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22 December, 2006  

Good morning

I'm now returned from this year's Christmas Markets Cruise, being one of the fortunate people this week who managed to successfully fly through Heathrow.

Dense fog delayed our flight from Prague into LHR on Tuesday by 2.5 hours, but fortunately I had a long connection and still made the flight on to Seattle, but many others weren't so lucky, with problems continuing on Wednesday and on Thursday BA made the sensible decision to cancel all its domestic UK flights, using the scarce number of takeoffs and landings it had available during reduced operations in the fog for its international services.  Their rationale was that UK passengers could fly from other airports or use the train service.

But if that was a sensible decision on BA's part, it is sure the exception rather than the rule.  Just about everything related to the Christmas Market Tour was perfect, apart from the one thing completely out of my control - my flights over and back on British Airways.  I've complained before about BA's ridiculous policy on pre-assigned seating, and they have now come out with a very different approach, but one which makes even the worst of their former ways of mishandling this issue seem like brilliant customer service.

As of 5 December, BA now require passengers to get their seats assigned exclusively through the internet, and will only allow seats to be pre-assigned in the 24 hours prior to a flight.  The only exceptions are for first class passengers, families with young children, and elite level frequent fliers.  For the rest of us, no matter which class of service we're traveling in, and no matter if we're in a part of the world with no internet access or whatever else is the situation, we can only get our seats assigned in the last 24 hours.

I first found this out after waiting 22 minutes on hold to ask a person at BA's (800) reservations center to assign my seats for me.  This person refused to help and required me to go to their website to do it.  Fortunately, that was fairly easy while I was still at home, and so I went ahead and assigned my own seats for the outbound flights.

But the return flights were not nearly so simple.  I had to spend a ridiculous amount of money to access the internet through a computer at the hotel I was staying at, and when I tried to request a seat assignment, the web site required me to first enter my passport information.  This puzzled me - why did they need it now; surely it was already in the system from my outbound flights?  However, I entered the information requested then tried again to request a seat.

The system refused, saying I needed to enter my passport information.  Had I made a mistake?  I went back to the passport information page, and everything was there as I had entered it, and another page confirmed that all the information that BA needed was correctly entered.

I tried shutting down the computer and relogging on, in case there was a memory cache problem, and tried all sorts of other things, but nothing would work.  Although the passport information was correctly entered, BA's computer kept asking me to re-enter it.

A fellow tour member managed to get his seat assigned okay at the same time, but I couldn't succeed.  I had him check and he confirmed I wasn't doing anything stupid, and so, despairingly, I called BA's reservation number in Austria, where I spoke to a most unhelpful person, Bernhard.

I explained my problem and asked if he could assign my seat for me.  It would take him half a dozen key strokes and less than half a minute to do so, but he refused.

I tried a different approach.  I said 'Okay, well perhaps you could at least enter the passport information for me so I can then assign a seat myself'.

He checked my record and replied 'There is no problem, all your passport information is present and correct.'

'So why won't your system allow me to go past that point and request a seat?'

He didn't know the answer and suggested I try to do everything again.  I tried with him on the line and it still didn't work.

So, I asked 'Do you have an internet help desk who can walk me through this and solve my problem?'

He said 'Yes, we do have an internet help desk, but they can't help you.'

This surprised me.  'Why not?  I'm using the internet and having a problem with the booking.  You refuse to help me, and I need someone to help me get my seat assigned.'

He said 'They can't help you because there is nothing wrong with the booking.'

This was becoming completely impossible and like a scene out of Alice in Wonderland.  I rather intemperately told him this was unacceptable, and asked for him to transfer me to a supervisor.

He refused to transfer me to a supervisor, saying he wouldn't do that because I didn't ask him politely.

The phone conversation ended shortly thereafter and I was unable to get a seat assigned until arriving at the airport the next day.

I was traveling on a business class ticket, which normally sells for about $7500 or more.  Let me ask you - how would you feel if you spent $7500 on a business class fare and couldn't get the seat you wanted pre-assigned?  Especially with BA's bizarre backwards facing seats and middle seats which it is hard to get out from!

What on earth is BA thinking of with its new policy?  Is BA determined to drive away customers?

