[Web version of this newsletter]  [Newsletter Archives]  [Website Home Page]  [Please Donate Here]

5 May, 2006  

Good morning

It is almost time for our annual fundraising drive.  Just like PBS, we offer you free quality content and in turn rely on the generosity of our supporters.  But first, this week, a special request to anyone who can offer special help for our fundraising.

I'd like to offer premiums to people who kindly choose to contribute - products, services, discounts, samples, free trials, upgrades - just about anything that has potential value to readers.  If you/your company has an idea for something that could be given to the Travel Insider readers who help support this website and newsletter, please let me know.

Extending the PBS analogy, supporting companies can be given appropriate sponsorship recognition in the newsletter and on the website.

We've been having some problems getting email through to people with Yahoo email addresses.  Yahoo promise us this should all now be resolved; and so if you discover any future email from us in your Yahoo Bulk (ie spam) mail folder rather than in your normal Inbox, please let me know so I can follow up further with Yahoo.

It is now 30 days since I emailed Alaska Airlines asking them to explain how it was they didn't discover, until after all passengers had boarded, that the plane they planned to use to take us to Las Vegas was un-airworthy and unflyable, and asking them to further explain why it took them two hours to tell us the truth about what the problem was and four hours before they could arrange an alternate plane.  It is also 30 days since requesting to have my unusable ticket refunded, and for sure there's been no refund yet.

It is also 19 days since the issue was brought to the personal attention of a 'very senior' executive at the airline.

Reader Susan writes in with her own Alaska story and possible interpretation of Alaska's current problems :

Last year I was hoping to fly a 5.05pm Alaska Airlines flight from Long Beach to Seattle, and then on to Anchorage.  We all boarded and waited, but our departure time came and went.

The mechanics apparently informed the pilot at the last possible minute that they wouldn’t clear the plane for departure.  We waited in the plane and listened to the explanations: the mechanics were working on the problem; the mechanics needed parts that were coming by truck from Los Angeles; the truck was stuck in rush hour traffic; it went on and on.

We were told we could get off the plane and reboard after making our phone calls and getting something to eat; but then we were told if we left the plane we could not reboard.  Eventually we were all told to get off the plane -  another plane had been requested for us, but nobody knew if it would show up in time to fly us to Seattle before the airport's 11.00pm no-fly curfew.  We were advised to go home if we lived close enough and try again tomorrow; otherwise we could stay in the departure lounge and take our chances.

At about 10 minutes to 11PM we were hustled on board. (I don’t think we were wheels-up before 11, so Alaska Airlines probably had to pay a fine).  But upon arrival in Seattle, naturally all the connecting flights on to Anchorage had long since left, so those of us who got out of Long Beach by the skin of our teeth spent the night in Seattle.

Now here comes the interesting part.  I was chatting with the hotel shuttle driver and learned that Alaska Airlines was responsible for filling most of the hotel rooms near Sea-Tac; that the unions (especially the mechanics union) were screwing with the airline management and jacking up the schedules as a protest; and that my story of a six-hour delay trying to fly Alaska Airlines was nothing unusual.

After reading your story, I guess nothing has changed much. Sorry you got caught in the crossfire, too.

Travel Insider River Cruise News :  It isn't just me who thinks river cruising is the best development in travel styles in the recent past.  This interesting article quotes Bob Whitley, president of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, who says 'River cruises are probably the hottest new travel experience in our industry'.

In support of this claim are some amazing growth statistics :  Viking River Cruises report a 52% growth each year for the last three years; and Grand Circle went from offering a single charter cruise in 1997 to now operating 16 vessels.  As for my favorite operator, Amadeus Waterways, they modestly report 'double digit' growth, have added their second vessel just a few weeks ago and will be adding a third vessel at the end of the year (in addition to the vessels they charter in Russia and Egypt).

You should try a cruise for yourself.  There's still space on our discounted Russian cruise this July.  Our Christmas markets cruise is full, but you can put your name on a waitlist if you like.

If you can't join this year, all is not lost.  Next year I hope to offer a Russian cruise in July, possibly a Tulip cruise in April/May, and probably another Christmas markets cruise in Nov/Dec.

There's no feature column this week.  I'll try to have something interesting for you next week.

I was overhearing a conversation at the local 7-11 on Thursday - a woman's cell phone rang while she was paying for the things she had bought.  When the cashier suggested she answer her phone, the woman replied 'Oh, no, that's just my work phone, I'm ignoring that'.  This made me wonder how many cell phones she had in her purse, and reminded me I know quite a few people with two and some people who have three cell phones.

