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1 December, 2006  

Good morning

I hope you had a good Thanksgiving, and if you did travel, most reports suggest that delays were at acceptable levels and things flowed reasonably smoothly.

But this year the most popular travel period is expected to be the week between Christmas and New Year (rather than Thanksgiving), so, as always, plan to be at airports early if traveling over that period.

One other thing to consider - if you'll be driving to the airport, maybe you should reserve a space in a parking lot.  Congestion at both on airport and off airport lots is becoming a major problem, and the Airport Parking Reservations people report that more than 30 lots are already completely pre-sold for the Christmas period.  As my review indicates, their service sometimes saves you money, and definitely gives you the convenience of knowing there's a space waiting for your car when you get to the airport.

I was very excited to get a set of the new Solitude with Linx noise cancelling headphones.  The previous Solitude versions have always been a high quality best buy and I was intrigued about the inclusion of the Linx technology - award winning and what seemed to be a revolutionary new type of audio processing.  But is the Linx audio processing as good as it is claimed to be?

This Week's Feature Column :  Too much of a good thing? :  I test the latest version of my favorite noise cancelling headphones. Does their new Linx audio processing circuitry actually do anything other than add $50 to the cost?  Should they be on your Christmas wish list?

Dinosaur watching :  Here's a situation that seems to keep repeating - flight attendants at Northwest are still seeking permission to go on strike.  They have now lodged an appeal with a federal appeals court, seeking to overturn a lower court ruling that prohibited them going on strike.

Lots of noise but not much news about the US Airways offer to buy Delta.  At the end of Thursday this week, Delta was still saying it plans to exit bankruptcy as an independent carrier, and its management has now secured the support of its pilots, while some Delta bondholders are organizing an informal group to support the US Airways offer.

This whole deal came to light after Delta refused to even consider two earlier approaches from US Airways, and so US decided to start negotiating in public, releasing its third letter to the media at the same time it sent it to DL.  Delta is now reciprocating, and earlier this week purchased a full page advertisement in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in the form of a letter addressed to the airline's 'friends'.  The advertisement said nothing new, and simply repeated the airline's intention to exit Chapter 11 intact.

US Airways is attempting to anticipate one of the challenges it would have in getting a buyout approved.  It filed a statement with the SEC saying it would offer 'consumer friendly fares' and won't stifle competition in markets where low cost carriers play a significant role.

The second undertaking is of course a wonderfully meaningless offer, because in any market where low cost carriers do play a significant role, the two dinosaurs have no choice but to compete.  And as for the first undertaking, how do you think that would be measured and enforced?

But showing that you can fool some of the people some of the time, some industry experts have already boldly predicted that a merged US/DL would encourage rather than discourage increased competition.  One such expert, Terry Trippler, is quoted as saying 'I just do not believe that a merged airline will result in higher fares'.

As for me, call me cynical, but I just do not believe that US would want to merge with DL if the outcome was that it would end up lowering the fares it currently charges.  The predictions of the merger encouraging competition seem to rest on an assumption that the merged carrier would reduce capacity too much in markets that need more capacity, and encourage low cost carriers into markets that they are not currently active in.  Sure, airline executives are often stupid, but are they that stupid?  I don't think so.

I challenge the experts to show a route that has benefited when two major carriers serving the route have merged at any time in the past.

But here's a very strong example of how adding a third airline to a market dominated by two airlines - even a very small third airline - can have massive impacts on the market forces.  In Hawaii, the presence of the new startup airline Go (or, as they prefer to stupidly write their name, go!) has upset the former duopoly between Aloha and Hawaiian Airlines.

Although Go has only four 50 seater regional jets in service (and a fifth as spare), fares for inter-island travel have plunged from up around $100 down to as little as $29 for a one way flight.  Details here.

US Airways will distribute $1.8 million to its employees as a reward for their performance over the Thanksgiving weekend.  Each worker will get $50.  The airline reported that almost 79% of its flights arrived within 14 minutes of schedule during the five day period between Wednesday and Sunday.  Wednesday was their worst day with only 37% of flights on time but on Sunday it was 71%.  The airline completed 99.6% of scheduled flights and  had an average of 6.02 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers.  The weather was a great help to them over the period as the airline had no weather disruptions.