This has to be the most profoundly customer unfriendly policy I've ever encountered at an airline, and for sure, there's no way in the world I'd ever spend $7500 on a ticket and then have no way of getting the seats I wanted.  Many airlines allow you to get the seats you want before completing your ticket purchase, and on occasion I've changed flights (or carriers) so as to avoid a middle seat on a long coast to coast flight, but with BA, you can't do any pre-selection at all until 24 hrs prior to departure, and if you hit the same programming bug I did, you are completely stuck with no-one interested in helping you.

But, other than BA's extraordinary idiocy, I am sure I speak for all 42 of us when I say the Christmas Markets tour itself was a tremendous success.  The weather was perfect - no rain, and cool rather than bitterly cold, with some gorgeous clear skied winter days, especially on the free side trip to Salzburg I gave to participants.

The boat we were on was excellent, the itinerary enjoyable, and the shopping was plentiful and varied.  Best of all, our group members were, yet again, interesting nice people (only the best people are Travel Insider readers, it seems!), making for a great social dynamic on the cruise, while touring, and at the three exclusive Travel Insider cocktail receptions on board.

We'll be offering another Christmas Markets Cruise for 2007, and I'll have details of this ready for you early in the new year.

This week's newsletter is short, and there's no feature article.  Apart from laziness on my part (!) and having a short week due to only returning on Tuesday night from Europe, I have one other excuse to offer.  A week ago, the Seattle area had strong winds (what the locals dramatically call a 'wind storm') and as a result, a million people (or possible households, not sure which) lost their electricity service.  When I got home on Tuesday evening, it was to a cold and dark house, with no electricity.  The lack of electricity continued through Wednesday, and service was only restored late morning on Thursday, almost exactly one week after it was lost.

This isn't really all that newsworthy.  We have 'wind storms' most years, with the only variable being which parts of the region lose power and for how long.  I've lost power for several days repeatedly in the past, although this one week duration is a new record.

I don't know of a single other civilized country that complacently allows citizens of an upper demographic major city suburb to be completely without power for one week.  Indeed, a year or two ago there were some power disruptions in Moscow and that caused President Putin to warn the CEO of the relevant power utility that if such a problem occurred again, Mr Putin would hold the CEO personally liable and throw him into prison.  But in Seattle, no-one is liable, and all the utility company officials are blaming the wind, or coming up with similar specious excuses, while the public appears to be happily enjoying its up to one week (or, for some people still without service, longer) with no power.

The US holds itself to be the most advanced and developed country in the world, and the US public generally insists on zero risk or inconvenience, but this acceptance of unacceptable service is a bizarre contradiction.  Why isn't there an attorney starting up a class action against the utilities and the state officials who supervise them?

Dinosaur watching :  'If you can't beat them, join them' seems to be the new dinosaur slogan.  It's Merger Mania time.

US Airways continues to press its case for a merger/buy out of bankrupt Delta.  Delta's management has now filed its own reorganization plan with its bankruptcy court, including a surprising valuation that the company will be worth between about $9.4 -  $12 billion.  By contrast, American Airlines (the largest dinosaur) has a current market valuation of $6.6 billion, Continental has a value of $3.7 billion, and United, freshly emerged from bankruptcy itself, has a market valuation of $4.8 billion.

So why does Delta think it could be worth more than its two major non-bankrupt competitors combined?  I've no idea!  Is it possible they made a mistake with their numbers?

An occasional rumor has now been confirmed.  Continental and United confirmed they have been in talks for several months about merging.  Apparently United approached Continental, and has also approached Delta.

And AirTran made public its attempt to buy Midwest Air last week after a year of private negotiation.  Midwest has turned down the offer.

But wait, there's more.  Northwest asked its bankruptcy court for permission to hire Evercore Partners to help them evaluate and possibly implement a merger, acquisition or other business combination.  No hard facts were given on who NW might be thinking of hopping into bed with, although unsurprisingly Delta has been mentioned as a possible partner.

Outside the US, Ryanair's attempt to buy Aer Lingus has failed, but Ryanair says it intends to make a second offer if it gets approval from the European Commission.

Also outside the US, Qantas gave the world an example of how a buyout should be handled.  After a minimum of fuss, a private equity group made an offer to buy Qantas.  The Qantas board refused it within a few days of the offer being made, so the would be buyers immediately upped their offer, and within 24 hours, the Qantas board accepted the revised offer, with the airline being sold for approximately US$8.7 billion, subject to government approvals and shareholder ratification.

