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8 December, 2006  

Good morning

There will be no newsletter next week.  Today I'm joining a group of readers for our 2006 Christmas Markets Cruise.  I'll be announcing details of the 2007 cruise shortly after my return.

With my mind pre-occupied by the myriad of last minute things to be done prior to heading to the airport for the flights to Budapest today, I'm also reminded of my very pleasant flights to and from Hamburg with Emirates a month ago.  Emirates has just started daily service from JFK to Hamburg (and then continuing on to Dubai) and they bravely gave me a chance to sample their service.  What was it like?  Glad you asked, because here is :

This Week's Feature Column :  Emirates Business Class Review :  Even though I couldn't get a cup of coffee when I wanted one on either flight, I actually liked most aspects of Emirates and their Business Class.  And I loved their 600 channel in-flight entertainment system.

It was interesting to be able to add Hamburg to the list of German cities I've visited, and Emirates arrange for the local Tourist Office to provide two days of guided touring around the city to me and some other travel journalists.  Emirates deserves no blame for the comments that follow....

I was pleased to visit Hamburg, but when you consider that the two top attractions the Hamburg Tourist Office proudly showcased to us were the red light district and the docks, it clearly has a way to go before becoming a mainstream tourist destination.

This was the first time I've had a tourist office delightedly give a tour of their city's red light district, and the source of their pride was impossible to see.  If you like walking through crowded seedy streets with broken glass underfoot, and enjoy 'nightclubs' promising various live acts on stage, then perhaps Hamburg is a good place to visit, and if your idea of a fun morning's touring is to have a mock up of a new development project in a former rundown dockland area explained to you in great detail, then by all means hurry to Hamburg.

Other highlights of this strange tour included visiting a once a week fish market just after it closed (because there would have been too many people there while it was open) and a hotel Sales Manager who refused my request to show us any of the rooms in her hotel, while proudly insisting on spending our time together showing off ballrooms suitable for functions catering to large groups of 300 people and six different restaurants in the hotel.

The logic of the tour was thrown into further question when on our first afternoon, weather caused the cancellation of a tethered balloon ride above the city.  This meant we had some extra time which the women in our group decided should be spent shopping, and because of the extra shopping time we suddenly found ourselves with, the pr lady leading the tour decided to reduce the time we'd have available to be shown around the hotel, so we could have a double bonus ration of shopping time.  Perhaps the hotel Sales Manager's refusal to show us any rooms was a subtle expression of her very fair disappointment at having less time with us and being required to stay late on a Saturday night to meet us at all.

And then there was our first dinner, at a restaurant chosen by the local tourist office, presumably to give a good positive experience of local dining standards and cuisine.  It was the one of the worst meals I've ever had (made worse by the fact we had no choices of food but had to simply eat the various mystery dishes thrust in front of us, and without a doubt the rudest service.  But notwithstanding the appalling service (it was literally impossible to order a drink) our tour leader fussed over whether she should tip the waiter 15% or 20%.  Hello!?

And so it was a welcome relief after two days in Hamburg to move on to Berlin, a quick train journey's escape away from Hamburg.  The ongoing development of everything in former East Berlin is extraordinary to behold, and Berlin must be the only European capital where property prices are cheaper in the capital than in outlying other cities.

Fortunately, Hamburg's train station is only a 15 minute cab ride away from the airport, and so when you fly to Europe on Emirates, you might decide to go straight to the train station and travel on to Berlin or somewhere else.

Dinosaur watching :  Those that don't learn from the lessons of history are doomed to repeat their mistakes.  In this case, United's pilots feel, albeit with some justification, that it is now their turn to get some of the salary cuts they'd given back to the airline returned to them once more.

