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12 May, 2006  

Good morning

Today marks the start of our third annual fundraising drive (don't worry, it is short, and the sooner you participate, the shorter it will be).

This newsletter and all the content on the website is entirely free. In the last year I've published 59 newsletters (the regular weekly newsletters plus occasional specials), which are currently being read by almost 22,000 readers each week. I've added 49 pages of content to the website, updated many other pages, and over 5.5 million visitors have read more than 10 million pages of information. The new information added to the newsletters and website in the last year alone would fill over half a dozen books.

You've received helpful information, useful news, and amusing anecdotes.  You've been advised of special deals, and warned of not-so-special deals.  You've hopefully got some tangible value as well as plenty of intangible benefit and pleasure from all of this.

Everything has been done by me alone.  I say this not to boast, but to explain how this is totally a full time occupation (or, should I say, pre-occupation).  The website is my only source of income, and I need your assistance to keep this possible.  Using a fundraising model similar to PBS, I rely upon supporters, sponsors, and advertisers for all the income I receive.  Your help is needed.

How much is this all worth to you every week?  If you can conveniently afford to help support the project, please assign whatever you feel to be a fair value to this, multiply by about 50 to equate to an annual figure, and choose to become an active supporter.

Unlike the other two years, and with the help of friendly suppliers, there are now some tangible benefits in addition to the warm fuzzy feeling you get when helping keep this newsletter and website active.

Special thanks to these sponsoring suppliers for making this possible :

Mayer Nudell, Specialized Consulting Services

Uniglobe Accent Travel

Pro Travel Gear



Travelpro Luggage

Passport Travel Newsletter

Great Alaskan Toursaver

Solarsharky Design Services

Please go see full details on the several hundred dollars of special incentives available to you, and how to contribute and qualify for them.

Please do choose to become a supporter of this site and newsletter, especially this year because your altruism now will earn you a much deserved personal reward - indeed, in some cases you'll be able to substantially profit from your donation.

Travel Insider River Cruise News :  Last call for our Russian river cruise this July.  If you're wondering what to do this summer, why not join myself and a small group of other readers and enjoy this wonderfully convenient way of seeing both the main cities of Moscow and St Petersburg, plus some of the rarely seen rural Russia as well.

The $250 per person Travel Insider discount, the free Visa service, and the opportunity to return to Moscow by overnight sleeper train (exclusively offered by me, not available through regular cruise companies) combine with a lovely itinerary to make this a great opportunity.  I'll be finalizing everything next week, so please let me know as soon as possible if you wish to join us.

It is now 37 days since I emailed Alaska Airlines, asking for a refund of the ticket I couldn't use when they delayed a flight to Las Vegas by four hours, and asking 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 two hours to tell us the truth about the problem and four hours before they could arrange an alternate plane.

It is also 26 days since the issue was brought to the personal attention of one of their senior board members.

Still no response, and still no refund.  Is it any wonder that so many of us hate the airlines?  It is time to escalate the issue..... more on this next week.

Bearing in mind their non-responsiveness to this customer service issue, I was surprised to see (and for the fourth year in a row) Alaska Airlines won a 'Freddie Award' for 'Best Member Communications, Frequent Flyer Program, Americas'.  Which just goes to show how despicable the other airlines must be.

One of our sponsoring suppliers for the fund raising drive is Pro Travel Gear, the company that developed first the Plane Quiet noise reducing headphones three years ago, and then the Solitude noise reducing headphones fifteen months ago.  This week they now released a new version of the Solitude headphones, and if you choose to make a donation to The Travel Insider of $20/30/40 or $50, they'll then give you a similar discount off a pair of these new model Solitudes.

Better still, if you wish, you can use the discount entitlement to get the same discount off a second (and third, etc) pair of Solitudes, giving you a chance to not only donate to the website at no cost to you, but to profit from your generosity.  And so, unsurprisingly :

This Week's Feature Column :  The Solitude II Noise Cancelling Headphones :  The earlier Solitude noise cancelling headphones were almost as good as the industry leading Bose headphones.  The new Solitude II has some excellent enhancements to their design and some minor tweaks to their functionality, closing the gap (if indeed it exists) between them and the Bose product further.  Happily, one gap still remains as before - the $100 saving.  The price of the Solitude II stays unchanged at $199.95, $100 less than the Bose.

