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3 November, 2006  

Good morning

Thank you everyone who replied to last week's instant quiz about how long you think is fair and acceptable to wait for your bags to arrive.

You'll recall you were asked to advise how long it should take from when the plane stops at the gate to when your bag arrives on the carousel - this being different to the time you are prepared to wait at the carousel (because it can take as much as ten minutes or more from when the plane stops to when you disembark and get to the carousel).

This was a popular quiz with 1750 responses received (including more than 35 from one reader who assures me she only meant to answer once but her email program somehow has been resending the message ever since Friday last week).  Obviously, waiting for luggage is something none of us like doing, and as you'll see from the results, few of us like waiting any appreciable amount of time.

The most common answer - waiting 15 to 20 minutes - translates to very much less time standing at the carousel, of course, for the reasons mentioned above.  And it goes without saying that most of the time, we're unhappily waiting much longer than that for our bags.

Baggage handling, in all respects, has nose-dived since the latest security fuss with liquids, causing more people to check more bags rather than carry them on, as this article reported a few weeks back.

Strangely one person indicated they'd be willing to wait more than 60 minutes.

Several readers wrote in with additional comments.  A reader who prefers to be anonymous said :

I once waited two hours (count 'em) for my luggage after a flight from San Jose, CA to LAX on American (Eagle).  We who had been silly enough to check luggage were a very vocal group.  When we FINALLY were able to find out what happened, we were told (on the QT) by a sympathetic American employee that there was another flight coming in about a half-hour after ours, so the baggage handlers decided to wait until that flight came in and deliver both planes' luggage together.

There was a problem with that second flight and it arrived late, but that didn't matter to the baggage handlers - they waited it out.  I was boiling mad, both before and after finding out.  Prior to hearing the truth, all we got was the runaround from American.  When I arrived home, I complained to the head office and got some free miles - whoop-dee-doo!

Perhaps the definitive commentary on bags came from reader Ken :

I used to do baggage delivery analyses for TWA and we found the critical time isn’t the elapsed time from “block in” – when the wheels stop turning and the jetway begins to move towards the aircraft – it’s a variable time that seems to hinge on two factors – the time it took to walk from the aircraft to the baggage claim area, and another variable time that is a function of the first bag to the claim area and then a steady and reasonable flow of bags to the carousel. Here are better explanations of both :

First, the time the customers are standing in the claim area waiting for the first bag to arrive is critical. If it takes the customers 15 minutes to walk to the baggage claim area but the bags are starting to arrive when they get there, the service is perceived to be better than if the customers reach the claim area in just 5 minutes and then have to wait another 5 minutes for the first bag to arrive. In the second situation, although the elapsed time may be just 10 minutes instead of 15 minutes, the customers will be more upset than in the first situation.

Second, once the first bag arrives customers want to see a steady and reasonable flow of bags. If 20 bags come down all crammed together and then there is a 2 minute gap before the next group of bags come onto the carousel, customers will be upset. If the flow is steady and another bag is visible on the belt before the bag just preceding it slides onto the carousel, customers seemed to be satisfied.

Although it doesn’t impact customers’ impressions and attitudes, the facility itself may put physical or, sometimes, policy restrictions on the flow of bags. A cramped area for the airline baggage handlers to work and to move the baggage wagons is an example of the former.

An example of the latter is Las Vegas, where they used to (and maybe still do) restrict the flow of bags into the baggage claim area because they wanted customers to become bored and play the slot machines the city had so astutely placed for their entertainment. Several times while I was in Las Vegas doing baggage studies for TWA I saw the airport authority shut down the bag belt because bags were being placed too close together and getting them into the claim area quicker.

Another reader reports on a darker side of the luggage issue :

Why is it my luggage always weighs in 7 lbs more at the airport than on my scale at home?

This seems to consistently happen when I'm checking in at the Delta counter - i have actually taken my luggage over to another carrier's scale to weigh and confirm its correct weight, but Delta refuse to accept that.

One possible thought might be to carry a portable scale to 'prove' your weight claim and demand to see a supervisor and ask to see a certificate of accuracy for the scale they're using.  Here's a portable scale that costs only $9 - compare that to an overweight bag charge of potentially $50 (sometimes more) and if this scale can help you pack light and/or win an airport argument, it will pay for itself immediately, many times over.

Most states don't inspect airline scales at airports, claiming it is a federal not state issue, and so airlines are free to have their scales show whatever they wish.

Realistically, of course, your chances of winning an argument when checking in about your bag's weight are minimal.  But if you have some spare time and interest, if you can create a high level of certainty that your weight is likely to be more accurate than the airline's weight, why not take them to Small Claims Court to recover the excess baggage charge they levied on you?

I updated an article on my site that was first written three years ago, to be the article for this week.

One of the things that surprised me as I went through the rewrite was that most of the website urls in the original article no longer worked.  I'm not talking about websites that have disappeared because the company owning them has gone out of business, but just about websites that have been redesigned so that the old page addresses no longer work.

