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Friday 25 May, 2007  

Good morning

With the upcoming three day holiday, this will be a short newsletter and there's no feature article this week.

Hopefully you'll be doing something relaxing and enjoyable yourself this Memorial Day weekend - and if you're doing something relaxing and enjoyable, you probably won't be flying.

Quick administrative note.  Amadeus Waterways have offered us one D category cabin for the otherwise sold out Russian Waterways cruise in July.  It is still not too late to join us; if you'd like to take advantage of this opportunity, please click over to the tour description page and sign up for the cruise/tour.

We also have one B category cabin open on the otherwise sold out Black Sea Discovery cruise in October, click to its tour description page if you'd like to join us on that cruise/tour.

And we have plenty of space on the Christmas Markets cruise and New Year in Vienna cruises.

Annual Travel Insider fundraising :  It is 13 months since our last annual fundraiser, and so I'll be starting this year's fundraising drive next week.

Any corporate readers who would like to offer incentives, discounts, premiums, gifts, or anything else to Travel Insider contributors - please let me know so your offers can be given to readers next week.  Such participation can result in valuable win-win-win for all of us - donors get something in return for their support, contributing companies get new relationships with new potential customers, and I get much needed contributions.

Dinosaur watchingNew discount airline Skybus started service on Tuesday this week.  By all accounts, their first day of flying was a success, and their flights were well patronized (although nothing is known about the average fares the tickets were sold for - perhaps a lot of them were the $10 promotional fares).

Skybus starts with only two small A319s, but will be adding more planes and flights in the weeks and months to come.  Today, they are hardly a competitive threat to the dinosaurs, but with strong capitalization behind them, if they can survive and grow and deploy their $160 million in capital to best advantage (more than JetBlue - now a major player - had when it started) they can be expected to indeed have an impact.

And, finally, Virgin America got its long hoped for approval to start flying.  The airline says it expects to be operational some time this summer, and it too is a well capitalized airline with ambitious plans for growth.

Two new start up discount carriers don't promise much happiness for the dinosaurs.  Perhaps it is no wonder the dinosaurs are abandoning the domestic market and looking instead to expand internationally.

There is a definite possibility that the various current and new discount carriers may end up competing against each other as much or even more than they compete against the dinosaurs - wouldn't the dinosaurs love that, to see the new discount carriers expend all their energies fighting against each other!

But the advisedness of concentrating resource on international routes is questionable, and another nail in the coffin of the dinosaurs' current business plan was proudly announced on Wednesday. 

International air fares have been maintained at artificially high levels due to restrictions on competition.  But these restrictions are eroding.  Last month saw the passing of an open skies agreement with the EU that promises greatly increased competition across the Atlantic.  And now the route between the US and China - a highly restricted and therefore very valuable route - is also about to become considerably more competitive.

The two countries announced, on Wednesday, a broad aviation agreement that will more than double the number of daily passenger flights between the two countries by 2012.  At present, there is a limit of only ten daily flights operated by US airlines between the US and three cities in China - Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.  The new agreement allows an extra 13 flights to be added over the course of the next five years, with the first new flight being added this summer.

Three new US carriers will be allowed to provide flights to China as part of the deal, increasing the competition between the dinosaurs, and Chinese airlines will also be given rights to operate more flights to the US.  The first additional carrier is tipped to be either US Airways or Delta.

Winners and losers :  Discount all first class international carrier Eos is expanding, and announced plans to double its fleet.  Currently it has three 757s, each with 48 seats.  They are just now taking delivery of a fourth plane, plan to add a fifth by the end of the year, and have negotiations underway to get a sixth plane.

The average dinosaur plane has 12 - 16 first class seats, so each Eos plane represents the first class capacity of three to four dinosaur planes.  Even with six planes, this is only the equivalent of adding 18 - 24 regular planes to the US-UK routes, but there can be no doubt that Eos and the other all-premium cabin carriers are starting to have an impact on the dinosaurs.

As example of this, British Airways reported its first quarterly loss in two years, plus a 35% decline in profit for the full fiscal year ended 31 March 2007.

Its net profit was 304 million (US$600 million), and the airline is also setting aside a massive 350 million to settle anticipated fines and claims relating to its alleged illegal price fixing activities.

JD Power & Associates released their Seventh Annual North American Airport Satisfaction Study earlier this week.  Airports were grouped in three categories - large (30 million or more passengers a year), medium (10 - 30 million) and small (less than 10 million).  Top and bottom ranking airports for the three categories were Dallas (top) and San Francisco (bottom); Kansas City and Calgary; and Houston/Hobby and Austin/Bergstrom.  Overall top rating went to Kansas City.

Unsurprisingly, the study found that waiting times were a key factor in customer satisfaction.  Customers resented waiting in line for security more than they resented waiting for baggage (but didn't like either).  More details here.

Talking about airports, a warning for when you're booking connecting flights.  Especially if your flight connection involves a change between an international and domestic flight in the US, and/or if your connection will involve exiting and re-entering the secure area of the airport, do make sure you're allowing yourself sufficient time for the connection.

This year there are likely to be longer than ever delays to get through Immigration and Customs at many US airports, with delays of up to three hours reported last Saturday by arriving passengers at LAX.  Other potential problem airports include JFK, EWR and IAD.

