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26 May, 2006  

Good morning

Our annual fundraising drive is now entering its third and final week.  As of Thursday evening, a total of 277 kind readers have chosen to support the website and weekly newsletter.

This is very pleasing, but the really exciting news is there are still 21,079 other readers of the newsletter who have not yet contributed.  Don't be afraid of overwhelming me with new contributions, folks - I'll work round the clock if necessary, and all over Memorial Weekend, if that's what it takes to help you all to choose from the selection of free gifts you qualify for when supporting The Travel Insider during this year's fundraising drive.

So please do click on over to our Contributing page and send a little something this way, whether for your benefit, my benefit, or our mutual shared benefit.  It would be truly appreciated, and will be very helpful.

Our goal is for 500 contributions.  Please don't be one of the passive 21,000 readers who do nothing - instead please choose to send in whatever level of support you're comfortable contributing.  It only takes a minute to pay by credit card, or just another minute or two to write a check and mail it.  All details here.

Continued thanks to these generous suppliers - we haven't yet run out of free gifts from any of the nine sponsoring suppliers, so choose away as you wish :

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

My slow motion saga with Alaska Airlines took an unexpected twist this week.  Although it is now 51 days since I wrote to them, I've still heard nothing back from them at all.

But, to my surprise, they have refunded my ticket back to my Visa card - it appears that customer service at Alaska Airlines is of the 'strong silent type' - they do things but don't tell you about it.  I still want them to answer my question about how a plane is deemed to be unsafe to fly due to pre-existing maintenance problems only seconds before pushing back from the gate with a full load of passengers on board.

Amusingly, one outraged reader sent his own complaint in to Alaska Airlines last week - he was complaining at their lack of response to my complaint.  Comparing the complaint number generated for his email with the complaint number generated by my email, it seems they've had 7444 complaints in 44 days - 169 complaints via email every day, in addition to all the others handled by airport staff, by regular mail and perhaps by phone.

In other words, one in every 350 Alaska Airlines passengers are sufficiently upset or inconvenienced as to send in an email complaint after their travels.  When you think that only a very small percentage of unhappy people ever formally complain, and when you allow for all the other methods of complaining, it seems that close to the majority of Alaska Airlines customers complete their travel experience with at least some element of unhappiness.

Another reader got a good laugh out of reading the lead quote in this story about 'business travel experts' and their favorite airline programs.  A writer known well to you is quoted as praising Alaska's frequent flier program.

There's no feature article this week.  Fulfilling all your requests for free goodies and gadgets in return for receiving your contributions kept me occupied this last week and I didn't have time to write both a newsletter and feature article (as it is, the newsletter is only now being finished at 1.30am Friday morning).

I make modest amounts of money by writing feature articles.  They go onto my website and last a very long time, bringing in more visitors, increasing web traffic, and growing the small sums I earn from web page advertisements.  But my newsletter does not make me money - it has no advertising, and is a one time thing each week.  This newsletter relies on your support to remain viable - in the past, if I have to choose between writing only a newsletter or only a feature column, I've typically chosen the newsletter in favor of the column, in recognition of the support I have received.  Please help to keep this in place - please contribute now to our 2006 fund raiser.

I'll try and offer you something interesting as a feature article for next week.

Dinosaur watching :  Is Delta cheating?  The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp thinks this might be so.  Clearly dreading the need to bail out another multi-billion dollar shortfall in an airline pension plan, it has filed with Delta's bankruptcy court claiming Delta's plan to make a $650 million payment direct to the pilots' union if their pension plan is terminated 'appears to pose a substantial abuse of the federal pension plan termination insurance program'.

Not unreasonably, the PBGC says it should have exclusive rights to any payments being made to the union to replace lost benefits.  If Delta has a spare $650 million, it should pay it into the under-funded pension plan, not offer it as what appears to be some sort of bribe to the pilots union.