Last week's reader survey asked how many cell phones you typically carry with you.  This elicited a larger response than normal, with almost 8% of readers sending in replies (let's hope for a similar response to the fund raising appeal!).

A surprising 7.6% of replies were from readers with no cell phone at all.  On the other hand, 1% of readers say they typically have five or more cell phones with them, and another 1% carry around four.

As you can see from the results below, 70% of people have one phone and 23% have more than one phone.  The average number of phones per person is 1.25.


Dinosaur watchingUnited announced its results for Q1 this week.  This was their first quarter since exiting Chapter 11, and the results were apparently excellent.  A $23 billion net profit.

That is not a typo.  Yes, United reported a $23 billion net profit.  Well, actually, if you read further into the fine print, you'll see this is entirely due to one-off 'gains' from their Chapter 11 write-offs.  If one were to exclude these accounting esoterica, however, the actual net profit for the quarter becomes a $306 million loss.  This compares with a $302 million loss in the first quarter of 2005.

United's CEO says 'The $23 billion gain is a reflection of the magnitude and effectiveness of our restructuring.  We are now applying the same rigor and discipline to improving our operating and financial performance.'

I thought they started applying rigor and discipline to improving their operating and financial performance years and years and years ago?  It sure is a strange situation to see an airline losing more money after claiming to have successfully completed a Chapter 11 restructuring than it was losing while still in Chapter 11; and all the more peculiar when you consider United (and all other airlines) were carrying record numbers of passengers, with record levels for percentage seats sold, during the quarter.  Compared to Q1 2005, United's revenues were up 14% and its revenue per available seat mile was up 11%.

If United still loses money in boom times, and fresh out of a 38 month bankruptcy, what does it have to do to become profitable?  Maybe the markets are starting to have misgivings too - United's shares lost more than 10% of their value in the last week, and closed on Thursday at $33.68.

Perhaps one element of United's latest turnaround plan was disclosed earlier this week.  The airline is starting an allegedly new program where the pilots will become friendlier and in closer contact with passengers.  For example, pilots will more often get involved in explaining delays to passengers, and frequent fliers may occasionally receive notes from the pilot thanking them for flying United.

I say this is 'allegedly new' because these things used to happen back in the 'good old days'.  Indeed, on longer flights, the captain would come and personally meet and talk to every first class passenger on some airlines, and make a point of parading through the rest of the plane, even if not talking to every person, and of course, children would get pilots wings and signed flight certificates.

Pilots will be awarded quarterly bonuses based on passenger satisfaction surveys.

Showing United how it can and should be done is US Airways, similarly recently out of bankruptcy.  For its Q1, it reported a $65 million profit, although if one-off special items were ignored, the profit drops down to a slim $5 million.

Delta reported an improved loss for Q1 - $356 million (excluding special items) compared to a loss of $684 million (excluding special items) in Q1 2005.

Hopeful airline-soon-to-be, Virgin America, is getting a bit miffed at Continental.  Continental has filed six complaints with the Department of Transportation about the new airline's application to start operations, and now - five months after its application was originally filed, Virgin seems not very much closer to gaining the approvals needed.  In a press release apparently designed to bolster support for his new airline, Virgin's CEO, Fred Reid said 'Everything about Virgin America is good for America :  We will meet unmet demand for quality and value-oriented service, we will create competition, and we will create jobs that will benefit the economy.  To continue these delay tactics only holds back a much-needed and long-awaited tide of change.'

Continuing the rhetoric, Reid also noted that the DoT's past efforts to promote competition and approve new-entrant airlines have greatly benefited U.S. consumers over the years.  'Where would we be today without JetBlue, Frontier, or AirTran?  Further delay of our application only hurts value-conscious consumers and the communities we plan to serve,' said Reid.  And, just in case we didn't get the message, he added 'For us, it's about serving our future guests.  We can't wait to give them a better experience, more comfort, new planes, the latest in in-flight entertainment and the low fares we're sure they will love.'