The private equity group, 'Airline Partners Australia', that is buying Qantas includes well known US investor Texas Pacific Group.  TPG were formerly investors in Continental and America West, and this week also participated in a buyout of the airline computer reservation system Sabre for $5 billion, and (yes, there's more) in the buyout of the Harrah's Entertainment Hotel Group for $27.7 billion.  That's quite a Christmas shopping list!

Talking about Qantas, Australian  travel agents are suing Qantas for $50 million, alleging the airline short-changed them by not paying commissions on fuel surcharges.  A class action suit was filed last Friday against Qantas, Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Malaysia Airlines and claims the airlines owe travel agents $80 million in unpaid commissions dating back to May of 2004.

The suit claims the airlines breached the Australian Trade Practices Act by requiring agents to book fuel surcharges in the commission-free "taxes, fees and charges" section of an air ticket.   It says this is unlawful because fuel surcharges were not a tax but rather a "disguised air fare increase."

Good luck to the travel agents.

JetBlue is adding still more legroom to its Airbus A320 jets.  A couple of years ago it had taken out a row of seats in the rear of the plane, increasing the legroom for all seats aft of the emergency exit rows (which are fixed in position due to needing to be alongside the exit doors).  Now it is taking out a second row of seats, this time in front of the emergency exit doors.

The net result is there will now be a massive 36" seat pitch for the seats in front of the emergency exit (rows 1 - 11) and a still generous 34" for seats behind the exit rows (rows 12 - 25).

Compare this to most other airlines, with seat pitches from as little as 30" up to perhaps 32".  While that is 'only' a few more inches, those inches make all the difference between too cramped and generous spacing.

And the airline is doing this quickly - it expects to have its entire 96 plane fleet of A320s reconfigured by March 2.

Amazingly, JetBlue expects to save money rather than lose money by reducing the capacity of its planes.  How is this possible?  Several ways.

Firstly, it rarely fills its planes, so the six seats it is removing are usually empty seats.  This means there is very little lost revenue from removing the extra seats.

Secondly, doing this reduces the number of flight attendants it is required to carry, from four down to three.

Thirdly, it will save weight - less weight from the removed seats, and even, ahem, less weight from the removed flight attendant too.

And, let's all hope, this new improved seating - the best of any major airline and now more generous that some airlines' first class seating pitch - will result in more people choosing to fly JetBlue.  You may recall American Airlines' unsuccessful 'More Room in Coach' program that offered improved seat pitch in many of its planes a few years ago.  They cancelled this when their flights started to get more full, and due to no clear evidence of winning extra market share as a result of their more generous seat pitch.  Don't allow JetBlue's program to suffer a similar fate.  Next time you're flying a route served by JetBlue, reward their decision to make air travel better for us and choose them.

American is expanding its food for sale program effective January 1.  Passengers in coach will be able to purchase new choices in light meals, snacks and bottled water, using credit cards, debit cards, or cash.

The snacks and bottled water will be available on all flights of two hours or longer and the light meals will be available on flights of three hours or longer.  Snack items to be available are GNS Cinn-a-berry Breakfast Blend, Mega Bite Snickerdoodle Cookies, Lay's Stax Potato Crisps and Milk Chocolate M&M's for $3 each and Dannon Spring Water for $2 each.  Light meals to be available will include a breakfast bagel sandwich, club croissant sandwich, Italian wrap, turkey and swiss ciabatta or Asian chicken salad for $5.

The airline will continue to serve complimentary beverages, at least for now.

The Official Airlines Guide reports that the world's scheduled airlines, including low-cost carriers,  has a record capacity of 3.3 billion seats on 28.2 million flights during 2006.  Put another way that's an average of more than 9 million seats on 77,371 flights each day worldwide.

The number of seats was up 3.4% over 2005 while scheduled flights were up 1.8%.  Low cost carriers flew about 16% of the total number of seats and the number of flights they flew were up 13%.  Low cost carriers in the US flew about 27% of all flights, about 3% more than those in Europe.

A French scriptwriter has sued Air France after being told he was too fat and had to purchase a second ticket.  He said he felt humiliated by the airline's staff who had measured his waist in public at New Delhi airport in 2005.  The staff decided he was too big for a single seat.

