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4 November, 2005 

Good morning

Hello today from Wellington, New Zealand.  Our NZ tour is continuing marvelously, with close to perfect weather, a great group of people, and wonderful sightseeing and activities.

Queenstown has been the favorite destination so far, although three nights wasn't enough time to savor the lovely atmosphere, environment, and activities in that region.  A reason for us all to return again some time.

A highlight of today was a guided tour of NZ's parliament building, including a visit into the main debating chamber where the members of parliament meet.  One of many interesting features was the security needed to get into the building.  Yes, there was a security man present, but his main task seemed to be holding the door open to let us walk in.  And although we were told no cameras or other items could be taken with us, no-one checked, and there were no metal detectors or anything else.  A refreshingly simple approach to security.

The twenty people traveling with me have been pressing for details of what tour I'll be offering next, and so I'm proceeding with a tour I have long wanted to take.  You all are, of course, now invited to participate in this experience.

As introduction, the most enjoyable vacation experience I've had was on a Viking River Cruises Christmas Markets cruise on the Danube from Vienna to Nuremburg last Nov/Dec.  I loved every part of the experience, and in particular loved the concept of river cruising as a wonderful way to explore Europe's backroads in luxury and convenience.

And so I'm now creating a small group to travel with me on another river cruise, in a part of Eastern Europe that you'd probably not find easy to experience any other way.

The cruise is from Bucharest to Budapest and on to Vienna; going all the way to the Black Sea, then traveling through Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia/Montenegro, Hungary and Austria, and skirting the border with Croatia and Slovakia too.

This is a fourteen day river cruise, with all meals and twelve tours included, plus various other activities.  It starts in Budapest on Sunday 28 May 2006, and ends in Vienna on Sunday 11 June - this is late spring and probably the best time of year to travel in terms of great weather, moderate airfares, and lack of the crush of peak summer crowds.

The river boat has lovely large cabins, excellent food and helpful staff, making it a tremendously convenient way to travel through these less well developed areas.  I can't think of a better way to see these parts of Europe, and would love to have you join me on this cruise.

We already have some members of our current NZ tour keen to participate, including one lady who lived in Budapest for several years and has visited Bucharest and other places.  She has promised to share her own 'insider' knowledge of these places with us.

You can see more details on the Viking River Cruises website.  And now for the good news.  I'm able to pass on a group savings of 5% off the quoted rates on the Viking website, and will also be adding some extra things to make the group experience more special and memorable.  Rates before discount start at $3599 for a standard E grade cabin, plus airfare; but I recommend you get a better grade of cabin - ideally either the B or A grade for (before discount) $4899 or $5099.  Air add-ons can be arranged from $850.

Now for the savings.  You get a 5% discount by choosing to book through me and become a member of the Travel Insider group.  And, if you pay in full by 1 December this year, you get an extra $500 savings, as an early payment discount from Viking.  And if you're a tour alumnus of an earlier Travel Insider tour, there's another special bonus, too (ask for details).

Interested?  If so, please let me know.  I'll need an immediate $400 per person confirming deposit, and of course if you choose to make full payment by 1 December, will need full payment almost immediately after.  You can pay either by check or credit card, of course.

There is, alas, no feature article again this week.  Tour activities are taking up most of every day and the lack of high speed internet means every hour of work is taking two or three precious hours to complete while traveling.

However, here is a bit of good news for gadget loversPro Travel Gear is having a pre-holiday sale.  You get 10% off everything, including their inhouse range of noise cancelling headphones, plus another 5% discount when you use the discount code 'travelinsider' (without the quotes) at checkout, and free shipping if your order exceeds $100.

Dinosaur watching :  Can I say 'I told you so'?  Three years ago, when Delta first announced the creation of their 'airline within an airline' product, Song, I wrote an article titled 'This Bird Won't Fly'.  I described it as a flawed operational model, a futile act of self-cannibalization, and wondered why the airline didn't simply fix its main operation.

Delta itself seemed to have an on-again/off-again approach to Song; for a while it put its expansion on hold, then it announced ambitious plans to extend the operation, and claimed it to be a success.  But now Delta has announced it will completely discontinue Song by May next year.

