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3 June, 2005 

Good morning

I believe I have now shipped free phones to everyone who asked for one.  If you haven't heard from me to advise your phone is on its way, it is, ahem, possible I've messed up and overlooked your request.  Please urgently let me know if you think you should be getting a phone.

And if you'd earlier requested a phone and never got a reply from me, please ask me again.

Happily, Mobal overshipped us a few extra phones, and a few people cancelled their earlier requests.  So there are a few phones left over.  If you'd like one of these international phones and SIMs, you can read the details about the phone and how to request one here.

Continuing the phone theme; with the best will in the world, I've found myself unable to like using Bluetooth headsets.  They're clumsy, inconvenient, and difficult to use.  But I do absolutely love using my Bluetooth in-car handsfree unit, and just last week got a sample of the newest unit from industry leader Parrot.  And so :

This Week's Feature Column :  Bluetooth In-car Handsfree Kit : The new Parrot Easydrive handsfree kit wirelessly connects with your Bluetooth equipped cell phone, automatically, whenever you enter your car.  Is it as good as it promises?  I take one for a test drive.

Using some type of hands-free kit in your car is a definite safety tip that we all should follow.  And, talking about tips, many thanks to everyone who sent in travel related tips last week.  I now have 10,968 words of as-yet unedited tips from many readers - to put this into perspective, my own tips come to a mere 876 words.

It is true there was some duplication among the tips sent in - by far the most common was the suggestion to keep photocopies of your travel documents in your luggage.  But there were also some wonderfully original tips on all sorts of topics, ranging from how to choose restaurants in foreign cities (don't rely on concierges who may be getting kickbacks - one reader suggested asking clothing store staff instead, another reader has a great way for how to eyeball a restaurant and assess its likely quality and pricing before even walking in the door or looking at a menu); to topics like how to deal with a mugger (keep a spare wallet with expired/fake ID/credit cards and a small amount of cash in it) and tips on how to minimize your chance of having your bag lost and making it easier to find.

Other tips include suggestions on the type of headgear to take with you and even the type of trousers to wear.  Plus there are tips on some less pleasant but possibly essential things like how to deal with the death of a traveling companion while traveling, and vital suggestions on how to save money.

I'm listing these various topics in the hope that reading through them might shake loose another idea or two from you.  As I said last week, we have a great opportunity to pool our collective experience and wisdom and come up with the definitive list of travel tips.  We're well on the way already, and I hope we can progress still further.

So if you have an idea (or two) please email them in.

Talking about helping out and emailing in, another journalist has asked for help from readers.  He is writing an article for Canada's National Post on the changing attitudes to corporate travel in North America.  He says

I'm wondering if any of your readers have had their travel budgets cut and can point to how their quality of life as business travelers has suffered as a result? I'm interested in getting personal first-hand testimonies (but will happily report them as anonymous sources, should they prefer this).

If you have commentary you'd like to offer, please send it to me and I'll pass it on to the National Post writer.

Dinosaur watchingUnited posts an improved operating loss of only $47 million for April.  In last April it lost $75 million.  However, note this is an operating loss - the actual net loss after fixed and other costs ballooned out to $124 million.

Non-accountants may be puzzled to learn that, notwithstanding its $124 million loss, the airline's cash on hand actually increased by $102 million during the month, and probably all of us will be puzzled how a company consistently losing millions of dollars every day can still be in business 850 days after filing for Chapter 11 due to being bankrupt.

Even more puzzling is that United ended April with unrestricted cash exceeding $1.5 billion (and almost $900 million of extra cash but already spoken for) - tell me how a company with $1.5 billion in unrestricted cash can put a two and a half year (so far) freeze on paying creditors and claim to be bankrupt?

Back in March, Delta secured tax concessions from the State of Georgia, capping its annual fuel tax liability.  Now UA is asking its home state of IL to give it the same benefit DL is getting from GA.  If Illinois accedes to United's request, the airline would save $8 million in fuel taxes it would otherwise pay.

Some states don't tax jet fuel at all.  And some states that currently tax jet fuel are also considering concessions to airlines.  Hey - how about concessions to motorists?

Are these state give-backs a good thing?  Perhaps so, if you're an airline, although to put United's hoped for $8 million rebate into perspective, in 2004 it spent $2.94 billion on jet fuel.  $8 million represents one quarter of one percent of its fuel bill.  However, $8 million is a significant chunk of change for the state, and if it can't collect this money from United, it surely will turn to other sources of extra tax revenue.  So, overall, we're not seeing any reduction in costs, we're merely seeing a reallocation of who pays.

