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Friday 18 March, 2005 

Good morning

May I utter a brief word of both self-congratulation and thanks to all you who made this possible?  A few days ago, the Alexa website rating service upped our ranking to the 28,927th most visited site on the entire internet, getting us through the 30,000 barrier.  While the idea of being excited at being 28,926 positions behind number one might seem strange, when you think about how many millions or billions of websites there are out there, getting this close to the top is an extraordinary accomplishment.

I have the Alexa toolbar loaded onto my web browser.  It tells me, every time I visit any website, what its traffic ranking is.  It is invaluable as a way to distinguish between truly popular sites and those which pretend to be something they're really not.  You can get a copy from their website.

Disaster struck earlier this afternoon, in the form of a Frontpage crash.  Frontpage is the Microsoft program I use to create webpages and newsletters, and it is developing an uncanny sense of appreciating when I'm writing on tight deadline.  Unlike the other components of the MS Office suite, it doesn't have an auto-save either.

So I now find myself having written this week's feature column twice rather than once, and starting the newsletter at a time when I normally wish to be finishing it.  Hopefully the column will be all the better for the mandatory rewrite, and the newsletter will be slightly shorter.

This Week's Feature Column :  The definitive guide to everything you ever wanted to know about all forms of motion sickness cures :  In part 2 of this series, I analyze and evaluate all sorts of motion sickness cures, from the simple to the bizarre.  Find out which put you to sleep, which do nothing at all, and which actually work.

Dinosaur watching :  In 2004, United Airlines completed its second year in bankruptcy, and lost a further $1.6 billion.  Today, it shows no signs of exiting bankruptcy any time soon, and its earlier promise to have finished its reorganization in 18 months is a distant memory.  It has shouldered the taxpayers with billions of dollars of pension liabilities, and regularly demands still more pay cuts from its staff.

So how do you think United rewarded its CEO for its disappointing performance in 2004?  It pays him a bonus.  In a scenario where a pink slip might seem more appropriate, they handed him a $366,000 bonus, making his total earnings for the year $1.1 million.

In case you think this a bit much, United's spokeswoman Jean Medina points out that poor Mr Tilton is among the lowest paid of major airline CEOs.  And she points out that the airline met its operating targets for 2004, although strangely the operating targets have nothing to do with actually making money.

Next highest paid was United's Executive VP of marketing, sales and revenue.  Although you might think the airline is scoring poorly in all three categories (particularly the third!), he was given $445,000 in bonus pay on top of his $541,000 salary.

United's generosity seems to be narrowly confined to its executive offices.  A story in Chicago Business this week tells how United pilots have to ask a flight attendant for a glass of water, because they are not allowed to have a whole bottle of water at a time. Apparently pilots were helping themselves to full bottles from the drink cart, and (if you can believe this) causing some flights to run out of bottled water.

Some people might think that instead of six figure bonuses, a better outcome for United's senior executives and board would be what happened yesterday to Garuda's entire board.  The Indonesian government fired Garuda's board, after a succession of disappointing financial results.

How bizarre that the US needs to take lessons in accountability from Indonesia.

We taxpayers have just reached into our pockets to dole out another $2.1 billion to United and its employees.  The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp is now taking over the pension plans for United's ground employees, guaranteeing payment of $2.1 billion of the estimated $2.9 billion shortfall in these plans.

This is not only unfair to us as taxpayers, but also massively unfair to other airlines - most notably Delta - who are still burdened with shortfalls in their fixed benefit pension plans.  How can airlines freely compete in the open market when one airline is having billions of dollars in operating costs taken away and passed over to the taxpayers?

The government's actions are distorting the free marketplace and making fair competition impossible.  They are forcing the hand of the other airlines, who quite properly will now seek similar treatment to restore a level playing field for all airlines.

Resolving the disparity in pension plan obligations/commitments will be one of the major issues during the balance of this year.

It used to be that the big airlines gobbled up the small ones.  That was, of course, back when the big airlines could actually operate profitably.

