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Friday 20 April, 2007  

Good morning

Hopefully you've finished your taxes for another year.  It was amusing to note the long lines at the Post Office on Monday this week - plainly a lot of people didn't realize that due to the Emancipation Day holiday on Monday (Holiday?  Did you get the day off?) the IRS extended the filing deadline to Tuesday 17th this year.  There were long lines again on Tuesday, so equally plainly, a lot of people did realize they had an extra day.

Now you've the annual tax challenge behind you (hopefully you weren't like me, filing an extension) you might feel yourself in need of a vacation as a reward - as do I.  Even filing the one line Form 4686 was a draining exercise for me (and, alas, financially as well as emotionally).

So, where better to go for a short break, than Victoria, BC?  Which brings me to the second part of what promises to be a three part series on Victoria, and in weeks/months to come, will grow to a more extensive series on touring around my home region, the beautiful Pacific Northwest in general :

This Week's Feature Column :  Where to Sleep and Eat in Victoria :  Victoria has a wide range of accommodation and restaurants, with something for all tastes.  Here are some of my favorite places.

And talking about where to sleep, there is a story this week about a new hotel opening in Milan that is rating itself as being a seven star hotel.

It used to be that hotels were rated on a zero to five star scale.  Then some hotels started calling themselves 'five star plus'.  Before long, we had self-proclaimed six star hotels, and now here's a so-called seven star hotel.

Many of the features this hotel proudly refers to as making it worthy of seven stars are not included in the room rate, and you might think that invalidates its claim.  There's no magic to selling luxury extra services, especially when sold at outrageous extra costs; to my mind what makes a good hotel good is not the extra things it offers at extra price, but the included things it includes in your basic room rate.

However, and be that as it may, it seems inflation is hitting hotel ratings.  For sure, today's ultra deluxe hotel is probably more luxurious and offers more services than did a hotel 50 or 100 years ago, but does that mean we should simply revise the standards for each of the 'original' five stars, or should we freeze those in place and keep adding extra stars based largely on the whim of hotels' marketing and publicity departments?  Wasn't the whole idea of five stars to create an easily understood range from worst (ie 0) to best (ie 5), no matter how good and how bad the extremes are?

What do you think?  Here's an instant reader poll - simply click on the answer that best summarizes your opinion; this will open an empty email with your answer coded into the subject line.  Simply send me the email and I'll report the results next week.

Keep the same 5 stars and refine the qualifications for each star if necessary

Keep the same 5 stars as before with the same qualifications as before plus add one more star

Keep the same 5 stars as before with the same qualifications as before plus add two more stars

Keep the same 5 stars as before with the same qualifications as before plus add three more stars

Who cares. There's no consistency between one star measurement and the next, and I generally ignore such ratings anyway

(Thanks to reader Fred for suggesting this poll topic.)

Some developments in my struggle with Outlook 2007, although none of them good.  Microsoft's Support people have conceded that there is indeed no way I can reply to a message in the Junk email folder - this is presumably 'for my protection'.

The program is crashing alarmingly frequently.  I can't remember Outlook 2003 ever crashing, but Outlook 2007 does crash, sometimes several times a day.

On a happier note, a Microsoft employee and newsletter reader exercised some personal initiative and sent me a certificate for a free support call to get my issues resolved.  That was very kind, and is much appreciated.  However, the software comes with 90 days of free support, so his kind gift wasn't required.

I needed to use the included support again yesterday.  I was typing an email message and did something - I'm not sure what.  All of a sudden, the message text shrunk down to a microscopic size - about one pixel high, even though it was still showing as regular 11 point in the text properties box.  Text this size is of course impossible to read, and I tried to restore it back to normal size.

Needless to say, there was no option anywhere to resolve this, and when I tried to puzzle out the problem myself, going to the official help pages for the program resulted in it redirecting me to a web page that advertised Office for sale.  Yes, folks - not only have Microsoft made their software less user friendly than ever before, but it seems they've 'improved' their help program too.

Needless to say, the software doesn't come with any sort of printed manual, and after a few more minutes trying to puzzle the program out, I was on the phone to their help desk.  It took the support person 12 minutes of trying to solve the problem when I had a 'Eureka!' moment and solved it myself.

Dinosaur watching :  It was a good first quarter for the dinosaurs American Airlines reported a $81 million net profit, compared to a $92 million loss in Q1 2006.  Continental announced its first Q1 profit since 2001, with a $22 million profit, compared to a $66 million loss last year.

