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17 February, 2006 

Good morning

Many people availed themselves of the free Gmail accounts I'm giving away, although most of the people asking for them were not AOL or Yahoo users, and - puzzlingly - a few people had already asked for a Gmail account at least once before.

Apparently both AOL and Yahoo have received many complaints, but neither company has yet reversed their earlier stated intentions to blackmail people sending mail to their users by demanding payment in exchange for guaranteeing prompt delivery.

Of course, neither company would agree with my description.  In standard emails being sent to everyone who complains, both AOL and Yahoo describe their actions as a way of enhancing their mail service and protecting against spammers.

If you find the idea of having some email delayed and other email not delivered at all an enhancement, you'll be pleased.  If you don't - please see my comments about this terrible action and what you can do here.

There are still plenty more free Gmail accounts, so let me know if you'd like one.

Exciting news from generous Travel Insider supporter, ProTravelGear.com.  They're holding their second annual Father's Day Sale, starting on Saturday 18th and ending on Thursday 23rd.  Everything in their online store is on sale, including both their Solitude and Plane Quiet noise cancelling headphones.  Their Solitude noise cancelling headphones won the Grand Prize in the 2005 Travel Insider Awards, and their Plane Quiet headphones won the Grand Prize in 2004.

How much is the discount in their sale?  How about a whopping big 25% discount - plus an additional 5% when you use the discount code 'travelinsider' at checkout (without the quotes).

So if you've been putting off buying a set of their headphones, or if there's something else on their site you'd like to get at this 25%+5% discount, now's a great time to go visit.

My niece had a terribly annoying ringtone on her cell phone, and when I gently suggested she change it, she said she wanted to but couldn't find anything she liked.  Which motivated me to do some looking round, and so :

This Week's Feature Column :  Xingtone Ringtone Maker : Now you can annoy people around you even more by creating your own personal ringtones from any music (or other sound effects) you may have (or create).  I risk social ostracism by experimenting with this inexpensive and simple program that allows you to create unlimited custom ringtones, any way you wish.

Dinosaur watching :  Good news from bankrupt carrier, Delta.  Their Q4 2005 loss was less than in Q4 2004.  They lost 'only' $1.24 billion in 2005, which brings Delta's losses to a total of $12.3 billion since January 2000.

United's share price improved this week.  Last Thursday it closed at $34.50, this Thursday it closed at $35.70, up 3.5% on the week.  Strangely this is way more than the company itself expected its shares to trade at.

Southwest dodged a bullet this week. The would be assassin was a lawsuit wielding irate passenger who tried to play the race card to claim Southwest unfairly discriminated against her. Southwest asked her to buy a second seat, she claimed, not because she couldn't fit in the seat assigned to her (she couldn't), but because she was black.

By news accounts, she was a poisonous individual, and, not knowing when to shut up, insisted on continuing her complaints after losing her court case, saying she wasn't heard by a jury of her peers, because no-one on the jury was black.

Meanwhile, Southwest - with the stock ticker symbol of LUV - is holding a competition awarding a cruise for two to the best story about how Southwest helped someone's love life.

Personal information about how you earned membership in their branch of the Mile High Club is apparently not necessary; full details can be found here.

Air Tahiti Nui has a great deal for travel from New York to Auckland, New Zealand - $728 roundtrip (plus taxes of about $70).  A free stop in Tahiti is included.  Details here.

British Airways also has a good special at present - roundtrip airfare to London plus three nights in a four star hotel for as little as $398 plus taxes of about $150.  Good for travel commencing through 31 March and complete by 15 April, with last date to buy this package 24 March.  Details here.  I'm hoping to take advantage of it myself sometime in mid/late March.

But the best air deal this week has to be from Ryanair in the UK.  In response to a tv expose claiming the airline was lax in respecting air safety and security rules, Ryanair issued an 'apology' of sorts, in the form of giving away three million free tickets (no air fare but taxes still payable).

Almost makes you want to buy a cheap BA fare to London and then get a free Ryanair ticket just for the (dubious) fun of flying for free.

A growing story is unfolding this week, as more and more airlines are being included in a joint EU/US inquiry into anti-trust actions and price-fixing by the airlines.  It is quite dramatic, with EU officials carrying out dawn raids on airline offices earlier this week, and the FBI searching Air France offices in Chicago, and confiscating computers and documents from British Airways in New York.