This confirms my belief that too many websites are managed by idiots.  There's nothing more precious to a website than links in from other websites - the links bring in customers and increase the website's Google ranking.  It is very simple to protect and preserve old webpage urls, or at the very least, websites that do change their structure should have a helpful page saying 'we've rearranged our site, please go here for our home page and search for the page you are looking for' rather than just offering a generic 404 'Page not found' error.

Perhaps that is part of the reason why Google rates The Travel Insider so highly.  Although the site has been redesigned twice and the navigation system altered, we haven't changed any urls to any pages ever in the five years the site has been live.  If I can do this on a bare bones budget, surely big name corporations can do the same.

Anyway, with that as a rather lengthy introduction, here now is :

This Week's Feature Column :  Dining in Seattle :  If your travels take you to my home town of Seattle, here's a selection of sixteen different restaurants you might want to consider dining at.

Actually, food and baggage has been very much on my mind this week.  I'm off to Germany today as a guest of Emirates Airlines.  They've just opened up yet another service out of New York, this one being a daily flight to/from Hamburg and on to Dubai, and I've been invited to try the service and visit Hamburg, a city I've never been to before.

Emirates deserves praise for its braveness.  Only five other airlines have ever had the courage to knowingly invite me on board to review their service (Qantas, Virgin Atlantic, Malaysian, Eva Air, and now defunct Independence Air).

Perhaps you're like me - curious about Emirates - it is an airline growing at an astonishing rate, and boasting some extraordinary amenities such as (I think) 600 inflight entertainment channels.  Wow - maybe my new iPod won't be used at all!  I'll report fully to you shortly after my return.

This also gives me a chance to test out a new set of noise reducing headphones - the new top of the line $250 Solitude with 'Linx Audio' processing.  So far, on the ground testing has suggested you're better off to get the regular Solitude II for the more reasonable sum of $200, but I hope to have more answers and a full review, possibly next week.

Dinosaur watching :  A theme of the last couple of weeks was how and why airlines mistreat their customers, with Randy last week saying it is because airline passengers are unwilling to pay more for better service.

But is it the customers who don't appreciate better service, or the airlines who don't know how to offer and promote it?  A surprising answer was hinted at this week by American Airlines (yes, the airline that couldn't successfully 'sell' passengers on the benefit of more spacious seating in coach class at no extra cost).

There are two things that just about all passengers will pay a reasonable amount extra for - first class seating and shorter duration nonstop flights.

Now that Southwest is starting to offer one stop service out of Love Field (which the former Wright Amendment had not permitted), American is responding to this in a strange way.  Even though AA offers faster, more frequent, and less hassle nonstop service to cities which Southwest (WN) flies to with a stop en-route, AA is matching the WN fares, dollar for dollar.

Wouldn't it be more sensible to drop fares to perhaps $5 - $20 more than the WN fares, so as to extract a small premium for a non-stop flight?  If the airline itself doesn't value this benefit, how can it ever expect its customers to?

Air Canada's pilots have been awarded a wage increase of 2%, backdated to July, with another 1.75% in July 2007 and again in July 2008.  Not very much, but it's better than nothing.  And for sure, that isn't going to tip profitable Air Canada's costs back into the red.  US pilots should take careful note.

International air traffic continues to grow, but its rate of growth is declining.  There was a 4.7% increase in September compared to Sept 05, but this rate continues a decline in growth that started in May.  Are international airfares (and surcharges) starting to get too high?  Are the airlines getting too greedy again?  Surely not.

But while the growth in international air travel might be showing signs of slowing down, some airlines are aggressively continuing their growth.  All first class airline Eos announced it had secured an additional $75 million in funding to acquire additional planes and said it plans to add extra routes from Britain and Europe to the United States in 2007.

All business class airline MaxJet is also growing, and this week started twice-weekly service between London (Stansted) and Las Vegas.

Here's a great way to earn frequent flier miles - simply watch internet ads then answer questions about them.  A new startup, e-miles.com, will pay you in the range of 20 to 30 frequent flier miles per minute you spend online.  With a frequent flier mile being worth 2c or more, that could be $36/hour to watch advertising in your spare time.

Boeing's stock price, which was at $83.62 when I recommended it as a buy back on 6 October, opened last Friday at $79.17 and closed on Thursday this week at $79.20, virtually unchanged for the week, but 5.3% down since my 6 October recommendation.  In contrast, Airbus (opened at €21 on 9 Oct and I recommended it as a sell back then), and with another week of fairly steady bad news, opened last Friday at €21.75 and closed this Thursday at €21.17, showing a very slight increase since 6 October.

One example of this week's bad news for Airbus (and good news for Boeing) was an announcement on Thursday by Austrian Airlines, stating they were phasing out their fleet of Airbus A330 and A340 planes, to become an all-Boeing airline.  After so many all-Boeing airlines have switched to becoming part or all Airbus, it is very surprising to see an airline going back the other way.

More bad news for Airbus from Brazil.  A formerly all-Airbus airline - TAM - placed a $1 billion order with Boeing for four 777 aircraft.

And earlier in the week Emirates cancelled an order for ten A340s and said it was switching to Boeing 777s instead.  It also said it was sending a team of auditors to review Airbus' promises relating to the delivery of its A380s, and said it was considering supplementing its order for A380s with an order for Boeing's new 747-800.

