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24 February, 2006 

Good morning

I wrote last week about some good deals to London with BA.  This week I tried to buy the package myself, but for Seattle departures, all the dates I wanted had already vanished, and the alternate package prices offered were twice the low lead price.

I felt briefly dejected, but on Thursday, an email arrived from BA offering special low webfares to London, including a marvelous $588 roundtrip fare from Seattle in BA's premium economy class (even including fuel surcharge, too).  As I said in my review of their World Traveler Plus class of service, this cabin is the 'sweet spot' in terms of value - much better than coach class for only a very little more (a mere $250 over coach fares for these specials).  So, excitedly, I rushed to book this low fare.

Only to come jarringly up against a brick wall.  Due to an unknown glitch, I could get three quarters of the way through the booking, but no further.  The website, instead of coming up with a final booking summary for me to approve and purchase, just gave me a blank screen.  I sent an email to their e-booking support people asking for help to resolve the problem.  No answer.

As the afternoon passed, and noting the availability visibly dwindling, hour by hour, I managed to find an (800) number to what was described as their web technical support department.  The first person - a gentleman by the name of Alex but with a heavy Indian accent - suggested I delete all cookies on my computer as a possible fix.  I pointed out to him this would lose stored account information for literally hundreds of websites I visit, and also pointed out that I had no problems with any other websites, and have managed to book on other airline sites (including Alaska Air the day before) and BA in the past as well.  He relented and suggested I simply delete all temporary files, which I did.

After a reboot and reattempt, the same problem.  This time I connected with Amanda (lovely traditional English name, but Indian accent again).  Amanda was unable to help in any way, and said they weren't a technical support department at all, they could only walk people through the steps on a (properly functioning) website.  She said there was no point in talking to a supervisor - no-one, anywhere could help me.

I tried a different computer, and had the same problem.  More time was passing, so I called the general reservations number and spoke with (American accented) Alan.  He said neither he nor his supervisor could even access web-only fares, and so couldn't help at all.

I sent an email off to the Customer Relations department - the website suggested either emailing or speaking to General Reservations, but of course did not give a direct phone number to Customer Relations.  Nothing has been heard from Customer Relations.

So here I am, wanting to buy the fare advertised and offered to me, but unable to do so, and unable to find anyone in BA's organization to help.  What a heck of a way to run an airline!

Is it no wonder that BA is forced to discount these fares so much - how many more seats could they sell if people were actually able to book and buy the fares the airline in theory offers.  If two of my computers - using standard Win XP Professional - are incompatible with the web programming on BA's site, the chances are so too are many other people's computers.

I believe both these problems to be, at least in part, reflections on the lower promotional costs associated with internet marketing.  Back in the 'good old days' of relatively expensive direct mail and fax promotions, an airline wouldn't promote a special deal unless it had sufficient inventory to sell to be sure of recouping its promotional costs, and it would have a simple way for people to respond and buy the product they were selling.  All promotions would be rigorously checked before being released.

Now, with close to zero cost email marketing, and increasingly complex web based direct fulfillment, airlines can mount promotions where there are very few seats available and still make a profit, and can inadvertently (incompetently) have mismatches between promotional specials and the web technology to actually accept sales.  Perhaps the plans by AOL and Yahoo to start charging for emails sent to their subscribers are a good thing - maybe they will encourage quality control on the part of promoters.

All of which makes me wish I didn't live a bit closer to New York.  New discount-business fare carrier, Maxjet, has a special promotion at present to travel between JFK and London's Stansted airport for only $750.  And that is for roundtrip travel, in their all-business class 767.  Details on their website.

Maxjet is expanding, and will be adding service between London and Dulles on 15 March, and is believed to be looking at adding service to the west coast too (let's hope it is Seattle....).

London's Stansted airport is not well known for US originating travelers, but is conveniently linked to the city by rail service and is the fourth busiest and fastest growing airport in the UK, with service to over 150 destinations.  Both Ryanair and easyJet have major hubs at Stansted, making it a good choice if you want to connect on to other places in Europe at the lowest possible cost.

