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27 January, 2006 

Good morning

Sometimes the hardest part of each newsletter to write is the opening paragraph.  How to introduce you to the content that follows?  On the other hand, the easiest part to write is often the last paragraph, assuming some kind reader sends in an appropriate (or, better still, inappropriate) funny to close with - this week's contribution being courtesy of Tom R.  And so, after staring at the screen for ten minutes, with nothing in mind, other than a huge feeling of relief - Frontpage crashed again but this time I had everything saved - this meta-introduction will have to suffice.  And so, on with the show....

Many thanks to the not quite 2400 readers who sent in just over 2400 votes for our 2005 Annual Travel Technology Awards.  Yes, I did say that right.  One reader was so enthusiastic he voted eight times in a row for his favorite products, and after eliminating this, 'hanging chad' and other voting irregularities we ended up with :

This Week's Feature Column :  2005 Travel Insider Awards :  One company scores a 'hat trick' and a surprise contender also gets a win in our third annual awards.  Read about the winners (but not the losers) in this week's column.

Hat trick?  For those of you who don't enjoy the game of cricket, a hat trick is a term relating to doing an event three times consecutively (typically when a bowler bowls out three batters in a row).

Just over a year ago I slogged through several weeks of evaluating many different wheeled carry-on bags, with the final result being eleven pages of detailed reviews plus various related materials.

These pages are very popular, and I'm keen to repeat the exercise, but this time with carry on briefcases and computer bags.  One of the most valuable elements of the previous article series was the help you provided (some of which is featured on this page).

Can I ask for your help again, please?

Please let me know what you think makes for a good (or bad) carry on laptop/briefcase type bag (ie any moderate sized, multi-purpose, unwheeled bag suitable for business use).  For example, do you have one bag for your laptop and another for everything else, or a single combined bag?  What features do you wish your bag had (but doesn't have)?  What features are particularly useful or clever on the bag(s) you do have?  Do you have a favorite brand, and why?  If you were buying a new bag, what would you be looking for?

Please send your thoughts, comments, opinions and suggestions to me.  This will help my own evaluation process of the growing pile of bags I'm accumulating, and may also help me make sure I don't overlook a really good brand of bag.

One of the most enjoyable vacations I've ever taken was the Christmas Markets cruise on the Danube between Vienna and Nuremburg a couple of Christmases ago.  I am very keen to repeat this experience, and am completely convinced that river cruising is a wonderful way to tour in Europe, and will be offering a feature article on river cruising shortly.

One of the small group tours I've been struggling to organize for several years has been a summer solstice tour to Russia, including the glorious White Nights in St Petersburg.  This has always proved 'too difficult' due to problems getting confirmed hotel space, but remains an objective.

Well, thanks to Ken and Jeanette, who are variously readers, supporters, friends, and occasional tour group members, I believe I have a wonderful solution.  A river/canal cruise between Moscow and St Petersburg next May.

I'll be advising more details in the next month or so, but for now, please keep it in mind.  It will be about a two week tour, with the boat spending three nights in Moscow, three nights in St Petersburg, and five or six nights cruising between.  Prices, excluding air, cruise, and shore touring, will be in the mid $2000's per person for a superior category cabin, and about $1100 more if air is included.

If you twist my arm, I will also offer a Christmas Markets Cruise for this year, at the end of November/early December.  It would be around eight days long, and priced in the upper $1000s per person for a superior category cabin.  Air would be about $600 extra.

Please let me know if you'd like more information on :

The Russian Cruise next May
The Christmas Markets Cruise Nov/Dec this year
Both cruises

If you can't wait until either of these events and would like to enjoy some amazingly bargain priced European river cruising this spring, urgently contact your travel agent and ask them about Uniworld's current very special Grand Value Cruise offers :  Nine day cruises, including air from New York, for as little as $1100 per person.  These deals expire on Tuesday, 31 January, so do hurry if you'd like to experience a wonderful value wonderful cruise.

Dinosaur watching :  They can talk the talk, but can they walk the walk?  At their bankruptcy hearing last week, United's CEO, Glenn Tilton, said his company 'is ready to compete successfully with the strongest carriers'.

Marketing chief John Tague added 'This company has changed at its very root'.

Well, United may have changed at its very root, but the top-most flowers - people like Glenn Tilton himself (joined before the bankruptcy, in Sept 02) and John Tague (joined shortly after, in May 03) aren't quite so fresh.

Here's an interesting article asking the question 'Has United changed enough?'.  Unfortunately, the article lacks the courage to answer the question it raises.