While United is seeking to trim its costs by $8 million by cutting back on state taxes, Northwest has found an innovative new way to reduce its costs by an estimated $2 million, for which we'll award Northwest the 'Miser of the Week' designation.  NW will no longer give out free pretzels with its soda drinks in coach class.  Travelers will instead be able to buy a three ounce bag of trail mix for $1.

Let's put this $8 million saving into perspective.  Northwest carries over 50 million passengers a year.  Each passenger pays, on average, about $170 for their ticket.  By nixing the nuts, NW is saving about 16c per passenger - one tenth of one percent of the fare.  Do they really think the tangible loss of passenger service is worth a mere 16c a passenger saving?  Why not just increase their fares by 16c a passenger?

To put it another way, if one in every thousand of NW's passengers choose to fly a different airline after suffering this latest indignity, the airline will lose more revenue than the saving on the pretzels.  And the customers who continue with NW will feel even less enthusiasm for the airline and the travel experience it sells.

Considering Northwest lost $458 million in the first quarter of 2005 alone, this is a classic example of an airline's management that can't see the forest for the trees.  While the airline makes tangible cuts to the customer quality of service experience in return for a half million dollars a quarter saving, it is not focusing on the really big issues that need to be addressed.

As further proof of management's lack of vision, the airline has also instituted a further service cut-back to save a mere $565,000 a year.  It will no longer distribute magazines in its clubs and on board planes.  This move will doubtless cost it some number of lost club memberships - and the corresponding loss in flight income too - by people who find other airlines have better club services.  Quite likely, the $565,000 'saving' will cost it more than that in lost revenue.

Do you want to be the person who has the job of explaining to frequent business fliers who spend hundreds of dollars a year to belong to Northwest's Club they can no longer get a magazine to read while relaxing and waiting for their next flight?

Northwest could save more money by simply firing one of its highly paid executives.

NW is also trialing a $2 per bag fee for using skycap service.

In other NW news, Fitch Ratings has downgraded their rating on NW's senior unsecured debt from B down to CCC+.

And here's a note from reader Ralph about his recent NW experiences in business and first class.

As a longtime Platinum Elite member of NWA, I am amazed at what is happening recently in first class, or business class.  I regularly fly to Los Angeles, and the west coast in general, and as a platinum member I routinely get bumped up to first class.

In the past 2-3 months I've noticed drastic reductions to the meal service on NWA.  Linen napkins have now been replaced by paper towel sheets or paper napkins, no more of those little salt and pepper shakers, plastic silverware instead of stainless, and only one choice of meal instead of the usual two or more.  Blankets and pillows are now history also.  At least the seats are still larger with more pitch, but frequently the seat back is broken and will not stay up in the locked position and the pouch in the seat in front of you is usually filled with the garbage from the previous passenger (newspapers, napkins, empty peanut wrappers, etc.)

The things that Ralph misses cost NW only a few extra dollars per flight.  Surely this isn't too much to expect, in return for the extra hundreds of dollars they charge for premium cabin travel?

Talking about business and first class travel, I was reading the latest newsletter from generous Travel Insider supporter 1st-air.net and was amazed to see they're offering 50% discounts on international business class, often with name brand carriers and between major city pairs (eg NYC-LON).  If you travel in business and/or first class, they've got some great deals on offer.

US Airways is claiming an operating profit of $7 million for April.  But the concept of operating profit is essentially meaningless, because it excludes a lot of essential business costs.  The airline's actual net result for the month was a loss of just over $30 million.  The airline continues to hope that America West - or anyone else - will choose to buy it.

The proposed merger between US and HP has now found another investor willing to add $150 million to the pot.  This leaves only $750 million of the $1.5 billion in needed investment still missing.

Last week I was expressing surprise at United winning an award for 'Best Transpacific Airline' in the OAG annual airline awards.  The same awards designated Continental as the airline of the year and best North American airline.

This week, it is Air Canada's turn to be named Best North American Airline.  This survey was conducted by Skytrax.  Who knows what award and winner we'll be able to announce next week.

Let's hold our own award survey :

Please send me a one line email and tell me which airline you think is the best North American airline.

Results next week.

Almost 1.5 billion passengers traveled through North American airports in 2004, up 8% from 2003.  Busiest airport - in the entire world - was Atlanta, with 83.6 million passengers.  Numbers 2 and 3 (for North America) were ORD (75.5 million pax) and LAX (60.7 million pax).  Toronto was Canada's busiest airport, with 18.6 million pax.