Southwest plans to make changes in its seats by reducing the maximum recline of its seats, ostensibly so that customers can use laptop computers when the person in front of them wants to lean back.

Southwest found that its seats had varying degrees of recline, from 2" to 4.5" (as measured at the top of the seat).  The seat recline will be standardized at 3" and will be done as planes go in for major maintenance work.

Southwest claims that 3" provides the best compromise between reclining comfort for the person in front and personal space for the person behind.

What a shame they didn't consider a better way to improve comfort - increasing the seat pitch, so as to allow for both more seat recline and more personal space.

Seat pitch - the distance between seats - is the classic measure of comfort on a plane, but increasingly, the importance of seat pitch is being matched by seat width.  We all know that people have grown taller over the years, and perhaps we also realize that people have also grown, ahem, wider.

A study by a British airline (commissioned to promote the airline's new wider seats) found that a typical 16" wide seat is too narrow for two thirds of (presumably British) male passengers, who have shoulders as broad (or broader) than the seat width.  Adding a single extra inch to the width reduces this from two thirds of passengers who are too wide down to only one third.

Unlike men, women passengers typically have their widest point down around their hips rather than up around their shoulders.  The study showed that 20% of women have difficulties in a 16" wide seat, but only 5.3% are inconvenienced if the seat is an inch wider.  More details here.

The Inspector General for the Department of Transportation issued a report to Congress covering the airlines' shortcomings in the area of customer service.  The DoT reviewed operations at fourteen large US airlines and found improvement was needed in giving passengers accurate and timely information about delays and cancellations; training employees who assist passengers with disabilities;  explaining to frequent fliers the rules and restrictions governing redemptions; and compensating passengers who agree to give up seats on overbooked flights.

You may remember back in 1999, near the top of the last peak of the airline industry cycle, things had become so bad that Congress was getting ready to enact some form of a Passenger Bill of Rights.  The airlines all came up with their own lists of so-called Travelers' Rights (that in reality offered no such thing) and most airlines have them posted somewhere on their web sites but you have to look hard to find them.  The report said the DoT must improve its oversight of the industry.

Suggestion to the DoT and Congress :  Read my Passenger Bill of Rights proposal, and make it law.

If you are interested in how airline snacks measure up in terms of calories and the amount needed to burn them after eating the snacks go to www.dietdetective.com.  The site has just conducted an analysis of the snack foods offered by US carriers.

The snacks were rated using multiple criteria, with United scoring the highest for having the best variety and most healthful offerings and Delta coming in last.

Congratulations to Vancouver.  Conde Nast readers have chosen it as the 'Best City in the Americas' in the annual Readers' Choice Awards.

The city was followed by Buenos Aires, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Surprisingly good news from Italy.  The country has abandoned plans for a proposed tourist tax that would have been imposed on those visiting Italy.  The draft contained a measure that would have allowed local authorities to impose a $6.40 charge on each tourist per day to help them meet the growing costs of maintaining historical monuments.

I mentioned in the last newsletter the strange situation where Continental was urging passengers to carry more baggage on board with them, rather than checking it.

Maybe not so strange.  Reader and pilot Eric writes

There is actually a reason airlines might wish to encourage passengers to carry luggage on board with them.  It has to do with the way the FAA regulations allow airlines to calculate the weight of passengers and bags.  Basically, every passenger and his carry-on bags is assumed to weigh exactly the same (190 lbs during the summer, 195 lbs during the winter), regardless of their actual weight.  Likewise, each checked bag is assumed to weigh 30 lbs unless the baggage handler who loads it feels that it's obviously overweight, in which case it's assumed to weigh 60 lbs.

