pay cuts on the remaining board members and executive officers.  Some US airlines should take careful note.

Here's something to warm your heart.  The French and German governments are keen to reduce poverty in Africa and get more African children into school.  And so, at this week's G7 meeting in London, they are proposing an international tax on aircraft fuel as a way to raise funds for the UN to embezzle and squander efficiently distribute to African nations where the money will then be embezzled and squandered.

It is one thing to be hit up for the 'Change for Good' requests on international flights, but another thing entirely to have the airlines add a second fuel surcharge to every ticket price to cover the cost of funding African aid programs.

Don't hold your breath waiting for this to actually happen.  But M. Jean Lapierre, Canada's Transport minister, says he will move fast towards a deal with the US that would allow US airlines to carry passengers between Canadian cities.  Currently American carriers can fly passengers in and out of Canada but not between Canadian cities.  This would be a great thing for Canadian fliers - giving them access to more competition - but the Canadian airlines won't be too happy about this.  And this deal would almost certainly require reciprocal rights being granted to Canadian carriers to fly between US cities, and that would upset the US carriers, and then - well, you get the picture.

Air Canada's former CEO, Robert Milton, published a book titled 'Straight From the Top: The Truth About Air Canada'.  The book came out in October, and apparently it includes some 'kiss and tell' criticisms of the pilot's union and their actions during a two week strike and subsequent negotiations.  It seems some of the pilots have now read the book, and they've filed a complaint with the Canada Industrial Relations Board accusing Milton of writing "malicious inaccuracies" about the union's executives.  Alas, the book is out of stock at Amazon.

Independence Air, the new startup airline that had been widely expected to go into Chapter 11 last month (but which didn't) has announced new service from its Dulles hub to SAN, LAX, SJC, SFO and SEA, using some of the new A319s it is receiving from Airbus.

Service to San Diego starts on 14 April, and to the other cities on 1 May.  Introductory fares start as low as $84 each way, but many of us might pause and think long and hard before buying tickets today for travel three months out on this airline.

I wish Independence all the very best, and am delighted to see very low fares from Seattle, but it is a bit of a risk anticipating they'll still be flying come May.  January traffic statistics showed an appalling 45.7% load factor on their flights.  The airline says February will be better.

Department of Amazing Coincidences :  No sooner had Independence Air announced these low fares, but - guess what?  United, also with a hub at Dulles, announced identical fares on the same routes, starting from the same dates.  This is not unfair competition, of course.  It is instead both an amazing coincidence and a sensible business decision, brought to you by the brains trust running that bankrupt airline.

Talking about brains trusts and bankrupt airlines, Delta Airlines has come up with an innovative plan to reverse its $5.2 billion loss last year.  New uniforms for the staff.  And so, at fabulous expense (estimated about $1000 per person just for design costs) Delta has come up with some stunning designs.  More about this act of marketing genius, and pictures, on my blog.

That isn't the only innovation DL has come up with this week.  They've also decided to hide the pillows on board their planes.  Or, as they put it themselves, they have 'moved the pillows to the back of the plane to speed up boarding'.

There probably will still be one or two pillows stashed somewhere in the back.  Which is more than you can say of American Airlines, who have decided to remove all pillows off domestic flights, except for trans-continental and Hawaii flights.  And when I say 'all pillows' I do mean all - there won't even be any for first class passengers.

It is expected this may save the airline $375,000 a year, a paltry sum and reminiscent of other cost cutting measures such as taking one leaf of lettuce out of the salad (a cost cutting move eventually trumped by simply eliminating not only the salad but the rest of the meal, too!).  This logic might suggest first the pillow, then the seat, then the floor.  Indeed, let's not joke - they've reversed  their former 'more room in coach' program (it is now 'more seats in coach'), so the seating has already got worse.

If you still want a pillow, here are three options Pro Travel Gear sell a pack with an airline sized pillow, pillow case, airline style blanket, and various other goodies for $8.49.  Alternatively, if you'd like a much better supporting pillow that also deflates into a compact size for carrying, consider Magellan's Adjustable Travel Pillow for $14.85, which most people will probably consider their best choice.  Lastly, if you want to go the whole nine yards, there's always the First Class Sleeper ($39.75 but if you order through Travel Essentials and use our special 'Solitude' discount code, you'll currently save yourself 25%).