Talking about cheating, some airlines seem unable - or unwilling - to learn even the simplest lessons in how to fairly conduct business.  Case in point :  South African Airways has just been fined $8.4 million by the South Africa Competition Commission for price fixing and abusing its dominant position in the market.  What makes this particularly venal is that last year the airline was also fined - $6.9 million - for anticompetitive behavior by the Commission.

The Commission said the fine related to price fixing with Lufthansa on their flights between Cape Town, Johannesburg and Frankfurt.  The two carriers code share on these routes.  SAA was also penalized for colluding with budget airline Comair (not the US Comair), which is partly owned by BA and SA Express, to simultaneously implement a fuel surcharge which the Commission said amounted to price fixing.  SAA was further penalized for agreements with travel agents which the Commission said constituted inducements to them not to deal with the airline's competitors.

Perhaps we need a Competition Commission in the US, rather than a Justice Department that seems unable to find or successfully prosecute any malfeasance on the part of our airlines here.

If your customer base grows, it is normal to grow your business to support it, and to maintain your levels of customer service and support.  But apparently not if you're an airline, where the first sacrifice to be made in any situation - better business activity or poorer business activity - is always the same - customer service.  Case in point :  American Airlines has announced that you will need to be checked in no later than 40 minutes prior to departure at DFW over the summer period, due to anticipated record numbers of passengers.  Why doesn't American Airlines hire more staff and keep their checkin times normal?

Reader David wrote in with an observation about AA's approach to customer service at LAX this week

As I went through LAX this morning, AA check-in appeared overwhelmed, deep in people through the first floor area.  A woman's voice over the PA system kept exhorting pax to use curbside check-in if they already had their tickets.

The curbside area was plastered with signs advising of the $2 charge per bag for using the curbside service.

If AA is backed up because they're short staffed, shouldn't they be offering to waive the additional fee for this service?

There has been a spate of stories this week predicting doom and gloom with the busy summer travel season that traditionally starts this weekend.  The busiest airport will be O'Hare, followed by Los Angeles International, followed by Denver.

This NY Times article on the subject is well worth reading.

Based on my experiences, the most worrying part of congested airports is often the airport parking.  Airports are increasingly experiencing certain times of day (and sometimes complete days at a time) where their parking lots are completely full.  This USA Today story has some interesting data about which airports are the worst, but their information is largely based on last year's numbers, meaning this year will be worse.

When I'm driving myself to the airport, I absolutely don't have extra time built in to my schedule to spend maybe an hour or more looking unsuccessfully for a car park; I need to know there'll be a park waiting for me where I expect it.  In Seattle (and at many other airports) the web based Discount Airport Parking service allows you to choose the most convenient/best value parking lot and even to reserve a space for your car.

And at Logan, there's one special service I'd like to particularly recommend to Bostonians.  Although I don't know anything about the business and have never used it myself, Bill Bell's company, Logan Valet and Fly strikes me as being a well run business based on providing high quality and very fairly priced customer service.

Call ahead to arrange the service, then simply drive to the airport terminal and have a waiting valet take your car from you, drive it to a parking lot, then bring it back to meet you when your returning flight arrives.  You can't get better or more convenient (and time saving) service than that, and Bill's fees (which range from about $99 - $139 for a week of parking) are always lower than charged by the on-airport parking lot.  Better service - Bill says his company, in business for four years now, has never ever been late to meet a customer - and lower price.  I wish him all the success he deserves, and if you're casting around for a convenient alternative to Logan's now terribly over-congested on-airport parking, give Bill a call.

Talking about good service, Continental has been named as 'Best Airline based in North America' for the third year in a row this year, and as having the  'Best Executive/Business Class' for the fourth year in a row in the OAG Airline of the Year Awards.  Although the methodology of the judging for these awards tends to favor larger airlines over smaller ones, the awards are credible particularly when comparing Continental against its like sized dinosaur cousins.  Well done to Continental.

And a well done to Singapore's Changi airport, chosen as 'Airport of the Year' for 2006 by those participating in the annual Skytrax survey.  Hong Kong took second place followed by Munich Airport, Kansai International Airport, Seoul Incheon airport, KLIA - Kuala Lumpur airport, Helsinki Vantaa Airport, Zurich Airport, Dubai International Airport and coming in at number 10 was Copenhagen Airport.  No US airports scored highly.