In other travel news of a positive nature, we've had another couple join our Christmas Markets Cruise, bringing our group up to 24.  Spaces are still available, and we'd love to have you come too.

The increasing size of this group is enabling me to add more special Travel Insider-exclusive bonuses to the package, and if we get a few more couples, some further very nice inclusions can be added.  Please do check out the information on this lovely cruise/tour and consider joining us.

My weekly articles cover all manner of things.  Some are easier to write than others; perhaps the hardest and most time consuming are the book reviews.  Sometimes I write a book review merely to add to the range and variety of feature articles, and sometimes because there's a book I think you should know about.  This week, I'm writing about a book you should know about, and in a most uncommonly gushing and positive manner - I hope you'll choose to find out why :

This Week's Feature Column :  The Way of the Road Warrior : I describe this as a sleeper of a book because its bland title obscures its unique and powerful content, but perhaps I should call it a non-sleeper, because once you pick it up and start reading, you'll find its compelling content and presentation make it difficult to put down until you've read right through.  Read the review - or, better yet, read the book - to find out why.

Dinosaur watchingUS Airways announced a not very good result for the fourth quarter, which was also their first full quarter after exiting bankruptcy in September.

The airline lost $261 million, compared to losing 'only' $69 million a year earlier.  US Airways says that almost half this loss was due to one-time charges, and they would have lost a mere $138 million if these were overlooked.

But, at least at present, they're no longer in Chapter 11, and can't pretend one-time charges don't exist, or refuse to pay them.  The company continues to have a sunny view of its future, describing itself as 'making tremendous progress' and saying they expect to be profitable in 2006, excluding one-time merger-related costs (whatever that means - sounds like a loophole big enough to fly a plane through).  US Airways' share price generally strengthened after the announcement was made prior to start of trading on Tuesday this week.

United's share price meandered very slightly upwards this last week.  It closed at $36.14 on Thursday, compared to $35.70 last Thursday, a 1.2% rise for the week, and a 4.75% rise over the last two weeks.  Who said only fools invest in airline stocks?

While US Airways continues to engage in an orgy of public self-love when announcing its pathetically slow roll out of 'new low fares', maintaining the ridiculous facade that the airline actually wants to charge less than top dollar whenever it can possibly get away with it, the reality contradicts their press releases.

A Philadelphia Inquirer article last Friday reported that on less competitive routes, US Airways gleefully charges as much as it ever has, and quoted roundtrip fares from PHL of $1060 to Detroit (906 miles roundtrip, a cost of $1.17 a mile), $1220 to Cincinnati (1014 miles roundtrip, $1.20 a mile), and a massive $1049 to Buffalo - a mere 558 miles roundtrip, at a cost of $1.88 a mile, comparable to what you'd pay a taxi to drive you.

If an airline finds itself with rising costs, it can do one of three things.  It can ignore them, and lose even more money than normal.  It can respond by cutting labor costs and reducing services, driving away many customers in the process.  Or it can simply raise its fares to reflect its increased costs, while maintaining services at their present levels.

Enormously profitable Southwest plans to raise their fares to reflect increases in jetfuel costs.  And financially troubled JetBlue says they'll be raising fares, too, as part of their plan to return to profitability.  Both statements were simply expressed, with little chest-beating, bullying of suppliers and employees, demands for government concessions, or well worn excuses.  What a sensible approach - they make it look so simple that one wonders why the dinosaurs can't act in similar fashion.

This also points to an interesting issue :  critics of Southwest say 'the only reason they made a profit last year was because they hedged their fuel costs'.  That is a nonsense statement, and even if it were true, meaningless, because a profit is a profit and needs no excuse, just like a loss is a loss and allows no excuse.

The reason the statement is nonsense is because it implies Southwest is not a rational airline.  Southwest is very rational, and so, if it had not hedged its fuel costs, it wouldn't have passively watched its financial results nose-dive into the red.  It would have simply increased its fares.  There's nothing complicated or magic about this process, as shown by their announcement now.