How times have changed.  First, we saw the big airlines split out their smaller regional operations, and eventually these flights became operated by truly independent other airlines, operating under flight numbers of the airline they contracted with.

Meanwhile, the major airlines lost more and more money, while the regional airlines, operating routes the majors didn't want to touch directly, often remained profitable.

Now we find the small little airlines are actually bailing out the big airlines.  US Airways first got a $125 million investment from Air Wisconsin, and now has secured a second $125 million from Republic Airways.  Each airline will receive between 19% - 25% of US Airways' stock when it emerges from Chapter 11.

It is probable that a third regional carrier, Mesa Air, might pony up a further $100 million.

This is another example of companies that are too tightly locked in to the fortunes of US Airways making investments that other companies, with no such offsetting factors, have proven to be generally unwilling to countenance.  Republic, for example, gets almost half its income from US Airways contracts - it needs US Airways to stay in business so as to stay in business itself.  Mesa gets 33% of its revenues from US Airways.

Air Wisconsin, on the other hand, currently gets all its revenue from United, but in return for its $125 million, it has secured an agreement to operate as many as 70 planes for US Airways.

Is this a good move for US Airways?  Probably not, but beggars can't be choosers.  The three regional carriers, who are also to get seats on US' board, will find themselves facing massive conflicts of interest.  How can they negotiate agreements between themselves (as US Airways) with themselves (as the regional carrier contractors)?  At best, there'll be a complex game of musical chairs where they are continually needing to excuse themselves from sections of each board meeting due to conflicts of interest, and/or going through elaborate pretexts of erecting 'Chinese Walls' between what they know and want wearing one hat and what they know and want wearing their other hat.

Supplier ownership will prove no more successful than employee ownership did for United.

Winning a prize for 'ooops of the week' was the Airbus A310 that had its rudder fall off (see picture here).  This raises some terrifying questions and broad implications, discussed in my blog entry.

A scary statistic was quoted in the 8 March Wall St Journal article 'Tight Airline Staffing Leaves Little Room for Error'.  This article reports the following increases in mishandled luggage in the last twelve months :

  • United Airlines 14.6% worse than last year

  • American Airlines 33.2%

  • Southwest Airlines 39.2%

  • Continental Airlines 55.7%

  • Northwest Airlines 80.5%

  • Delta Airlines 102.1%

  • U.S. Airways 331.5%

Form your own conclusions, and consider a service like Sports Express (reviewed here) next time you're traveling somewhere.

A different scorecard, this time from JD Power & Assocs, rated airlines in terms of customer satisfaction.  Winning the first two places were JetBlue and Southwest.  Coming last was Northwest.  Details here.

Giving us a hint of who will come last next year, it is interesting to note that the survey was taken before Northwest announced it would no longer offer free food and complimentary pillows on many domestic flights.

Self checkin terminals have become commonplace for airline passengers.  And now they seem likely to spread to hotels.  Some Starwood and Hilton properties already have them, and Marriott are adding them this summer.  In a rather disingenuous comment, CEO JW Marriott jr conceded 'Eventually, the kiosks will likely result in some cuts at the front desk'.

The kiosks will let you check in, change your room, your bedding configuration, and length of stay, and will eventually be integrated with airline checkin systems so they can print your next boarding pass for you, too.

Starwood's CTO Tom Conophy conceded their check-in kiosks may lead to labor savings 'over time' but suggested redundant front desk staff would likely be 'repurposed' into serving guests in other ways.  He added 'We would look at staff we have now take on different roles, such as lobby ambassadors'.


Meanwhile, here's an amenity few American hotels need to offer.  A new hotel in the northern Russian city of Nadym is offering free parking for reindeer as a booking incentive.  The 15 room hotel has a special parking lot for reindeer, next to the spaces for snowmobiles.

Cell phone radiation dangers, continued....  A federal court of appeals this week reinstated five class-action lawsuits against the cellphone industry.  The suits claim the wireless carriers fail to adequately protect consumers from unsafe levels of radiation, and seek to require phone manufacturers to provide free headsets with all cell phones.  Oh, plus some damages, too (translation - money for the attorneys).

