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22 April, 2005 

Good morning

Sincere thanks to everyone who so kindly responded to our fundraising drive.  312 readers have sent in contributions, and more are promised in the mail.  This mention now marks the end of the overt fundraising drive,  although a subtle link will remain at the top of each newsletter; and of course you're welcome to send in any amount at any time (including now if you've been meaning to and haven't yet got around to it).

Many readers are second time contributors, and special mention must be made of Leah, who sent in a very generous sum after the first request on 8 April, and then sent in a second very generous sum on Tuesday this week, which sets a record for frequency of contributing.

This week's 'Donor of the Week' is David Dillinger, founder of the company that makes the Plane Quiet noise reducing headphones.  The enormous size of his contribution probably is a fair reflection on the enormous number of readers who have bought his products over the last several years (models of his headphones have won the reader-voted product of the year awards in both 2003 and 2004).

His company has grown from being a single product company to now offering three different models of noise reducing headphones (the entry level Latitude, the mid level NC-6 and the top of the line Solitude) and his website (protravelgear.com) offers a wide range of other travel related products as well.

David is offering a gift to all of you, too.  A 25% discount off anything and everything on his website, including, yes, the headphones.  Plus there is free shipping if your order exceeds $100, and if you order the Solitude headphones, they are sent to you Fedex overnight at no extra charge.

To receive the 25% discount, use the coupon code "flowers" (without the quotes) when completing your order.  This special deal is good through 5 May only.

And, ahem, if you should benefit from this discount offer and haven't yet donated, perhaps you might like to split your savings with us here.....

The savings in this issue of The Travel Insider don't stop there, either.  One of the most frustrating things for me, when flying anywhere, is the cost of airport parking.  Last time I went out of town I resolved to find a better way of getting a good deal on airport parking, and now I think I've found it.  Which leads to

This Week's Feature Column :  Discount Airport Parking : After paying more for the airport parking than for my plane ticket, I've resolved not to repeat this experience.  And, no, I'm not going to pay more for my airfares.  Instead, I've found a website offering discounted airport parking in 113 cities across the US, Canada, and UK.  Check to see if your city is included, and hopefully the values they offer are as good in your home town as they are for me in Seattle.

Dinosaur watching :  I reported the rumors of America West buying US Airways last week.  This week the rumors were confirmed by both airlines, but after most analysts greeted the suggestion with the same doubt and lack of enthusiasm as I did last week, it seems the airlines may have stepped back from the altar.

Their intentions were to merge into a low-cost national carrier that would adopt the name of US Airways, although America West would take over the management of the merged carrier and the headquarters would be in Phoenix.

However, the lack of enthusiasm shown in the markets for this concept might prove fatal.  The merged airline would need an injection of as much as $500 million in new equity, and there seem few institutions interested in giving this to them.

USA Today has a good article on the situation.  And this article includes the memorable quote from a couple of analysts who say 'The only thing worse than an airline liquidation is an airline merger'!

Last week United asked its bankruptcy judge for another extension of time to file a reorganization plan.  The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp had some cutting comments to offer, in a filing opposing United terminating its pension plans.  The PBGC pointed out that UA's last business plan is now over six months old, and said United has no imminent plans to emerge from bankruptcy.  The PBGC not unreasonably asks that UA be required to file a completed business plan before terminating its pension plans, so as to maintain at least a thin illusion that UA actually does have some sort of vision for the future.

This week, it was US Airways' turn to ask its bankruptcy judge for an extension.  US Airways had a 15 April deadline, and they have asked for an extension through to the end of the month.

Does anyone care to bet as to whether or not they'll be asking for another extension come 30 April?  Today is already half-way there and all we're seeing are very mixed messages about maybe/maybe not merging in some manner with America West.  I can't see any way the airline will have a plan filed by next Saturday.  Shame on the judge for not recognizing this obvious impossibility.

US Airways' potential partner, America West, reported a good first quarter profit of $33.6 million, but if it weren't for special items, they would otherwise have shown a $10.8 million loss.  Last year they made a small $1.6 million profit.

JetBlue is reporting a $7 million profit (compared to $15.2 million last year), which continues JetBlue's record of unbroken profits every quarter since its April 2002 IPO.

Dinosaurs aren't reporting such good results.  Delta lost $1.1 billion, American lost $162 million, Northwest lost $458 million and Continental lost $184 million.  No results yet from United or US Airways, but you can be sure they won't be good.

We all know airlines are tightening up on the 'fine print' and trying to find new ways to gouge us.  Thanks to ARTA for this heads-up :  It used to be you had a year (from when the ticket was issued) to seek a refund or to apply an unused ticket to alternate travel.  Now - in some circumstances - NW and KLM are cutting this back to a mere 90 days.