Well done to British Airways also.  Their fourth quarter net profit (through to March 31 2006) was 80 million, compared to a mere 1 million a year ago, and strongly up on the consensus expectation by analysts of 51 million.  The reason for such a massive turnaround in profit?  A better passenger mix with more higher margin premium cabin passengers and, ahem, ticket surcharges.

Ticket surcharges?  Does someone mean to say British Airways is actually making a profit on its so-called fuel surcharges?  Of course they are, as I've analyzed and commented on repeatedly before, and shame on BA for not having the honesty to simply add these profiteering sums to their regular ticket price rather than trying to pass them off as an increase in their business costs that can't be recovered any other way.

BA's full year profit was 451 million.  Staff received a 48 million bonus due to the airline's excellent result.  But BA gives with one hand while taking away with the other.  Inexplicably, in a year with a sizable profit of almost half a billion pounds (not much less than US$1 billion), and up 20% on the previous year, BA said its pension plans continue to be underfunded and the deficit got worse during the year, with a total 2.1 billion shortfall now existing.

I can vaguely understand how an airline that is losing money may underfund its pension plans.  But how can an airline report an almost one billion dollar profit in one breath, and in the very next breath disclose their pension plans have a larger deficit than at the beginning of the year?

The dinosaurs have loved to sneer at Southwest Airlines, and historically have tried to somehow claim that Southwest isn't a real true competitor.  Many people have chosen to denigrate Southwest's consistent success as if it were a simple transitory phenomenon.

In reality, Southwest's success is built upon excellence in many different aspects of its operation, and its success is long term rather than short term.  Here's an excellent article that talks more about Southwest.

Last week was See America Week, formerly known as National Tourism Week.  Did you know that travel and tourism generates $1.3 trillion in economic activity in the US every year, to say nothing of $100 billion in tax revenues.  If it weren't for the tax revenues generated by tourism, every US household's tax bill would need to increase by $924/year.

One out of every eight non-farm jobs in the US is directly or indirectly created by travel and tourism.

And the key point is that if the US could gain just a 1% increase in international travel market share, this would create 151,000 new jobs, increase spending by $12 billion, and boost the nation's tax take by $2 billion.

Alas, while you now know these statistics (here are more), our political leaders seem sadly unaware.  Other countries around the world spend tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to build their share of international tourism, while the US government does not.  The result - the US has suffered a 35% drop in market share in the last 14 years.

Pick any number you like, but let's be conservative, and say that a $1 billion international promotion might serve to recapture a single 1% of market share.  This means the government would spend $1 billion in tax revenue, but in return would create 151,000 new jobs (a cost of $6600 per job created) and also get back $2 billion in new tax revenues, reducing down the job creation cost to zero and providing a 100% profit on their investment.

It is probable that a $1 billion campaign would generate better results than this.  But even if a promotion cost $2 billion, that would mean the government recouped its investment and created 151,000 jobs at no net cost.

$1 billion is an infinitesimally small share of the federal budget each year, and becomes even less if it is split perhaps 50/50 between the federal government and individual states, and even less again if it is matched with co-operative funding by tourism operators, hoteliers, airlines, etc.

There's no better investment for our government to make than in tourism promotion/development.

But while earmarks for money wasting projects are at an all time high, tourism promotion is at an all time low.  What's wrong with this picture?  Why don't you let your senators and congressman know your thoughts on this issue.

Here's a nonsense article full of cliches on the Airbus vs Boeing subject.  The article creates a straw man - the competition between the A380 and the 787 - and then attempts to knock it over, finding Boeing to be the victor in that contest.