Not so timid is Joe Brancatelli, who writes this week a damning critique of United that starts with the powerful claim

There is a plethora of financial and operational reasons why the United Airlines that exits bankruptcy early next month will soon enough be back in Chapter 11 or desperately seeking a merger to keep itself afloat.

But United Airlines will fail again primarily because it has no organizational heart, no identity and no definable brand. Most of all, it has none of the vision and discipline that separates the winners from the losers in the deregulated skies.

He follows this with 1482 searing words of analysis that make compelling reading.  Joe's incisive insights are a good reason to subscribe to his weekly newsletter.

We all know the main reason Southwest is so profitable, while dinosaurs lose so much, is because Southwest pays their staff much less than the dinosaurs.  Right?  Wrong!

Here's a table showing the combined hourly rates of pay for a crew of pilot, co-pilot, and three flight attendants at different airlines :


Total Hourly Cost















US Airways


Data adapted from this article

Southwest pays more than any other major carrier.  It is paying its staff almost exactly 50% more than US Airways, and even compared to the next highest cost airline, Continental, Southwest's labor costs are 14% higher.

Could it be Southwest's 'advantage' is simply more astute managers?

Giving an interesting example of different management styles, American Airlines is trying to put the pressure on Southwest, by offering people who choose to fly AA from Love Field bonus Aadvantage miles.  Fly three roundtrips between Love Field and the four cities AA serves from there (St Louis, Austin, Kansas City and San Antonio) and AA will give you 30,000 bonus miles.

This might be considered a clever move on AA's part.  But have you tried to cash in any Aadvantage miles recently?  Not easy, is it!  Astute passengers will quickly realize there's little aadvantage in getting more AA frequent flier miles when the ability to use them is so restricted.

AA's description of its actions?  Dan Garton, EV-P of Marketing, said  'We've said all along that if rules regarding Love Field were changed, we would shift flights from DFW airport and vigorously compete for every customer at Love Field'.

This is a nonsensical statement that makes it seem as though AA wanted to shift services to Love Field (it almost certainly doesn't and didn't).  And it narrows the definition of 'vigorous competition' to something so trivial (more useless frequent flier miles) as to be laughable, while his claim of 'competing for every customer at Love Field' means 'only those few customers traveling to these four destinations'.

These bombastic actions notwithstanding, dinosaurs such as American are generally accepting they can't compete with Southwest, and so are shrinking their operations in the 'difficult' domestic market and withdrawing from competitive routes, while growing their international services.  This is faulty logic - they are making future plans based on past events.

For sure, historically, many international air routes have been less competitive and offering higher yields than domestic routes, due primarily to artificial restrictions making it harder for new competitors to enter international markets, and foreign airline competitors that make even our dinosaurs look gifted.

But a gradual liberalization of international air treaties and the disappearance of the most inept of foreign competitors is causing a hardening of competition on international routes.

The OAG reports that low-cost air travel to/from the US grew by 20% in 2005.  Now that lower fares are more common domestically, people are seeking similar pricing for their international travel.  We're seeing new startups offering business and first class travel between New York or DC and London at prices a quarter of what used to be the norm; a move that threatens the obscenely expensive premium cabin fares on regular airlines.  Elsewhere Emirates is talking about operating Sydney-London flights for as little as $500 round-trip, Air Sahara will fly you from Delhi to London for $220 round-trip, and now Air Canada has announced plans to fly nonstop services between Los Angeles to Sydney, using twin engined 777 planes (yes, that's a long way over water with only two engines).

A new open skies agreement between the US and Canada will allow Air Canada to fly this route, which will be in addition to its existing A340 service from Vancouver to Honolulu and on to Sydney.  The new service will start in about a year's time.

However, Air Canada may be at pains not to set its pricing too low, because it won't want to tread on the toes of its Star alliance partner, United, or to upset its other Star partner, Air New Zealand.

All of which must complicate Singapore Airlines' burning desire to start flying the route.  Because it too is a Star alliance member.   Airline alliances are good for the public?

For every swing, there is a roundabout.  At the same time AC announced its new service to Sydney, Air New Zealand announced the seasonal cessation of its service between Christchurch and Los Angeles, due to, ahem, lack of demand.

A shorter haul international competitor is JetBlue, who yesterday announced plans for twice daily service to lovely Bermuda, to commence in May.

JetBlue's CEO, David Neeleman, said his airline plans to add ten new cities to its routemap this year.  This expansion is being made possible by the addition of new short-haul 100 passenger jets.  JetBlue started acquiring these planes in 2005, and will be adding one every ten days during 2006.

Three unions at American filed grievances on Wednesday protesting the cash bonuses that about 1,000 management employees are set to receive in April.  The unions say the bonuses are a violation of their collective bargaining agreements and the airline cannot afford them because it lost $861 million last year.  American said it was in the early stages of a compensation review in an effort to defuse the situation.

