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19 January, 2007  

Good morning

Thanks to everyone who wrote in with comments or commiserations about my toothache last week, including both dentists and doctors.

I now know more about pain medication than I hope I'll ever need to know in the future, and ended up having 'emergency dental surgery' on Friday (sounds grander than it really was) and seem to be blessedly back to normal, as hopefully also may be this newsletter too.

First, a fun instant survey.  I was reading Michael Matthews' excellent piece about hotels on the JoeSentMe.com website last week, and appreciated his commentary about US hotels increasingly choosing to replace regular sheets and blankets with all-in-one duvets.

Michael doesn't like duvets, and neither do I - I get too hot with the duvet on, and too cold without it, and prefer the traditional concept of tucked in sheets and blankets.  Other people sometimes do like duvets, and I suspect it is also a gender thing.

So here's an instant email survey - please click on the link that best describes your opinion about hotel bedding.  This will cause an email message to be generated with your answer as its subject - there's no need to add anything to the email, just send it with the subject line as created :

I am female and dislike duvets, preferring sheets and blankets

I am female and don't really have any strong preference either way

I am female and prefer a duvet instead of sheets and blankets

I am male and dislike duvets, preferring sheets and blankets

I am male and don't really have any strong preference either way

I am male and prefer a duvet instead of sheets and blankets

I'll publish the results next week.

Talking about hotels, a reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is keen to hear from you if you have recent experiences with 'hidden' hotel, resort, and car-rental fees.

If you have a story to tell, please click here to send me an email which I'll pass on to her.

And another survey, please.  I'm considering another cruise this year, (in addition to the Russian River cruise in July and Christmas Markets cruise in December) and need your help to choose between either a Queen Mary 2 trans-Atlantic crossing from Southampton to New York or a river cruise from Budapest to Bucharest and then extending on by coach to Istanbul.

Would either (or both) of these be of interest to you?  For brief details on each cruise and to send in your feedback, please visit this page to help me decide which to offer.

I'm feeling particularly pleased with this week's feature column.  For a while now I've been feeling increasingly out of touch with some of the new international roaming phone services out there.

The good news is that competition is finally driving down the formerly outrageous costs of using a cell phone while traveling internationally, but I was increasingly unsure about which was the best option to use - meaning that, for example, on our Russian river cruise in July 2006 I ended up carrying three different phones!  So I've carefully worked through the current situation and can offer, for my benefit as well as hopefully yours :

This Week's Feature Column :  How to Choose the Best International Phone Service :  Here are seven different ways of getting phone service while traveling, with the strengths and weaknesses of each presented in two tables to help you choose the best (and best priced) solution for your next trip.

Dinosaur Watching :  The latest round of airline financial results are trickling out, and to no-one's surprise, it seems airline fortunes are generally improving.

Well deserved congratulations to American Airlines for its $231 million profit in 2006, the first year it has been profitable since 2000.  At one point AA was reportedly within hours of filing a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition, but it stepped back and managed to restore itself to profitability the hard but honest way.  Well done AA.

And with profit comes bonuses - at least if you're an AA executive looking to receive a stock price based bonus, to be paid out in April.  But the AA pilots' union is unhappy with this, saying the bonuses could match or even exceed the entire 2006 profit.  That does sound just a tad generous, doesn't it.

Meanwhile, AA has pulled all but its domestic economy fares from Expedia.  Expedia will no longer be able to sell American's international fares or domestic first class tickets, with no reason given.

This is almost certainly another example of an airline and major online website 'negotiating in public' over the commission levels and fees each pays the other, and has been the case with other similar situations in the past, expect to see these other fares return to Expedia sometime soon, along with a mutually self congratulatory press release from both AA and Expedia.

No surprise here - Southwest has reported another profit for 2006.  Its net came to $499 million, but this is viewed as disappointing because it is only 3.1% over 2005's result, and indeed their fourth quarter showed a drop in profit compared to 2005 ($57 million in 2006, $70 million in 2005).