And Southwest reported a $93 million profit, up from a $61 million profit last year.  But whereas AA and CO were delighted with their results, WN was not so pleased, pointing out that their profit before considering the impact of fuel hedging and other special items was only $33 million, compared to $64 million the previous year.

Talking about Southwest, I complained at their silence to my questions about their plane naming policy last week, and wondered if they were deliberately keeping it secret who they've named planes after.  Reader Melissa sent a link to a page which has photos of presumably all Southwest's specially named planes - six named after people, and seventeen with various other names/themes.

And I also heard back from Linda Rutherford, Southwest's VP of Public Relations and Community Affairs.  Apparently she had not received my earlier emails.

She explains that the current six named planes are named for :

  • Herbert D. Kelleher (co-founder/Chairman)

  • Donald Ogden (original VP of flight operations)

  • Fred Jones (original SWA mechanic)

  • Rollin King (co-founder)

  • Jack Vidal (original VP of maintenance)

  • June Morris (Morris Air commemorative a/c dedication)

She advises that Southwest's Board chooses who to name planes for, and adds that about 11 years ago, the Board decided not to name any more planes after original employees because it would be too cumbersome to do so (due to the potential number) and then maintain them all in perpetuity.

To put that issue in context, Southwest currently has a fleet of 483 aircraft, and I'm guessing that at least one or two of the planes named for the personages above have been swapped for newer planes as part of their ongoing fleet renewal program.

Linda also says that Mr Kelleher did not ask for a plane to be named after himself and, amazingly, the decision to name a plane in his honor came as a surprise to him.  You might find it interesting that the reason Southwest offered for not naming a plane after Lamar Muse is he did not ask for that, but Mr Kelleher's lack of asking for this honor did not prevent his board of directors from 'surprising' him.

Delta has been infected by some of the European eco-insanity.  Starting from 1 June, passengers will be offered the opportunity to contribute $5.50 (for domestic travel) or $11 (for international travel) to be contributed to The Conservation Fund.  This group will use the money to plant trees and for its education and outreach programs.

Never mind that some tree planting programs actually release more carbon than they reclaim from the atmosphere, and for sure The Conservation Fund is unlikely to be promoting a balanced open minded educational and outreach program on the topic of carbon emissions and global warming in general.

But at least it is currently your choice whether to contribute or not.

Talking about Delta, the airline surprised many by announcing it had secured slots (landing rights) at coveted Heathrow, and will start flying there twice a day from New York and once from Atlanta next April.  This is an outcome of the new open skies agreement between the US and the EU, with Heathrow/US rights no longer limited to only four airlines, and now being open to any carrier who can get Heathrow slots.

How did Delta get the slots?  It negotiated them from its alliance partners Air France and KLM.  And why did AF and KL give up their own valuable slots?  Because many of the slots at Heathrow are not being used to best advantage.  Some slots are used by small planes flying low yielding routes, and if an airline can 'trade up'; sacrificing the low yielding route for a much higher yielding route, obviously it would love to do this.  The airline alliances make it easier for airlines to move precious resources to their best advantage.

The impact of three DL flights to LHR is minimal, particularly because DL may choose to cancel three flights to Gatwick to offset these three new flights, but it is a harbinger of things to come as the trans-Atlantic market becomes less regulated and more competitive.  DL might be priding itself on winning this early round of the new game, but for sure it and all the other dinosaurs will be feeling massive competitive pressure from low cost carriers - either current airlines entering the trans-Atlantic market for the first time (such as JetBlue, Southwest, and RyanAir) or completely new startups.

The bottom line?  We as passengers can expect to benefit from increased flights, increased competition, and lower fares.

A possible casualty of the new open skies environment may be the A-380 super jumbo.  If the open skies causes a growth of flights from secondary cities to other secondary cities, there will be less need for super-jumbo sized planes and more need for medium/large planes such as Boeing's by-now super successful 787.

American Airlines is being sued by the family of a passenger who died in a restroom during a flight from Tokyo to Chicago in April 2005.

The body was not discovered until the cleaning crew boarded the plane after it landed.  The lawsuit accuses the airline of negligence and is seeking about $150,000 in damages.  The plane was taken to another gate for cleaning after passengers and crew left the aircraft.  The body was not found until about 2 hours after landing.

Talking about finding dead bodies in unusual places, here's an interesting list of hotel myths (and truths).