It is a shame that Reid can't wait to start making all our lives a bit brighter, however, because wait he must, and wait he already has.  After failing to meet their earlier target to be flying by the end of 2005, Virgin America's current plan to be operating by the end of this year is also looking increasingly difficult to achieve, in part due to opposition to their DoT application from the established dinosaurs.

Sir Richard Branson, who does/doesn't own and/or control the airline (depending on which set of filings with DoT you prefer to believe) has remained uncharacteristically silent; a feat which must be a terrible struggle for him, because this is a tailormade opportunity for Sir Richard to star in his favorite role - that of underdog, fighting for the rights of ordinary people against evil forces much greater than him and them.

Indeed, Reid's words sound exactly like what Sir Richard would have said if it were he who wrote the release.....

New all-business class airline Maxjet seems to be building up some encouraging load factors on its trans-Atlantic flights between London and New York and Washington DC.  They said that in March their flights averaged 50% full, and the second half of the month was running closer to 70% full (which implies loads in the first part of the month being a more dismal 30%).

Preliminary April data suggests 70% loads on their NYC-LON route, and they're in the process of acquiring a third and fourth plane to add more service.  Encouragingly, 87% of their customers found the experience to be very good or excellent, and 95% of passengers said they would likely fly with Maxjet again.

My concern about Maxjet is simply their fares are too low to permit the airline to be successful, but, for sure, once their loads get consistently up above 70%, we'll see their fares start to creep up.

Perhaps encouraged by the rapid acceptance of Maxjet by travelers, yet another trans-Atlantic airline is in the process of getting started.  Silverjet plans to offer twice daily all business class service between London's Luton airport (how many more airports are there around London that might be pressed into service - there are now flights between New York and Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, and soon Luton, too) and New York.

Unlike Maxjet, Silverjet plans to offer sleeper bed seats in its planes.  Fares will average about $1800 roundtrip.

There are continuing indications Airbus will delay its A350 so as to come up with a more advanced plane, possibly doubling its development budget from $4 billion to $8 billion in the process.  Merrill Lynch said in an investment report that it expects these plans to be announced this summer, and upgraded its rating on the company to 'buy' from 'neutral'.

This would result in the first model A350 being delayed until 2012; Boeing's rival 787 is due to be in service in 2008, and the current plan for the A350 suggested it would enter service in 2010.

Whatever the future for the A350, the A380 is getting closer and closer to its first commercial flight.  The plane to be released to Singapore Airlines later this year underwent its first flight earlier this week - it will start service on the London-Singapore-Sydney route late this year.

It is interesting to note the seating layout of this plane.  Although the plane has been certified to hold up to 853 passengers, and although Airbus generally quote it as having a capacity of 555 passengers in a first/business/coach three class layout, Singapore Airlines says its planes will have 'about 473 seats' in its three class layout.  Let's hope that 'about 473' doesn't end up equating to 773 rather than 473 seats.

I wrote about the flip up seating concept last week and reader Philip writes to point out this is far from a new concept.  He says

Flip-up seats on passenger jets is not a new idea; I recall as a teenager the inaugural flight of Aeroflot from Moscow to Nicosia via Simferopol, in around 1968...this was by a Tu-134 and it had flip-up seats which seemed quaint at the time...however, when you think about it, the idea is pretty practical as it frees up standing space when you want to move.

Reader Fred confirms that older model Soviet jets can still be found with flip-up seats in them.

One more item on seating.  Thanks to reader Andy for sending in a fascinating article about the relative efficiencies of different methods of boarding planes.  Most of us are familiar with the traditional 'boarding by row number' approach, and this article explains various other ways to board a plane, some of which - in theory - promise to be more efficient.