However, the week wasn't an unalloyed disaster for Airbus.  There was one item of very good news - Qantas announced it was increasing its order for A380s from 12 up to 20 of the giant planes, with deliveries scheduled to run from August 2008 through some time in 2015.

So far, no airlines have cancelled their A380 orders.

Some bad news for regional jet manufacturers such as Bombardier and Embraer.  A Chinese project to develop and build a regional jet is proceeding as much as a year ahead of schedule.  The jet - the ARJ21 - would seat between 70 - 110 passengers, and had originally been expected to go into commercial service late in 2009.  But it is now expected to go into service some time in 2008.

As Airbus and Boeing both rush to transfer technology and set up operations in China in return for getting sales of their planes, one has to wonder how short-sighted this may be and if the two companies aren't both simply helping the Chinese with the expertise they'll need to start building not only smaller regional jets but also full sized jets that compete directly with Airbus and Boeing.

Here's one time when you'll probably be cheering on the airline in its regulatory victory.  Continental Airlines successfully petitioned the FCC to allow it to continue to offer free Wi-Fi to people in its lounge in Boston.  The airport had tried to prevent them doing this, saying that all people in the airport had to pay for the airport's own competing Wi-Fi service.  American had previously caved in to the airport's demands and withdrawn the T-Mobile service on offer in its lounge.

With this ruling behind them, the airlines would seem to have no excuse now not to offer free Wi-Fi in all their lounges.  It would definitely be a much appreciated added-value item for their lounge members, while presenting as a minimal cost to the airlines and their lounges.  Start asking for (or even demanding) free Wi-Fi access next time you go to your favorite lounge.

Have you ever been driving along and suddenly had the FM station you were listening be lost by interference from some other programming?  Here's one possible reason that might have happened to you.

I've been writing about Apple's iPod the last couple of weeks (and there's more to come later).  One of the distinctive things about the iPod is its huge market share, but that market share appears to be very vulnerable.

A recent survey suggests that almost 60% of iPod owners who are considering a new MP3 player in the next year could be tempted by Microsoft's new Zune player, due to be released in a couple of weeks.  Microsoft's Zune isn't necessarily a better unit that the iPod - yet.  In typical Microsoft fashion, their first release promises to be a disappointment, but you can be sure that the second or third version will be very much improved.

I'll be reviewing a Zune shortly after its release, and plan to review one other unit as well prior to Christmas, so if you're planning on buying yourself or someone else an MP3 player this Christmas, stay tuned.

Iran is offering a bounty of $20 per American that is enticed into Iran.  For what nefarious purpose, you might ask?  Ostensibly, it is all very innocent (just like Iran's nuclear weapons program, I guess...) - they simply want to encourage western tourists to visit their country, with the apparent belief that 'to see Iran is to love Iran'.

Yeah, sure, right - and as if $20 would make any difference in terms of persuading anyone to then spend thousands of dollars to visit that place.

Showing that Iran's love of Americans is greater than their love of other nationals, they are only offering a $10 per head (ooops - that's probably a bad way of saying it, isn't it) for other foreign nationals who visit.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  It was way back in 2003 that the first commentators observed that a weakness in the US aviation security procedures was that anyone could use Photoshop or Word and create a fake electronic ticket or boarding pass and thereby get past security without triggering any alarms.  To do this, you simply book a ticket in a fake name, but issue the boarding pass in your real name so you can show a boarding pass and real ID as you go through security, while the actual ticket you're traveling on, in a fake name, never trips any alarms when the fake name is run through the Do Not Fly type lists.

Although this vulnerability has been widely know for at least three years, the government continues to spend huge amounts of money on new database tools for checking the passenger names on tickets, and seems not to care at all about how any self-respecting terrorist can circumvent the entire process.  Doesn't that seem stupid to you?

Well, it sure seemed stupid to a 24 year old graduate student in IL, and to highlight the ease with which this could be done, he published a fake boarding pass generator on his website.

The government's response?  Some days later, the FBI got a sealed secret search warrant issued at 2am, kicked down his door, and stole his computers.  The TSA has been tripping over itself to simultaneously decry the student's actions as being dangerous and illegal, while at the same time saying that there is no danger or loophole being exposed.

And a grandstanding Congressman - Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) - first called for the student's arrest, but then after the FBI actions, changed his mind and said that the student's actions were a public service.

Here's an early story before the FBI raid.  And another one afterwards.

Hysteria over liquids on planes isn't limited to the US and UK alone.  Qantas, way down in sleepy safe New Zealand, shamefully refused to allow a diabetic take his clearly labeled insulin onboard a flight from Auckland to Christchurch.

The man fell into a coma on the flight, and had to spend two weeks in hospital recovering.  But at least there was no risk to the flight.

'This is a final boarding call for Mr Al Kyder and Mr Terry Wrist' - so went the announcement at Sydney's domestic airport last week.

More boarding pass pranks, this time in Australia.

Lastly this week, as mentioned at the start, I'm off to Germany today and will be spending one night in Berlin.  But here's one Berliner I hope won't be visiting me while I'm there.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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