A lawyer representing Air France in court said the airline had a clear policy of asking obese passengers to pay for two seats.  'Let's be objective.  This man is fat.  He barely fits on the courtroom chair.  How could he sit in an airplane?'

The man admitted he weighed more than 350 pounds but he had been able to fly on other flights, including Air France, without previously paying for an extra ticket.  The man is suing the airline for 8,000 euros in damages and 500 euros for the cost of the additional ticket.

Good news for Airbus.  Singapore Airlines ordered another nine A380 super-jumbos earlier this week, followed a day later by Qantas ordering another eight.  It is quite unusual to see airlines ordering more of a new plane before they've even received their first deliveries, and this action by two major airlines would seem to provide further confirmation of the underlying value and good sense of the A380 plane.

Although the A380 has been shamefully delayed, its value to the airlines clearly remains unquestioned, with no passenger airlines cancelling their orders.  About the closest to a cancellation was a non-order when Lufthansa announced, a couple of weeks ago, a strange decision to order some of the new stretched 747-8 planes (in addition to keeping its current order for A380 planes intact).

SQ already had 10 planes on order, and will be the first airline to put the A380 into commercial service, with the current expected start of flights being in October 2007.  Qantas already has 12 A380s on order, and in total there are now 166 A380s ordered.

Car rental taxes and levies and surcharges are now an average of 28% of the base rate for a car rental, according to a study by Travelocity.

In Kansas City renters pay the highest tax rate - 63% of the base rate.  Seattle, Anchorage, Atlanta and Dallas/Fort Worth saw increases of 50% since March 2005, while the taxes in Phoenix, Austin, Albuquerque, Las Vegas and Houston rose about 40%.

Note that these figures are for airport rentals.  Average tax increases at off airport locations ranged from 21.6% to a high of 34.7%.  At some locations (most notably Atlanta, Kansas City, Seattle, Anchorage and Dallas Fort Worth) there was a difference of 30% between airport and off airport locations.

Most of the extra taxes applied to airport rentals as compared to 'regular' rentals is caused by cities seeking to tax non-voters for projects such as arenas - projects which of course benefit the local population and which are of almost no value to visitors renting cars at the airport.

A Ryanair passenger who led a near riot after a six-hour delay got only a hand slap from a Scottish court, while the airline was told it owed the passenger an apology.

Passenger John Wilkie says he snapped at the end of a family holiday after sitting in a plane on the ramp. He claims he couldn't get water for his two young children and the crew responded to his questions with rude indifference.

The flight departed Paris enroute to Prestwick when a terror alert forced its diversion to Edinburgh. The incident occurred on the ramp at Edinburgh nearly six hours after the flight's departure from Paris.  Wilkie disobeyed the pilot's order to sit down and tried to leave the plane... and was joined by around 30 other passengers.  Police boarded the plane and arrested Wilkie after the crew were eventually able to get him to settle down. He was charged with ignoring directions from the flight crew.

Wilkie admitted the crime last week at Edinburgh Sheriff Court. Sheriff Andrew Lothian issued only an admonishment after receiving dozens of letters from fellow passengers in Wilkie's defense. In addition, he said the charge was ridiculous and Wilkie was owed an apology from Ryanair.

Wilkie told the Scotsman, 'I am absolutely disgusted with the way this has been handled - we all understand why these security measures are in place, but this is bordering on hysterical. We were being herded about like cattle, and the attitude of airline staff was unbelievable. If it had just been me and my wife, I would just have got on with it, but we have two kids aged three and five and this was unacceptable. I feel vindicated by the court ruling.'

And what did the airline say?  A Ryanair spokesman said, 'Ryanair will press charges against any passenger who disobeys the instructions of our crew.'

Is it too much to hope that the next time Ryanair acts so inappropriately the judge does a lot more than ask for a simple apology from the airline to the passengers they mistreat?

It is the time of year when internet Christmas cards and novelties are being circulated.  One of the more fun seasonal specials is from Virgin Atlantic.

My love (if that is the right word) of all things French is well known to regular readers.  And so I read this item with interest and sympathy.

Lastly, winning an award for 'understatement of the week' is this phrase 'We decided it's not for us'.

This will be the last newsletter for 2007.  I'm spending the next week in Florida, and will be back on 5 January.

Until then, please have a wonderful Christmas and New Year, and enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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