Skybus Countdown to Nothing :  30 days remain until their 20 May promised start date.  Currently the most recent news item on their largely empty website is dated 10 November 2006, and there is not yet any news about where they'll be flying, what the fares will be, or anything.  Will they be in business, flying passengers, in 30 days time?  My feeling is no.

Scary news for people on our upcoming Russian River Cruise?  According to IATA data, the most dangerous region in the world to fly in is Russia and its Commonwealth of Independent States.  In 2006, Russia had an accident rate of 8.6 accidents per million flights, twice the rate of Africa, and 13 times the global average.

Happily, cruise members can relax.  This data relates mainly to flights within the region, not to international flights between the US, Europe and Russia.  And, overall, 2006 was the safest year on record, with only 77 major global accidents, down from 111 in 2005.  More details here.

And looking at the brighter side of aviation, congratulations to, hmmm, British Airways, for winning the Airline of the Year award by the OAG.  Other winners included Qantas, Emirates, and JetBlue, with Best North American Airline being given to Continental.  Last year's Airline of the Year was Cathay Pacific.

TripAdvisor.com has recently released the results of its second annual in-flight amenities survey.  What do we most want on our flights?  The most mentioned enhancement was seating, with almost 75% of respondents indicating they'd pay up to a 10% premium for a more comfortable and roomy seat.  I'd pay that too, but - alas - the premiums for a better seat are usually vastly more than a mere 10%.

Second most mentioned comfort item was bigger/roomier bathrooms, followed by clean pillows and blankets (remember them - now disappeared off most domestic flights).  More survey results here.

In other survey results, Tripadvisor.com reports that 40% of travelers, worldwide, take environmentally friendly tourism into consideration.  Maybe Delta's optional donations are a good idea after all?

But - warning to Delta.  Don't embrace the greenies too closely.  Nearly 25% of travelers say that air travel should be avoided whenever possible to help preserve the environment.  I guess these people decide to save the environment by not flying and, uh, driving their SUV instead?

Or, perhaps they take a taxi.  Maybe that it was ecological sensitivity that motivated this couple to call a cab to take them from Queens in NYC to Sedona, AZ.  Perhaps so, particularly because the cab they chose was a hybrid-electric vehicle (albeit also a SUV).

One thing is for sure.  It wasn't a desire to save money that motivated these people.  Here's an interesting article that shows how the true inflation-adjusted cost of air travel has dropped over the last 25 years.

Unfortunately, the article talks about lowest advertised prices for air travel, but doesn't consider the average yield gained by the airlines in terms of cents per mile, which would be a much more meaningful figure.  However, few of us would dispute that air travel costs, in general, and viewed over the longer term, are not increasing as rapidly as inflation overall.

Another survey, this one released by Orbitz, about what causes the most problems when traveling.  The most common problem was flight delays (40%) followed by airport security (21%).  Talking about security, 42% of passengers feel more secure now than they did before 9/11, and another 46% said they feel somewhat safer but security could be improved.

People sometimes ask 'How do you manage to find all the news you pass on to us each week?'.  In large part, the answer is I am the beneficiary of leads passed on from you, the readers.  Thank you.

As part of this process, it is interesting to observe what stories are either widely read or considered important enough for you to send on.  Some articles get passed to me only once, others get a number of people sending them in.

This week one story was passed on to me more times than any other story this year, and with good reason.  It tells how billions of dollars in the taxes and fees we pay on airline tickets have been 're-purposed' and (mis)applied to purposes unrelated to commercial passenger aviation.

Among other quotable quotes in the piece is this one from Mark Cooper of the Washington-based Consumer Federation of America, who says 'It costs me more to park my car at [Washington Reagan] National Airport than it costs to park a corporate jet'.  It is an article well worth reading.

And please do continue to send me stories you think might be of interest.

Here's an interesting survey that starkly shows how the US lags behind the rest of the world in acceptance of new mobile phone technologies.

But there are some technologies which we can proudly claim to be in the vanguard with, such as, ahem, solar powered bikinis which can be used to variously recharge cell phones or cool down drinks.

As a gadget lover myself, I find such an idea almost irresistible.  But I fear my usual detailed and extensive user testing of the items I review might cause a few raised eyebrows if I were to don such apparel myself.