Heard on the (ARTA) grapevine :  US Airways may be going to re-open their Winston-Salem phone reservations center, in part because frustrated travelers in the Charlotte area have been going to the airport ticket counters to book reservations they can't complete online or on the phone, due to problems dealing with staff in the outsourced res center in El Salvador.

The influx of people at the airport simply to buy tickets has caused long lines for passengers wanting to check in for flights, and general discontent amongst all involved.  Outsourcing reservation booking services to people with poor English skills and even poorer knowledge of US geography has never yet been a success, and probably costs the airlines more in lost bookings than it saves them in lower staff costs.

Hint to dinosaur airlines :  All Southwest reservation centers are in the US.

Here's another example of airlines nickel and diming their passengers to death, although in the crazy world of nearly free tickets that Ryanair operates in, it makes a measure of sense to charge for every piece of checked luggage.

Ryanair says that by switching to a 'user pays' approach to checking luggage, their average ticket prices (before luggage surcharge) could drop by as much as 9%.

Progress is a very relative thing.  In news that would be mundane in most of the world, but for the first time in the history of Pakistan International Airlines, an all female crew operated a Fokker flight from Islamabad to Lahore and Multan yesterday.  There was a female captain, first officer and two female cabin crew.  This is certainly a milestone for women in an islamic country.

In related islamic news, here's an idea ahead of its time - Iran has asked the US for permission to allow direct flights between the two countries.  It is unknown whether the Iranian flights would be operated by bombers thinly disguised as passenger planes, and if they'd be carrying freshly built nuclear weapons or not.  But it does seem a bizarre request at a time when the two countries are teetering on a confrontational edge of something that looks awfully like upcoming armed conflict.

Iranian flights have been banned from US airspace since their revolution in 1979.  Can you imagine the security measures the US would (and indeed should) demand before allowing Iranian planes, direct from Iran, into its airspace now?

There's a lot of consternation at present about the possibility of Blackberry's email service being forced to close down.  Blackberry has lost its latest appeal against NTP's allegations of Blackberry infringing on NTP's patents, but is refusing to settle for the amount NTP seeks.

While the chances are high this is another game of public brinksmanship which will result in a settlement minutes prior to Blackberry units going dead, prudent people are considering what their options are.

I found, at the Consumer Electronics Show, a very exciting device that addresses a lot of the limitations of Blackberry devices and received a sample on Thursday.  If it withstands my testing, I'll tell you about it next week.  Stay tuned, and meantime, don't panic.  Most observers anticipate at least a 30 day warning of any cessation of BB service.

I wrote about the bizarre 3% Federal Excise Tax on phone service last week.  Here's some good news - while the tax shows no signs of going away, it is apparently a simple thing to refuse to pay it, and many phone companies will even help you.  Details here.

You probably know about the danger of sticking your card in a false fronted ATM.  Clever thieves add an extra card reader to the front of a regular ATM so that when you insert your card, it is going into their reader, not the official ATM reader.  You key in your PIN and either the card is returned to you with an error message, or the card is kept, again with an official error message.  Either way, the thieves have enough information to recreate your card and they know your PIN.

This is nothing new, but here's a modern day variation.  The 'evil twin' Wi-Fi hotspot.  This mimics a legitimate hotspot and encourages you to surf the web, check email, etc, as you normally would, while all the time keeping a record of your account and password details as you visit sensitive sites.

The occasionally intense battle between Boeing and Airbus, involving allegations that each company gets illegal subsidies from their respective governments, took a slightly embarrassing turn for Boeing this last week, when it was revealed that some parts of Boeing's B-2 Stealth Bomber technology (funded by the US Govt and not to be used in civilian projects) has ended up in its new 787 plane, completely unchanged.

I briefly mentioned a problem with the Queen Mary 2 last week.  This issue is now becoming a future text book classic on customer relations mismanagement.

After the QM2 damaged one of its four propulsion pods and was delayed while the damage was surveyed (but not fixed), Cunard decided to cancel all port stops between Fort Lauderdale and Rio de Janeiro, in the hope the vessel could get to Rio on the day originally scheduled.  This was important, because some passengers were leaving the ship in that port, and had connecting flights out of Rio, and other passengers were flying in to Rio to join the ship at the same time.

But.  It is now being claimed, by irate passengers who found their leisurely cruise between Fort Lauderdale and Rio, complete with three stops en route had changed into a quick nonstop dash, apparently Cunard never told their passengers about the change in itinerary until after the vessel had sailed from FLL.

