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23 February, 2007  

Good morning

First, some vexing administrative news.  There is a perplexing problem with the webserver at present, which is causing delays and occasional failures when you try and fill out either the Passenger Bill of Rights petition form or the Danube Christmas Markets Cruise signup form.

I don't yet know what is causing this.  It isn't an overloaded server, or insufficient bandwidth, or anything obvious.  If any reader is an expert on Microsoft IIS 6.0 with FPSE in a WinSvr2k3 environment, and would be able to sell me some time to diagnose and resolve the problem, I'd be very appreciative.  Send me an email and I can tell you more about the issue.

For now, it seems usually it works when you fill out the form, but it can take up to two minutes for the webserver to reply back to you.  Many people have quite understandably given up after a few seconds and have clicked away from the page - this then cancels the slow process.

The good news is that many people have managed to successfully send in their petition signatures.  If you're willing to wait patiently for the slow server response, please do choose to add your name to the growing list.

If you're one of the several people who have had problems signing up for the Danube Christmas Markets Cruise, please let me know and we can get you added to our group 'the old fashioned way'.

Although at times like these I sometimes feel myself surrounded by technological challenges, I remain an unreformed gadget lover, and every so often I come across something that reaffirms my love of the latest and greatest electronic goodies.  So is the case this week, when I tell you about :

This Week's Feature Column :  Better than an iPod :  The Archos 504 portable multimedia player is very much better than the market leading iPod in almost every respect.  If you're considering an MP3/music and/or video player, you really must consider this contender for all the reasons discussed in my review.

Dinosaur watching :  The last week has been filled with much talk about an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.  This might seem like a good thing, but we're in danger of losing control of the agenda, with different pressure groups seeking different and often contradictory things.

Such a fractured state invites the airlines to 'divide and conquer', and already they've managed to trick some self-appointed experts into publicly worrying that any Bill of Rights would dangerously imperil air safety by 'forcing' the airlines to operate flights when it wasn't safe to do so.

This is a nonsense fear, as I discuss here, but it is a very effective way for the airlines to deflect and disrupt the mounting public pressures for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.  Don't let yourself be suckered into worrying about non-existent safety issues, and continue to insist on a full fair Passenger Bill of Rights.

The week has seen JetBlue wrapping itself in the armor of a self imposed Passenger Bill of Rights, accompanied by the sound of much self congratulation.  When they first said they were considering the concept, I emailed to Todd Burke, their Vice President of Corporate Communications, seeking to establish a dialog and perhaps get our Bill accepted by them - if not completely, then at least in large part.  To my disappointment, my email was simply ignored.  Apparently their VP of Corporate Communications is too busy to communicate.

And so what of the Bill of Rights that JetBlue has written for itself?  Is JetBlue a hero or a zero?

JetBlue's Bill of Rights is, alas, a textbook example of why we can't trust the airlines to police themselves.

Their Bill of (non)Rights is incomplete and non specific.  Much of its obligations are based on events being what the airline calls 'Controllable Irregularities'.  But nowhere does this Bill define what is (and more importantly, what is not) a controllable irregularity.  Care to guess if the 11 hour delays last week would end up being considered as controllable or uncontrollable irregularities?

It completely overlooks rights for things like delayed, lost or damaged bags.

Their Bill of (non)Rights apparently obliges them to pay compensation if they cancel a flight, but - hey! - it doesn't oblige them to accommodate you on another flight operated by another airline.  Which would you prefer - a refund of your ticket, and no way to now fly to where you need to go for the price you originally paid, or no refund, but being placed on another airline and flown to your destination as close as possible to your originally booked flight time?

And there's only one case where JetBlue actually undertakes to pay you actual cash.  Most of the time you just get vouchers good for discounts off future flights with JetBlue - and although their Bill of (non)Rights doesn't say this, chances are the vouchers will expire if you don't use them within a certain period, making them of little value to people who only rarely fly on JetBlue.

Will the vouchers be transferrable to other people? The Bill is silent on this important point. Would you be able to group vouchers from several people and use them to completely pay for a subsequent flight? Again, we don't know.

If your flight is one to two hours late leaving, you'll get a $25 voucher to be applied against a future flight, if it is two to four hours late, you get $50, and increasingly larger amounts for longer delays, but not even for a 6+ hour delay in a flight departing do you receive any entitlement to a meal voucher or overnight accommodation.  Apparently your right is to sleep overnight at the airport without food or drink.