There are a couple of other interesting articles on that website - a chart showing the relative market shares of US and Canadian wireless companies, and an article speculating (almost certainly correctly) that Google will be selling (or perhaps even giving away) its own brand of mobile phone.  The company making Google's phone - HTC - makes some of the best feature-rich and smartphones in the market at present, but almost never under its own brand name.  But that fancy T-mobile or Cingular branded phone you're admiring is almost certainly an HTC manufactured unit.

And, from a different source, here's the latest way in which cell phones might be dangerous to health.  But, in this case, it isn't our health they may be endangering....

This article reports a weakening in the Alaskan cruise business.  After many years of strong growth, it seems this year there is less interest in Alaskan cruising.  The unasked question in this article is whether the softening of the Alaskan cruise market might be due to the new $50 per person Alaskan cruise tax voted into effect last August.

Have the Alaskans got too greedy?

Talking about greedy, if you've traveled internationally any time between 1 Feb 1996 and 8 Nov 2006, and charged items to a Visa, Mastercard or Diners Club card, you could be eligible for a refund of between 1% and 3% of these purchases, as a result of a class action lawsuit against issuers of these types of credit cards.

Be sure to claim your share of the settlement - details here, and claim forms here.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Prior to 9/11, there was a grand total of 11 names on the 'No Fly' list.  Today, there is possibly as many as 119,000 names - the actual number being an official secret (or, at least, an official embarrassment).  Here's a good article about the various different watch lists out there these days.  Plus some helpful information on what to do if you are one of the 119,000 people (or the countless many more with similar names).

Global aviation security, more than five years after the events of 9/11, remains 'an uncoordinated mess' according to Giovanni Bisignani.

And who is Mr Bisignani?  He is the CEO of IATA - the International Air Transport Association.  At a conference this week, he went on to say, about security measures that vary from airport to airport and country to country, 'Look what happens at the airports. One bag, two bags, liquids, no liquids. Duty free shop yes, duty free shop no.  What is the cost of this? Millions. It's a hassle factor that the passenger cannot understand and cannot tolerate anymore.'

He says that lengthy delays caused by security screening are costing the airlines lost passengers, and laments that while global standards have improved airline safety, similar global coordination is largely lacking for security procedures.

Talking about coordinating, we have some building problems among our own 50 states.  If you live in Montana, you might be having problems in the future when you try to fly somewhere.  The MT legislature has passed legislation refusing to comply with the federal 'Real ID" requirements for state issued ID (ie mainly driver's licenses).  The problem is that the Real ID Act, passed in 2005, will require that only people showing approved identification will be allowed into government buildings, nuclear power plants, and boarding airplanes.

It will be interesting to see how this showdown between the states and federal government plays out.

In January 2002 and subsequently, problems surfaced in Minneapolis with Muslim taxi drivers refusing to take passengers from the airport if they suspected the people had alcohol with them (ie if they say you carrying a duty free bag that clinked).  There have been 4,800 reported problems with taxi drivers refusing to accept fares in the last five years - about three a day, every day.

Finally, five years later, the Airports Commission has voted to penalize cabbies who refuse to carry passengers.  Progress is sometimes a very slow thing.

Unexpected Flight Delays part 1 :  Passengers on two Southwest flights were made to fly in circles for 18 minutes over Manchester-Boston Regional Airport last Friday.  Why?  Because the only air traffic controller on duty needed to go to the bathroom, leaving only a trainee behind who was not authorized to control traffic.  An air ambulance was also delayed for 10 minutes while the controller took what was apparently at least an 18 minute bathroom break.

Unexpected Flight Delays part 2 :  A BA flight from New Delhi to London was delayed 13 hours because the pilot and crew decided they hadn't had a good night's sleep in their hotel the previous night.  The pilot and crew said their hotel was too noisy, and refused to fly until they'd caught up with their sleep.

Unexpected Flight Delays part 3 :  Northwest canceled a flight from Las Vegas to Detroit after the captain was heard swearing on his cell phone (while in a toilet).  The captain then swore at a busy-body passenger who felt compelled to confront him and tell him off for using naughty words.  So, very sensibly, NW of course cancelled the 180 passenger flight, requiring the people to overnight one more night in Vegas.

Knowing the great interest of readers in bathroom matters, here's a cautionary tale.

Lastly this week, we all know that air travel could be more pleasant than it currently is.  All it takes is a willingness to spend more money.  And if you've got real money to spend, this is what you can expect to enjoy.  Let's hope the plane isn't outfitted with state of the art Japanese toilet systems.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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