One possible reason for their dwindling profit is falling costs in jet fuel.  The extensive fuel hedging Southwest has in place works very well when spot fuel prices are higher than the contract price Southwest has negotiated, but with oil prices dropping (today falling below $50/barrel) this cost advantage erodes and can even transition to being a disadvantage.

Dropping fuel prices disproportionately benefits Southwest's comparatively unhedged competitors.

But $499 million is still $499 million.  A good result, and apparently sufficiently good as to reassure the airline that it doesn't need to try at least one new form of revenue generation - inflight gambling.  The airline had been considering adding this, but now says it has no intention to do so.

Good news for Continental, too.  Their fourth quarter showed a loss of 'only' $26 million, compared to $43 million the previous year.

More service cutbacks at United.  They have stopped serving snacks on flights of less than two hours, which they say will save themselves an inconsequential $650,000 a year.

The only major American airline that serves food in economy anymore is Continental.

Suggestion to American Airlines - with your $231 million profit in 2006, why don't you spend some of it in returning at least a simple snack to your flights?  A half of one percent of your net profit should cover much of this cost, and - who knows - maybe it might actually earn you some more customers and income!  Invest in your customers as well as your executive bonuses.

Northwest filed its bankruptcy reorganization plan on Friday and plans to exit its Chapter 11 in the second quarter as an independent company.

Creditors will receive common stock in the reorganized carrier while current stockholders will receive nothing.  Creditors will also have an opportunity to purchase new stock in a rights offering.  NW said it had restructured its fleet, and entered into new aircraft purchase agreements, cut $2.4 billion in annual costs and strengthened its balance sheet.

Northwest said it will show a profit for the full year in 2007.  And note the intention to emerge as an independent company - nothing was mentioned about a possible merger with Delta.

Underpinning the improving results by the airlines is an American Express forecast predicting a 3% - 7% rise in business travel costs this year.  Hotel rates are expected to go up the most - on average 8%.

Virgin America has now filed a response to the DoT's preliminary finding that it does not qualify as a US owned/controlled company.  The hopeful airline-to-be claims the new changes will resolve any earlier concerns about its ownership and management structure, and even offered to fire its present CEO if that would help it win its case!

No word from its current CEO, Fred Reid, as to what he thought of that offer.  I wonder who made the decision to put his neck on the chopper?  Let's hope it wasn't, ahem, someone who is not American.....

And talking about executive necks on the chopping block, here's a heartwarming story.  Former Swissair executives and board members went on trial this week for their alleged roles in the collapse of the airline, the largest bankruptcy in Switzerland's history.

Nineteen Swissair executives, including two former CEOs will be on trial in a Swiss court near Zurich, responding to a 100-page charge sheet submitted by prosecutors, including accusations of false accounting and unlawful management.

Don't you get the feeling there's a lesson in this story for the US?

Allegedly low cost airline Aer Lingus has discovered the concept of give with one hand and take back with the other.  Their fares may be sometimes lower than other airlines, but they will now to charge extra for every bag you check on their short-haul (ie not trans-Atlantic) flights.

Expect to pay 8 ($10.50) per bag (or half this if prepaying online before travel), and if a bag weighs over 20 kg (44lbs) expect to pay another 8 for every extra kilogram ($4.75/lb).

In addition, the carrier is restricting carry-on bags to a 6kg (13lb) limit on all flights (including trans-Atlantic) and limiting the size to 18"x14"x9" (the typical size limit is usually 22"x14"x9" so this is quite significantly smaller).

The airline has also cut back on its trans-Atlantic baggage limits, with passengers allowed a maximum of 80lbs of checked luggage spread over two bags.

There's a clear and frightening trend for all airlines to tighten up on luggage allowances.  Remember the 'good old days' of up to 70lbs per bag, and two or three bags, all at no extra cost?  Back then, your free luggage could weigh more than you!

Now we're seeing ridiculously low limits - you try and keep a carryon that includes a normal sized computer from weighing over 13lbs.  My carryon bag sometimes is the high side of 20lbs.

If you're planning to travel on BA between 23 January and 13 February, keep a close eye on the news.  There's a looming threat of a possible three day strike by BA's largest union (the Transport and General Workers Union) during this period, which by some curious coincidence is also a mid-term break and busy travel period in Britain.

