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Black Friday; 13 April, 2007  

Good morning

I hope your Easter was pleasant and peaceful.

I took an Easter break this week, spending three days in a setting that was, depending on your perspective, either idyllically peaceful or hellishly remote - a lakeside cabin with no phone, no cell phone, and no internet.  Indeed, it didn't even have mains electricity, just a generator that we ran for the briefest of moments and a tank of propane for gas lighting, heating and cooking.

I generally succeeded in accepting the former perception with only a few brief flashes of the latter.  The newsletter is shorter this week as a result.

One good thing about preparing for this week's review manifested itself on the return drive from this cabin.  Access to the cabin is through an intricate network of dirt forestry roads, and every so often, one comes across a gate across the road, or logging operations blocking the road, with the result that the original directions ended up being useless.

Thank goodness for having not one or two but three GPS units in my car, all of which showed most of the forestry roads, and whenever I got lost or had to turn around, there were the GPS's, chorusing in their respective pre-recorded voices, new sets of directions (albeit not always in unanimous agreement!).

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about a unit that had nothing good about it other than its low price.  That unit failed halfway into the forest.  But a new unit worked perfectly all the way, and has a lot of excellent features while costing almost three times less than other units of similar size.  Interested?  Then read :

This Week's Feature Column :  Plenio VXA-3000 GPS review :  With a huge sized screen that even my aging eyes can clearly read, this unit offers good (but not great) functionality and excellent value.  Might this be the GPS for you?

The discounted C category cabin on the Russian river cruise was very quickly snatched up this week, but we still have a lovely junior suite available at a special rate if anyone is interested.  There's a possibility that some of the other people (not in our group) who booked onto this cruise may yet cancel, so if you'd like a regular cabin, let me know about that, too.

My hate affair with Office 2007 continues.  I've now uncovered a serious bug in Outlook - occasionally when you reply to an email, it will send your reply to someone else, in reply to a totally different email completely unrelated to the email you thought you were replying to.  This has happened twice now; the first time I thought it was my mistake, but the second time, I actually saw Outlook substitute the message I clicked reply on with a totally different (and very much older) message.

The potential for embarrassment is enormous, and if you're as unfortunate as to use Outlook 2007, be very careful and check the emails you're replying to are the ones you think you are replying to.

Talking about Microsoft disasters (something few people do, even though there are some great conversational opportunities to be enjoyed, such as their Bob operating system) their Zune personal music player (I reviewed it here) has failed to take the world by storm, notwithstanding bullish press releases from Microsoft about Zune sales meeting or exceeding their expectations.

The Zune was released back on 14 November 2006.  After an aggressive marketing campaign over the Christmas period and subsequently, it is interesting to look at the market shares for music player sales in February this year, released this week.

Apple had a 74% market share with its iPod range of players.  The next largest share went to San Disk (9%) then Creative (3.3%) and only then did Microsoft register, with a pathetic 2.3% market share.  Chances are you've never heard of or seen a San Disk or Creative player, or a Samsung branded one either (2.2% - almost the same as Microsoft), but notwithstanding an enormous marketing budget, Microsoft could barely get a 2.3% market share.  Hardly an impressive result, and clearly the market agrees with my own negative appraisal of the Zune.

My favorite player, especially if you want video or to avoid 'digital rights management' issues remains the Archos unit reviewed here.

In total, since its launch in November 2001, Apple has now sold over 100 million iPods.  And it has sold 2.5 billion songs, 50 million tv shows, and 1.3 million movies through its related iTunes website.  Who would want to watch a full length movie on a pathetic little low resolution 2.5" screen?  Judging by the low number of movies sold, very few iPod owners have chosen to buy more than one movie, and most have probably considered their first movie purchase a big mistake.

Dinosaur watching :  United got very publicly called out this week when it tried the usual airline trick of profiteering from the operational costs it incurs.  The LAX airport authority increased the fees it charges its airline customers, and so United, Delta and US Airways all announced a $10 per passenger surcharge on domestic and international fares from LAX so as to recover their increased costs.  A more honest way would be to simply increase the published fare, but by calling it a surcharge, the airlines can play games with keeping their advertised fares low, while less visibly increasing the total price you pay.

After all, who these days ever really understands how all the hundreds of dollars in taxes and fees and surcharges on a typical international fare are made up, and who gets which parts of the total sum.