And so, here's an instant survey - how many currently-connected-to-service cell phones do you have?

Simply click on the appropriate answer below to cause an instant email to be created with your answer in the subject line and send the email to me.  I'll provide the answers next week.

Some explanatory notes about how to answer the question :

  • Please count all phones you personally own and also phones you carry on behalf of your employer or other people.

  • If sometimes you are in charge of extra phones and sometimes you are not, please report the maximum number of phones you sometimes have with you.

  • Please do not count phones you might pay for but which are used by, eg, other members of your family.

I do not have a cell phone

I have one cell phone/line of service

I have two cell phones/lines of service

I have three cell phones/lines of service

I have four cell phones/lines of service

I have five or more cell phones/lines of service

Correction :  Inexplicably, last week I got the url wrong for the discounted $5.55 copies of Charles McCool's book, Winning the Airfare Game.  The correct url for the website selling it so cheaply is www.lowerairfares.com.

Dinosaur watching :  Speaking of corrections, it is rare to see the NY Times issue a correction for a story they ran on Page 1.  But their story I mentioned last week about airlines looking at having 'standing seats' on their planes - a story vehemently denied by Airbus - resulted in a 'correction' in which the NY Times said it may have been mistaken about this.

So what actually happened?  The story did include an unfortunate factual error, implying the only way to fit 853 seats onto a new A-380 super-jumbo would be with the use of 'standing seats'.  This is not correct.  These massive planes can accommodate, in an all coach class configuration using normal seating, that many passengers and possibly more.  However, none of the announced cabin configurations by airplane purchasers are for more than about 550 seats, and some airlines currently plan to have significantly fewer seats.

Chris Elliott, the author of the NY Times article, has some interesting commentary about the 'mistake' on his personal website.  And he also has a picture of the standing seats, which confirms that, at least at some time, such a concept did (does?) exist.  Airbus says it researched the concept in 2003 but subsequently abandoned it.

The reality of standing seats is that no passenger would accept one unless the flight was very short and the discount over a regular seat was substantial.  Shorthaul planes are often small regional jet planes that couldn't fit people standing up (not enough head room) and/or which are weight limited so they couldn't handle the extra weight of more passengers and their bags - it is only the medium and longer haul planes that start to have sufficient size and capacity to accommodate standing passengers.

If the airline has to offer a substantial discount, then the benefit to them reduces down to insignificance.  Perhaps that is what Airbus found in 2003.

Maybe we won't see standing seats any time soon, but theatre-style "flip seats" are being talked about as the latest greatest thing and examples were demonstrated in a Hamburg trade show last month.

Flip seats would speed the boarding process and make it easier for non-aisle seated passengers to get out during a flight to go to a bathroom.

The seats would also be built out of the latest composite materials, continuing the trend for seats to become slimmer and slimmer - after all, each inch of seat thickness is an appreciable opportunity cost (and weight cost) to the airline - they could fit extra rows of seats in a plane if the seats were thinner, while still allowing for the same space for the passenger.

Still on the subject of comfort, here's a bizarre new garment that promises increased comfort when you're wedged into a too-narrow middle seat - the Kling Tut Comfort Traveler's Vest.  I've never seen one myself.

And lastly about seats, Frontier Airlines is considering joining Southwest in asking over-sized passengers to pay for a second seat alongside them.  Their rationale (other than the obvious)?  Now that most of their flights are departing nearly full of passengers, they can no longer arrange for larger passengers to have a complimentary open seat next to them, and so they'll have to charge for keeping a seat open.

After a couple of weeks of speculation about Delta's employees being asked to volunteer to clean planes in their spare time, reader and Delta employee Eric reports on his experience doing exactly that :

Wednesday night I participated in the "Delta After Dark" cleaning event.  I worked the 6pm to 10pm shift and was on a team of folks that cleaned an MD-88.  Our main focus was to clean all the "scuff" marks off the plastic areas around the seats, tray tables, in the aisle, the overhead bins, and on the bulkheads.  We also wiped down the seats, cleaned out the seat back pockets, and vacuumed the carpets.  Mechanics were also on hand to fix any problems or broken items we encountered.  Our regular cleaning contractor took care of the lavatories and galleys.