However, the theoretical modeling used to test these different boarding methodologies is, alas, faulty.  I confirmed with the study's author that his statistical model failed to account for the impacts of having people board outside their assigned sequence.  This is regrettably common - not only by passengers who board ahead of their time (and shame on the gate agents who submissively allow that) but also by passengers who board after their 'zone' has theoretically finished its part of the sequence.

While Airbus is pondering its actions with the A350, Boeing may perhaps be not resting on such laurels as it has recently earned itself.  Here's an interesting article discussing various types of non-traditional designs Boeing has been toying with.

Alas, their focus seems to be on still further reductions in airplane speed so as to make the planes more fuel efficient.  Do airplane manufacturers not understand that people choose to fly so as to get somewhere quickly?  Boeing's first ever passenger jet, the 707, was also its fastest, with a 607 mph cruising speed (although note the unsuccessful 747SP that had a 610 mph cruise).  737s cruise as slow as 495 mph, and Boeing is now looking at a plane that would cruise at 450 mph.  Add to the slower airplane speed the increased delays and hassles and time to go through the airport and air travel is getting tangibly slower, year by year.

How about a new supersonic design instead?  There is nothing impossible or unconquerable about designing a viable supersonic plane.  All it takes is a willingness to invest some tens of billions of dollars into R&D to make it happen.

And in case you think this is an impractical amount of money to spend, look at the huge sums currently being spent on regular sub-sonic airplane development, and the vast amounts that have been spent over all the decades since the Wright brothers.  The 787 is about a $10 billion development project.  The redesigned A350 might be $8 billion.  The A380 is believed to be costing $12 - $15 billion.  In contrast, apart from the Concorde, the Russian Tu-144, and the abandoned Boeing project to build a SST, there has been an almost complete lack of research and development, experimentation and testing of SST related technologies.

It is completely unsurprising that, based on present technologies and lack of R&D, supersonic travel should seem difficult.  But it is not insurmountable, and some preliminary new technologies promise vastly quieter and enormously more fuel efficient supersonic planes.

They say air travel is becoming more and more like bus travel, and if Boeing's new slow planes make it to market, the trend will continue.  But now, in a reversal of this trend, bus travel is copying one attribute of air travel.  On Wednesday Greyhound announced its first frequent flier (rider?) program, or as it refers to it, a membership mileage program, named Road Rewards.  Whether this will be sufficient inducement to encourage you to make your next trans-continental journey by bus rather than plane is unclear.

Here's a fascinating idea for a new way to get material into space.  This would see the cost of payload launched into orbit drop from $10,000 a pound down to a few hundred dollars.

The sad end of an era :  Star Cruises has confirmed it has sold the stately and historic ocean liner Norway.  The ship was launched as the SS France back in 1960.

She is presently called the Blue Lady and is bound for a scrap yard in Alang in western India where it will be broken up and sold for scrap.

As regular readers know, I compare the current ambiguities about whether there are any health dangers associated with frequent cell phone use to the situation 50 years ago with cigarettes and their then unproven link to lung cancer.  Here's an article that makes a different comparison between cell phones and smoking - it reports on a study that finds cell phone usage can be as addictive as smoking.

And here's a scary story about another possible link between cell phones (this time, the repeater towers) and brain cancer.  The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology is sufficiently alarmed by the prevalence of brain cancer among its employees in the top two levels of one of its downtown Melbourne buildings as to have now closed off those two floors, prohibiting people from occupying them.  'Telecommunication towers' are located on the building's roof.

Maybe the building is infested with electronic smog.

Here's an interesting article that would have us believe new airport body scanners are safe because they 'use non-harmful millimeter waves -- different from X-rays'.  Okay, so millimeter length radiation is probably safer than X-rays (which are a million times shorter in length).  But the millimeter length radiation is also 125 - 250 times shorter in length than cell phone and microwave oven radiation.

As a helpful over-simplification, the shorter the wavelength (and therefore, the higher the frequency) of any radiation, the higher energy it contains and perhaps therefore, the more harmful it becomes.

Dangerous or not, US cell phone sales increased 11% in Q1 this year compared to last year, with 34.8 million handsets being sold.  Motorola had a 29% market share, followed by Nokia and Samsung, each with 18%, then LG at 15%, then a huge drop to Kyocera (4%) and Sanyo and Sony Ericsson at 3% each.