Northwest claims this will reduce the number of no-show passengers and will reduce their administrative costs of tracking unused tickets for a whole year.  This is a nonsense claim (assuming of course that NW has entered the age of computer databases rather than using manual ledgers), and indeed most airlines would see the benefit of having a 'float' of up to twelve months on paid for but unused tickets.

Chances are NW is hoping you won't do anything about your ticket within the shorter 90 day deadline.

And changing a ticket is no longer an easy process.  I offered to help a friend change his ticket earlier this week.  I called Alaska Airlines, and first got a very unfriendly message telling callers to go away if they hadn't bought their tickets directly from AS.  I ignored this message, and was then transferred to their ticket change department, where a computer told me to expect an average hold time of 24 minutes (I had to take another call after 17 minutes on hold and gave up on helping my friend accordingly).

If Alaska Airlines thinks forcing customers to wait 24 minutes before allowing them to speak to a representative, under limited conditions, is the way to return to profitability, it is no wonder their first quarter results showed an increased loss of $80.5 million this quarter (compared to $42.7 million last year).

Reader Will wrote the following which rather accurately sums up the state of the airlines at present :

I just turned 57, and I have been traveling constantly for 30+ years by air. Never has it been so awful. The airlines all suck, despite some cheery reports to the contrary.

JetBlue and ilk just look good by comparison to the others, as in the old saw, In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Nothing will ever replace the great service even schlock airlines used to dole out in coach, not to mention first class, and the perks for good customers that were routinely provided in more recent years to prevent misconnects and guarantee rebookings, etc. All gone now.

Weve returned to the dark ages, and I see not a flicker of light among domestic carriers. Glad Ill be retiring in a few years.

A slight correction :  Last week I said Virgin America employs 17 people.  In actual fact, their website profiles 11 managers and 26 staff, plus shows another 13 open vacancies.  Not bad for an airline with no planes, no passengers, and no funding.

Amtrak's ill-starred high speed Acela trains have had another set-back.  These trains are a case-book study in Amtrak incompetence, with the crowning example being they were built 4" too wide to take corners at high speed.  They've had plenty of problems to date, but now the entire Acela fleet has been taken out of service and will remain that way until some time hopefully in July.

Minute (1/25th of an inch) cracks were found in 21% of brake rotors on the 20 trains, and Amtrak's total inventory of spares was less than needed to replace the rotors on a single train.  In a possible over-abundance of caution, rather than move rotors about so that 15 of the 20 trains could continue to operate, Amtrak has taken every train out of service, no matter if its rotors are flawed or not.

The brakes were supposed to last a million miles, and have been in service for about half that duration, making it unsurprising that some are starting to show signs of wear.

Things the cruise lines don't want you to know (cont) :  A 70 ft wave hit the Norwegian Dawn as it sailed up the coast from FL to New York, causing injury and panic to passengers.

Things the cruise lines really don't want you to know :  The Norwegian Dawn had cancelled a stop in Nassau and was rushing early back to New York, sailing into the storm perhaps ill-advisedly.  And why did the ship cancel a promised port of call, and attempt an early return to New York?  Oh - so the ship could be featured in an episode of the Donald Trump 'The Apprentice' tv show!

A spokeswoman for Norwegian Cruise Lines said 'We were not rushing back for any reason' and refused to comment on any involvement with the tv show.  Want to bet her nose was growing as she said this?  And, if we're to believe this ridiculous lie, they cancelled a port stop and the captain of the ship headed directly into the path of the storm, all for no reason.  Maybe better to have told the truth on this occasion.

Talking about lies, a survey by a British travel insurance company shows that 20% of UK holiday makers admitted to making false claims related to their travel insurance.  Most common sin - inflating the value of items lost or stolen.

I've been quick to point out Boeing's failings in the past, but could it possibly be that Boeing is now winning back some of its edge This article fairly points out that Airbus has, to date, messed up their response to the Boeing 787.  Airbus' earlier claim that the 787 was really no better than its own A330 was then replaced by the promise of a new Airbus plane, the A350.  But while Boeing continues to secure orders for its 787, Airbus hasn't had a single taker for its proposed new A350, and so far this year, Boeing has a massive lead in new plane orders.

But it is simplistic and deceptive to judge things on new plane orders alone.  An airplane order is a very subjective thing, and really only becomes 100% completely unconditional when the plane has been delivered AND paid for.  And Airbus promises it will secure 100 orders for its new A350 by the end of this year.  Time will tell how realistic this may be.

Cell phone madness 1 :  When Cingular bought out AT&T, they forced AT&T subscribers to get a new handset when converting to Cingular service.  This was entirely unnecessary - they could have simply unlocked the present handsets and given their transferring customers a Cingular SIM to replace the AT&T SIM.  Instead, their refusal to unlock handsets to allow their own customers to use the phones they like and are comfortable with is encouraging many customers to simply leave entirely.  And it is also providing a small windfall to me with my phone unlocking service.

