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19 May, 2006  

Good morning

Our third annual fundraising drive got off to a good start, with 152 readers choosing to contribute during the last week.  This is a heartening lift on the numbers from last year and the year before (94 and 86 respectively), although the increased number reflects the increased readership rather than a greater percentage of contributors.  Thank you, again, to all 152 people who have so kindly responded (including Michael who contributed twice!).

Our 2006 target is for 500 readers to contribute.  This would be a 2.35% total response - less than last year's 2.53%, and should be achievable, particularly because, for the first time, this year we have nine sponsoring suppliers providing a generous selection of gifts to contributors.

In many cases, it is possible for you to handsomely profit and get much more value from the gifts than you spend on your donation, making a wonderful win-win for us both.

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

Continued thanks to these generous suppliers

Mayer Nudell, Specialized Consulting Services - security related services

Uniglobe Accent Travel - full service travel agency

Pro Travel Gear - three time Travel Insider award winning noise cancelling headphones and lots more travel goodies

Telestial - a wide range of international cell phones and international calling plans

Mobal - lifetime SIMs and GSM phones for international travelers

Travelpro Luggage - the inventor of roll-aboard cases, now with a full range of high quality luggage

Passport Travel Newsletter - monthly upmarket travel newsletter and website full of member only travel resources

Great Alaskan Toursaver - a book with over $20,000 worth of discounts and free tours for your 2006 vacation in Alaska

Solarsharky Design Services - high quality webdesign studio who designed my website

Whether you choose to contribute for altruistic or selfish reasons, the net result is the same, and so please do choose to become one of the 500 readers we need to support us.

This Week's Feature Column :  PicoPad Notepad and Pen :   Here's a credit card sized notepad and tiny pen which is surprisingly easy to write with.  At last, a cure for not having a pen and paper when you need it.  Don't leave home without one (hmmm, where have I heard that before...).

Dinosaur watching :  We're now up to 44 days and neither a refund nor response from Alaska Airlines after they messed up a flight from Seattle to Las Vegas.

Reader (and generous contributor) Jenifer recently flew on Alaska Airlines and writes

I don't have the space or the energy to tell you of my own recent travel nightmare on Alaska.  But, briefly, right before I left, I was talking with one of their senior training captains and he just shook his head and said 'I hope you make it - I wouldn't use them to connect to an international flight'.  This more than anything should tell you how bad the airline is getting.  (Yes, I did make my international flight, just barely, and only after building in a lot of extra connecting time).

Some airlines have become quite creative in finding ways to cut their fuel bills.  I've written before about how airlines will sometimes bully local governments to give them discounts on the fuel tax they pay on their jet fuel, with their leverage being the ability to buy fuel at many different airports around the country.  Unlike tax on gas or diesel, which is more or less directly linked to road usage and road maintenance costs, jet fuel taxes flow almost entirely into the taxing authority's profits, with little or no countervailing expenses, so bargaining has often proven successful for the airlines.

One of the more egregious examples of this is United Airlines, who made a deal with the city of Oakland in California, arranging its Bay area fuel purchases such that the tax became payable in Oakland, even though few United flights operate from Oakland.  In return, Oakland gives back 65% of the fuel taxes it becomes entitled to collect.

This means that San Mateo Country, where San Francisco Airport is located, has been missing out on the fuel taxes that would have otherwise reasonably been paid by United to it, and is now suing both Oakland and United for what it says is up to $2 million a year in lost revenues.

The point may become moot in another year or two.  A bill was passed and will come into effect in 2008 that makes jet fuel taxes payable to the jurisdiction in which the fuel was pumped into the plane.

Can you guess which is the most important runway in all the US?  According to the FAA's air traffic hub manager for Georgia, it is the new fifth runway at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, due to open next week.  This new runway will allow up to three planes to be simultaneously landing, a capability currently possessed only by ORD, DEN and DFW.  It will increase the number of arrivals the airport can handle by about 30%.

The reason for the runway's supposed importance?  Supposedly, unclogging Atlanta will flow through the entire ATC system, causing less delays at other airports, too.

Contrarian that I am, I'd have thought increased traffic in or out of ATL would mean increased traffic in other parts of the already strained system, and while ATL might now suffer fewer delays, for sure other airports will become clogged and the net result will be the same congestion, just in different places.

And ATL hasn't been too bad an airport recently - in March, it ranked 20th best airport for on-time performance, with 78% of arrivals landing on time.  And dominant ATL airline, Delta, says it only projects a 15% decrease in delayed arrivals once the new runway becomes operational.

While flights might now land on time in slightly increased numbers, the taxi time from this more remote runway to the terminal is expected to increase by 3 - 7 minutes.

So, is this the most important runway in all the US?  A dubious claim.

I'm not the only one asking for money this week.  American Airlines is also passing the hat around, with a public offering for $400 million in newly issued shares.  I should be so lucky!

It is pleasing to see AA seeking the cash it needs in this positive and honorable manner, rather than by declaring Chapter 11 and walking away from its commitments.