Described as preliminary steps, and based on what the European Commission says are reasons to believe the airlines may have violated rules on cartels and restricted business practices, the underlying actions relate to air cargo pricing rather than passenger fares.  The investigation is focusing on surcharges for fuel and security that the cargo carriers charge their customers, in addition to the basic cargo rates.  Sounds an awful lot like what the airlines have done with airfares, doesn't it.

The EU alleges that cooperation among the airlines began in 2000 and involved agreements about surcharges for fuel; after 9/11 security and war risk insurance charges were added.  Customers of the airlines have complained that the extra charges significantly increase their costs and observed there seems to be a uniformity of prices when it comes to the surcharges.

Even the carriers with fuel hedging in place are charging the same surcharges and there is little difference between short and long-haul flights in relation to the amount of the surcharge.  A spokesperson for the Freight Handlers Association, which represents shippers, said 'I'm not saying they are colluding but there have been so many coincidences.  They're not temporary measures: these seem to be permanent surcharges.'

No carrier has been accused of wrongdoing as yet. 

Congratulations to Boeing.  On Monday it delivered its 5,000th 737, appropriately enough to 737 champion, Southwest Airlines (being the 449th 737 received by Southwest).  The 737 was first delivered 38 years ago - way back in 1968.  Today there are still 4,271 of them flying, with an order backlog for a further 1,154 planes (more than three years of future production).

The 737 is far ahead of any other passenger plane in terms of numbers delivered.  Boeing's next most popular plane was the 727, with 1832 produced in the twenty years that plane was in production.  The most successful Airbus plane is the A320 series, with 2653 delivered and a further 1,643 on order.

While the 737 seems like the world's most popular ever passenger plane, this is because the plane also has the dubious distinction of being the world's longest model life plane.  The A320 series has been in production for 18 years, so in terms of deliveries per year, Airbus has been averaging 147 A320 planes a year, compared to Boeing's 132, making the Airbus plane more popular in terms of annual deliveries.

The 737's design dates back, way back, all the way to the 707, designed in the mid 1950s - the planes still share the same fuselage diameter, even though today's air traveler is much broader about the beam than people were 50 years back.

While some traces of 50+ year old design remains, the 737 series has gone through several distinct evolutions, with the current generation, the -700, -800 and -900 series, having different passenger capacities, wing sections, build materials, engines and avionics, making them much more efficient than the original 737-100 planes.

If you think 38 years is a long time for a single model plane, Boeing is far from finished with the 737.  Apparently adopting the concept of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' the company continues to delay any plans for a successor.  In December they were saying they would introduce a replacement 'sometime in the 2012 - 2015 time frame'; now they are saying that any such new model would be later rather than earlier in that three year time frame.

A replacement plane using latest technologies currently promises only a 4% gain in fuel efficiency and a 3% reduction in operating costs - attractive to airlines, but not enough to convince Boeing to invest in developing a new plane.

There was an interesting piece on Thursday suggesting Airbus was going to offer a discount in the hope of winning a 22 plane order worth $3 billion (at list prices) from Aeroflot.  Airbus is competing against Boeing's very successful new 787, and hopes to pick up another order for its struggling A350.

So how much do you think Airbus may be offering to Aeroflot as a discount?  Remember that it would be far from uncommon, in a strategic deal like this, to see discounts of at least 20% and possibly more than 30% being offered.

A Reuters piece quotes 'a source close to Airbus' as suggesting they are offering a $100 million (3.3%) discount.  Shame on those of you with suspicious minds for wondering what is happening to up to $1 billion in additional discounts that Airbus might otherwise offer.

If you work for a large company, you're probably part of the 90% of traveling employees who are aware of their company's preferred travel suppliers.  But only 40% of employees use their company's preferred vendors all the time.

A recent study for BT Magazine also found nearly half of employees spend their own time researching an average of 4.2 different websites as part of their travel booking process.

This study did not show how long people spend to book their travel personally, but chances are the cost to their employer of the time spent doing this (plus the cost of not necessarily booking per company policy or per best rates) dwarfs any fees a travel agent would charge.  What ever happened to picking up the phone, calling the travel agent, telling her what you wanted in a one minute conversation, and then returning back to business?

Apropos of which, IBM was commissioned recently to do a survey on consumer confidence in using the Internet.  700 people took part in the survey.

Survey respondents said their confidence is going down because of increased web fraud.  38% said they do not or will no longer bank online.  37% said they will no longer provide credit card information online and 50% won't use shared wireless connections in an airport or cafe.  64% won't conduct online transactions on a networked computer and three out of four respondents believe they are more likely to become victims of a cybercrime, such as identity theft, as opposed to a physical crime such as a robbery.

