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2 March, 2007  

Good morning

The media interest in our Airline Passenger Bill of Rights has continued, and last Friday I had the privilege of discussing the subject on the McNeil/Lehrer News Hour.

If you'd like to see who it is that sends you this newsletter each week, I've put a video clip of the interview on the website - choose from either an 8.5MB low resolution (100kbps) file or a larger 34MB higher resolution (384kbps) file.  There is a 2'45" introduction by Judy Woodruff before the interview itself if you want to skip straight to the interview.  Both versions use Windows Media Player format.

Creating these two clips was an interesting and surprisingly simple experience.  If you've ever wanted to copy video from a DVD or tape or camcorder or wherever, and transfer it to a website, or to YouTube, or to a portable video player such as an iPod, Zune, or Archos unit, here is a possible solution for you - a program called the Movavi Video Suite.

A friend uses this for copying DVDs to her iPod (personally I think the iPod screen is way too small to watch video on).  To create this web clip, I simply placed a DVD of the interview into the computer, told Movavi what format to output it at from a series of simple choices, set the start and end points for the part of the tv program I wished to make into a web file, then clicked to start the process.  Easy, simple and quick.

I'm now using Movavi to copy movies to my lovely Archos 504 portable media player.

There are quite a few similar programs out there, and eventually I hope to review some of them, but for now, Movavi seems to be one of the better ones.  Here's a link to a free trial download of their software.

The interview on PBS nearly didn't happen, because PBS wanted to feature both me advocating a Passenger Bill of Rights and someone else speaking against it.  Interestingly, no-one from any airline was prepared to participate, and neither was anyone from the airline lobbying group.

I also suggested they put me against David Neeleman of JetBlue to discuss the woeful inadequacy of JetBlue's sham Passenger Rights they're so proud of (analyzed last week), and apparently he has also transitioned from appearing on every television program he can find to ostensibly apologize for his airline's messup, and no longer wishes to talk any more on the topic either.

And I've never heard back from JetBlue's VP of Corporate (non)Communications after I emailed him about their proposed Bill of Rights on Monday 19 February.

Plainly, the airlines are hoping that if they ignore the issue, it will go away of its own accord.

Eventually PBS found someone to speak against the concept - to my surprise, the Editor/Publisher of Executive Travel Magazine believes the airlines should be left to themselves and allowed to continue mistreating us as they currently are.  I wonder how many of her readers agree with her!

Bureaucracy is sniffing an opportunity to self-propagate itself some more by climbing onto this bandwagon too.  The Department of Transportation has asked its Inspector General to investigate airline customer service commitments when passengers are involved in extended ground delays, whatever that means.

One thing is for sure.  There's another planeload of people who now seek a Passenger Bill of RightsSaturday saw a United flight sit eight hours on the tarmac at O'Hare.  We'll make believers of everyone, even if it is one planeload at a time.

United says that only 25 out of the more than 140,000 flights it has operated in the last three months have been delayed.  They think that is good?  To restate their proud boast, on average a United flight suffers a three hour or longer delay on the ground twice every week.

Truly, we need a Passenger Bill of Rights.  If you haven't done so already, please sign our petition.

Our winter is giving mixed messages about being replaced with the hint of spring (amazingly, we even had a light snowfall in Seattle last night), while downunder, in the southern hemisphere, their summer is drawing to an end.  But this also means the airfares are no longer at their summer peaks, and New Zealand and Australia are not quite so crowded.  So now is a great time to travel there, and if you've been considering a visit to my home country of New Zealand, I'm today adding another article in my series on what to see and where to go in NZ :

This Week's Feature Column :  Off the Beaten Track in Hawke's Bay :  It is infrequently visited by most international visitors, and this is perhaps all the more reason for you to go to the lovely Hawkes Bay region, my former home.  Read more about what to see and do in this article.

Dinosaur Watching :  Here's a strange story.  Northwest's pilots' union are suing the airline - not because the airline has cut back on pilot pay and benefits, but quite the opposite.  Northwest has introduced perks for the pilots subsequent to the airline's financial position improving.  Pilots who exhibit a 'can do attitude' are given $100 gift cards, and a new success-sharing program gives pilots bonuses too.  Northwest was not obliged to introduce these or various other workplace improvements.

