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27 October, 2006  

Good morning

And talking about morning, should I add my voice to the chorus of reminders about daylight saving ending on Sunday morning?  This will be the last time we set our clocks back in the last weekend in October - from next year we will extend daylight saving at both ends - it will start on the second Sunday in March instead of the first Sunday in April and will end on the first Sunday in November rather than the last Sunday in October.

This will save the nation some energy, but may cause you problems if your computer tries to be 'helpful' and automatically change your time at the former times of year.  Microsoft will be releasing an update for people currently using Windows XP SP2, and Apple has already updated its OS.  If you're using an older (or perhaps other) operating system, you're on your own.

I'd mentioned last week I was embarking on a series of articles about the Apple iPod and related issues.  After an introductory article last week, this week I zero in on a review of their current 'latest and greatest' model with a lengthy 5200 word piece :

This Week's Feature Column :  Apple's 80GB iPod :  It can hold over 1300 CDs or 50 DVDs, and has a 90% share of the market.  But I'm unimpressed at what in part seems to be a triumph of style over substance.

I complained last week at waiting 41 minutes for the luggage off a Delta flight arriving in Seattle.  Scott wrote in, posing the question about how long is normal and acceptable to wait for luggage?

I started to work out the theory of how long it could and should take to unload your bag from the plane, drive it to the luggage hall and load it onto a carousel, then realized this was meaningless.  It is better to approach the subject from your perspective.

How long do you think is fair and acceptable to wait for your bags to arrive?  Please time this from when the airplane stops at the gate, not from the time you arrive at the baggage claim area.  After you've got off the plane yourself and traveled to the baggage claim area, it can already be as much as 10 - 15 minutes after the plane stops at the gate, so in theory - if you're lucky - the wait for your bags could seem very short.

Please click your choice of answer below to send me an instant email with your response being automatically loaded into the subject line.  Remember, we're not asking for what your normal experience is; we're asking for what your expectation is, assuming (!) a well run airline and airport and quality service.

I'll share the answers next week.

Reader Randy also wrote in reply to this topic.  I had rhetorically asked 'Why do airlines feel they can mistreat their customers - and why do we mutely accept such appalling treatment?'

He says he knows why :

I hate to sound negative and cynical.  But frankly, I would say the great majority of leisure travelers actually invite appalling treatment.

I owned my own travel agency for many (maybe too many) years.  Daily I heard "I don't care if they strap me to the wing, I want a cheaper fare than that."  (Translation :  Cram us in like sardines, we don't care as long as the fare is cheaper.)

Again, daily, "Well, if I go standby, can I get a cheaper fare". (Translation :  I really don't care about delays or pre-assigned seats.)

Remember these comments are not only made by purchasers but voters as well.  Frankly I think it is probably politically incorrect for an airline to suggest reasonable treatment at a reasonable fare.

I share your frustration and would like to see better customer service on the part of the carriers.  But until the traveling public starts requesting reasonable treatment - and is willing to pay reasonable fares to get that treatment - I do not see it happening.

Randy is almost certainly right.  His comments mirror my own travel agency experiences, and have been confirmed in casual conversations with airline executives.

Most airlines would prefer to compete on quality than on price - you can make good profit while competing on quality, and it is much harder to do so when competing on price alone - but they've discovered, to their pain, that no matter what people may say they want, the bottom line is the only thing that matters to their customers is almost always the lowest possible fare.

Reader Pat also wrote in on the subject of bad airline service :

This week a friend of mine fought back.  He was early arriving at Orlando Airport for a flight back to Denver on Frontier Airlines.  When he got to the check in counter, there was a sign that they won't check anybody in until two hours before the flight and the counter was closed.  He was able to catch someone's attention behind the counter (who had come out from the back for a minute) who told him the same thing - the counter wasn't open.

He called Frontier Airlines Corporate HQ, said he was at Orlando and wanted to check in.  They asked if it was busy and he said 'It's Orlando, it's Disney!!' and they were like 'ohhhhh'.

Finally he said, 'If the airlines want us here early, your counter should be open to accommodate us.'

Somehow that got through to the woman at Frontier's head office, and she actually called the Orlando back room behind the counter and told my friend that 'Fred' would be out in a minute to check him in... and he did.

