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11 November, 2005 

Good morning

And hello once more, this time from back home in the Seattle area.  Our wonderful NZ tour ended today in Auckland, then a flight back to Los Angeles across the dateline had me landing in LAX earlier than when I left Auckland.  The day started in Hawkes Bay, twelve hours before the twelve hour flight to Los Angeles, and ended back home eight hours after landing in Los Angeles, so it has been a long day.

The long journey was made worse by 'down time' at LAX.  It is no longer acceptable for airports not to offer Wi-Fi connectivity throughout their terminal areas.  I'm quite happy to pay for access, but I'm not happy to have three hours of wasted time while waiting for a flight and no ability to access any Wi-Fi service.  Shame on LAX for being so far behind the times.

Several people wrote to express interest in the proposed East European river cruise next May, and one reader, Alex, wrote to say he has just returned from doing the same cruise.  He had only very positive comments to offer about his experience, but after further correspondence with him, I've decided not to proceed with this cruise/tour.  Why?

Because Alex's cruise was disrupted by bird flu in Romania, which required some changes to the itinerary, and all of a sudden, what promised to be a simple and safe cruise was compromised by the growing impacts of bird flu.  I can't start to guess what the situation will be in May/June next year - maybe bird flu will have disappeared and no longer be a worry, but maybe it will be even more a problem than it threatens to become at present.

Whatever the future may hold, it is clear that - today - bird flu is impacting on the cruise itinerary, and so I don't feel comfortable asking people to make commitments to something with an uncertain future.

With the wonderful success of this just finished tour fresh in my mind, I'd love to offer another tour somewhere, and soon.  But I'm not certain, today, what/where/when to suggest.

Most group members felt our NZ tour had three destination highlights - Rotorua, Queenstown and Hawkes Bay.  Sure, our time in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch was also pleasant, but Rotorua, Queenstown and Hawkes Bay were the favorites.  With that in mind, I'll add to the present two part series on New Zealand with articles on these three areas, the first one of which is offered to you today :

This Week's Feature Column :  What to See and Do in Rotorua :  Here's what you need to know about the amazing geothermal areas around Rotorua, where and how long to stay, and suggestions about other places of interest in the Rotorua region as well.

Dinosaur watching :  With no great surprise, but great sadness, I must announce the fall into Chapter 11 of Independence Air.  Their Chapter 11 also threatens to be a short term rather than long term procedure, with a possibility of the airline completely closing down or in some other way drastically altering in form.

This is suggested by their announcement that they will engage in an auction process to seek outside investors or purchasers, with the procedure to be complete within 60 days.  This is an unusual - some might say desperate - approach and not one which signals a great deal of bargaining strength on the part of Independence Air.

While I've always admired Independence for what they've tried to do, it has been a quixotic task made worse by using the wrong sort of planes and sometimes flawed operational actions.  As any of the dinosaurs amply demonstrate, running a successful airline is far from simple.

On the other hand, I've written a couple of times about a British teenager starting an airline, with his corporate offices doing double duty as his bedroom.  And now here's another British teenager, who has just started operating flights with his own airline, too.  Maybe one of these two young men would like to put an offer in for Independence Air.

Of course, as Independence demonstrates, anyone can start an airline.  The real challenge is in keeping it going.

Rediscovering the wheel?  A few years ago, airlines stopped paying travel agencies commissions on the tickets the agencies sold.  At the time, the airlines made the specious claim that they could no longer afford to pay travel agents for the valuable services the agencies were performing on the airlines' behalf.

So what to make of the news that one of the bankrupt biggies - Delta - has started paying commissions of up to 12% on selected fares and flights?

The commissions are in place on a limited and temporary basis only.  It will be interesting to see if DL chooses to extend this trial, with the success of this test being entirely in the hands of travel agencies.  You've been given a second chance, travel agents - here's the opportunity to prove (or disprove!) your worth and value add to airlines.

It will also be interesting to see if the travel agencies reduce the fees they now charge for issuing tickets when the ticket qualifies for a Delta commission.

In related travel selling news, 'if you can't beat them, join them' seems to be the order of the day for an increasing number of airlines.  They are choosing to diversity their web sites to offer booking services for other travel products as well as their airline tickets.  While it would be a brave person who trusted an airline website to give full impartial advice on cruises, and to offer the best fares, the airlines are definitely extending their services in these directions.

Existing web travel sites such as Travelocity and Expedia are finding themselves increasingly squeezed.  Hotels are offering 'lowest rate guarantees' (even if they are almost impossible to claim on due to the complicated rules), airlines are competing with them, and now, it seems the behemoth that is Google is turning its focus to added value travel search features too.

Truly, the travel selling marketplace is changing in interesting ways.  But one thing hasn't changed, and probably won't change anytime soon.  The best source of travel advice is a competent and experienced travel agent who can give you personalized service and advice to match both your stated and unstated needs to suitable destinations, activities, hotels, etc.