BA is hoping to streamline work practices when it moves to the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow in March next year, with possible savings of $450 million a year.  Apparently its workers aren't quite so keen on the concept.

And the winner is .....  Boeing.  Or maybe Airbus.  Depending on the numbers you look at.  In 2006 Boeing had the greater number of new plane orders (1044 compared to 790 for Airbus) but Airbus delivered a larger number of planes (434 compared to 398).

However you look at it, both manufacturers had fantastic years, as you can see from the table of new plane orders here.  I generally prefer to take the delivered plane figure as the more important, but of course the new order number (which is surprisingly subjective with orders likely to change between when first recorded and the planes are finally delivered and paid for) is a very important indicator too.

(This provides an interesting postscript to my review, last week, of a new book on the struggle between Boeing vs Airbus.)

Are you among the one in four, or do you belong to the other three?  A Travelocity poll in late December found that only one in four respondents had a passport and most were unaware of the new requirements coming into affect on January 23 2007 to have a passport when reentering the US from all destinations by air.

This points to some potential problems, because the two regions most affected by this change - the Caribbean and Mexico - were the second and fourth most popular destinations people said they intend to visit during 2007.  Western Europe was top of the poll, Australia/New Zealand came in third and Eastern Europe was fifth.

More surveys on where we'll travel in 2007 (does anyone really care where other people say they plan to travel, I wonder?).  A tour operator group, USTOA, surveyed its trade members and reports that the big travel items for 2007 will be river and waterway cruising (I'll certainly agree with the good sense of that), soft adventure, independent travel and escorted tours.  Special interest touring is reported to be the hottest type of touring, and the most active travelers will be in the 50 - 65 age range.

Ummm - just one question.  With both escorted tours and independent (ie do your own thing) travel being cited as popular, what is left that is unpopular in 2007?

Cell phones are bad for your health (continued yet again) :  This time the danger has nothing to do with radiation.  A man staying in a hotel in Vallejo, CA, received burns on over 50% of his body after a mobile phone in one of his pockets caught fire.

He was wearing nylon and polyester clothes, which ignited immediately.  The flames spread to a plastic chair and set off the sprinkler system.

The man is now in stable condition in hospital, but was unavailable for comment.  Apparently his phone isn't working.....

This Week's Security Horror Story :  An exam given to TSA screeners applying for management positions had to be cancelled because it seems the candidates somehow got hold of a copy of the planned questions and answers.

The good news - the TSA airport manager, Mark Hatfield, is promising tough treatment of the cheaters and said  'Anyone proven to have engaged in this type ethics violation will face harsh consequences'.

The bad news - he doesn't expect to catch anyone, making his threat ridiculous.  'We've reviewed what evidence is available and at this point, nothing is actionable.  Unfortunately, in cases like this, one rarely finds fingerprints.'

Let's hope he and his staff are better at catching terrorists than they are at catching cheaters.  More details here.

Meanwhile the Department of Homeland Security is promising to tighten up its no fly list, and says it could cut the number of names in half.  It also is introducing a new program (on 20 February) to make it easier for people to get their names off the list.

Now that we have private companies offering express pass service through airport security lines, it seems one of the few benefits these companies are promising isn't all it should be.

Priced at $200,000 each, the new shoe screening machines were designed to save you the bother of taking your shoes off if you're in the express pass lane, but - ooops - can't distinguish between 'safe' metal normally found in a shoe and 'dangerous' metal such as might be found in a shoe bomb.  So many members of these programs are finding their $100 annual fee isn't buying them as much convenience as expected.

Meanwhile, the TSA, who has seemingly obstructed the implementation of these programs at every turn, said it is not currently studying the machines' inability to distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' metal.

The head of the Clear Registered Travel Program said he expects his clients will simply stop wearing shoes that contain metal.  Currently it seems more than half of his clients have shoes that are triggering the shoe detectors.

I started this week's newsletter talking about beds.  What better way to end it than by revealing another option, in addition to the blankets or duvets discussed earlier.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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