Discount UK airline easyJet has come up with a new way to charge passengers more money.  They sell early boarding privileges to up to ten passengers per flight, at a cost of 10 (US$18) per person.  They've been trialing this at London's Luton airport and say there has been a 'mixed response'.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Innocent until proven guilty?  Public trial and presentation of evidence required to establish guilt beyond a reasonable shadow of a doubt?  Inadmissability of hearsay?  The right to face your accusers in open court?  Remember the good old days when these concepts were a central part of our justice system?

Flash forward to our brave new world.  I've written before about Congressmen, Senators, and other 'VIP' passengers getting stuck in the mess of the TSA No Fly list, due to having a name allegedly similar to that of a possible terrorist.  One of our readers - we'll call him our Osama, shall we, is now having the same problem, but - bizarrely - only when he flies Alaska Airlines.  When he flies United, which he does a great deal of the time, he has no problem, but every time he flies Alaska, he is given the third degree at the checkin counter before being reluctantly issued a boarding pass about 30 minutes later.

The TSA are now requiring him to prove who he is by sending in a morass of paperwork (such notarized copies of birth certificates, passport, driver's license, voter registration, etc).

But, why should Osama have to do this?  He has no idea who he is being mistaken for, and certainly in the cases that have been made public in the past, there is often a laughable lack of similarity between the possible terrorist name and the inconvenienced passenger name.  Furthermore, you'd hope that when the TSA has the name of a terrorist on file, they might also have some basic physical description, like 'dark features, brown eyes, under 30'.  And if our Osama is balding, overweight, and mid 50s, surely that in itself is all that is needed to get him off the list.

Instead, our Osama has been deemed guilty of being a suspected terrorist.  He isn't told which terrorist he is guilty of being, or why/how his guilt has been established.  But it is now up to him, to prove beyond a reasonable shadow of a doubt, his innocence.

In other words, the incompetence of the TSA people who are supposedly 'protecting us' needs to be compensated for by inconvenience on our part, and somewhere along the way, the underpinnings of our criminal justice system got swapped around 180 degrees.

I don't think that's right.

And what makes it even more wrong is the ridiculous stupidity and vulnerability of the whole passenger ID system.  Read this stunning analysis of how it is possible for a terrorist to buy a ticket under any name at all, and then forge a duplicate boarding pass on his computer at home - in his own name!!! -  and use that to go through security (where they check your ID against your boarding pass, but don't check either against No Fly lists).  Then he uses the false name ticket's real boarding pass to board the plane (where they don't check ID at all).  He's just beaten the entire security screening and No Fly list process.

So while our reader is struggling to prove he is not a terrorist, real terrorists are waltzing through security any which way they like.

A week ago there was a bit of excitement when two DL flights inbound to New York - one from Amsterdam and one from Paris - both received bomb threats.  A Reuters article explained that at least one of the threats was called into an embassy, and said police and the FBI met the planes in New York.  No-one was allowed off the planes until everyone was questioned (that sounds like fun), and (big surprise here) no arrests were made.

So how does Delta tell the world about this interesting event?  Here's their complete press release :

Delta Flights 119 and 81 Media Advisory Statement

3:11 pm ET  ATLANTA, Feb. 4 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- Delta Air Lines' (NYSE: DAL - News) Flights 119 and 81 arrived without incident at John F. Kennedy International Airport at approximately 1:30 p.m. EST.

However, both aircraft were momentarily held back from the gate on instructions from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Both aircraft were cleared by the TSA and are now at their gates and passengers have been deplaned normally. The aircraft have resumed scheduled service. There will be no further statements from Delta concerning these flights.

For more information, please contact the TSA.

I don't actually see any mention of the bomb threats in that statement, do you?  And I wonder exactly how long 'momentarily held back' actually was?

A bit of trivia...  In a Best Western press release, I learned that it would take 844 years and two months to stay in every single hotel room in the Best Western chain worldwide.  And, no, I'm not about to check this.

Lastly this week, Valentine's Day is just around the corner.  If you don't yet have anyone to be your Valentine, perhaps you could consider emulating this innovative Australian gentleman.  Or, perhaps not.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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