The suit had earlier been dismissed on the grounds that federal wireless regulations trumped the state laws the claims were filed under.

Point of interest :  Lead attorney for the cellphone industry is Ken Starr, formerly of Whitewater, etc, fame.

Cell phones should be simpler?  That is what Cingular's CEO said in a forum earlier this week.  But, on the other hand, T-mobile's CEO conceded 'Every new idea we fall in love with'.

Various states and entire countries continue to pass laws banning cell phone use while driving.  Okay, so maybe using a cell phone detracts from 100% concentration on the road ahead.  But so does everything else.

I received a press release this week from a travel accessory company, High Road, claiming a recent survey showed that 30% of all female drivers aged 18 - 34 said they either had or almost had an accident because they were reaching for or looking for something in their car.

Perhaps - for greater safety - we should not be allowed to carry anything in the car, and be required to keep everything in the trunk?

And it might not only be laws prohibiting cell phone use in the privacy of our own car.  Four out of ten people in this survey advocated laws against using cell phones in public places, too.

This week's 'Making lemonade out of lemons' award goes to the Boeing spokesman who shared a KPBS radio program with me earlier this week.  He explained that Boeing's response to the airline industry downturn was to halve production of new airplanes.  Mighty magnanimous of Boeing, particularly when those nasty people at Airbus selfishly kept on selling planes at ever increasing levels (see chart here).

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A Canadian professional blogger was invited to meet a major New York publisher to discuss a joint publishing venture.  Unfortunately, he never got to make the meeting, because the US Immigration Officer refused to believe that it was possible to work full time as a blogger.

After two hours of detention and an internal cavity body search (what for???) the blogger was denied entry to the US.  Partial details here.

During the same two hours, an unknown number of illegal immigrants crossed the border from Mexico.  Probably, none of them were bloggers.  Our thanks to the Immigration Service for prioritizing its enforcement and keeping our country safe.

One of American Airlines' Platinum level frequent fliers wondered if he'd be getting a meal, not just pretzels, on a coast to coast flight earlier this week.  He went in to the galley to discuss this.  We are told what happened next by FBI investigators, because the police were called to intercept the flight when it landed in Miami.

Amazingly, however, for once it seems the passenger was believed.  The FBI said that after the passenger asked if he'd be getting a meal, one flight attendant said no, and then another flight attendant pushed the traveler and told him to leave the galley.  FBI investigators said the flight attendant covered his name badge during the altercation, and the passenger grabbed the flight attendant's pen to try and identify the flight attendant that way.

The passenger then sat down and complained to the senior flight attendant.

The passenger will not be charged.  Unfortunately, neither will any of the flight attendants.

Can anyone imagine this happening at Nordstroms - or even at Walmart?  A high value customer asks a question, is rough-housed, and then the police are called by the staff!

Reader Mike had problems going through security in Bozeman.  He had a fossil which they wouldn't let him take in his carry-on, for fear he might use it as a weapon.

Question to TSA :  Why do you let people carry on glass bottles, but not fossils?  Who is more likely to cause a problem - the passenger with the bottle of whiskey, or the fossil collector?

Inviting punishment for hubris is this quote 'Indeed, some members of Congress and security experts now consider airplanes to be so well fortified that they say it is time to shift resources to other vulnerable sectors, like ports and power plants' in this article.

Lastly this week, thanks to John, our Virgin Rainbow friend, for these oldies but goldies :

The following purport to be actual exchanges between airline pilots and control towers around the world.


Tower: "Delta 351, you have traffic at 10 o'clock, 6 miles!"

Delta 351: "Give us another hint! We have digital watches!"


"US 234, for noise abatement turn right 45 Degrees."

"Centre, we are at 35,000 feet. How much noise can we make up here?"

"Sir, have you ever heard the noise a 747 makes when it hits a 737?"


Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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