So you can sometimes fight back and win!

Dinosaur watching :  The dinosaurs should be getting fat (and therefore, lazy).  Air fares continue to rise, as do flight loadings.  The Air Travel Price Index rose in Q2 to the highest level recorded in its 11 year life, according to the DoT's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.  The new level (120.6) is up from its previous highest point, 116.9, recorded in Q1 of 2001.

Astonishingly, the index rose 11.5% between Q2 of 2005 and Q2 of 2006, the largest ever year on year jump.  And if you live in Cincinnati, you'll be definitely feeling the pain - fares for travel out of CVG rose by a massive 33.9%.  Charleston SC and Savannah, GA had the second and third largest increases, while Maui showed the largest decrease (a scant 1.8%), doubtless caused by the appearance of a third Hawaiian island airline.

Echoing the BTS statistics is an article in USA Today which reports the average advance roundtrip fare for Thanksgiving weekend travel has increased 15% from last year, and is now at $434.

If you're planning on Thanksgiving travel and haven't already booked your seats, you should do so urgently - the total number of seats available is about the same as last year, but advance bookings are currently 42% up on last year.  The 'cheap' seats (such as they are) are almost all sold already.

The USA Today article also looks back to 2005, where the average fare was again 15% up on the previous year.  Between 2004 and 2006, the average roundtrip ticket has increased 33%, from $327 to $434.

At prices like these, it is almost cheaper to travel internationally than domestically.

And perhaps with that in mind, Virgin Atlantic released, on Thursday, special low fares from their US gateways to London, good for travel any time between now and 19 December, or between early January and 25 March 2007.  Roundtrip fares are as low as $213 from San Francisco, $214 from New York, or $216 from DC.

Yes, these are roundtrip fares, and there's only one catch - you need to add all the taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges to these fares; about $250 in extras.

Tallking about Virgin Atlantic, it seems to be the only airline relieved to have the Airbus A380 delayed further.  They had earlier voluntarily delayed the delivery of their six A380s by a year, and now they've announced a further delay of four years, meaning they won't get the first of their planes until 2013.

I know the airline's major shareholder, Sir Richard Branson, delights in challenging conventional wisdom, but one has to wonder if he really wants these planes or not after pushing their delivery back from 2006, when it was first hoping to get planes, and now extending the lead time all the way to 2013.  Other airlines hoping for their A380s (and needing them!) as soon as possible are visibly upset at the Airbus delays, but Sir Richard seems delighted.

On the other hand, Sir Richard's partner in the airline, Singapore Airlines (which holds 49% of Virgin's shares) stands to win slightly from this, in as far as it can take the planes earlier promised to Virgin and accelerate its own much needed deliveries.  Here's an interesting video of Singapore Airlines' CEO talking about the delays to their A380s, and also commenting on his airline's interest in flying between Australia and the United States.

And talking about flying between Australia and the US - a route currently dominated by Qantas, Virgin Blue (an Australian airline partially founded by Sir Richard Branson but which he no longer controls) says 'we expect to be in a position to make a decision on long-haul US flights fairly shortly'.

But time is a strange concept in the Virgin empire.  There are the seven years of delay to Virgin Atlantic's A380s, and several years of delay (so far) to Virgin America's yet to occur start of business in the US, so the 'fairly shortly' time frame in which Virgin Blue hopes to make a decision about starting service to the US could conceivable stretch out many years.

Talking about the lengthy startup period for Virgin America, there's another potential startup airline that promises to be even more bizarre than Virgin America.  This is Skybus - an airline you've probably never heard of.  It will be based in Columbus, OH - an interesting choice of location, and perhaps influenced by $57 million in support by local and state authorities.  The airline has also raised over $100 million from investors, and this week signed a contract to buy 65 A319 jets.

The airline may yet lack planes, routes, fares, or just about anything else, but it doesn't lack in self confidence.  Which is perhaps just as well, because it will be competing, right from whenever it starts, with low cost airlines Southwest and JetBlue, both offering flights from Port Columbus.