The most popular phone feature was reported to be Bluetooth, with 18% of phones shipping with this capability, more than double that last year.  Don't know what Bluetooth is?  I've written an introduction and series of related articles on the subject.

PDA sales were also up, with the big loser being Palm.  Once upon a time, not so very long ago, Palm controlled the PDA marketplace, but the share of new PDAs being sold with the Palm OS in the last quarter dropped down to a mere 13.4%.  Market leader?  No surprise there - Microsoft, with 52.6% of the market, followed by RIM (Blackberry) at 25.2%.

If you're buying a new PDA, it seems all the future is in the Windows Mobile based platforms, while Palm is losing more and more ground.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Law enforcement officials boarded an American Airlines flight when it landed at Newark on Saturday and detained five foreign-born passengers who had been 'acting suspiciously' on the flight.  Other passengers were also interviewed.

Apparently an onboard air-marshal first spotted the suspicious 'gang of five' and he had the pilot radio ahead for the plane to be met by police upon arrival.

The suspicious behavior?  Reading aircraft manuals while otherwise sitting normally in their seats.  The five passengers (four members of the Angolan military and one Israeli) had been attending a helicopter flight school in Texas and were flying back home at the time.

No weapons were found and the passengers were subsequently released.

Also arrested were 14 passengers from a Pakistan International Airlines flight when it arrived at Manchester.  The flight had been delayed on the ground for an extended period in soaring heat at Islamabad Airport, with a full coach class and almost empty first class.  The 14 passengers went into the first class cabin and demanded upgrades, refusing to leave.

While this is a naughty thing to do, what about the airline's actions?  They could have given upgrades to some passengers - even if not to the activist ones - and changed an unhappy planeload of customers into a much more happy one.  Instead, they choose to have 14 of their customers who were complaining about bad service arrested.

Airline employees can smuggle anything they wish through non-existent 'security' and onto planes, at least at Indianapolis International Airport, according to this story, which comes complete with hidden camera video showing a person demonstrating exactly this.

The airport responded to say they were in compliance with all federal security regulations - hardly an encouraging response.  And the TSA said that physical inspections of airline employees aren't necessary, because employees are pre-screened against their watch-lists and pass a background check.  In case this convinces you the appalling insecurity is actually okay (and it absolutely shouldn't), read on to the next story about the inadequacies of their watch lists.

Here's a must-read story on the inadequacies of the TSA watch lists.  If you don't read the entire lengthy article, one thing of particular interest is the explanation as to why a person can find themselves usually unable to fly on one airline, but able to fly on a different airline with no problems.

It seems that although the TSA sends out the same watch lists to all airlines, each individual airline can make their own decision as to what to do when a passenger with a similar name to someone on the watch list tries to fly.  So if your name is John Q Citizen, each airline then decides what to do if they find Jo Citizen is on the watchlist.  Some may decide to let you fly, others may be stupid and refuse to let you on board.

The land of the free may become a lot less free, at least in NJ, if a new bill becomes law.  The bill would make it illegal - punishable by up to 18 months in jail - to photograph, videotape or otherwise record for an extended period of time a power generation, waste treatment, public sewage, water treatment, public water, nuclear or flammable liquid storage facility, as well as any airport in the state.

An anonymous reader who I know to be highly placed in the aviation security industry sent in a note and attached a 2MB mpg video clip.  He writes

Hard to believe, but the camera doesn't lie .... The passenger took his pants off , apparently thinking this was part of taking off “outermost garment”.

Not sure which airport, but given the viewing angles, it appears to be a TSA camera.

Please feel free to download the file - it is tremendously funny (as well as another example of a blurry security camera).  But when you download and enjoy the file, do remember that it costs me money for every MB of data sent out by my web-server, and so please consider contributing to the ongoing operation of the site and the newsletter.

Until next week, enjoy safe travels, and please consider making a contribution to support this website and newsletter (4450 words in length this week....)

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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