And talking about commitments, AA CEO Gerard Arpey said it needs to cut more than $1 billion in expenses, because of (guess....) the rising cost of fuel.  It sees $300 million of this coming in the form of new user fees for such things as curb-side checkin and booking flights direct with the airline over the phone.

Continental also had something to say about rising jetfuel costs this week.  Showing an ironic sense of timing, Continental added $2 to their fares - at the same time crude oil prices dropped to a five week low.  So it seems Continental needs to increase its fares when oil rises, and they also need to increase their fares when oil drops back down in price?

There's been an interesting development in Canada.  Air Canada is still the dominant airline in Canada, and seems to think it is so big and so dominant it no longer needs to follow usual industry practices.  A couple of weeks ago - with no advance warning - AC discontinued the display of its lowest fares on third party airline computer reservation systems (the computer systems used by travel agents and many websites to display airline schedules/fares and to make bookings/issue tickets).  People wanting to get the lowest fares on AC now have no choice but to book them directly on AC's website.

Air Canada claims, in justification, that it was forced to do this because traditional computer reservation systems (CRS) aren't sophisticated enough to support AC's special low fares.  If you believe that, keep on reading, because they go on to say that doing this has caused no impact on consumers - a statement of dubious accuracy.

Most bizarrely of all, AC said it was being placed at a tremendous disadvantage by not having their lowest fares displayed correctly in travel agent computer systems.  And so their solution is to prevent their display at all.  That's impressive logic, isn't it.

This is an alarming precedent - a 'full service' traditional carrier choosing to only selectively participate in the major CRS systems.  The probable hope on AC's part is that by forcing people onto their website, they are denying those people the ability to easily/conveniently shop and compare different airlines' prices and schedules, and this definitely could happen.

Imagine if, instead of a single visit to, eg, Travelocity, or a single phone call to your travel agent, you instead had to check out a dozen (or more) different airline websites, one by one, and/or had to wait while your travel agent did it for you.  And then, just when you think you've found the ideal combination, something changes, and you have to redo the entire exercise.  What a nightmarishly complex situation that would be.

The CRS vendors haven't idly sat back and watched.  They in turn have 'de-preferenced' the display of AC flights and fares in their systems, making it harder to find AC listings.  Most people don't look beyond the first screen of flight or fare results before choosing, and so this de-preference could cost AC dearly.

It may also cost you - if a cheaper/better AC solution to your travel needs is now obscured, you end up paying more and traveling at less convenient times on another airline.  Everyone is losing.

Unfortunately, in the US, the Department of Transportation has relaxed many of its former regulations requiring airlines and CRS vendors to maintain a semblance of impartiality to how information was presented and displayed, and with the growth of new ways of getting schedule and fare information to potential passengers, we are in for an interesting time until the marketplace re-rationalizes how it distributes its product information.

For now, your best move is to ignore AC and not book their flights at any price - at least until such time as they back down from their current position.

It seems that while the dinosaurs are tripping over themselves to become no-frills carriers, the no-frills carriers are contrarily taking on attributes of the legacy full service carriers they are displacing.

A case in point is Southwest's announcement on Tuesday that it was spending $5 million to upgrade its reservation system to enable Southwest to handle seat preassignments.  Although Southwest has long denied any plans to introduce pre-assigned seating, and indeed, when announcing this $5 million expenditure, added there would be no change at least through the end of 2007, some commentators (myself included) have been predicting this as an essential and inevitable move on Southwest's part.

The lack of assigned seating is the chief complaint levied by Southwest's passengers and potential passengers.  Southwest, for its part, maintains that its open seating method is an essential part of boarding its planes as quickly as possible.

Talking about Southwest, here's an interesting story that starts off reporting that Southwest apparently had to re-route two flights away from Rhode Island in mid-air due to there being no-one in the control tower.  But read on, and you'll see, towards the end, an FAA spokesman gives an alternate version of what happened and describes Southwest's version of this story as simply 'not true'.  Hmmmmm....  Southwest is indeed becoming more like a dinosaur.

More 'ambiguous' airline statements, this time from United.  On Wednesday a United flight was forced to make an emergency landing after a problem with an emergency slide.  United said that after taking off from Portland, a warning indicator came on, so the pilots returned back to the airport.

According to United, the slide deployed after landing.  But according to some passengers, the slide deployed in flight and could be seen flapping against the side of the plane.

It is difficult to reconcile these two alternate views of reality.

And talking about misleading statements, in Europe aggressive low-cost airline Ryanair has been ordered to pay Air France US$319,000 for what is termed 'misleading advertising'.  Ryanair ran ads saying 'Ryanair.com, 391% less expensive than Air France-KLM'.  Ryanair also ran ads with a slogan 'Making the sky the cheapest place on earth', similar to AF/KLM's slogan 'Making the sky the most beautiful place on earth'.

How could any dinosaur airline ever think it contributes to making the sky the most beautiful place on earth?  What a nonsensical claim to make, and it would seem hard to fault Ryanair for poking fun at the hypocrisy of this ridiculous statement.

Mathematicians will have already realized that something can never be more than 100% less than something else, which does rather invalidate Ryanair's 391% claim.