Call me elitist if you will, but there is likely to be a higher percentage of attorneys, and/or wealthy retirees who have attorneys (and publicists) on permanent retainer on a QM2 world voyage than you'd find on a three day Disney Caribbean cruise.

The QM2 passengers are outraged.  Cunard grudgingly offered a 50% reduction in the cost of the portion of the cruise between FLL and Rio, and described this as a 'generous offer'.  This offer only covers the cruise fare, not any related air fares, hotels, loss of vacation time, or anything else.  The passengers - with nothing to do during the one week at sea except complain among themselves, refused to accept this.  Some passengers talked about 'mutinying', and locking themselves in their cabins upon arrival in Rio, refusing to disembark the vessel.

Others decided on more practical action, and engaged a UK law firm who promptly registered a class-action suit on behalf of the passengers on Thursday.

Equally promptly, Cunard upped its offer to a full refund of the cruise fare.  It is yet unclear if the passengers will accept this, or seek additional compensation.

The lesson in all of this is, I suggest :  If Cunard had volunteered all these issues up front, before the vessel sailed from Fort Lauderdale, and offered the 100% refund plus a small additional ex gratia payment, they'd probably have defused the situation.  And if they'd offered free drinks for the sector to Rio, and done everything in an open form of united cameraderie against an unfortunate turn of events, they'd probably have won loyalty and appreciation from their passengers.

Instead, it seems they tried to sneakily present passengers with a fait accompli, while foolishly overlooking the fact that their passengers had nothing to do for an entire week except talk among themselves and form a united strong front.  The usual cruise line tactic of delay, divide, and conquer, has completely failed in this case.  Bravo.

Latest update here, and earlier stories linked on the right of the page.

In other cruise line news, here's another of the increasingly common 'missing person off a cruise ship' stories.  This one is full of bizarre twists, including absinthe drinking and even a rape as well.  Lots of things the cruise lines would rather not talk about.

The Foundation for the SS United States has filed a nomination with the National Historic Trust to have the ship placed on the trust's most endangered list.  The group had been happy when the ship was purchased by NCL but has changed its mind and now wants to see the ship converted into a maritime museum celebrating America's history at sea.

NCL purchased the ship in 2003 and planned to return the ship to service if economically feasible.  The Foundation doesn't want NCL to remove the old steam engines and replace them with modern propulsion technology.

Public transport - and the subsidies required to operate it - are one of the third rails of political and social life most people are way too scared to touch.  It is not uncommon to see public transport programs so heavily subsidized that it would be cheaper to pay for taxi fares for each rider.

Which is perhaps how fiascos like the fast ferry service between Rochester and Toronto are allowed to occur.  The ferry, funded by the city of Rochester, was projected to lose $700,000 in 2005, but actually managed to lose $10 million in ten months.

Is anyone accountable for this?

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Imagine my shock at discovering I am a close business associate of a suspected international terrorist.

The suspected terrorist hails from Malaysia, lives in Canada, and recently was detected attempting to fly into the US; fortunately our alert security services detained and questioned this potentially dangerous person before allowing them onto their flight to San Diego.  Additional close scrutiny followed for the return flight back to Canada as well.  I'm hoping that my own financial and business ties won't cause me problems next time I travel.

Who is this person?  None other than the lovely lady who designed my website.  Adlina Hamid, a very talented graphic designer, a lovely charming person of variously apolitical or slightly conservative leanings, a mild mannered and totally inoffensive slightly built person, flying from her home in Calgary to meet another client I'd introduced her to - Ken Grunski of Telestial in San Diego.

Apparently her name is similar/identical to someone else, somewhere else, and so she can look forward to gratuitous hassling any time she now tries to fly to, through, or over the US.  She's attempting to resolve the interesting issue of how a non-American, not resident in the US, can proceed to get their name cleared and removed from the TSA Watch List.

Normally, if you sell more of the product or service you offer, your cost per item drops, your profit increases, and you can consider making some reductions in the selling price.  Not so if you're the US government issuing passports - an increase in demand for passports is being used as justification for increasing the cost of passports.

Here's an interesting statistic.  My link in last week's newsletter to the cell-phone gun was wrong; an error I corrected on Friday morning as soon as I realized this.  448 people clicked on the bad link before it was fixed, but only two people told me it was broken.  Please - if (when!) you come across a problem on my site, let me know.

Chinese New Year sees a surge in travel within China.  Here's an article offering some interesting advice if you're considering train travel around that time.  Better advice might be to stay at home.

Lastly this week, does the thought of public speaking terrify you?  Here's a remarkably pleasant way to reduce your fear of this or most other stressful events.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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