Numbers are expected to continue to increase for this year too, with this article predicting the most congested airports over the busy summer season will be PHL, LGA, EWR, IAD, ATL and FLL.

Winners and losers :  You've probably noticed how money-losing airlines have a dozen different excuses (well, actually, only one or two excuses they all slavishly repeat) for why it isn't simple management ineptitude that has caused them to lose money.  It is always something else's fault.  Never their own.

Here are two interesting studies in contrast.  Last week, EasyJet announced an increased loss of 22.3 million ($40 million) for the first half of their fiscal year.  This is 13.2% worse than their first half last year.  This week, arch-rival Ryanair announced an increased profit of 268.9 million ($330 million) for their recently finished fiscal year, up 18.7% on the previous year.

Another winner/loser pair is Virgin Atlantic Airways (VS) and Alitalia.  VS have just reported their last year's profit soared to 68 million ($124 million), massively up on their 20.9 million profit the previous year.  In contrast, Alitalia reported a plunging loss of 812 million ($1.02 billion), compared to 519.7 million lost the previous year.

The major significant difference between each pair of airlines and their results?  Not fuel.  Not over-capacity.  Their management (and staff).

By the way, noting the Euro numbers above, have you seen how delightfully the Euro is dropping in cost?  One Euro now costs about $1.23, down from highs of $1.36 at the start of the year.

The Euro has been softening fairly consistently since the start of 2005, and of course the unexpected votes against the new European Union constitution in France and The Netherlands this week has increased the uncertainty of the long term survival of the Euro.  The pound is also weaker, and with a dollar that is at worst stable and at best strengthening, European travel this summer is now looking not nearly as frightening as it was at the start of the year when the dollar was showing signs of dropping without limit.

In more European travel good news, it looks like - unsurprisingly - the London Eye won't be closed down.  Following on from my story last week, the Eye has been rescued by an unlikely savior - the French.  Or, more exactly, by good old-fashioned Anglo-French rivalry.

When the attraction threatened to close down, a French company offered to buy it.  Among other purposes, the French said they'd use it to bolster Paris' bid for the 2012 Olympic Games; at present, the Eye is being used in support of London's bid for the same 2012 games.

Needless to say, massive English outrage spilled across all political lines, and quickly resulted in the Mayor of London threatening to take the land the Eye is on away from its present owners using a compulsory purchase order under the law of eminent domain, and calling for the resignation of the Chairman of the company that owns the land.

Looks like the Eye will get to stay.

Here's an amazing story I'm quoting directly from ARTA's excellent daily newsletter to its travel agent members :

A member wrote to tell me about a couple who booked a trip to Cancun over the Internet.  When they were in Cancun's airport on their return to the US an airport official told them that the US State Department was requiring everyone to have a valid passport to return to the US.  Only one of the couple had a passport, the other a birth certificate and a photo ID.  They were told the new laws were in effect now.

When asked what to do the official gave them a printed card to read.  The card was supposedly an official US State Department notice about the new law.  At the bottom was a line stating that if they wrapped a $100 bill around the card and returned it to the official they would be free to go.  They paid.  Make sure your clients know the law does not take effect until December 31.

Here's an interesting statistic.  Men increasingly spend more time talking on the phone than women.  Well, let me qualify that...  Men spend more time talking on cell phones; women spend more time talking on regular phones, according to a recent Cingular survey.

The US mobile phone market's 'rationalization' continues.  There are now only four national services :  The largest is Cingular (after buying AT&T Wireless last year).  Second is Verizon.  Third is Sprint, having recently bought Nextel.  And a distant fourth is T-mobile.

T-mobile's market share is so much lower than the other three that some people wonder if it can survive as a national carrier.  So how does T-mobile itself feel about this?  T-mobile (USA) is a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, and their international CEO is quoted in this article as saying 'The fourth rank is a good position'.  Is he nuts?  Does he like being last?

The inevitable effects of having fewer players in the market are already starting to be felt.  Market leader Cingular has 'simplified' its wireless plans.  And how exactly did they simplify their plans?  By eliminating their cheapest plans - the least expensive monthly plan now costs $39.99/month, previously their lowest plan was $29.99 a month.

I preferred the more complicated version.

Cingular are also trying to require new customers to sign two year contracts rather than the more traditional one year contract.  Yuck.

Are you an e-mail addict?  I'll confess I scored close to max on the profile detailed here, but that is not to say I enjoy it.  On a bad day I get as many as 500 emails, and reply to over 100, so please understand if your email gets overlooked - simply resend it again and again until I finally reply!