But the airport authority fought back.  In a statement, it said that last year UA boarded almost 4.9 million passengers at LAX.  Assuming the same holds true for the next year (a safe assumption), United stands to earn almost $50 million from its $10 per person fee.  But, says the airport, in the same 12 months, United's extra payments to the airport will be about $10 million.  In other words, only $2 of the $10 reflects the increase in costs UA is incurring - an increase in costs that probably should have been simply blended in to the ticket price.

The other $8 would seem to be a flagrant attempt by United to profiteer and 'blame' the airport while gouging its passengers.

Or maybe someone at United simply made a mistake in their arithmetic?  Will we see a correction by United?

Southwest's VP of Public Relations and Community Affairs - Linda Rutherford - seems to think that when you can't answer a question positively, the best thing to do is to ignore the questioner.  Even though her job is to interact with the press and community in general, she is resolutely ignoring my emails.

In my efforts to encourage Southwest to rethink their mean minded refusal to honor the man that grew them into the airline they are today - Lamar Muse - and in particular, their refusal to name one of their planes after him, even though they have named six planes after other people, including one after Lamar's successor, the limelight loving Herb Kelleher, and as part of a series of email exchanges with Linda, I asked her two simple questions.  She's refusing to answer them.  Why?

The two questions are :

1.  Who Southwest has named planes after already (I believe there are possibly six planes named after people in their fleet), and what these fortunate people have done to get planes named in their honor.

2.  Did Mr Kelleher specifically ask for a plane to be named after himself?

Is it a secret who Southwest has named planes after?  Hardly, when the planes proudly carry their names emblazoned on them.  So why won't she simply tell me the information that is hardly company confidential and sensitive?

Some airlines plainly couldn't care less about what the public thinks about them, but Southwest seems to have been more sensitive and eager to present itself as positively as possible to the traveling public.  So why is it being so mean spirited and petty in refusing to honor a man they have every reason to be proud of and thankful for?  And doesn't Linda's refusal to answer my two simple questions expose their embarrassed guilt at having the light of logic shone on their pettiness?

Shame on Southwest.

The new Open Skies agreement between the US and Europe promises much, but realistically, few people have expected to see any major change in the current market dynamics in the near future - even though it is desperately needed.  Anyone who's looked to book a fare to Europe this summer knows that air fares across the Atlantic are at all time highs - and that's before you start to add on the fuel surcharges and all the extra taxes.

But this might all be about to change; sooner and more dramatically than anyone had imagined.  One of Europe's leading discount airlines, Ryanair, says it plans to start a new subsidiary that will offer flights between the US and UK for as little as 7 each way (US$14).  Ryanair's CEO, spirited Michael O'Leary, says the new subsidiary would buy between 30 - 50 new jets; either Boeing 787s or Airbus A350s, and would use the 20% or better lower operating costs of these planes together with his airline's low cost model to enable such fares to be profitably sold.

Other rumors, quoted in this article, suggest both Southwest and JetBlue are looking at getting into the trans-Atlantic market too.

I've several times observed the short sightedness of the US dinosaurs who have been moving away from competing in the domestic market, choosing instead to shift focus to the higher yielding and more protected international markets.  Well, wake up, dinosaurs.  The largest international market - that between the US and Europe - is about to get as competitive and difficult as your domestic routes.

Roundtrip fares may drop to as little as $30, but the taxes will still in the vicinity of $150 and up.  And of course not even Ryanair can afford to fill their flights with all seats being sold at $30.  Some tickets may be sold for $30, but others will be sold for $300 and more.  But, even if we're not consistently buying $30 tickets, you'll probably find that sustainable average fare levels on the Ryanair type model will be 25% - 35% lower than the average fare levels on current carriers, and with some close monitoring of their specials, it may indeed be possible to buy tickets for as little as $30.  When Ryanair or Easyjet have a sale, they like to advertise claims like 'one million tickets for sale at 1 each' (or whatever other deal it is they're offering); they do genuinely sell large numbers of tickets at very low prices.

Last week I made two statements that may have been both wrong.  The first was to observe that Virgin America's stumbling progress towards becoming a 'real' airline was getting close to becoming a reality.

Maybe they are getting over confident, or maybe they're keen to show, up front, that even the most idealistic of new wannabe airlines is no more trustworthy than the most cynical old dinosaur, but this week they're trying to grab back a concession they offered and the DoT accepted.

You may recall the DoT initially indicated it proposed to reject their application because it seemed there was too much potential control over the airline by Sir Richard Branson.  In their response, Virgin America offered to fire their current CEO in case the DoT felt he was 'tainted' by his possible close association with Branson.  This was a very unusual offer from the airline-to-possibly-be, and the DoT, equally unusually, accepted their offer, and in part of their recent notice in which they proposed to now grant Virgin America's request to start airline service, they asked that Fred Reid, the airline's CEO, indeed be asked to leave.