When asked what would happen if other carriers matched Skybus' promised low fares, CEO Bill Diffenderffer  said 'They'll go broke'.  I think when he says 'they' he means the other airlines, rather than his own.  This prediction doubtless has Southwest Airlines, the nation's most consistently profitable airline, in a state of panic.

The airline hopes to start flights next spring - let's see which airline takes to the skies first - Skybus or Virgin America.

The $57 million in subsidies on offer to Skybus makes the up to $5.5 million a year from BWI airport to British Airways look almost ordinary.  But whereas the inducements to Skybus are public and on the record, the $5.5 million deal between BWI and BA was secretive and not disclosed, even to the state legislators, in a manner which now appears may have been against state law.

BWI feels it needs to bribe BA to continue service to its airport.  It has competing nearby airports like PHL to the north and IAD to the south and conceivably, without commercial inducement, BA might feel it makes no sense to triple up on its services to that region.  The airport also claims that the benefit to the state as a whole vastly exceeds the relatively small guarantee it has extended to BA, making it a sensible arrangement at a business level.

But, good sense or no, it seems that BWI did need to 'fess up to what it was doing, but chose not to.

Even though airfares and plane loads are at record levels, not all airlines are making profits.  Low cost carrier AirTran announced a $4.3 million loss for its third quarter.

Once known as a high-quality airline, Alaska Airlines announced a loss of $17.4 million, compared to a net profit of $90.2 million for the same quarter last year.  Perhaps hinting at how it is the airline managed to do so poorly, it has announced a plan to get back into profit - by cancelling all free meals on flights and instead selling meals for $5.

Obviously an airline managed by visionaries.

JetBlue announced a small loss of $500,000, and said its response will be to slow its growth rate and defer deliveries of new planes.  JetBlue remains hopefull of scraping out a full year profit.

And US Airways reported a better than expected result, with a $78 million loss, but this included $179 million of one-off items.  Without these, it would have made a handsome $101 million profit.  Perhaps because of this, the airline announced a further extension of its lower fares, with reductions of up to 69% in 39 cities, including its hubs in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

US Airways says it estimates the cost to it as a result of lost traffic from the increased security issues was between $30 million and $40 million.

Hopefully with the anticipated greater profits in the future, US Airways will be able to afford slightly better envelopes next time it sends out a promotional mailing to members of its Dividend Miles program.  Reader David was unhappy to receive a mailing from them in a window envelope with window placement allowing his name and address to be visible (of course) plus his mileage balance.  Inside the envelope was also printed his Dividend Miles account.

He - and I - wonder if this isn't making such mailings vulnerable to identity thieves, who can readily see, without even needing to open the letter, who is likely to be a good victim.

Delta is asking its bankruptcy court for another extension of the time they have to file their restructuring plan.  Earlier this year, they asked for a four month extension and the court generously gave them a six month extension.  Now they're asking for the 8 November deadline to be extended another three months to 15 February 2007.

This is the airline's third request for an extension.

Which is the dirtiest airline in the US?  And are any airlines clean?  Here's a rather horrifying article about the state of airplane cleanliness.

And which is the worst airline in the world?  And the worst airport?  According to this article, the answers are Ryanair and Heathrow.

Bad news for business and first class passengers flying out of LAX's International Terminal.  The airport has closed sixteen different airline lounges in the Tom Bradley Terminal as part of a major renovation, replacing them with two generic lounges - one on the mezzanine level for first class passengers, and a second lounge for business class passengers in a separate building, reachable by shuttle bus.

In May, four new lounges will open.  There will be one lounge each for airlines belonging to the three major alliances - OneWorld, Star and SkyTeam, and a fourth lounge for non-affiliated airlines.

This is a disappointing move, reducing the individual branding and differentiation between airlines and the premium services they offer, and also is another indicator of how the airline alliances are killing competition between their member airlines.

My recommendation to buy Boeing stock three weeks ago continues to be proven wrong.

For a while during the last week Boeing's share price was slightly up, but after some bad news about possible weight problems with its new 787 on Wednesday, anxious investors sold the stock and it closed the week down another 3%, after a 1.5% drop last week and a similar drop the week before.

Airbus, on the other hand, posted almost a 4% gain this week, more than compensating for its 3% loss last week, and with a 2% rise in the first week.

