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Friday 25 February, 2005 

Good morning

Thanks to the many people who wrote in about Paypal last week.  There was a complete range of responses, from people reporting an increase in spam after joining Paypal to one person who actually noticed a decrease in spam.  Most people saw no difference before or after establishing a Paypal account.

On balance, it seems fair to deem any perceived increases in spam after getting Paypal as unrelated, or possibly as related to other things done at the same time (such as buying something from a merchant who required you to pay via Paypal, with the merchant then reselling your email address).

And, as for emails pretending to be from Paypal, trying to trick you to go to a website that looks like Paypal, but which isn't, so you'll enter your personal details which they then can reuse themselves, these 'phishing' emails are very common.  Why do so many of them try and trick you into giving up your Paypal info?  Not because they know you have a Paypal account, but simply because it is more likely you'll have a Paypal account than any other type of specific online credit card.

US Airways continues to have baggage handling problems, with some passengers waiting three hours for their bags last weekend, and one woman having to wear her bathing suit to her wedding rehearsal dinner due to delayed bags.  This sort of passenger abuse has got to stop, which brings me, inevitably, to :

This Week's Feature Column :  An Airline Passenger Bill of Rights :  Read my sixteen suggested rights for airline passengers, and then, please, tell me what you think?  Is there a 17th that should be added?  Or one that should be changed?

Let's get as realistic and good a set of passenger rights as possible, and then let's unite and push these to our representatives.  The airlines have shown they can't be trusted to care for us when motivated only by the carrot of our continued business.  They know we have to fly them, whether we like it or not.

At present, think of the 'big six' airlines sitting in a circle.  Every passenger that defects from one of the big six simply moves to another of the big six (less some leakage that they're only just now noticing to lower cost carriers), and so each of the big six is picking up disaffected customers from their competitors at a rate comparable to what they're losing their current customers.  The net result - they all keep their market shares at very similar levels, and have no motivation to respond to carrot enticements.

Enough of the carrot.  It's time for some stick.  We need an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

Today - Friday - is the last day of the Travel Essentials 25% discount sale.  Through midnight tonight, you can still get 25% of everything they sell on their website that isn't already on sale, including the Plane Quiet and Solitude noise cancelling headphones, the Steripen, TSA approved luggage locks, and all sorts of other travel essentials.

To get the 25% discount, simply use the code 'solitude' (without the quotes) when checking out.

Dinosaur watching :  US Airways has found someone willing to invest $125 million into its refinancing.  Who would be as brave as to do this, you might wonder?  US Airways itself said it would be difficult to find anyone wanting to bet on a two-time loser.

Another airline is who would be this brave.  Air Wisconsin, a regional carrier that currently flies United Express services, has stumped up the cash.

Talking about bankruptcy, and about United, UAL has delayed still further its own emergence from Chapter 11, and is now talking about possibly some time this fall, which will make it almost three years since its December 2002 entry into bankruptcy (at which time it predicted an 18 month duration).

And talking about United and delays, bad news for people on at least 54 flights on Monday when one of their computer systems broke down for about 45 minutes.  Flights were delayed for up to 70 minutes.

Last week we reported on America West's CEO making the unoriginal observation that there needs to be consolidation in the US airline industry.  Proving there's nothing an airline exec likes better than following other airline execs - wherever this may lead - this week United's CEO, Glenn Tilton made similar utterances.

Although he boldly anticipated that UA would be one of the buyers during a round of consolidation; from their present position enmired in two plus years of Chapter 11, they look a lot more like a buyee than a buyer to me!

However, his confidence does underscore one reality.  Airlines that go through Chapter 11 can create an unfair advantage over airlines who choose to play the game fairly.

Talking about airlines who choose to play the game fairly, good news this week from Independence Air.  They've managed to complete their restructuring, without going through Chapter 11, and now believe they have the resources and reserves to continue building a viable new business.

Time will tell, of course, but at least they now have more time to play with.  One of the interesting parts of their new approach to the market is that they now sell tickets through travel agents, and attribute the help of travel agents to boosting their February loads up to between 62% - 65%; appreciably up on the 55% - 60% they'd been outlooking last month.  They expect March may be close to 70%, also strongly up on their earlier estimate of 60%, and getting the airline tantalizingly close to operational break-even.

There's something quite surprising buried in the latest announcement from small new low cost airline, JetBlue.  The announcement records that JetBlue is adding four flights a day between Burbank and JFK, which will make it the only airline to offer nonstops from Burbank to New York.

But the really significant thing is that, with these extra flights, JetBlue will now be offering more daily nonstops from New York to California than any other airline.  JetBlue will have 27 daily nonstops.