They've seen the airline now trade profitably, and have also seen management grant itself generous pay increases.  So they're now forming a strike preparedness committee and making public bellicose statements such as

We have always worked with this company [United] under the protocol of shared sacrifice.  The company has clearly signaled that they have returned to profitability by granting some senior management individuals huge pay raises.  Pilots, the very group who saved this airline from the scrap heap of failed airlines, deserve the same return on our investment.  After five years of concessionary bargaining, lost pension, and battered work rules, our pilots are primed to take offensive action.  This may mean a return to the hard-nosed tactics of earlier years and a grassroots mobilization of each and every one of our members.

If this statement is to be believed, it was the pilots alone who saved United from 'the scrap heap of failed airlines'?

Note to airline management - next time you have a crisis, there's no need to go into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  No need to renegotiate billions of dollars in financing, no need to restructure, no need to ask for government handouts, or do anything complicated at all.  Just turn to your pilots and they'll save the day for you.

Applying this same logic (a profitable company is obligated to return its profits to its employees, not shareholders), look for renewed ructions at Northwest, particularly with their flight attendants.  They've posted yet another profitable month - $37 million for Ocdtober, and say they expect to have a modest profit for the entire year.

And talking about union issues, El Al has found itself in a dispute with Israel's powerful ultra-orthodox community, who is upset because the airline recently flew several flights on the Sabbath, the Jewish holy day.

Ultra-orthodox Jews account for between 20% and 30% of El Al's passengers, and they are threatening to boycott the airline unless it makes a written commitment never to fly on the Sabbath again.

The problem arose because Ben Gurion airport was shut down by strikers last week and there was a huge backlog of passengers to accommodate.  El Al has rejected the demand to grant Rabbis veto rights to decide whether the airline should fly on Saturday in an emergency and said it would continue its policy of not flying on Saturdays, expect in emergencies, and it would retain the sole discretion to decide whether to fly on Saturday or not and it has no intention of consulting with anyone on the matter.

Question to the ultra-orthodox Jews :  If you boycott El Al, an airline that tries its hardest to never fly on the Sabbath, which airline will you fly instead?  Don't all other carriers fly 24/7 without any consideration given to your faith at all?

And talking about airlines with problems, the Italian government is now saying it will sell half its 49.9% stake in Alitalia early next year, hoping to get new owners who will try to rescue the money-losing airline. The government will sell 25% of its 49.9% and has said it may eventually sell all its shares.

Question to potential investors :  Would you really want to have the Italian government seated alongside you at the board table, helping you decide how to run Alitalia?  And with the requirements to safeguard jobs and flights (ie the inefficiencies and costs that are currently killing the airline) why would you choose to buy into Alitalia in the first place?

And talking about the irrational acts of governments, the Belgium government is proposing legislation this week to ban domestic flights of less than 150 km (95 miles) for environmental reasons.  It sounds stupid, doesn't it, and what makes it farcical is the fact that currently there are no domestic flights of this length.

However, the European 'Green' lobby's focus on airplanes as an evil cause of global warming should be something to give all of us pause for thought.  There is an increasing clamor for restrictions on the continued growth of air travel, and just recently London's Stansted Airport was refused permission to expand on (among other reasons) environmental grounds.  The British government just this week doubled its ticket tax from 5 to 10 (which with the terribly weak dollar is now equivalent to almost exactly $20), citing environmental concerns as partial justification.

Apparently, planes pollute less if they are taxed more?

Back in the US, November passenger data is being reported by the airlines, and it is the same pattern as has been evident for many months.  The dinosaurs are keeping their passenger numbers almost steady (AA is down domestically 3.2%, UA is up 1.8% domestically, Delta is down 8.4% domestically and US Airways is up 1%) while the low cost carriers are strongly up (Southwest is up 11.9% and JetBlue is up 11.7%).

Airline luggage problems are near the highest level in more than ten years.  Department of Transportation figures released on Wednesday for October shows 2006 is on track to be the worst year for lost, delayed, damaged or stolen baggage since 1991.  More travelers are checking bags but the lost luggage problem is being fueled by outdated technology and baggage-handling systems that are taxed to the limits and which simply can't handle the increasing numbers of bags.