We had a great turnout of employees, from top level executives and front-line people, to accountants, lawyers, project managers, and HR folks.  When I left at 10pm, the next shift of volunteers had arrived and were ready to go.

We definitely got that plane clean and I know our customers got a clean plane this morning when they boarded.  There are no plans for another event like this, but I am ready and willing to do it again if one is scheduled.

Our goal is to get all our airplanes to a new standard of clean, and then have our regular cleaning crew (Delta or contractors) keep them in that condition with more frequent deep-cleaning cycles.

Maybe once it has a fleet of nice clean MD-88s, Deltat can start increasing domestic services again.  In April, Delta's domestic flown miles decreased by 13.5% over April 2005, with a corresponding decline of 11.6% in revenue passenger miles.  There were increases in their international routes, but overall Delta had a 7.3% decline in capacity and a 5.9% decline in revenue passenger miles (RPMs).

In comparison, Continental reported increases of 11.7% in domestic RPMs and a massive 22.7% increase in international RPMs.  AirTran had a 32.9% increase in RPMs and Southwest had a 16.5% increase.  Even United managed a 8.4% increase in systemwide RPMs.

Two other losers were US Airways, with an overall 6.8% decrease in RPMs, and Northwest with an approx 4.5% decrease in RPMs.

Perhaps part of US Airways' problems can be found at its second largest hub and major international gateway - Philadelphia.  This article describes PHL as 'dirty, dysfunctional and often dreaded by customers', caused by years of neglect by US Airways.  Happily the article also reports on steps being undertaken by US Airways to improve things.

Yet another discount carrier across the Atlantic?  Startup British airline Flywho is planning to start flights between Birmingham and Orlando-Sandford airport on 8 July, and flights between Birmingham and St Petersburg-Clearwater on 27 July.

But don't hold your breath on this one.  The airline has been promising service for two years now, but has yet to operate a single flight.  Originally, under the name of FlyBlu, it hoped to start service in summer 2004; subsequent plans for summer 2005 also failed to eventuate.

Talking about airlines that have been delayed in starting their promised service, reader Tom has been looking through the filings by Virgin America in its attempts to get certification to operate flights in the US.  Readers may recall that other US carriers objected to Virgin America's initial filing, claiming the airline was effectively controlled by Sir Richard Branson, in contravention with the requirements for US management as well as majority US ownership of domestic airlines.

And so, in attempts to show their distance from and independence from Sir Richard Branson, and to prove their US management and control, how does Virgin America respond to requests for more information on these points from the Dept of Transportation?

In response to a request to see emails and/or letters between Virgin America and Branson, Tom says the new airline-to-be effectively responded 'there are thousands of them and you don't want to waste your time analyzing them'.  Is this the best way of conveying a hands-off distanced relationship between Branson and Virgin America?

And regarding American citizens being in control of Virgin America, the airline notes they went to the trouble of recruiting Don Carty (former AA CEO) to be chairman of the airline.  Interestingly, Don Carty is a Canadian (although he may possibly now have US citizenship).  More interestingly, Virgin America proudly stated that Carty, acting as Chairman, speaks with the airline's President, Fred Reid, at least once per month.

Hmmm - thousands of items of correspondence from Sir Richard Branson.  But conversations only 'at least once a month' with their Chairman?  Neither Tom nor I are convinced that these responses best convey the perception of independent US control the airline seeks to offer.

However, Virgin America is obviously confident of getting its operating license, as this picture taken just a couple of days ago clearly shows.

It is only a small thing, but I've never understood why passengers are always subjected to a compulsory newsreel on airplane in-flight entertainment systems before being allowed to choose whichever channel they want to view.  The 'other' Virgin - Virgin Atlantic - has now abandoned the traditional newsreel, and allows all passengers to immediately start channel surfing any which way they wish as soon as the plane has taken off.

And I do mean channel surf.  Virgin Atlantic planes offer up to a staggering 54 channels of entertainment.

How to sue an airline and win is the heading on this marvelous story in the UK Sunday Times.  Recommended reading - while detailing a UK based scenario, much of the article is equally relevant to the US.

Adding still further to the massive pressure on Airbus to do something about its new A350, a plane that has underwhelmed the marketplace to date, Emirates Airlines said it might double its previously announced plans (to order 50 mid-sized airplanes) and place an order for as many as 100.

This order would be for either Boeing's 'comeback king' plane, the 787, or for the Airbus A350.  Emirates has gone on record as criticizing the A350, and has also expressed interest in the 787 if Boeing were to offer a larger version, which Boeing is understood to have now agreed to.