So what does Virgin America now do?  This week they replied to the DoT saying they wanted to allow poor Mr Reid to keep his job.  Apparently they didn't really mean their earlier offer?

My second mistake - and in partial justification, it is a mistake many others are making too - may possibly have been to be too dismissive about another potential new startup airline, Skybus.  Points in Skybus' favor include the fact it has raised more capital to fund its startup phase than did JetBlue ($160 million compared to $128 million - admittedly JetBlue started business seven years earlier), the fact it already has its DoT approval and is now simply completing its FAA certification, and the fact it already has airplanes on the ground, painted in its livery, and ready to start flights.

Interestingly, I believe the first two planes it has in its colors are actually subleased from, ahem, Virgin America, who apparently doesn't see any immediate need for them.

This is not to say that Skybus is guaranteed to succeed.  There are still a lot of ambiguities and unknowns in terms of its business plan.  But it is a lot more likely to at least start service than I'd given it credit for last week.  On the other hand, we're now one week closer to their 20 May promised start date, and they still have yet to announce the routes they'll fly, or change their website from an amateurish shell to a 'real' site with real news and resources.

One part of the Skybus business plan is to sell the entire outside of their plane to companies as a flying billboard.  This has been seen on European airlines already, and seems to present as a low cost way of generating extra revenue with no harm to the passenger's flying experience.

Reports from people who have been interviewed for Skybus flight attendant positions suggest the airline is planning to make a major push to selling things to passengers in flight, with flight attendants being paid generous commissions on the items they sell.

But for more solid details, we'll have to wait for Skybus to tell us more about its plans.  It is 37 days from today to their possible 20 May startup, so we should start learning more very soon now.

What is your typical and ideal vacation (and why aren't the two more closely aligned)?  The Travel Industry Association and American Express polled American travelers to find the answers to these questions.  Some quick answers include :

The typical American vacation costs $1500 and involves travel 1200 miles from home, and a typical traveler takes three vacations a year.  Most popular activities are sightseeing and shopping.

Of particular interest, and showing that airline bad service is hurting the airlines, travelers said they'd like to travel more by plane (and ship) and would like to double the length of their average trip.  In other words, if travel was easier, more pleasant, and appropriately affordable, the airlines could almost double the amount of business they receive.

Yesterday - Thursday 12 April - marked the 46th anniversary of the first ever successful manned space flight.

Yuri Gagarin was the first astronaut, in 1961, to safely return to earth; rumors persist that there were some unsuccessful Soviet flights that were never publicized prior to Gagarin's successful flight, but there are no official records of any such possible failures.

I wrote last week about hotels focusing more on room hygiene.  But it isn't just hotels that can be afflicted by bedbugs and other pestilences.  Here's a truly horrifying story about the increasing prevalence of bedbugs and how they can be almost impossible to kill off.

The 2007 ranking of the world's best and worst places to live in has now been published by Mercer Human Resources Consulting.  Leading the world is Zurich, Geneva, Vancouver, Vienna, and special congratulations to the city I was born in, Auckland New Zealand.

At the other end of the scale is Baghdad, coming bottom out of the 216 cities surveyed, with successively less bad scores being given to Brazzaville, Bangui and Khartoum (bet you don't even know where the first two of those three cities are).

You probably read about the cruise ship sinking at Santorini this last week.  Greek authorities have responded very quickly - and perhaps too quickly.  As this article details, it appears they arrested not just the captain of the ship but also five other senior members of the crew.

I can understand why the chief mate and possibly even the second mate might also have been arrested, but who can explain the decision to arrest the ship's housekeeper?

Progress can sometimes be too swift.  But sometimes it can also be ponderously slow, as is perhaps the case in Venice, where the authorities are struggling to come to terms with the possibility of a female gondolier (and from Germany, too).  Details here.

BA has possibly shed some additional light on its upgrade policies.  As has been commented on before, and as you've yourselves voted helpful suggestions to BA on, it seems BA will upgrade you to first class, but only if you or an immediate family member die during the flight.

Did you notice that BA upgraded the returning British naval hostages to business class when they were flown back to Britain?  Apparently if you die, you get upgraded to first class, and for the lesser inconvenience of being held hostage by the Iranians for two weeks, you get upgraded to business class.

I wonder if my most recent speeding citation is sufficient to win me an upgrade to their Premium Economy class on my next flight?

Good luck on this Black Friday, and until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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