But in talking about the rivalry between the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787, the two writers reveal their ignorance of the airplane world - the two planes are no more competitors than is a sub-compact car alongside a stretched limo.  The A380 competes with the 747 (sort of - the article neglected to say how many years it has been since a passenger version of the 747 was sold - clearly the A380 with 157 planes sold before its first delivery has already won that battle) while the 787 competes with the A350.  Yes, the 787 has won the first skirmish in its battle, but the 787 is a plane that has yet to take to the skies and with perhaps as long as a 50 year life (according to some Boeing claims) and a redesigned greatly improved A350 expected to be announced soon, it is way too soon to call this battle as won.

The article reads to me like an extended advertisement for Boeing, offering such pr style phrases as the 787 being 'radically different by design'.  Last I saw, the 787 had a fuselage with passengers on a passenger deck and cargo below, wings, and engines hung off the wings.  Nothing radically different there, quite unlike the A380 which somehow misses out on similar (but deserved) praise.

On the other hand, Airbus' A350 is referred to as a white elephant that has been widely derided.  While it is true the A350 has encountered strident criticism, it has also picked up 100 orders in its present form, and to call it a widely derided white elephant is being as unfairly critical as is calling the 787 radically different by design being unfairly laudatory.

Most puzzling is the reference to Boeing having engaged in over a decade of focus groups and scientific studies to gain a better understanding of passenger comfort and how to design better airplane interiors.  They could have asked any of us, and we'd have told them in less than five minutes.  Plus plainly the authors wrote this before Boeing confessed that their earlier projections for a comfy spacious interior are now being nixed by airlines who discovered that by some astonishing coincidence, Boeing's design allows for either eight seats across or nine seats across, and guess which one they're now choosing.

Shame on Forbes for printing this one-sided piece.

A question I get asked very regularly is 'When is the best time to buy my airline ticket?'.  My answer can never be much more than 'I don't know', with a few qualifiers such as you'd normally not buy a ticket more than six months in advance, except for very peak season popular travel times, because most of the airfare discounts and special deals apply only for travel in the near future, not distant future, and even the regular published fares usually don't require more than 7/14/71/28 days advance booking.

Now here's an amazing seeming new service that offers to predict what will happen to airfares on almost a daily basis.  It is still in Beta testing, and let's hope it works as claimed.  You can add your name to a waiting list for new beta testers here.

Here's another glimpse into the world of cruising that the cruise lines don't want you to see.  Fortunately, such issues are unlikely to affect readers going on our Russian and Christmas Markets river cruises, where the boats cruise along as smoothly as if they were not moving at all.

Talking about cruises, reader Lyn has a follow up to my story last week about cruises with cancelled ports of call.

My wife was involved in a similar situation last year with Carnival.

Without boring you with the details, one of the passengers pointed out that Carnival had a policy that if you did not like the cruise, you could leave the ship at the next port of call for a 50% refund, and Carnival would fly you back to the departure point.  I don't know if this is standard in the industry or not.

Well, when everyone got wind of this policy, they all wanted to get off at the next port, and Carnival decided they wouldn't land anywhere, just float around on the ocean for a few days and return to the departure point.  Needless to say, there were a lot of very unhappy people.  Carnival only offered a 50% refund, but my wife put a stop on the credit card payment and eventually got a full refund.

So, the lesson from these sorts of situations is to read the fine print in the cruise contract, or in my case, don't get on these floating buffets at all.

Good news for cell phone users.  The US Treasury has relented and will no longer levy the 108 year old 3% Federal Excise Tax on cell phone service.  But with an average of 17% of our monthly wireless bill being consumed by taxes and fees, there's still a way to go yet.

And with the onset of the summer driving season, good news for drivers in Texas.  The speed limit is increasing to 80 mph on 500 miles of interstate freeway, making Texas the only state to have a limit higher than 75 mph (Montana dropped its 'no daylight speed limit' law in 1999 after too many people made special trips to MT just to drive their high performance cars very fast).

The era of the 'double nickel' 55 mph speed limit is quickly becoming a distant memory (it was repealed 11 years ago).

The state with the lowest freeway speed limit is Hawaii, with a 60 mph limit.  18 states have a 65 mph limit, and the rest have either 70 mph or 75 mph, as shown in this helpful table.