Time to call the 'old fashioned' travel agent, perhaps?

Remember Priceline?  Captain Kirk (aka William Shatner) and the whole exciting concept of last minute travel discounts.

Intuitively, this was one of the internet's greatest 'killer apps' - the ability to remainder off otherwise unsaleable inventory, in a method that protected regular published tariffs and gave a win-win for all concerned - customers got bargains and suppliers sold inventory that would have otherwise gone unsold.

Perhaps surprisingly, Priceline's core business - the sale via bidding for 'distressed inventory' hotel rooms and airfares has been massively declining.  Priceline attributes this to the rise in low-fare carriers and the ability to find better deals on online travel agencies and price guarantees by Hotel chains.  The number of people bidding for tickets or hotel rooms are down between 30% to 40%, year over year, for the last two years.

Priceline now also offers published fares on its website and is seeing this part of its business grow.

Still another reason to bring back a travel agent into your life?  Progress is a funny thing.

The good news?  President Bush' budget proposal includes $900 million for Amtrak.  The bad news?  The DoT’s Inspector General estimates that Amtrak needs approximately $1.8 billion in federal funding to remain operational.

Like it or hate it, and whether Amtrak's mission is well or poorly defined, the inadequate levels of funding it has been given for the last too many years guarantee Amtrak's continued decay and decline - inevitable outcomes that are then used to blame Amtrak for inadequate performance and as a reason to curtail future funding.

Kill Amtrak off.  Or bring it to some form of sustainable viability.  But don't doom it to a continued crippled state, leaving no-one happy with the disappointing results.

One of Amtrak's biggest problems is so huge that it probably can never be solved.  With a few rare exceptions (in the North-East) Amtrak does not own its own track.  It operates over track owned by freight companies.

Freight companies have no interest in upgrading their track to provide high speed safety for passengers; furthermore, the continued growth in rail freight traffic makes it harder and harder to squeeze Amtrak passenger services onto congested rail lines.

Flu focus :  I've occasionally written about the perils posed by Avian Flu.  I've avoided giving you weekly terror tales about how Avian Flu is making its way through Asia and Eastern Europe and now Western Europe too, with each new outbreak increasing the chance of the virus mutating into a human to human infectious form.

And I've also avoided commenting on the growing chorus of people who see the world woefully unprepared to combat a major pandemic.  While this winter is passing so far uneventfully, that's not to say a human form of the virus couldn't appear at any minute, and next winter there'll be so many more chances for it to occur.

Truly, Avian Flu is a terrible menace, which until very recently there seemed no effective defense against.  I'm writing this week instead with some good news.

Korean based LG Electronics, the world's leading air conditioning manufacturer (amongst other things) recently announced they would start selling an air conditioner that has a special filter containing leuconostoc citreum, which - they claim - blocks the spread of Avian Flu viruses.  So we can all now relax, and simply outfit our homes and offices with the latest LG a/c units.

Leuconostoc citreum?  Apparently it is made from kimchi.

Although oil prices have delightfully dropped below $60/barrel, and I'm even starting to hope my grim prediction that prices would break through $100 by the end of the year may be wrong, all countries are starting to realize that oil is scarce and precious; its supply is controlled by nations variously politically unstable and/or unfriendly to us, and we need to reduce our dependency on oil every way possible.

People are also becoming more aware that, whether there is global warming or global cooling or neither (or both), it is not a good thing to release any more pollutants into the atmosphere than absolutely necessary.

So while you're wondering if you should buy a hybrid car or not, spare a thought for an issue that is currently wasting 2.3 billion gallons of fuel a year in the US, along with all the massive extra pollution this causes.

The problem?  Traffic congestion.  Estimated at costing the country $65 billion or more this year, no-one seems prepared to take leadership of this invidious problem, because the costs are obscured, little bit by little bit, day by day, across all of us.  The cost of this congestion, per person, is only about 60¢ a day - too slight for any of us to notice.

But - let's turn that statistic around.  How much would you pay, every day, to solve our transportation problems, and save the 60¢ a day it costs this year (and the 62¢ next year, and so on and so on....)?

This great nation, in the 1950s, managed to create the interstate highway system from bare dirt to final striped pavement - an engineering feat unrivalled any time past or present, anywhere in the world.  America's efficient transportation infrastructure gave it an edge on the rest of the world.  But now we apparently can no longer afford to maintain it.  Why not?