But these voluntary acts of generosity are not good enough for the pilots.  Because the airline introduced them voluntarily and - gasp - unilaterally - the union is claiming these bonuses violate the collective bargaining requirements of the agreement between the pilots and the airline.

Suggestion to Northwest - settle out of court with your pilots' union.  Simply cancel all these bonuses, and spend the money on passenger service improvements instead.

Pilot union problems for US Airways too, with pilots suing, alleging their contract is being violated because the airline is eliminating the old America West 'HP' airline code designator on flights from Sunday 4 March, replacing them all with US.  How does changing the two letter designator before the flight number affect the pilots?  Oh, not at all, but the airline pilots note that this further integration of the two airlines promises benefits to the combined company, while their contract negotiations have been stalled for a year and a half.

Sounds like the US pilots might have a more valid point than the NW ones.

Meanwhile, a different type of pilot legal action - Comair is suing the FAA, saying it was all the FAA's fault that a Comair plane crashed on takeoff last year.  The plane was taking off at Lexington and attempted to take off on what the pilot and co-pilot thought was the main runway but which actually - ooops - wasn't.  Although there were two pilots in the plane, Comair believes it was not their fault they took the wrong turn.  The single FAA air traffic controller on duty should have noticed and told them of their mistake.

Here's a fair and dispassionate discussion of the accident to help you reach your own conclusion.

I'd rather fly on a plane where the pilots felt responsible for their actions than on a plane where the pilots were merely overpaid passengers and relying on people at the other end of the radio to do their job for them.

Have you ever been on an international flight where you are encouraged to donate your pocket change to some type of worthy cause?  'Change for Good' is one such program.  International passengers in particular, finding some no longer needed foreign currency in their pockets, will often generously donate to such programs.

Apparently Lufthansa has been inspired by this example, because they said this week they are considering collecting a 'voluntary climate protection fee' from their passengers in a bid to fight global warming.

I'm not quite sure which is the more bizarre concept - a 'voluntary fee', which is surely an oxymoron if ever there was one, or the concept that paying money to an airline somehow cools the planet.

Talking about airlines and weather, you now have a chance to predict if your flight will be smooth or roughFlight Explorer now allows you to see your upcoming flight's projected route in relation to forecasted turbulence and weather issues.

The European Union said last week that Pakistan International Airlines would be banned from landing in any EU country due to safety concerns over more than three-quarters of its ageing fleet.

The airline had been warned last year that most of its planes failed to meet international standards, and last Friday was told that all but seven of its 42 planes would be barred from landing, with the ban to come into effect in less than two weeks.

Pakistan International Airlines said it would take steps to keep services running to Europe and is considering renting planes to make up for its own banned equipment, while its back home Civil Aviation Authority for Pakistan said that no ban would be imposed on the airline in Pakistan and the airline's aircraft would continue operating after March 8.

There has been no comment from the EU over that statement.

Perhaps anticipating a similar problem, Indonesia is planning to ban local carriers from operating any jets more than ten years old as part of a safety campaign after a series of crashes and accidents.  Currently, Indonesia restricts planes to being no more than twenty years old.

If there's any sense at all to the notion that older planes are more likely to crash than newer ones (and, in general, the concept is utter nonsense) then woe betide our airlines here should similar measures be passed in this country.  The average age of Northwest's DC-9 planes is about 35 years....

They say that the quickest way to make a million dollars in the travel business is to - ooops - start off with two million dollars.

Perhaps seeking to challenge that adage, the World Economic Forum in Geneva has released a study on the international attractiveness of investing in a country's tourism infrastructure.  Top rated country is Switzerland, followed by Austria, Germany, Iceland, and then the US in fifth position.  Bottom rated country was Chad, with the second, third and fourth worst countries being Burundi, Angola and Lesotho.

More details here, and if you wondered exactly where Chad, Burundi, et al are, there's a fascinating interactive map showing the results here.

Marriott is planning to upgrade televisions at its up-market hotels,  giving better picture quality, more programming and a centralization of electronic gadget connectivity for work and entertainment.