Talking about Google, their now mega-billionaire founders are getting into the travel field in another way as well.  They've just purchased an ex-Qantas 767 to serve as a personal jet.

Only a bankrupt airline such as United can display an unerring ability to turn any customer relations plus into a minus.  For example, reader Bill writes

UA seems to be doing everything possible to alienate their customers.

My buddy has a "2 for 1" coupon on UA that we're using next week to go to Vegas.  Despite the fact that UA wants customers to book via the internet, the coupon's rules force you to use a phone agent.  Despite the fact that they don't give you the option of internet booking, they still bang you the "customer service fee".  So we had to pay an extra $15 each for our "discounted" tickets.

This is just another example of needless nickel and diming of customers by the legacy airlines and is indicative of why their market shares are declining.

I've long maintained that airlines occasionally cancel flights simply to save money.  If a flight is very lightly booked, the airline may sometimes simply cancel the flight and shift the passengers to an earlier or later departure.  This is a claim the airlines try to deny, and one time, while I was a guest on his talk show, I had a veteran US Airways pilot tell me that in his apparently massive experience, such a thing had never ever happened (he then cut me off before I could reply).

News now of a fascinating new database being made public which lists the most canceled flights.  What to make of a DL flight that is canceled 39% of the time, an AS flight with a 35% cancellation rate, or a UA flight that doesn't operate 25% of the time?  That's a bit much for random bad weather or mechanical problems, isn't it.  This new database can tell you, flight by flight, how often it is canceled, or delayed, or diverted.

Go have a look yourself at www.flightstats.com and see what to expect of your next flight.  Here's their analysis of my Alaska flight up the coast this afternoon.

How's this for bangs per buck?  Sydney's iconic New Year's Eve celebrations this year will feature about 80,000 fireworks in a massive display around their harbor and centered on their harbor bridge.  1.2 million people will watch the fireworks in person, 2 million Australians will watch them on television, and another 600 million people around the world will also watch them through their television services.

The event is estimated to generate $1 billion worth of tourism revenue and awareness.  In other words, each firework is worth $12,500 in publicity and income.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  You mightn't much like the man, but the fact remains that Mohammed El Baradei is the current winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

He also had to undergo a personal search before being allowed to fly from Boston to DC earlier this week.  No bombs or other illegal items were found.

It didn't take long for a far-from-unusual pirate attack on commercial shipping to turn into an alleged act of terrorism.  Even though piracy is rife off the Somalian coast, the attack on the Seabourn Spirit is now being described as an attack of terrorism - apparently because the pirates wore masks and were seen to smile while carrying out the attack.

The interesting part of the story were the references to some type of mysterious new 'sound gun' that was used by the cruise ship to defend itself.  Call me overly simplistic, but I can't help wondering why regular firearms weren't used instead - or are we now concerned at the risk of causing physical harm to pirates/terrorists when they are attacking a passenger ship with rockets and full auto weapons?

And now everyone knows about these sound guns, it seems a 99c pack of earplugs would provide a useful means of protection for the next bunch of attacking pirates/tourists.  Or perhaps a set of noise cancelling headphones, so they can listen to an iPod at the same time.

We all know that current baggage screening methods need to be improved and updated.  There are just way too many false positives, and way too much downtime with the equipment.  But, near the end of this article, there is reference to a proposed new method that definitely should not be pursued - a machine that squeezes suitcases, 100 at a time, to see if any explosive vapors are detected after pressure has been applied.

Plainly the designer of this system has never traveled with a bottle of spirits in his suitcase.

Last weekend a man with no ticket and no boarding pass somehow managed to get through screening and on to an AA flight at Newark.  The TSA and AA are busy blaming each other for the situation.

Air rage doesn't exclusively involve passengers, but when it involves flight attendants, the chances are that no-one is arrested and charged.

Some hotels have taken to describing themselves as six star hotels in a dubious example of ratings inflation.  But now we have a hotel claiming itself to be worthy of seven and a half stars.  Certainly the guest experience will be notable, but perhaps not in the way you'd expect.

The hotel is located in the region now describing itself as the 'Venice of the East', and will be built to withstand mortar and rocket attack.  Which is perhaps just as well; as this article recounts, 'Venice of the East' is Baghdad, where the country's tourist board now has 14 offices and 2400 staff, in anticipation of a projected boom in tourism.

Lastly this week, here are six website urls offered to you without comment.

Firstly there is Who Represents?, a database for agencies to the rich and famous :

Second is the Experts Exchange, a knowledge base where programmers can exchange advice and views :

Looking for a pen? Look no further than Pen Island :

Need a therapist? Try :

And there is an Italian Power company :
 (now restricted access)

Finally we have the Mole Station Native Nursery, based in New South Wales :

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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