Cars are much safer, faster, more reliable and more comfortable than 50 years ago, but the major highways are as bad or worse, posted speed limits are about the same and actual drivable average speeds are often much lower - all at a time when air travel is an increasingly unfriendly and inconvenient alternative.

Talking about cars, here's a new business that seems to be succeeding.  Take a few leggy California blondes, throw in a passion for luxury cars, plenty of parties and a distaste for parking your own vehicle and what have you got?  A multimillion-dollar, female valet parking business, where struggling models and actresses dressed in bikinis, mini-skirts or lingerie park the cars of the rich and famous in Los Angeles.

Beverly Hills-based Girls Valet Parking opened for business about six months ago and has already taken over a rival company and announced plans for expansion.  'Given the option of hiring acne-riddled teenage boys in red vests, or beautiful and sexy models and actresses trained in safety and hospitality, we're betting our success that [clients] will prefer the latter,' company founder Brad Saltzman said.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Catherine Stevens is regularly taken to one side and questioned at airport checkpoints as a potential security risk.  Why?  Because if one considers the diminutive of Mrs Stevens' first name - Cat - then her name, Cat Stevens, becames the same as that of the famous (male) singer who, for reasons best known to the TSA, is on the terrorism watch list.

Mrs Stevens does have an important person trying to help her get off the watch list.  Her husband - Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, who is currently reviewing the troubled Secure Flight program designed to streamline the problems with passenger watch lists.

She is in good company.  This article suggests there are now 325,000 foreigners alone on the various passenger watch lists.  And a Joe Sharkey article in the NY Times (he mentioned the Cat Stevens problem) points to people with names like David Hill (how common is that!) also being on the watch lists, so a single name might impact on thousands of actual travelers.

Joe's article (sorry, no url) points out it is impossible to get your name removed from the list - if you file all the paperwork the TSA requires to prove you are you, and not a terrorist, they leave the entry on the list, but add a comment alongside (presumably to catch all the other dangerous David Hill (or whoever) people), so you still have problems every time you travel.

The TSA is looking for an additional $10 million because it is suffering from a high rate of attrition.  One in five security screeners has been leaving the agency each year, while half of part time workers have left.

The TSA would use the money to offer extra pay, bonuses, retention allowances, college credit reimbursements and other incentives.

But maybe there's another reason the TSA is losing so many staff.  They have fired 112 of their Honolulu employees 'for cause' (ie due to serious problems) - one sixth of their total staff - since the agency began four years ago.  That's in addition to those who left voluntarily.

'Ask the Pilot' (my review here) author Patrick Smith was taking some pictures at the airport in Manchester, NH.  He was accosted first by private security guards and then by police, who accused him of illegally taking pictures at the airport - an activity they first said was illegal, then agreed was technically legal (whatever that means).  He still had to produce ID to prove who he was (how does showing ID make an activity legal).

This in NH.  Live free or die?

His story continues.  The next day, in Rhode Island, the same thing happens, but this time it takes 45 minutes of hassle before he is let free, and is told that it is illegal to take pictures of certain things, but the policeman refuses to tell him which things are illegal to photograph!

Remember when we used to make fun of the Soviet Union's totalitarianism - you were not allowed to take pictures of train stations or airports.  Guess what - you can take pictures galore in Russia these days, but as Patrick Smith discovered, taking a picture in the public area of an airport is far from simple.  His two page article on Slate is worth enduring the hassle of their compulsory advertising to read.

If rigorous federal screening procedures for air marshals occasionally have spectacular failures, what can we expect from the much simpler form of screening proposed in the various 'registered traveler' programs?

These programs will allow people who pay a fee and pass some type of background check to be deemed as 'probably not a terrorist' and go through a priority line with less screening than the regular airport security lines.  They represent a dangerous chink in the far from complete armor of TSA screening currently in place.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Not only do we have these mooted 'registered traveler' programs, but now the Post Office is proposing a Registered Mailer program.

The new program is designed to allow those who have submitted personal information and been fingerprinted to get their mail delivered up to one day sooner than those who have not.

The program came about because of the amount of mail that must now be screened for explosives and toxic substances.  The Postal Service believes that by pre-clearing certain individual's mailings based on information they have shared, along with background checks, they can increase the effectiveness of their screening systems by focusing limited resources on better screening for packages belonging to those for whom they have no information.  The program will be voluntary, and of course there will be a fee involved.

More drunk pilots.

And lastly this week, perhaps we should all treat our airline food with more respect and even reverence.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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