And the airline I had mentally tagged as 'least likely to succeed' has just announced its latest route expansion, into Pittsburgh.  The airline?  Hooters Air, which has grown to now service eleven cities.  Flights feature leather seats, extra leg room, and as well as the pilots and flight attendants, some 'Hooters Girls'.  I guess I underestimated their assets.

When you think of some of the world's truly great brands, one thing you'll notice is their slogans and logos are long lasting.  Not so, the airlines.  America West is now unveiling its ninth new campaign since its inception in 1983, of which only one has lasted more than three years.  It now aims to position itself as the country's premier low cost carrier, with the new slogan 'Get On Board'.  Or is it, perhaps, 'Get onboard'?  Or 'get on-board'?  If you really want to know, there are more details in this article.

Bizarrely, the airline is limiting its promotion to only around the Phoenix area, because that won't cost as much.  Or, perhaps they realize it isn't really worth much, and this way, it won't be so embarrassing if they change it again in another year or so.

The US airline industry is suffering from overcapacity, or so all the money-losing dinosaurs would have us believe.  This claim is not only wrong, but also curious, because, if the industry is suffering from over-capacity, who is to blame?  The same people who are complaining about it!  The latest evidence of (take your pick) either responding to the need to add more capacity or creating more unneeded overcapacity is reported here.  Thanks to reader Fred for passing this in.

The global airline industry is in a critically bad state.  It lost $5 billion, last year alone.

Or is it?  When you adjust for the $9 billion lost by the major US carriers, the rest of the world's airlines actually made a $4 billion profit.  Passenger traffic was up an extraordinary 15.3% and cargo was up 13.4%.  Although all airlines are similarly affected by fuel increases, it seems the rest of the world's airlines (and a few US carriers, too) can do a better job of trading, even when costs increase.

More official nonsense about allowing US carriers to operate between Canadian cities and vice versa.  As I've said before, this is unlikely to happen any time soon, despite earlier positive statements from the Canadians.  Joining in the chorus is our own man of action, US Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, who said he believes the US and Canada can 'move ahead quickly with exploratory discussions to establish a framework for a more open bilateral agreement'.

Wow.  Exploratory discussions.  Establishing a framework.  Not exactly action words with accountable outcomes or timelines.

And talking about slow progress, the FAA, renowned for its snail like pace, is now proposing new rules to require upgrades to cockpit voice and data recorders (the 'black boxes').  The voice recorders would have to record the last two hours rather than the last 15 - 30 minutes of cockpit sounds, and the data recorders would record some extra data, and sample the data more frequently.  In addition, both CVRs and FDRs would be given a 10 minute backup power source - currently, if power is lost, the units stop operating.

The need for better black boxes has been apparent for a long time, certainly stretching back to the Swissair crash in 1998, the EgyptAir crash in 1999, and the 'other' American Airlines crash in 2001.

If/when the FAA introduces this new requirement, the airlines will have four years to upgrade their black boxes.  So, at a minimum, it will be more than ten years between when the Swissair crash exposed inadequacies in the black boxes and the resolution to their shortcomings.

Good news for Boeing.  Ryanair has announced an order for 70 new 737-800s.  Ryanair says that within about five years, it will have grown to be the largest carrier in Europe.  Details here.

I wrote about Qantas being probably the world's most profitable airline last week, and the support the airline is getting from some Australian politicians to enable it to preserve its dominant position on the Australia-US route.  One politician was quoted as doubting if extra flights would cause prices to drop.

Melbourne's Sunday Age newspaper did some research on ticket prices and reported in last Sunday's paper.  The cost of a ticket from Melbourne to Los Angeles was generally 33% more expensive than the cost of a ticket from Melbourne to London (approximately nine hours flying time further away).  Case proved, and rather decisively.

Bearing in mind this data, how to make sense of Qantas' announcement this week that it is raising its first class fares from the US by 3%?  This is due to 'increased operational costs'.  Sounds to me like it is more due to wanting 'increased operational profits'.

Last week Qantas reported a 28.1% increase in its half year profit.  This week Air New Zealand reports a slight drop in its half year profit, due to, it says, strengthened exchange rates and increased fuel costs.  Interesting to compare, isn't it - maybe Qantas planes don't use fuel?  And NZ's strengthening dollar actually reduces the cost of its fuel (costed in increasingly cheaper US dollars of course).

Air NZ is doing one very positive thing, however.  It is introducing a fourth cabin into its planes - a premium economy class.  This type of seating - slightly wider and more comfortable seats with more leg room - really is the sweet spot in terms of value for money, giving you a much more comfortable flying experience for only a little more than coach.  Let's hope Qantas quickly matches.

While I love to see competition, in Australia or anywhere else, here's an airline I'd give close to zero percent chance of surviving :  Ozjet, a new Australian airline-to-be that describes itself as a 'budget business class airline' (isn't that an oxymoron?).  The airline plans to offer all business class seating in 30 year old 737-200s, and offer service on the most popular routes in Australia such as Sydney-Melbourne.