Some very good news for Boeing and some not so good news for Airbus.  Boeing has finally scored an order for its new stretched 747-8 passenger jet, with Lufthansa placing an order for twenty of them.  This is the first order for passenger model 747s in perhaps four years.  Significantly, Lufthansa also has an order for Airbus A-380s, and it is interesting that the airline seems to think the two different (but similar) planes will efficiently co-exist in its fleet.

In other Airbus news, their A-380 client ILFC is deferring delivery of the ten planes it has on order.  However, a deferral is probably good news for Airbus - it is better than a cancellation, and it allows them to get overdue deliveries for planes into the hands of other customers sooner.

People will sometimes go to ridiculous lengths to get an upgrade to first class on an international flight.  Here's a sad story of one man and how he got upgraded for the balance of his flight.

Sadder still, though, is the effect of his upgrade on the other passengers.  Would you pay $12,000 or more to have this gentleman riding alongside you?

Cell phones are bad for your health?  Not according to this study.  But you'll note the study was confined only to the possible linkage between cell phones and cancer.  It was silent on other forms of cell phone related danger, which is shown clearly in this other study.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Here's an article that gives a reassuring story about extra moves to enhance the security of freight moving through our harbors and ensuring that terrorists don't try and smuggle nuclear bombs into the US that way.

But.  Read this other article for the rest of the story.  Are you still reassured?

I'm reminded of a former girlfriend (hi, V) who once gleefully confided in me she knew of a way to conceal, ahem, the olfactory effects of flatulence.  She said you simply strike a match and - no, you don't light it; but rather, the smell of the match obliterates the other smell.  However, it was not her, but another lady passenger, who adopted this technique, with too great a success, on an AA flight on Monday.

Passengers reported smelling burning matches and the plane made an emergency landing in Nashville, whereupon it was discovered that one of the passengers had been striking matches to conceal, well, you know what.

The woman has a medical condition (how's that for a meaningless statement).  It is legal to take up to four books of paper safety matches on a plane, but is not legal to light any of them, but she has not been charged with anything.  However, she has been banned from future AA flights 'for a long time'.  I wonder if that qualifies as discrimination under the ADA provisions?

Sky Harbor International Airport at Phoenix will be testing a new full-body x-ray machine that has raised concerns with civil rights advocates because the technology is similar to a virtual strip search.

The Backscatter x-ray machine will allow screeners to detect non-metallic devices, objects and weapons on a person's body.  The ACLU says the machine constitutes an invasion of privacy because it displays graphic images of nude bodies and could pave the way for widespread abuse of images taken that might end up on the internet.  The machine will show genitals, body size and shape and evidence of mastectomies, colostomy appliances, piercings, catheter tubes, and so on.

The TSA says screeners will be able to block out a person's genitals and the x-ray image will be erased from the screen once a passenger is cleared through the machine.  Translation - if you are a terrorist, you now know where to hide any weapons when going through this new type of screening.

The TSA also says the machine cannot print, store or transmit the image and the x-rays will be viewed in an area not visible to the public.  It will be a voluntary option for passengers having to go through secondary screening and is an alternative to the physical pat down procedures currently conducted at security checkpoints.

Some things just never go away, but keep reappearing under different acronyms.  One example is CAPPS II aka Secure Flight and now apparently aka ATS (Automated Targeting System).  Nope, this isn't a military weapon, but instead is a new way to profile passengers, and store a vast amount of personal data on them for up to 40 years.  Here's a good overview of what it is and why it is bad.

You have a chance to make your thoughts heard on this issue.  This page walks you through how to make a submission.

Do you have your Christmas tree up and decorated?  If so, let's hope your choice of ornaments shows more taste than is evidenced here....

Lastly, a reminder that there'll be no newsletter next week while I'm on the 2006 Travel Insider Christmas Markets Cruise.  Hopefully we won't be as unlucky as the people on this cruise.

Until 22 December, please enjoy safe travels.

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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