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23 June, 2006  

Good morning

The longest day has come and gone again - and now the days will start to inexorably shorten once more.

I'm very much looking forward to the Russian river cruise in less than two weeks - the long days in the northern latitude of St Petersburg are such that the skies darken only briefly at night, giving rise to what the locals term the 'White Nights', and sometimes even tempting them into all-night celebrations.  Not that I'll be similarly tempted.  Oh no....

Did you know that 92% of business travelers now travel with a laptop computer?  And so too do 51% of leisure travelers?  But it is one thing to have your laptop in your bag; it is another thing entirely to be using it, particularly when crushed into a coach class seat on a long flight.

Many of us are glad of the excuse to leave our laptop in the overhead.  But for those of us who'd love a chance to spend their flying time productively, here is :

This Week's Feature Column :  Aviator Laptop Stand :  Here is a gadget that claims to make it easier to use your laptop in coach class.  I put one of these $20 items through its paces, and let you know if it really does work as claimed or not.

One more $20 travel gadget that you might be interested in.  I have some spare Nokia 5110 international GSM phones left over from the fundraising drive - if you'd like one, here's more information about them and a link to buy one (or more) at $20 each.

And I've added some nice new numbers to the vanity SIM page - these are international phone numbers that last virtually for ever, assuming you use them every year or two or three, and only cost you money when you use them - there's no activation fee or monthly fee.  Sure, the airtime is more expensive, but for the occasional user who just wants a phone number to have while infrequently traveling overseas, they are great.

Dinosaur watching :  United Airlines had the largest of all mail carrying contracts with the US Postal Service.  The airline has flown mail for 75 years, and is believed to have earned $150 million from its mail contract last year.

But, as of 30 June, this will be no more.  USPS is canceling the contract, due to United's poor on-time performance.  Most of United's share of the mail carrying market will probably go to American and Delta, and the Postal Service says it doesn't see any difficulties in switching services.

United will not be eligible to bid on the contracts until the next five year period ends in 2011.

Talking about delayed flights, Senator Chuck Schumer says he wants airlines to be upfront with their passengers when it comes to flight delays and has drafted a bill that would require airlines to tell passengers immediately when there is a delay with their flight.

This would allow passengers to choose whether they wanted to cancel their flight or change flights before they board and then sit on the tarmac for hours.  'Airlines need to be honest with the public,' he said.  'Passengers deserve to know that their flight is delayed, and should have the option of rebooking.'

Amen to that.  But while he is at it, perhaps he could incorporate my entire proposed bill of passenger rights into his legislation.

Still talking about delayed flights, my saga with Alaska Airlines is nearing a close, and would have perhaps been handled very differently if Sen Schumer's legislation was in force.

I received a form letter type reply from their Customer Service people that annoyed me due to its lack of response to the specific points I raised, but then got a personal note from their Director, Customer Care, inviting me to call him and discuss the issue; something I plan to do and report back to you on, but which I have not yet had time to do.

Of course, I realize that most passengers just get the inappropriate form letter that ignores their actual complaints and questions.  Unfortunately, an email from a senior executive is only due to 'the power of the press', and the power of readers who have lobbied Alaska Airlines on my behalf.

Delta has decided to emulate United's p.s. concept and introduce improved service and comfort on selected trans-continental flights.  Service will start in August and will offer passengers 24 channels of live TV, interactive video games and MP3 audio programming offering more than 1,600 songs. First class will have leather seats.

Service will be available from Kennedy, LaGuardia, Boston, Atlanta and Cincinnati in the east and Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle on the west coast; with a plan to eventually extend it to all flights longer than 1750 miles.  United's p.s. service is much more limited, operating only between JFK and LAX/SFO.

Alaska Airlines recently announced it was discontinuing its simultaneous boarding of all passengers, switching back to a tradition row based system, boarding passengers in blocks of 5 or so rows of seats at a time.

But Northwest has announced that it is about to switch to simultaneous boarding of all passengers, claiming it will save about ten minutes on typical plane loading times with this system.

Plainly either AS or NW are very wrong in their respective approaches to boarding.  I wonder which it is?

Further proof that passenger boarding methods are as much art as science is the news that Southwest will begin testing assigned seating on about 200 flights departing from San Diego, with the test starting on 10 July and running for several weeks.

Southwest seems to have finally understood that its current open seating process is unpopular with passengers.  As Southwest has evolved from being a slightly quirky niche carrier to a massive airline serving much of the country, its passengers and their expectations have also evolved and unassigned seating is increasingly an impediment to broader acceptance of Southwest by potential passengers.

The airline's biggest concern is that pre-assigned seating may slow down the time it takes them to turnaround their planes.  Southwest's lightning fast turnarounds have been one of the key ingredients of their profitability, and so they're of course very reluctant to do anything to imperil that.

Airlines are the busiest they have ever been, but the number of people they employ continues to decline.   4.8% fewer workers were employed in April 2006 than in April 2005, making the 16th consecutive month that staff levels declined compared to the same month of the previous year, according to the latest DOT statistics.