The only cash payment is to passengers who are involuntarily denied boarding (ie due to overbooking).  Being as how cash payments are both mandated by law already, and being as how JetBlue never overbook their flights and so have a very very low rate of involuntary denied boardings, the $1000 payment they offer to make is one they'll seldom if ever need to actually pay out on, and not much more than what they're required to pay by law anyway.

And how does their Bill of (non)Rights cover passengers stuck on an arrived plane that is unable to get to its gate?  Bad news.  Although it starts offering you discount vouchers after being delayed for more than 30 minutes on arrival (strangely, you have to wait three hours before they start to pay out for delayed departing flights) it is only after five hours that the Bill says "JetBlue will take necessary action so that customers may deplane".  Hardly a very exciting promise.

One more thing about those ground delays.  The Bill doesn't explain how they'll be calculated.  So you might think you've been stuck on the ground for an hour, but JetBlue might say '31 minutes of this is normal scheduled ground time, so you don't get any compensation at all'.

And what happens if JetBlue does end up obliged to compensate you in some way under its Bill?  Oooops.  There's nothing in its Bill that requires it to provide your vouchers in any timely manner, nothing about having a toll free Customer Service number, or anything about how you can actually exercise your rights, and if you feel the need to sue them, the Bill doesn't give you the right to do so in a District or Small Claims Court.

So what to make of JetBlue's Bill of (non)Rights?  Is it better than nothing?  Yes, definitely.  But is it comprehensive and does it cover all the many different ways airlines can mistreat us?  Absolutely not.  In my opinion, JetBlue's actions are an example of an airline cynically wrapping itself in customer friendly behavior and throwing out a conciliatory document in the hope of heading off a much more sweeping document being imposed on it.

No wonder JetBlue didn't want to talk to me or look at our much more genuine Passenger Bill of Rights.  And more fool me for taking their CEO at face value last week, and daring to hope that maybe he not only could talk the talk, but would also walk the walk.  Clearly, that is not the case.

The moral of the JetBlue Bill of (non)Rights is clear.  JetBlue's Bill doesn't constitute a partial win for us; instead it constitutes a partial defeat.  The last time pressure was mounting for a Passenger Bill of Rights, in 1999, the airlines came out with insubstantial vague promises, and tricked us all into accepting those rather than demanding a proper complete Bill of Rights.  Quite possibly the airlines will give an infinitesimal bit more to us this time around, copying the JetBlue model.

But we've learned our lesson, haven't we?  The airlines can't be trusted, and don't deserve to be able to zero out our normal rights and replace them with whatever they think we should and shouldn't get.  We need our Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

One of the omissions in JetBlue's Bill of (non)Rights is any liability for baggage damage, loss or delay.  As some of us find out to our cost, not only can entire suitcases be damaged, delayed, or lost, but the contents of our suitcases can also be pilfered.

Here's a stunning story of how a Delta passenger had his camera stolen from his checked bag, and subsequently found it being sold on eBay by a Delta luggage handler.  The passenger got the police involved, the luggage handler was arrested, and fired from his airport job.  After some eight months of hassle and considerable cost, the passenger got his camera back.

How did Delta react?  Delta refused him compensation of any sort, and while they apologized for 'any negative impression you received from our handling of this matter' they didn't apologize at all for the underlying theft of the camera.  I say it again - we need an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

On a happier note, I received a very friendly email from Linda Rutherford, Southwest's VP for Public Relations and Community Affairs subsequent to my comments about her airline's regrettable decision not to name a plane to commemorate the recent death of Southwest's founding CEO, Lamar Muse.

She explained the airline had contributed $150,000 to a designated charity as per a request from Lamar, and further said they planned to have a feature on him in a future issue of their inflight magazine.  She feels this to be 'a fitting and public tribute' to Lamar.  Noting that still living Herb Kelleher, Lamar's successor, already has a plane named after him as part of the airline's fleet, I'm not so convinced that a write-up in their throwaway inflight magazine is sufficiently fitting at all.

Heck, I'll buy a can of paint and carry it down to Dallas myself if they are worrying about the cost of signwriting Lamar's name on the side of a plane!  My correspondence with Linda continues....

This Week's Security Horror Story :  More delays (and inevitably more costs) in getting some sort of new improved passenger watch list in place.  It is now expected not to be improved until 2010, and officials aren't admitting to what the costs will be, but they're planning on spending $80 million in the next 18 months alone.  Details here.

Pilots say that 'any landing you can walk away from is a good landing' but I'm not sure that saying would fully apply here.

And lastly this week, you've heard of hotels offering 'women only' floors to their female guests who are staying by themselves.  Taking the concept one step further, here's a women only entire island.  Although it is designed to boost tourism to its region, I doubt few American women will choose to visit.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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