For some time, I've had easily remembered lifetime international phone numbers for sale at the bottom of this page.  The most expensive number is $100, and most are around $20.  Perhaps I need to adjust the numbers up.  Qatar's phone company sold a vanity number for 10 million riyals - US$2.7 million - this week at a charity auction.

The number?  666-6666.

More drunk captains - as in ocean cruise ships this time, not airplanes.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  I've several times written about the danger to planes posed by portable surface to air guided missiles.  The US government is now spending money to research several different methods of protecting against these missiles with a view to fitting anti-missile defenses to passenger airplanes.

But, as I've also written, even the best of these defenses may not be good enough - modern state of the art missiles are designed to take down highest performance fighter and bomber planes, and would have little difficulty against slow 'sitting duck' passenger planes as they cumbersomely lumber into the air at take-off (which is not only the most vulnerable time for the plane but also the best time to attack them).

However, as this article mentions off-handedly in its final paragraph, not only are high tech missiles an unresolved problem.  So too can be the lowest tech unguided rocket propelled grenades, a threat El Al deemed sufficiently serious recently as to cancel its flights to Geneva for an entire week.  So the $1 million plus per plane proposed defenses will not only be inadequate against state of the art guided missiles, but also won't work at all against the cheapest lowest tech unguided RPGs.

Air marshals have been in the news this last week.  Their dress code and procedural requirements can indeed make them stand out to people who know what to look for, as this article reports.

While the institutional stupidity that creates and then sustains such policies is to be decried, much more alarming is this story about the retaliation suffered by air marshals who dare to speak against such policies.

Tit for tat?  The country of Belarus, whose leaders have been banned in the US and Canada, will bar flights over its territory by US and Canadian aircraft.   One small hope is left outstanding -  Belarus has yet to decide if the ban will apply to all aircraft, or just those carrying 'official delegations'.

Last week I wondered out loud '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?'.

I received an email from a reader who is known to me as being a reliable source of inside information, and he said (I've edited his words to ensure neither he nor his family can be identified) :

My father was *very* high up the food chain at a particularly secretive and large government security agency back in the 1950s.  He was not a guy to fool around.

In the late 1950's there was a big spate of UFO sightings, all over the media for a period of several months.  In my teens, I can clearly remember sitting at the dinner table one evening; my father asked if I was aware of all those UFO sightings. When I said yes, his only comment was, 'Believe it.'

Here's something that is close to a worst case scenario for the passengers and crew on this flight.

Several years ago I wrote about Sir Richard Branson offering to wear a female flight attendant's uniform and work as such on a Qantas flight if his airline didn't start service to Australia by the end of 2004, and daring Qantas' CEO to do the same if Virgin did indeed get service established (Qantas CEO Dixon refused the bet, which was just as well, because Sir Richard would have won).

In similar vein, perhaps, we now have Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary, who said he will stand naked 'in Warsaw's busiest street' if LOT Polish airlines drops its fuel surcharge this month.

Apparently a Lot spokesperson made a statement on Polish television last week that Ryanair would be willing to 'walk naked down the street in front of TV cameras' in order to draw attention to the Polish airlines surcharges.  Ryanair has no fuel surcharges and took up the challenge saying  'We have no problems placing this wager with LOT because everyone knows that there is no chance whatsoever of LOT ever removing its fuel surcharges.'

Here's a picture of Mr O'Leary (scroll down a bit on the linked page to see).  Does he look like the kind of man who'd do such a thing?

Almost last for this week, we all know that air travel plans don't always proceed exactly according to plan.  But how about a two hour nonstop flight that ended up taking more than 30 hours, including travel by two different planes, a taxi, and two buses.  Thanks to reader Michael for this story.

At least this unhappy passenger didn't die, as was the case here (thank you Mark).

Lastly this week, if you've enjoyed your read through the 4375 words down to here this week, please consider supporting this worthy publication and project.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and have a great holiday weekend

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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