Major carriers have dropped 97,000 employees since April of 2002, with US Airways dropping 42.4% of its workforce followed by Northwest dropping 31.7% of its workforce.   Low Cost carriers shed 2.2% of their workforce in April compared to April of 2005.  They account for 17.2% of the passenger airline total.

Reader Barry writes in with a sorry tale, and while it seems BA are at fault, I suggest an equal culprit is his travel agent for not telling Barry up front about the change fee :

I was scheduled to fly British Airways last week from Toronto to London and then onward via BA to Lisbon and return 2 weeks later. Using their Premier Economy class, I got a reasonably priced ticket for about C$1200 for Toronto-London return & C$400+ for London-Lisbon return.

My 93 year old mother-in-law got ill, so my wife had to cancel to take care of her.  I had no desire to holiday for ten days without my wife, so I tried to change my ticket to return just five days later.

My agent booked the changed return and told me to pay the change fee at the airport.

When I got to the airport, the BA ticket desk smiled and said that would be C$3200 extra please!  That's because buried way down in the rates for this ticket, it says if any changes are made within 42 days, the tariff shoots way up.  I also had to pay an extra change fee of $500 for London-Lisbon. So I'd be out C$3700 extra in total for changes to a ticket that cost C$1600 to start with.

Fortunately, I was able to grab a KLM flight for C$1300, all the way to Lisbon and back.

Do you remember, back in February, airline offices in Europe were raided by anti-competition authorities?  They were investigating alleged price fixing on fuel surcharges for airline freight fees.  That investigation is still proceeding.

Well, officialdom is slow, but sometimes it gets where it needs to be, even if a day late and a dollar short.  It turns out they've finally figured out that airlines sell services to people as well as to freight forwarders, and tickets have fuel surcharges, too.  On Thursday it was revealed that officials from the UK Office of Fair Trading had raided BA offices in London the previous week, which resulted in the unusual action on BA's part of suspending two senior executives.

The OFT said it visited BA's offices on June 13 as part of a civil and criminal investigation into alleged price coordination and its probe was 'at an early stage'.

BA's share price quickly lost almost 6% of their value, while Deutsche Bank analysts said in a note 'putting key personnel on leave is a difficult signal for the market to interpret'.

Four airlines - VS, AA and UA - say they have been asked to assist, but are not direct targets of the probe.  And various other airlines have proudly said they're not being invested.  One such airline is Qantas.

But Qantas has its own worries about fuel surcharges, closer to its Australian home.  As this article reports, Qantas has been charging domestic Australian passengers an insurance levy on each sector flown.  A typical levy is in the order of A$34.18 (US$25.11).  But - ooops.  It seems that $31 of the $34 'insurance' levy is actually a fuel surcharge.  Qantas says it doesn't separate the fuel surcharge from the insurance levy for 'administrative purposes'.

Shame on Qantas.  Its current management seem to be carelessly unprotective of its iconic status in Australia and its position as most respected brand in the country.

As readers may already know, I view airline alliances as a thinly veiled but highly successful end-run around anti-competition laws.  So I'm delighted to record that all members of the SkyTeam alliance (other than Aeroflot) have received a statement of objections from the EU's competition authority which has been reviewing the alliance since its launch in 2000.

The EU warned airlines participating in SkyTeam that coordinated services on some routes could be in violation of antitrust laws.  The EU said it had no objections to the alliance but it is concerned about a few specific routes including some routes between the EU and other countries.

Hardly the most aggressive bit of enforcement, but at least it is a start.

The Airbus A380 delays and the curious coincidence of how some of their senior executives sold off stock and options shortly before the delays were made public has continued to echo in the press this last week.

Airbus' co-CEO, Noel Forgeard stole a line from the police chief in Casablanca (who was also French) when he said he was 'shocked' by allegations he had used insider knowledge to profit by his stock sales.  And we all know how honest the shock expressed by Captain Renault in Casablanca was.  The French parliament held a session that ended in stormy disarray, during which the concept of management changes at the company were argued.

More truly shocked are Airbus' customers.  Rumor has it that Malaysian Airlines may cancel its orders for six aircraft.  And aircraft leasing giant ILFC went on the record as saying they might can their order for ten of the planes.

My pick :  Malaysian Airlines would probably be glad of an excuse to cancel, but ILFC is just saber rattling so as to get further concessions from Airbus.  Other airlines such as Qantas and Emirates are also making public announcements about their intentions to seek the maximum possible penalties from Airbus for these delays.

These delays are costing Airbus dearly, not just in cash flow and penalties, but also in credibility and in future sales losses by airlines keen to 'punish' Airbus for their unreliability.

Interestingly, Airbus hasn't sold any more A380s in the last year.  Currently they have 159 on order, with Emirates having the largest single order, for 43 of the planes.

In among all the other incriminations, Airbus has found a silver lining to the dark cloud enveloping it.  The problems it has inflicted on itself with its A380 delays might mean that it will need further government funding to help develop its new A350 plane.  How's that for a great reward for bad behavior!

One of the interesting sub-texts to the Airbus woes of the last week has been how 'Old Europe' - until now - viewed Airbus with great pride as being proof of the success of their business methods and a smack-down to the United States and Boeing.  The feeling of betrayal, by their own, that they now are trying to suppress and rationalize is palpable.