In other Boeing news, it announced a further stretch to its new 747-8 passenger plane.  It has been made very slightly longer again, enabling it to hold 17 more people, for a maximum of 467 passengers, compared to the present capacity of 416 in a 747-400.  This is still a lot less than the A380, which can hold up to 555 in a similar three class layout, although most airlines seem to be planning to have less than 500 passengers in a more spacious arrangement.

No airlines have yet ordered the 747-8 in its passenger configuration, although the freighter version has secured some orders.

Talking about planes, a group in the UK, the 'Save Concorde Group', has pointed out that three of the four remaining Concordes in Britain are sitting rusting in the open air.  The airplanes are still owned by British Airways, and last year the airline ordered staff to disable many of the airplanes' critical systems to make it impossible for them to fly again.  One former Concorde chief pilot described this as 'an act of vandalism'.  Concurrently the Air and Space Museum in Paris is trying to return one of the former Air France Concordes to flying condition.

BA dismissed claims that it is allowing its fleet to decay, saying it is 'incredibly proud' of Concorde.

What a peculiar way to show their incredible pride.  My article, written when Concorde's retirement was first announced, points out the strange contradictions in BA's attitude to its former flagship airplane and debunks the oft quoted urban legends such as the erroneous claim that Concorde was never profitable.

While Concorde is a distant memory, the possibility of new supersonic flight continues to slowly move forward.  I've always maintained there are no impossible barriers to supersonic flight - merely hurdles that can be surmounted with sufficient research and development.  The current state of the art in subsonic jets is the result of hundreds of billions of dollars of continual research and development; but supersonic design has never been similarly well funded, so it is no wonder that the current state of the art for supersonic flight is as primitive as it is.

One such hurdle has been the problem of sonic booms; until now that has prevented commercial supersonic flight over land, greatly limiting the routes a supersonic plane could fly.

Gulfstream last week conducted a successful trial of a device that reduces the effect of the sonic boom.  The device, a 'Quiet Spike' (pictured here) splits the sonic boom into three smaller booms.  This does not eliminate the boom effect, but it reduces it, and brings us a step closer to commercial supersonic flight.

I wrote last week about a service that allows you to make free calls internationally.  You call a local number in Iowa - (712)858-8888 - and then can dial out to most countries in the world.

Several readers wrote in to explain how this can work.  The company offering the service gets paid a subsidy for accepting incoming calls to its exchange in rural Iowa, and the level of the subsidy is so high (about 3c a minute) that it is greater than the cost for the telephone company to then forward your call on to its international final destination (almost certainly through a VoIP network, at a cost of perhaps 1.25c/minute).

There's a more technical explanation here - I agree with the technical explanation but don't agree with the business analysis at the end.

Talking about phone service, here's a fascinating new service that converts all your voicemails into soundfiles and sends them to your email address.  It too is free.

And here's a very alarming twist (for us men) on the 'cell phones are bad for your health' theme.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  It's back.  After public outcry forced the State Department to modify (but not eliminate) its plan to add RFID chips to US passports, we now see the same concept being proposed for the border ID cards that can be used instead of passports when traveling by land or sea between the US and Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda.  These cards will have a chip that can be read from a distance of at least 32 feet.  Details here.

Providing more reasons to dislike RFID chips in any sort of personal data card is this article showing how credit cards with RFID chips in them can be very tempting targets for identity thieves.

This week's useless but interesting bit of information :  Did you know you can be fined as much as $10,000 if you are detected bringing a banned item through airport security?  The TSA assessed $1.4 million in passenger fines last year, with the top airports for levying fines being Phoenix ($77,420 in fines), Atlanta ($52,475) and Tampa ($50,900).

One of the largest factors in whether you are levied a fine or not is your attitude.  If you're caught with something you shouldn't have, be polite and apologetic.  Telling the TSA agent it is a totally stupid brain-dead policy to ban (whatever) is not likely to help!

Next week I will be writing to you with much greater wisdom than this week.  I'll be a year older and hopefully a year wiser - it is my birthday tomorrow, and I'm going to be years old.

This is a date I share with Julia Roberts (who is clearly younger) and Bill Gates (who is the same age).  Alas, that's about all I share with Bill G.  <sigh>

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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