Talking about Southwest and costs, Dallas' Love Field airport is about to raise its landing fees, something that will impact on Southwest, albeit only minimally.  With the fee increase in place, the average cost per passenger for airlines operating from Love Field is $1.51, making it one of the least expensive airports to operate from.  By comparison, competing airport DFW costs $8.30 per passenger, and the most expensive airport in the country, Denver, costs $13.05 per passenger.

How can airports that provide closely similar services have such an extraordinarily wide range in costs?

Perhaps one thing some airports do is cut back on their baggage handling services.  The US DoT has just issued their annual report on baggage mishandling, showing a 23% increase in lost suitcase reports.

The worst offender?  US Airways, with 9.6 officially reported lost bags per 1000 passengers, an 81% increase over a year ago.  Delta was second worst, with 7.1 lost bags, then American at 5.9 and Northwest at 4.9.  Southwest and Continental were star performers, with only 4.25 and 4.12 lost bags - less than half as many as US Airways.

I mentioned before how US Airways charges $1.88/mile to fly people between Philadelphia and Cincinnati.  But if you think that is outrageous, you haven't seen anything yet.  Public transport is one of the sacred cows that attracts ridiculous overspending with very little thought because of the 'feel good' factor that is present.

While we variously sense public transportation is for the most part expensive and thinly patronized, it is rare to see such a brutal analysis of a project as presented in this article.  Read about a short 30 mile rail route in my own Seattle area, operating over existing track, that sells fares for $6 roundtrip, but which requires an additional subsidy of $547 per traveler.  Yes, on current ridership levels, it is costing $553 per passenger to offer the 30 mile service.

Assuming that ridership grows as per the transit authority's projections (a very dubious assumption) and assuming their cost projections aren't exceeded (another dubious assumption), costs drop to a mere $135 per roundtrip over the next 25 years.  That means for a commuter traveling the route five days a week, their travel is being subsidized to the tune of $30,000 a year.  The article's conclusion - why not just give every such person an annual Christmas gift of a new car.

Talking about public transport, I've had fun adding a couple of amusing variations to the famous London Underground map to one of my pages about how to travel on the London Underground.

You might want to hurry to look at these maps, because apparently Transport for London is attempting to force websites to remove them from their sites.  It is hard to understand what damage a parody/joke version of their Underground map does to anyone - you'd think it serves to further reinforce the iconic status of their map and London's underground system.

The Australian government's 'will we, won't we' agonizing over whether to allow Singapore Airlines to operate flights between Australia and the US has finally (?) been resolved, with a decision this week not to allow Singapore to operate flights.  This follows some ten years of negotiation, and extends the current duopoly whereby only Qantas and United Airlines offer nonstop services.

Duopoly?  Very close to monopoly - 75% of the market goes to Qantas, which derives between 15%-20% of its substantial worldwide net profit from these routes alone.

Australian Transport Minister Warren Truss showed his political prowess at doublespeak when he said the Government's commitment to 'open skies' was 'an aspirational goal' to be judged on a case-by-case basis and pursued only when the national interest would benefit.

And so, how would Australia's national interest be impacted by opening the air route to competition?  Mr Truss said economic modeling showed benefits to the economy would be very small, and that Singapore's entry would do nothing to break the preference of US tourists for US-branded airlines.

What nonsense!  Qantas currently has 75% of the market - doesn't this conclusively show there is no preference for US branded airlines by US travelers?  And why would Mr Truss even care about this?

And those 'very small' benefits to Australia's economy?  His own colleague, Tourism Minister Fran Bailey said that tourism would grow if more airlines flew on the route.  Singapore Airlines said its entry would bring an extra US$114 million of US tourist revenue to Australia each year.

Very small benefits?  Hardly!  SQ also said fares are currently up to 38% higher than they should be.  That's not small.