If you have an AT&T/Cingular or T-mobile (or any other GSM) phone from LG, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, Siemens or Sony Ericsson, the chances are I can unlock it for you so you can use it with any other SIMs, anywhere else in the world the phone has coverage.  Details on the model links above.

Cell phone madness 2 :  Cingular's customer support seems to be totally crazy these days, and I'm getting reports of outrageous untruths people are being told when they call for help.  I had a small experience myself this week.  I called their customer service and punched in my phone number.  After some holding, a person answered the phone and asked for my phone number a second time (doh!) and then said 'Oh, I can't help you, you need to talk to one of the west coast reps, let me transfer you'.  Why was the call assigned to her?

The second rep was unable to help my problem (I needed to re-activate an expired SIM), but eventually said they would transfer me to the 'cancellations' department, and promised me someone there would be able to re-activate the SIM.

More time on hold, then the third person, after delays and discussions, said it was impossible to re-activate the SIM.  Totally and completely impossible.  Recognizing a brick wall when I run into one, I asked how to protect the credit I had just placed on the expired SIM, and so I was transferred to the billing department to see if I could get my money back.

The fourth person interrupted my long story and said 'Oh, so you want to re-activate your SIM?'  I said, cautiously 'Well, yes, if that is possible'.  The lady assured me it was, and two minutes later, the SIM was reactivated.

Neither Cingular nor I can afford to waste half an hour on what should be a trivial issue that the first person should surely have been able to resolve.

Cell phone madness 3 :  T-mobile have 'upgraded' their voicemail service.  Except that now the new upgraded voicemail service only works properly with phones purchased from T-mobile.  Although the central core value of GSM phone service is that it is universal and hardware independent; T-mobile, in a blatant attempt at penalizing people who don't buy phones from them, have made their voicemail reliant on something special loaded only into their own phones.

T-mobile should look to the lessons from the computer world.  Companies that try and make closed incompatible systems invariably lose out to companies who make their systems open architecture.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Too much bad news about the war against terrorism?  Then let's stop publishing the news!

After the government's top terrorism center said there were more terrorism events in 2004 than in any year since 1985, the government decided to stop publishing their annual report on world terrorism.

Closer to home, the latest test of TSA screening effectiveness at our airports shows that detection rates of guns and knives remain unimproved and virtually unchanged from as long as ago as 1987.  20% of weapons continue to get past the screeners.

Think about that 20% - this means one in every five.  Or, to put it another way, on 9/11 there were five hijackers per plane.  Even with our super-duper security today, on average one of each of those five hijackers could still smuggle weapons onto their flight.

All of which provides relevant context to the latest lunacy, the banning of cigarette lighters from both carry-on and checked baggage.  This article quotes Chris Yates from Jane's Transport publications who says (my emphasis)

It is going to do absolutely nothing. It is part of the public relations exercise that has gone on since September 11, 2001.  It is to convince the traveling public that something is being done about security. They have banned a lot of inoffensive items from airplanes and the list is ludicrous.

The article goes on to point out that while we're becoming more and more paranoid, other countries are relaxing their bans on items such as metal cutlery, knitting needles and nail scissors.

A TSA official spent $500,000 on art, silk plants and other decorations for a new operations center and then went to work for the vendor after leaving the agency, according to a report from the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General.

The IG found that the project manager and other TSA employees routinely violated agency policies to buy furniture, leather briefcases, coffee pots and other items.  They concealed purchases of more than $2,500, including one for $47,449, by splitting them into multiple smaller credit card transactions.  The report added that higher-ups at the TSA squashed efforts by procurement managers to exercise control.

The outgoing TSA chief, David Stone, said in response that the money spent on the operations center was 'worth every dollar spent'.  What planet does he live on?  More details here.

As a New Zealander, it embarrasses me to share this item.  The airport in Wellington, the country's capital, was closed and international flights had to be diverted to other airports due to an unexpected shortage of air traffic controllers last Sunday night.  The airport was closed for eight hours.  Apparently a lot of controllers all fell sick at the same time, forcing the airport to close.

Lastly this week, thanks to Roxanna for sharing these comments, labeled 'Wisdom of the Air'

  • You've never been lost until you've been lost at Mach 3.
    (Paul F. Crickmore -test pilot)

  • The only time you have too much fuel is when you're on fire.

  • Blue water Navy truism: There are more planes in the ocean than submarines in the sky.
    (From an old carrier sailor)

  • When one engine fails on a twin-engine airplane you always have enough power left to get you to the scene of the crash.

  • The three most common expressions (or famous last words) in aviation are: "Why is it doing that?", "Where are we?" and "Oh S--t!!!!"

  • When a flight is proceeding incredibly well, something was forgotten.

  • Try to stay in the middle of the air. Do not go near the edges of it. The edges of the air can be recognized by the appearance of ground, buildings, sea, trees and interstellar space. It is much more difficult to fly there.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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