One apparent problem is/was Song's lack of first class cabins, which may have discouraged business travelers.  Delta plans to immediately add first class seating to its Song planes.

The demise of Song was not a surprise, least of all to Delta's CEO, Gerald Grinstein, who one time joked that Song should have been called Swan Song.  It just took him a while to make his joke a reality.  Notwithstanding Delta's earlier confidence in Song's success, a NY Times article this week quotes Delta's COO as saying the cost of running Song alongside the main DL brand was 'very expensive' and no-one at DL were prepared to say whether Song was ever profitable.  The obvious answer, implied by Song's closure?  It wasn't, it isn't, and it was not expected ever to be profitable.

If Expedia is your preferred airline booking service, note that AirTran flights no longer appear in Expedia.  It seems AirTran and Expedia are having an argument of sorts at present - an argument that will almost certainly be resolved soon, but until then, no AirTran in Expedia.

Like many other airlines, AirTran also reported an improved third quarter result compared to last year.  They said higher ticket prices and higher loads on their flights more than offset the increase in jetfuel costs.

Not so at United, however, an airline that seems destined to distinguish itself by losing billions of dollars before going into Chapter 11, billions more while in Chapter 11, and probably continuing to lose money after exiting Chapter 11.

Although a large part of its loss was due to reorganization expenses, the fact remains United managed to lose another $1.8 billion in the third quarter, compared to a loss of 'only' $274 million a year before.  Well done, United.

United expects to exit bankruptcy in February next year.

As predicted over the last few weeks, the impact of Southwest starting service at Denver is already flowing through to United and Frontier.  Both airlines have dropped their fares to match Southwest, a move which has seen some fares drop by more than 30%.  Southwest starts service from Denver to Phoenix, Las Vegas and Chicago in January, and will almost certainly add more flights and cities in the months that follow.  This actually has only a minor pinprick effect on United, so far, but when you're losing $1.8 billion in a single quarter, even a pinprick is to be avoided if possible.

US Airways may revisit its cost-cutting decision to outsource reservations call centers to foreign countries.  Many of those reservations jobs at the 'old' US Airways were shifted to centers in Mexico and the Philippines.  Customers have frequently complained that the quality of service declines when customer service centers are moved out of the USA.

Beyond language, a knowledge of geography - important for helping travelers - can also be a problem at overseas airline call centers.  If US does indeed move reservations jobs back to the US, it will be copying Delta, who closed one of its three India-based call centers last year after what it described as 'a few quality issues'.

I wrote last week about BA's continuing problems providing food on its flights.  Reader Bill writes

Just got back from Geneva via LHR a few hours ago. My LHR <--> GVA flights were on BA, and were flights without catering. It was actually a benefit - I was handed a voucher in Heathrow for my 8:30am flight for 5, usable at any concourse vendor (which, of course, there are many). I was able to go to Pret a Manger and get a very tasty, fresh yogurt fruit parfait and mango drink for just over 4.

On the way back I was handed a 10 swiss franc voucher in GVA for my 7:45am flight, and I was able to get a similar breakfast. I noted the gentleman in front of me was given an 18 franc voucher; I presume he was in a higher class. Both of my breakfasts were far better than the usual BA breakfast of lard on bread or some similarly inedible, non-healthy option.

Flu Focus :  It sounds like a lot of money, but the $7.1 billion President Bush has asked for from Congress to fund Bird Flu defenses actually doesn't go very far.  Only $1 billion goes to buying Tamiflu and other anti-viral drugs.  On the other hand, $2.8 billion goes to 'accelerate new flu-vaccine technology' - translation = handouts to the drug companies.  Details here.

Bird flu is getting closer - there is a possible outbreak in Canada.

The US CDC have now launched an official US government Bird Flu website at https://www.pandemicflu.gov/.

Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security Secretary, Stockpiling supplies and developing family response plans in case disaster strikes not only might save lives it's also a civic duty.  I thought it was also a government duty, but any of the recent disasters clearly shows us that we can't depend on the government to protect us.  We need to be self-sufficient.