What did Qantas say about their save?  CEO Geoff Dixon said 'The transpacific route is currently well serviced by a number of major carriers, with a range of other prospective entrants, such as Virgin Blue and Air Canada likely to increase competition further.'  Which is true, inasmuch as two is a number, albeit not a very big one....

The first big airshow of the year has been underway this week in Singapore, and Airbus is off to an early lead in this year's race against Boeing, announcing $6 billion in new orders, compared to $1.4 billion from Boeing.  However, it is way too early in the year to start making any predictions for this year's winner.

Meanwhile, some not so good news for Airbus.  Another setback occurred with their new A380 super-jumbo, when wing testing failed a stress test.  Aviation authorities certify a maximum strain that airframe components must be capable of meeting, and then, to be very safe, require new planes to be able to handle loads 50% greater than the maximum limit.  One of the A380's wings had been bent upward by 24.3 feet at the tip, reaching 1.45 times its limit load, or 3.3% short of target, when a rupture appeared in a section between the two engines.

Is this a very serious problem?  Probably not, inasmuch as it can easily be solved by increasing the wing's strength.  But doing this will almost certainly require more weight, thereby penalizing the load carrying capacity (and/or range) of the plane and increasing its fuel burn costs, and so diminishing the plane's appeal to airlines.

Singapore Airlines is currently hoping to operate the world's first commercial A380 flight this November.  This already represents a six month delay in bringing the plane into service.

An interesting phenomenon with the A-380 is that, originally, the naysayers all predicted the plane would end up being packed full of seats in every nook and cranny, resulting in an even more unpleasant traveling experience than on present planes.  To date, that hasn't happened, and all airlines have been announcing cabin layouts with fewer than the designed comfortable capacity, rather than more.  How long this will continue remains unclear of course, but so far, so good.

But this is not the case with Boeing's new 787.  Boeing had been suggesting the plane be configured with two aisles and eight across seating in coach class, giving it a typical seating capacity in a three class plane of about 259 seats.  This would allow for 19" wide seats, compared to about 17 1/4" seats on, eg, a 747.

But the airlines have discovered that if they go back to narrower seats, they can squeeze nine seats per row, enabling them to up the plane's capacity to 280 seats.

Boeing is of course crying crocodile tears at the decision by airlines to squeeze a ninth seat into each row.  After all, it was a deliberate design requirement by Boeing in the first place that the plane should be capable of managing nine seats per row, and with the denser passenger load, the plane's overall operating costs per passenger improves by about 7.5% - a massive saving to the airlines, and making the 787 a much more attractive plane to purchase.

Boeing passed a minor milestone this week, when the last 717 to be produced began its final assembly in Long Beach.  The plane was originally known as the MD95 by McDonnell Douglas, and was a derivative of the earlier DC-9.

The 717 is the last commercial airplane to be produced in Southern California, at a plant that has produced over 15,000 airplanes since opening in 1941.

Russia's aviation industry is languishing in the doldrums with insufficient investment, inadequate products, and almost non-existent sales.  Applying a good old-fashioned Soviet concept - 'bigger is better' - Russian President Putin issued a decree to merge all the Russian airplane makers - largely now privatized - into a single state-run body, to be called the United Aviation Corporation.

Apparently merging a group of chronically unprofitable companies together will not simply make an even bigger loss making (dis)organization, but instead will magically transform itself into a profitable progressive enterprise.  And apparently where private enterprise has failed, Russian government bureaucracy will triumph.

Little by little, and rightly or wrongly, more and more restrictions are being placed on cell phone usage in cars.  Opponents of such moves have pointed out that other distractions are equally or more dangerous.  Eating in the car, lighting a cigarette, tuning the radio, and trying to calm squabbling children in the back seat are all at least as dangerous as speaking on a cell phone, and for my part, I've never understood why talking on a cell phone is considered to be more dangerous than talking to a passenger in the car.

And now, here's a new car danger to be proscribed and controlled - GPS units.