The hotel chain will install 32-inch high-definition, liquid crystal display televisions with digital connectivity panels that allow a guest to connect various digital devices including laptops, camcorders, digital cameras, video games and iPods.  The upgrades will take about three years to complete at Marriott, JW Marriott and Renaissance brands in North America, with about 25% of rooms upgraded this year.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Common sense, or short sightedness?  The new requirement for everyone entering the US from the Caribbean, Canada and Mexico to show passports - effective now for people flying, and next year for people driving between the two countries, is to be amended.  The Department of Homeland Security announced it is proposing to waive the requirement for Canadian and US children under 16 to show a passport when entering the US by land, and will accept instead a certified copy of their birth certificate and 'parental consent' (whatever that means).  Youths aged 16 - 18 will also be allowed to enter without a passport if part of a group.

Apparently there are no such things as 17 and 18 year old terrorists?  A shame the DHS didn't do a quick Google search on the phrase 'Young Terrorists' before proposing this exemption.  Who knows what it might have found.

And now a couple of seniors organizations are proposing that older travelers should also be similarly exempt.  Apparently terrorists are only aged between 19 and 59?  There's no such thing as an older terrorist?

Meantime, there remain no age restrictions on illegal immigration across our border with Mexico.

And talking about young terrorists, what to make of this?  Are we safer now?

Remember the gag X-ray glasses sold in joke stores?  They never worked (at least, not for me).  But a controversial new X-ray machine now being tested at Phoenix sees under your clothing to anything you might be, ahem, packing underneath.

The machine screens passengers for weapons, in what amounts to an electronic strip search, using backscatter technology.  It looks beneath clothes to search for hidden explosives and weapons, and also gives a clear outline of body parts.  It is situated at one checkpoint in the airport and will be in use for 60 - 90 days, and is only used with passengers selected for secondary screening.

The TSA said they had worked with industry specialists to blur the body images of passengers.  Passengers who are selected for secondary screening can choose one of these scans or a normal pat-down if they prefer.  Details here.

Every so often there's an article expressing outrage at how some head of state or other person of impeccable credentials is hassled going through security.  But at least one former Vice President apparently doesn't always have to face such demeaning treatment.

As the news item forgivingly says, this was an inadvertent breach of security.  I guess he was just too busy worrying about global warming and completely forgot about airport security rules.

If you've ever had a favorite lighter or pocket knife confiscated at airport security and then seen something just like it for sale on eBay, maybe it actually is (was!) yours.

Once a Marine, always a Marine :  A group of US retiree tourists, including a former Marine, killed a Costa Rican mugger by breaking his neck after he pulled a gun on them in a Caribbean port. They were cruise ship passengers from Carnival's Legend who were on a tour bus touring Limon, and got off to take pictures when they were accosted.

The group told police they jumped the mugger to defend themselves when he pointed a .38 caliber revolver at them near the port of Limon on Wednesday and somehow snapped his neck.  The man died instantly and the two other unidentified thieves, one of whom had a knife, fled the scene.  The group put the body on the tour bus and went looking for a policeman to make a report.    No charges were filed against the tourists.

Semper Fi.

Lastly this week, Travel Insider readers (and perhaps your humble writer, too) seem to have a great interest in lavatorial matters.

But is this news from American Airlines a good or bad thing -  AA has announced it will allow coach class passengers free access to the first class toilets on its flights.  According to an AP article, AA believed it was the only airline that does not allow coach class passengers to use its first class loos.

It has been my experience that many airlines view the first class loo as solely for its first class passengers, except perhaps in emergencies and situations when the back toilet(s) are broken.  And - even though I fly coach class more than first class, I agree with restricting the first class toilets to first class passengers, even if there is a line at the back for the other toilets.  Unrestricted access to a toilet without having to stand in a long slow moving line while people spend strange amounts of time inside the toilet is (was) one of the few remaining perks of being in first class, and now AA has decided to remove even that small benefit.

What do you think?  Here's an instant mail-in survey, with answers tabulated next week.  Please click on the link which best describes your view to send an email with your answer coded into the subject line :

I think first class toilets should be exclusively for first class passengers

I think all passengers should have equal access to all toilets

I really don't care - I've a super bladder and never need to use an airplane toilet

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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