A court found that Ryanair's sky slogan 'amounted to acts of denigration'.  Sure, that is true, but you'd think the court should commend Ryanair, rather than fine them.

In a tit for tat move, Ryanair filed a complaint against AF/KLM with the EU competition watchdog, claiming that Air France had received more than $1 billion in illegal aid from the French government.

The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index was released by the University of Michigan earlier this week.  Ratings for airlines fell to their lowest point since 2001, with the lowest rating being given to Northwest (a score of 61) and the highest to Southwest (a score of 74).  However, even Southwest's top ranking score barely matched the average across all industries of 74.1.

The A380 took another step closer to commercial reality on Thursday when it made a successful test flight into Heathrow.

Aviation technology of a different type is to be celebrated June 30 - July 3.  This is the 12th annual Roswell International UFO Festival, including such things as a galactic costume contest as well as more serious lectures and workshops.

Why is it, now that most people are always close to a digital camera or camera equipped cell phone, we haven't had a massive growth in the number of photographed sightings of UFOs?  Is it just me, or do we read less and less about UFO sightings now than we did 20 and 40 years ago?

Readers may recall the problem faced by Cunard's Queen Mary 2 and the rebellious passengers on board in January this year (see here plus other items in newsletters before and after).  The situation of cruise ships cancelling port calls is far from unique to the QM2, however, as this article about Celebrity's Summit details.  Note also the helpful link to information about your rights if/when your cruise cancels ports of call.

If you can't beat them, join them.  At least, that seems to be the attitude adopted by British tour company, Thomson.  At present they have traditional retail travel stores in the main shopping centers of many British towns and cities, and they are predicting these stores will evolve to become 'advice and guidance centers' where staff help customers to book their own tours through in-store internet terminals.

I've written about various types of VoIP phone services during the last three years, and VoIP phone service was in existence prior to my first article on the topic.  But according to a survey in this article, half of Americans don't yet know what VoIP is.

That may be about to change, because, as the article opens with, Skype (I review Skype here) is launching a promotion that allows people in North America to call to regular landlines and cell phones from their computer based Skype service, entirely for free through the end of this year.  Yes, unlimited free local and long distance calling.

One can only guess at the long faces over at one of Skype's major competitor, Vonage (I review Vonage here), upon hearing this news.  Vonage had just announced plans for its IPO, and for sure, the announcement by Skype that it will be giving service away for free has to depress the profit potential of Vonage.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  One of the long-standing criticisms of the TSA has been its pretense that middle aged white protestant American business men and elderly Jewish grandmothers are as likely to be terrorists as are twenty-something year old single Muslim males.  Let's just say if this was a ball game, the single Muslim male team would be batting 1.0 and all the smart money would be betting on them.

And now, the TSA proudly announces its newest approach to security - a 'race-neutral' profiling program to be called SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques).  It is claimed that this program, which has been in trial deployment at selected airports for three years, has been a great success, because it has identified more than 50 people who were traveling with fake ID, or who had entered the country illegally (is that still possible?), or who were in possession of illegal drugs.

All great stuff, of course, but apparently SPOT failed to spot a single potential terrorist.  And if Spot only spotted fewer than 50 illegal aliens, drug users, and people with fake ID over three years, that is hardly a high hit rate.

And what does this mean for you and I?  Well, be careful flying if you have a cold.  Trained professionals from the TSA are being taught to notice people who have changes in the pitch of their voice, because this apparently signals to them your propensity for blowing up airplanes.  And don't lose your breath and work up a sweat schlepping your bags to the counter, or racing through the concourse when late for a connection.  If you're excessively sweating, ooops, you're in trouble again.

There's nothing wrong with behavioral profiling, except that it leaves no way for an innocent person to defend themselves.  When the trained TSA professional decides you're acting suspiciously and pulls you into a private room for a cavity search, how do you prove your innocence short of submitting to their unpleasantnesses?

We're giving too much discretion and power to people who are not sufficiently accountable for their use of such powers.

We should trust our law enforcement personnel, you say?  They can be relied upon to act responsibly and appropriately with our best interests in mind at all times?  Tell that to Joshua Kelly and Llara Brook - even being the daughter of two police officers counted for little in Llara's case.  This is an outrageous abuse of police power.

You've probably been reading, from time to time, about new high-tech secure passports that will be more resistant to counterfeiting.  These passports are being introduced by most countries over the next few years.  But will they be any more resistant to getting lost?

A Thursday item in the UK's Daily Telegraph reported that 646,323 passports have been lost or stolen between December 2003 and March 2006.  Ooops.

I had the pleasure of doing an interview for a local television station earlier this week.  Hopefully it wasn't a mistake by the tv station.

Lastly this week, I wonder if you're reading this newsletter at work, based on server statistics for when people visit the site.  This article reports on a survey showing more than half of American workers would rather give up their morning coffee than forgo the chance to surf the internet while at work.

While we're talking about giving up coffee, there's no need to make such a sacrifice as giving up coffee so as to send in a contribution to The Travel Insider, but please do consider a modest amount of annual support, proportional to what you might spend on a cup of coffee to drink while reading this newsletter each week.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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