While every deal is an important deal, winning with Emirates is probably vitally important to Airbus and only slightly less important to Boeing.

Talking about Emirates Airlines makes me think of Dubai, that amazing place that seems to know no limits to its extraordinary and very upmarket growth.  On Monday Dubai said it would build the world's longest hotel strip, to be called Bawadi, and featuring 31 hotels, many theme-based.  In other words, this will be out-Vegasing Vegas.

The cost of this project is estimated at $29 billion, with one of the hotels - the Asia Asia - to have 6,500 rooms, making it the world's largest hotel.  The development is to occur in several stages, with the first stage, including the Asia Asia hotel, to be open in 2010.

Then on Tuesday Dubai announced a $33 billion plan to built the world's largest airport and city in Jebel Ali, already home to the world's largest free-trade zone.  The airport would have a capacity equal to O'Hare and Heathrow combined.

A rose by any other name department :  It wasn't long ago that AT&T Wireless was bought out by and absorbed into Cingular, with the AT&T Wireless brand disappearing.  Next year however, it is Cingular's turn - the company will rename itself back to AT&T.  This is one of the outcomes of AT&T buying BellSouth (the two companies jointly own Cingular).

Approximately $4 billion has already been spent creating the Cingular brand and a further $1 billion is budgeted for this year. Insiders expect AT&T to spend around $2 billion dollars in rebranding Cingular to AT&T Wireless.

Is this money well spent?  Or a multi-billion dollar mistake (the first time and again the second time!)?

I pointed out a couple of weeks ago that global warming is becoming akin to a religion - a concept one is required to accept unquestioningly and on faith alone, without the need for any scientific proof.  One of the problems is that scientists who express a contrary opinion find themselves ostracized.

But help is now at hand, and from my home country of New Zealand, where a group of leading climate scientists have formed the NZ Climate Science Foundation, aimed at refuting what it believes are unfounded claims about man-made global warming.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Former Homeland Security Inspector General Kent Ervin published, on Tuesday, an excellent book, Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Terrorism, which reveals terrible weaknesses within the Homeland Security department, and not just at airports but at sea ports and land borders too.  The bottom line?  He says the nation is only marginally safer than it was prior to 9/11.

The Homeland Security department called Ervin's criticisms disingenuous, and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge called the criticisms of himself 'simply untrue'.  Many others however heap glowing praise on the book and support the allegations contained therein.  Read the book (discounted on Amazon) and decide for yourself.

One of the biggest non-events to be offered to travelers is the 'Registered Traveler' program.  Originally offered as a way for frequent fliers to speed through security lines with less hassle, the TSA is now realizing that if it allows some people to go through a 'security-lite' process, then guess where all the terrorists will go?  Accordingly they're not relaxing any security standards for participants in Registered Traveler programs - you'll still have to take jackets off, take computers out of your bags, and possibly remove your shoes, and you're still liable for both random and for cause secondary screening.

So what do these programs end up offering in return for their $80 - $150 annual fees?  A shorter line is all, and many of us already qualify to go through a priority shorter line already.  Many airports are deciding not to operate such programs, because they too see no value-add in the concept.

What did you do with your boarding pass from your last flight?  If you carelessly tossed it away in some public place, rather than carefully shredding it, then burning the pieces, then flushing the ashes down the toilet, you might be placing yourself at severe risk of identity theft, as this article graphically details.

Here's the latest and amusing example of 'is it a bomb' paranoia.

Have you ever noticed, when seeing video from a security camera, eg on a television news program, it always looks fuzzy and blurred?  Haven't you wondered why better cameras aren't being used in such applications?  Wonder no more.

This article tells about security cameras so powerful they can tell the time on a wristwatch several blocks away.  Are these new prototype units?  No, they're currently in use all around Auckland, New Zealand, and almost certainly in many other cities, too.

So why are the video clips we're shown from security cameras of apparently such poor quality?

The good news?  Rio de Janeiro has a special police unit designed to help tourists in trouble.  The bad news?  Two of the unit's officers have been arrested and charged with extorting money from tourists.  Ooops.

Lastly this week, be careful where you drink in Rome.  You don't want to pay this sort of price for a beer.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

If this was forwarded to you by a friend, please click here and subscribe to the newsletter yourself
If you ever wish to unsubscribe, simply reply to this email and set the subject line to say 'unsubscribe'.