Here's a fascinating article about the possible return of sailing ships.  While this concept is interesting in itself, if you read on, you'll come across this extraordinary statistic :  Each year world shipping transports about 6 billion tons of cargo, and also between 3 - 5 billion tons of ballast water!

Surely some clever person will come up with a better way of loading ships than shipping water from nowhere to nowhere.

We in the US tend to admire and marvel at Britain's wonderful rail network.  But here's a depressing - and astonishing - article reporting average train journey times today are sometimes longer than they were 100 years ago, back in the days of steam locos.  Express trains in the steam era averaged 80 mph; these days modern express trains average only 60 mph on many routes.

That is of course still a great deal better than Amtrak.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Reader Randy found himself with time on his hands last week and so asked a TSA screener why it was that every airport had different standards for such things as wearing shoes or not; why some metal detectors would object to the slightest bit of metal while others would not alarm, and all the other seemingly random elements that go into our experiences passing through security.

The TSA official's response?  'Every machine and every airport has the same settings & requirements'.

Why does the TSA continue to believe it can fool us into believing that black is white?

The Homeland Security Department has been trying to impose a requirement that all airlines flying to - or even just simply over - the US must send them passenger lists an hour before the flight takes off.  This would have a major impact on how far in advance of a flight you'd need to check in when flying home from outside of the country.

The obvious question, as yet unasked and definitely unanswered, is simply this :  Why aren't domestic airlines operating domestic flights also required to send passenger lists 60 minutes prior to departure?  Let's not forget the only acts of airborne terrorism inflicted on this country have been on domestic, not international flights.  And also let's not forget that most if not all of the 19 terrorists on 9/11 would not have triggered any watch-list alerts.

Thanks to everyone who wrote in with their perceptions if screening delays are getting better or worse. There was absolutely no clear consensus, and about the only way to reconcile the range of answers received is to say that delays are inconsistent (and perhaps semi-random), and are getting better at some airports, at some times of day, but are getting worse at some other airports and/or other times of day.

The best commentary probably came from reader Richard, who says

I have taken I think eight flights so far this year, and have a like amount planned into the future.

I find that getting through security is faster; however  - and there is a big however - the TSA continues to create more problems than they solve. It appears to me they have come to believe that since they are saving the world so they can do anything they want, any way they want, all in the name of security. They have come to act like a dictator because they are holding all the cards, Congress has given them the legal authority to conduct business.

Some examples of their stupidity - Shoes are required to be removed in some airports but not others. If shoes present a security problem, they do so in all airports not just a select few. In going thru security, I had a pair of round-nose scissors. When they were detected in the x-ray and the bag was checked, after they saw that they were round-nose the TSA employee said in an indignant tone, "If you would have told me they were rounded, I wouldn't have had to check." I don't believe all I would have had to do was say so and he would in fact not checked. Rubbish! Why even make such an absurd statement? They just have to get the last word in.

TSA started out good but they are out of control and the flying public is paying the price - literally and figuratively for the employees to have their power play and abuse their authority and play out their ego trip on us.  TSA really needs to get an understanding on how the European airport conduct security checks, where they do so quickly, effectively and politely.

Reader Kent wrote in to say

You mentioned that the screening system at CVG can't keep up with the amount of baggage that is being checked.  Last August, my wife flew from O'Hare to Canton, OH on United Express.  The flight was 30 minutes late departing, because at departure time, only 10 of the 40 bags indicated on the weight and balance sheet had been loaded into the cargo hold.  According to the captain, most of UA and UAX was running late that afternoon, because TSA couldn't clear bags fast enough.

When I fly American from O'Hare, the screener always asks for the departure time, because bags are being dropped off faster than they can run through the scanning machines.  I hate to think what will happen when the machines are removed from ticketing and go down to the baggage room!

I was asking for examples of people who have lost items from their baggage.  Here's a very scary story about a poor girl who may have had the opposite happen to her - something extra added to her baggage.

More on defending against SAM attacks on planes - sure, this seems like a great thing to do, but look at the table of relative threat dangers in this article and note that SAM attacks are number eight on a list of eleven threats.  While we're looking at spending billions to protect against this low order risk, why are we continuing to overlook much more severe threats?

Here's a great new travel convenience - in every sense of the word.

Lastly this week, it is getting harder and harder for smokers to find somewhere to quietly relax and enjoy an uninterrupted indulgence in their habit.  And now it appears one of the few remaining places where cigarette smells are unlikely to bother people is proving to be hazardous to smokers' health, and not only from smoking induced cancer.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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