One problem with these planes is that the engines on them can't be serviced anywhere in Australia.  The planes are also markedly fuel inefficient, but the airline says the cost of fuel will be offset by the lower capital cost of the airplanes themselves.  Interesting logic, which if other airlines followed, would spell doom for Boeing and Airbus, with airlines all racing to buy the oldest nastiest and cheapest planes they could find.  Someone should explain this to Ryanair.

These issues are far from the only obstacle the airline needs to resolve.  Business travelers generally like conveniences such as regular schedules, an extensive network so one airline can fly them everywhere, frequent flier programs with lots of partners, club lounges, etc.  Ozjet will offer - umm, none of these.

One more Australian item.  Melbourne Airport suffered an attack of gas hysteria earlier this week - or was it, perhaps, simply mass hysteria?  Details on my blog.

Paris' Orly airport is suffering from a different type of hysteria.  A worker was accused of failing to observe safety procedures in an incident that caused the death of a flight attendant (who fell from a jetway, due to it apparently being moved too soon).  The worker was suspended as a result of the death.

So what do the ground staff do?  They go on strike, but not due to unsafe working conditions, and not because the worker was only suspended rather than charged with manslaughter.  But, instead, they are protesting that the worker was suspended at all!  They say the accident was the fault of cost-cutting and seeking faster plane turnarounds.

It is unknown what opinion the flight attendants' union has on this matter.

Talking about Paris, the evolution of cell phones is an amazing thing.  Do you remember when cell phones had no memory at all?  And then, they had perhaps nine numbered memory spaces for phone numbers - it was only slightly easier remembering which memory number you'd saved a phone number to than it was to remember the phone number itself.

Flash forward to today.  Now phones have virtually unlimited storage for names, addresses, phone numbers, just about anything and everything.  Indeed, some phones don't even store this data on the phone, but, for added capacity, it is stored remotely, on a central server at the wireless phone company.

But - ooops - this is how hackers managed to get the personal phone book and other information from Paris Hilton's T-mobile Sidekick PDA/phone last weekend.  After gleaning her password, they were able to access all her online personal data.  Sometimes progress isn't such a great thing after all.

And here's another type of problematic progress on the cell phone front.

Children truly know how to push their parents' hot buttons.  A survey of children showed that three out of four said they need a vacation (what happened to the fourth, I wonder!), according to travel research firm Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown and Russell.  As enticement to their parents, one third of children said that they would be more likely to talk to their parents, almost half said they'd be less likely to argue, and three quarters offered to watch less tv.

What do kids like least about a family vacation?  Getting up early and long rides in the car.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A former worker of Covenant Aviation Security, the independent provider of security at San Francisco International Airport, has sued them, alleging breaches including allowing unchecked passengers to board aircraft, failing to detect weapons and alerting checkpoint managers about the presence of supposedly "covert" inspectors.

The suit was filed last Friday and alleges the security company ignored a series of security breaches at SFO beginning in December 2003.  The worker says Covenant devised an elaborate system to notify security checkpoint managers when inspectors, who are dressed like other passengers, are in the airport.

Covenant provides security at two of the five US airports participating in a pilot program set up by Congress after 9/11 to contrast private sector security with TSA security. Covenant says the suit is being brought by a disgruntled worker.

Reader Ron writes

I was cleaning out my camera bag on Friday, and found a pocket knife in one of the bag's pockets. It's not a hunting knife by any means, but it has a 2" blade, cork screw, screwdrivers, etc. Not an unusual find, until I thought about it a bit.

I put the knife into the bag last summer before I went on a local mountain trek. Since then, I took a trip from my home in Colorado to Kauai and carried the bag onto the flights as carry-on luggage. The knife went undetected through Denver, San Francisco and Lihue security! I can hesitatingly understand it being missed by security once - but three times!? Meanwhile, my wife was given the fifth degree for the finger nail clippers she forgot to remove from her toiletry bag...

We've spoken about matching ID to tickets as a security measure recently.  But what use is a driver's license as ID when New York State has been told by its Supreme Court it must issue licenses to illegal 'immigrants'.

Here's a very lucky person :  A man fell overboard off the Crystal Harmony, while 100 miles south of Ensenada and bound for San Diego, on Wednesday at 6am. A crew member saw him fall; the ship turned around and he was rescued, having suffered no injuries.  But don't go trying this yourself.

Trivia question of the week :  What movie was recently named by Budget Travel magazine as the greatest travel-inspiring movie of all time?  The answer is on my blog.

Have you ever wondered at the sorts of questions people ask national tourist offices?  Have you ever wondered at the sort of answers they get, especially when the tourist office in question is Australia's?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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