Talking about cell phone dangers, long time readers know about my concerns to do with cell phone radiation.  Less commonly spoken about are other forms of high energy radiation, and there's a more ionizing higher energy radiation than cell phones becoming increasingly common all around us - radiation from devices using the 2.4 GHz frequency band (cell phones, by comparison, use much lower frequencies, generally between 800 MHz and 1.9 GHz).

Devices in the largely free-for-all 2.4 GHz band include microwave ovens (and we know what happens when you stick something in your microwave), Bluetooth (these units are very low power, however), and Wi-Fi services.

We are all increasingly being surrounded by Wi-Fi radiation, at work, in airports, even at every Starbucks store, and at home.  Here's news of a Canadian university that has banned all Wi-Fi service from its campus due to radiation safety concerns.

Maybe we are getting too surrounded by modern day 'productivity aids' of all sorts.

It was an unspoken secret, back 20 years ago when I was selling computers, that there was a negative correlation between how much business executives used computers and how successful they were.  The more they used computers, the less successful they were.  Apparently this has not changed, as this article dismayingly shows.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Many of you probably view the sale of six of the nation's ports to the United Arab Emirates as this week's security horror story.  But, if that is your view, you are very mistaken.

First of all, none of our ports have been sold.  Instead, it is the operational management of six ports that has been sold.

Secondly, no governments are involved.  The current contractor is a British company, P & O, and they have sold their contract to a Dubai company, Dubai Ports World.  Actual on-the-ground dock workers will remain US citizen employees, same as they always have been, no matter where the management company is headquartered.

And, thirdly, what impact does this have on national security?  The Customs and Coast Guard still remain in control of our port and cargo security.  The company that manages the port's operations is as irrelevant to our port security as is the company that manages an airport when it comes to aviation security.

Even the New York Times - no lover of the Bush administration - finds itself compelled to speak against the current swell of emotional nonsense surrounding this issue.  And the eloquent Peggy Noonan, former speech writer to President Reagan and now apparently on one of the many mysterious airport watch lists, tries to put this into an overall security perspective in a Wall St Journal piece.  She's more concerned about what she terms the TSA's 'ritual abuse of passengers'.

This isn't even the sale and transfer of a US asset from a US company to a foreign company.  It is the sale of a US asset from one foreign company to another foreign company.

How about this instead for a security horror story :  Six actors who starred in a movie about the Guantanamo detention camp were detained and questioned under Britain's Terrorism Act when returning to the UK from attending the Berlin Film Festival, where their movie won an award.  Do British security officials not understand the difference between actors and actual terrorists?

Talking about Britain, London's Heathrow airport has increased their security screening measures and it is taking up to an hour to get through security at peak times.  Consider arriving at the airport more than two hours prior to your plane departure.

Another subtle distinction proved the undoing of a prominent Indian chemist.  He was invited to visit the United States, to return to the University of Florida, where he had previously been a distinguished visiting professor.  He is also the president of the International Council for Science.

However, after a close interrogation at a US Consulate in India, he was denied a visa, due to his specialized knowledge of chemistry, which could constitute a threat to the safety of the United States.

Apparently the US only wishes for uneducated people to visit.  After all, as the saying goes, 'the pen is mightier than the sword'.

Terrorism fears are being quoted as a reason why a one armed man was fined for loading his car with bags too slowly at Melbourne Airport in Australia.

There's a competition of sorts to choose a new updated seven wonders of the world.  A shortlist has been narrowed down to 21 things, comprising a bizarre mix of things predating the classical seven wonders, one of the actual seven wonders, and various more modern things.  Details here.

Not on the short list of 21 possible new wonders is Mirabel Airport in Montreal, a monument to failure rather than anything more positive.  Described as the airport of the future when it opened in 1975, it proved to be too far from downtown and too difficult to get to, and closed in late 2004.  It is now to be turned into a giant amusement park with dual themes of water and space, and will be named AeroDream.

The first stage of the project is planned to open by the end of next year.  Care to bet if it will be any more successful than the airport was?  Details here.

Lastly this week, if you're still wondering where to take your annual vacation this year, reader Sarah suggests this may be a helpful resource.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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