But over at Boeing, there are some potential issues brewing with their new 787, due to some quality control issues with the new carbon-fiber fuselage components.  The impact of these issues in terms of any delivery delays is not yet apparent, and unlike Airbus that was originally supposed to be delivering its A380s starting from now, Boeing's first 787 delivery is not scheduled until 2008.

An article came out this week claiming to disclose details of a new Boeing plane - a 1000 seater that would be called the 797.  I'm very skeptical about the veracity of these claims, and an email to the writer asking for confirmation went unanswered.

There are plenty of reasons to doubt the accuracy of this article, starting with the claim the plane will be called the 797 - Boeing has usually been cagey about the naming/numbering of new planes and it is unlikely to be already numbering such an enormously different plane as this so early, and in the same sequence as earlier planes.

And much as I like the big new A380, with its about 500 - 600 seat capacity, a 1000 seater plane is just too big for any commercial viability.  Maybe a very few routes could support such a monster plane, but there wouldn't be enough sales for the plane to be profitable.

Boeing also wins a 'wrong place at the wrong time' award for its Connexion business unit.  Connexion is Boeing's subsidiary that offers internet connectivity on planes, a service that was released right around the time the US airline industry went for a tailspin.  The net result for Boeing has been a pathetic level of sales of the generally fine product, and no US carriers have chosen to implement the service.

Boeing is believed to have sunk $1 billion or more into the concept, and is now understood to be offering it for sale, with a potential sale price in the $150 million range.

Got some mad money to burn?  Morgan Stanley recommend investing in airline stocks, with their top pick being JetBlue.  Their least desired airline?  Southwest - no matter that Southwest remains robustly profitable.  Morgan Stanley feel the airline's current share price fully reflects its present and near future potential.

Here's an interesting item that struck a personal note with me.  I've been increasingly aware that most of my friendships are via the internet with distant people, rather than over the back fence with the next door neighbor.

It seems I'm not alone in this, and while I'm pleased to interact with so many people through the internet, I can't help wondering if we're not all losing a valuable dimension as in-person contact and friendships decline.

But while it seems we're making more friendships via the internet, a recent survey suggests less of us are using the internet for travel needs The report shows US consumers are still largely satisfied with making travel arrangements on the web but fewer are using the Internet to meet their travel needs than two years ago.  Only 28% of all men and 25% of all women said they plan to research airline rates and availability online over the next three months, compared to 41% of all men and 25% of women who answered the survey in 2004.

Longer time readers will know of my occasional frustrations with and dislike of AOL.  One time I even mysteriously ended up being a subscriber of theirs, and unsubscribing from a service I'd never signed up for but was being charged for was difficult to do (and my credit card company didn't really want to help).  However, as difficult as it was, it was still much easier than this poor gentleman experienced.  (Here's a recording of his conversation.)

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The LA County Sheriff's Department has a great way of reassuring people that a new pilotless miniature spy plane they plan to use to surreptitiously monitor people in LA County from above is no threat to individual privacy.

'You shouldn't be worried about being spied on by your government' said the head of the project. 'These days you can't go anywhere without a camera watching you whether you're in a grocery store or walking down the street.'

Traveling from or through Heathrow Airport from now on could be more difficult as the airport is clamping down on oversized luggage being taken onboard flights as hand luggage.

The ban at Heathrow will be phased in from July 5.  Bags will have to be no more than 22 inches long, 18 inches wide and 10 inches deep to be allowed as hand luggage.  From August 1 all passengers will be asked to check in all luggage that does not fit into the template provided at check in.  Note that many bags with nominal dimensions smaller than these actually have larger true external dimensions, and probably won't fit the size templates.

Even if you might be allowed on with a larger bag flying to Heathrow, you will probably have to check it on the return.  The enforcement follows Britain's Department for Transport guidance recommending that all UK airlines and UK airport operators seek to implement the IATA cabin baggage standards.  So far Heathrow is the only UK airport imposing the standards.

New York undercover investigators wanted to find out if you acted like a tourist when hailing a cab would you be taken for a ride.  They found there was some truth to this as more than a dozen taxi drivers overcharged them for trips from Kennedy Airport.  They posed as foreign tourists and handed notes to the drivers asking to be taken to either the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan or to the Brooklyn Marriott.

Of the 24 drivers tested two charged more than $100 for rides to Brooklyn (normally about a $40 fare), while 11 overcharged by at least $20.  The worst offenders were arrested on misdemeanor fraud and theft charges and their cabs were impounded.  The others were referred to the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission for administrative penalties.  The flat cab fare from Kennedy Airport to Manhattan is $45 plus tolls.  The trip to Brooklyn is metered.

Feeling hungry?  If you're in Boca Raton, perhaps you'd like one of these hamburgers.

Lastly this week, you'll absolutely never ever guess which city has been deemed to be the politest city in the world.  Zurich came second, Toronto third, and Bombay last, but to find the politest city in the world, you'll need to click here.  Be prepared for a surprise.

Until next week, please enjoy safe (and polite) travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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