Sir Richard Branson has now taken a public position on the Bird Flu issue.  His airline, Virgin Atlantic, has corporately stockpiled 10,000 doses of Tamiflu, and is looking into new technologies to put on their planes to somehow kill germs in anticipation of a Bird Flu pandemic.  No word on what these technologies may be, but nice of him to buy Tamiflu for his staff.

Sir Richard Branson has a great deal to say about most things, but he remains strangely quiet on the subject of his promised new US airline startup, currently known as Virgin America.  Although he'd been earlier promising to be operating flights by the end of 2005, here we are in November and he has yet to announce any business partners, any funding, any regulatory approvals, any planes, or anything else at all.

This article quotes Alan Bender, an airline economist at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, who says that Sir Richard is 'a day late and a dollar short' while this article in the SFO Examiner chooses to jump on the airlines' current favorite excuse and quotes a SFO business organization head as blaming the delays, at least partially, on the rising cost of jetfuel.  In actual fact, higher jetfuel costs should benefit new startup airlines because they can operate the newest most fuel efficient planes, getting a greater edge over their higher cost established competitors.

However, although it has no financial partners, the airline does have eleven senior executives and 26 other employees showcased on their website, and apparently is continuing to hire more staff, with 22 vacancies on their website at present, 12 of which are management positions.

I wonder what they do all day?  What does their spokesperson do - whenever approached, she claims the company is in a (self-imposed) quiet period and has nothing to say about its current or future situation.  Or the Chief Pilot - what does he do at an airline with no planes?  Or how about the VP of Consumer Marketing?  I wonder how many tickets he has sold?

Request to Sir Richard :  Please update your promise so as to preserve your credibility.

Talking about Virgin, the Australian related company Virgin Blue has now started operations in a joint venture with the Samoan government, with an airline called Pacific Blue (it couldn't use the Virgin name due to restrictions thought to involve Virgin Atlantic's shareholder, Singapore Airlines).  The Samoan government had previously been underwriting its own airline, Polynesian Airlines, a cost which had grown to more than half the country's annual budget.

Although the airline is called Pacific Blue, its planes are painted red.  Hopefully this isn't a Freudian link to the concept of more red ink on its balance sheet.

And talking about Singapore Airlines, Qantas is now saying there is no possibility of a merger between itself and Singapore Airlines.  But Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon left the door open when he said 'We believe that because we are the end of the line carrier it would be best if we get a tie-up, whether it's an equity tie-up or a very close relationship. And I just think it will happen.'

It is thought that Singapore's aggressive attempts to break into the Australia-US market and Qantas' vigorously successful efforts to deny SQ that opportunity may have been one reason why the two carriers lost interest in working together.  On the other hand, a more thoughtful analysis might suggest that the failure for SQ to get access to this ultra-profitable route by itself merely increases its desire to merge with Qantas, while strengthening QF's position at the bargaining table.

As I've said before about the on-again/off-again AA/BA merger talks, the SQ/QF merger is something both parties want, no matter what they say in public.  We haven't heard the end of this.

And talking about Australia, a group of businessmen in Sydney have come up with a novel approach to providing public transportation.  They're creating a free central city bus service, to be paid for by advertising and sponsorship rather than passenger fares and public subsidies.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  One of the underlying hopes of a successful security program is that the people providing the security are cleverer than the people who are threatening the security.  But is the TSA cleverer than your average Muslim suicide bomber?

The latest suggestion that the TSA's corporate intelligence level is miserably low is a revelation that no-one had considered the cost of maintaining their new luggage scanners after the warranties expired.  The present cost of this maintenance?  $200 million, this year alone, for 1,200 scanning machines.  That's a cost of $167,000 per machine.  This outrageous and apparently unexpected cost is twice what they guesstimated last year.

Not included in these costs are the hassle costs to us as passengers when the scanners break down.  An inoperative scanner can delay flights because suitcases are then required to be scanned by hand.  More details here.

Lastly this week, I'm hoping to get a review on satellite radio published in the next few weeks, when I return from New Zealand.  Satellite radio is a great boon for us as travelers, but have you ever thought about that great neglected potential audience for broadcast radio - people who stay at home while we're traveling.

Well, actually, not people who stay at home, but, instead, pets.  Fortunately, there's now a new internet radio service for pets left at home alone.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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