In cases when the plane is very full (more and more common lately, as I'm sure you're aware), and particularly on long flights with heavy fuel loads or when extra fuel is required for a weather alternate, the pilots will struggle to "make the numbers work" (get everyone and their bags aboard without exceeding maximum takeoff weight).  The greater the number of carry-on bags that can be fit into the cabin, then the fewer the number of checked bags that must be counted against the takeoff weight.  If I can squeeze seven extra bags into the cabin, I've knocked 210 lbs off of the cargo load without suffering a weight penalty elsewhere.  That gets another person aboard.

It gets better.  If we're still overweight, we can take advantage of a reduced assumed weight for children under 12 years old.  We call them "half-weights" because for every two of them on board, we can deduct the weight of one adult.  Children under two years old who sit on a parent's lap are considered weightless.

All of that is probably more information than interests you, but it might help to explain the push for carry-on bags.

Here's a fascinating recreation of a near collision at O'Hare in July.  The two planes came within 35' of each other.

And talking about air traffic control issues, here's a scary story about the situation in England as a result of a new 'improved' computer system.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The Homeland Security Department tipped off airport screeners at San Francisco airport when they were to be tested by undercover government agents.  TSA officials tracked the anonymous testers through the airport's security camera network, and tipped off the screeners when the undercover agents approached the test points.

Was this cheating?  Oh no, says Ed Gomez, TSA's spokesman.  'We did not cheat. There's just a question of changing the way the protocol is for the testing.'

He says the problem has been corrected, the case is closed and that the TSA stands for the highest ethical standards for itself and the company the TSA has contracted with to provide the screening at SFO

After proudly telling us a couple of months ago how they had rigorously and scientifically determined that the maximum safe amount of any liquid that could be carried on a plane was exactly three ounces, the TSA has now changed its mind and increased the maximum safe amount up to 3.4 ounces.  By coincidence, this equates to 100 mls and is the same amount as is now being allowed on board planes in the EU.

Two questions to the TSA :  So, were your super-duper scientific tests wrong?  Secondly, what happens if two terrorists each take a safe 3.4 ounces of explosive on board a plane with them, and then mix it together on board, making for a total of 6.8 ounces?  What happens then?

Can you name the rudest country in the world (as judged by a survey of international travelers)?

And talking about rude, here's a heartfelt note from reader Barry

After yet another episode with TSA (brought on indirectly by a rude, uncooperative airline employee, but that’s another story), and sitting on the plane fuming, it occurred to me that we surely cannot be as powerless as I feel, to do anything about the ridiculous regulations we have to suffer in the name of ‘security’. Can we?

I’d love to believe that, eventually, every traveler is going to get fed up at the same moment, and just turn around and walk out of the airport and not come back until some sense is returned to how we get from outside the terminal to the departure gate. I’d love to see that happen, but obviously, it never will. Do you think anyone higher up in TSA, anyone who actually makes decisions, has any idea what havoc they have been causing since Homeland Security came into existence? Do you think they realise the ‘terrorists’ have won this particular battle, that the untold and unaccounted for billions spent to ‘protect’ us is more of a cost than the lives lost so far, as callous as that may sound? True, the motivation for 9/11 may well have been ‘kill the Americans’ but the more telling by-product is, I believe, the long term effects to the economy, which is really the strength of America in the world.

I do feel sorry for the thinking, empathetic employees of TSA who man the gates, who are lumped in with the ones who let their power rush to their heads and treat the public as if they’re all potential threats. I’ve met both, and the former, I think, outweigh the latter, but perhaps only by the margin that divides the political parties in this country. I suppose the thoughtful ones do not rise to any level of responsibility to where they may have the ear of their bosses up the food chain, because they have to toe the ‘party’ line to keep their jobs. The ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ mentality that pervades this administration trickles down to those beholden to the department for their livelihood. How many times have you heard ‘I’m only following orders’ as an argument to a protestation at the removal of some innocuous object from someone’s carry-on luggage? I guess they don’t pay these people to think.

Anyway, as long winded as this has been, my question is simply– who in heck can I write to?!

One law for us, and another for the police?  Apparently so.

Talking about equality, here's the proof - if proof were ever needed - of a significant difference between men and women.

Which is probably as compelling a reason for me to stop writing as any I've come across this week.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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