And here's a comment from reader Andy about another potential issue at airports :

I flew to Los Angeles on business.  The e-tickets and reservation were emblazoned with an American Airlines logo and flight numbers in the 6000 range.  In fine print was the advice, "Operated by Alaska Airlines." Code-sharing, of course.

So I went to the airport and visited the AA counter.  I started to check myself in when I noticed a worn tag: "Flights numbered 6000-7000 must check in at Alaska Airlines" - so off to the Alaska desk I schlepped. The walk is not short, especially with luggage.  Fortunately, I'm reasonably healthy, so it wasn't much of a burden, but the story would be different for less abled folks.

When I got to the Alaska self-check-in, it was entertaining - neither the American flight number or record locator meant anything to Alaska!  A few screens later, I finally found the flight and checked in.  The return flight was the same - an American flight number and record locator, but a requirement to check in at Alaska Airlines.

Thanks to reader Lorraine and ARTA for both referring me to a wonderful new web service, Yapta.  Yapta tracks airfares - either for tickets you've already purchased, or for itineraries you're considering buying tickets for, and tells you if the price drops.  This is something many of us overlook - did you even know that if the fare drops, you can many times get some or all of the fare reduction refunded to you by the airline?

Yapta matches reductions in air fares with airline policies on refunding you the difference between the price you paid and their current fares, and tells you if you can claim a refund from the airline, and helps walk you through the process of how to get the refund.

Best of all, it is a free service.  In time, it expects to generate revenue from advertising on its site and from referral fees if you go from their site to an airline site to book your ticket, so you're not likely to ever be asked to pay for their valuable service.

I've used it myself already, and it was simple and straightforward.  Alas, the fares I paid haven't dropped, but now, if they do, I'll know about it and know how to claim a refund.  The website is easy to use, and although Yapta describes itself as presently being in a Beta release, it all worked perfectly for me.

You should go and sign up for Yapta.  Recommended.

TANSTAAFL - Readers of Robert A Heinlein will recognize this as the acronym he coined for the saying 'There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch'.  Perhaps that is so, but many of us seem to hope that free breakfasts may be possible.

Almost half of leisure travelers and 65% of business travelers say that getting a 'free' breakfast is very or extremely influential on their hotel choice, according to a recent survey by YPB&R.

My experience in negotiating hotel rates has more commonly been that hotels will discount their room rates, but seldom will discount their breakfast rates.  This is often because the person doing the negotiation doesn't have responsibility for the 'Food and Beverage' side of the hotel's operation, with F&B being run as a separate profit center.

Suggestion - by all means, when shopping around for hotels, consider the issue of if the rate includes breakfast (and whether cooked or continental) or not.  But if negotiating with a hotel for a contract rate, be open to the concept of seeking a deep room discount instead of a discount on breakfast - especially if the hotel is close to nearby restaurants and cafes that offer breakfasts.  Because not only TANSTAAFL but TANSTAAFB as well.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Arriving international passengers at LAX waited up to three hours to be processed through Immigration and Customs on Saturday.  The problem?  Insufficient numbers of Customs/Immigration officers, and more complicated procedures to admit foreign visitors.  Although international arrivals are up 18% from 2005, staffing numbers are the same as they were two years ago.

The Customs and Border Protection division of DHS says it has a goal to have average waits of no more than 45 minutes, and says that its manpower budget for the year is already maxed out, no matter how many people are arriving. But, included in all international tickets are per person taxes to cover the cost of Customs and Immigration services which surely automatically adjust the funding the Customs Dept receives, and allows them to increase staffing to match increased passenger numbers?

Currently every international ticket includes a $15.10 International Arrival tax, a $5.50 US Customs fee, a $7.00 Immigration fee and a $5.00 Agricultural Inspection fee.  In total, we're paying $32.60 for the privilege of entering our own country - surely that can buy us an appropriate level of staffing to welcome us back in a friendly and timely manner.

Or, to put it another way, let's say the total all up cost of a Customs employee is $80,000/year.  Each one of us is therefore contributing enough in taxes and fees to buy 50 minutes of manpower.  If your experience is like mine, you see an Immigration official for perhaps two minutes, and a couple of Customs people each for a minute or so; but let's be generous and say in total each passenger consumes ten minutes of manpower resource.  But the fees we pay buy us 50 minutes of manpower resource - five times more than we consume.

So how come the airports aren't jam-packed with Customs and Immigration officials?  How is it we're not all assigned our own personal representative to meet us as we walk off the plane, to guide us through the terminal, and to carry our bags for us?  What happens to the other 80% of the money we pay in these taxes, and how is it that the shameful overcharging we're being inflicted with doesn't even buy us the most basic level of poor service?

While the ban on carrying liquids onto planes remains in effect, limiting passengers to no more than 100 ml of liquid per container and no more liquids in total than can fit in a quart ziplock bag, one reader who shall necessarily remain anonymous writes in to boast how he carried six bottles of wine onto an international flight last week.  These weren't bottles he bought inside the airport security area, these were ones he took through security without anyone commenting at all.

Did you know that your laptop is subject to inspection when you pass through Customs, pretty much in any country in the world?  And so too can be any other form of electronic storage, including cell phones, cameras and MP3 players.  But should US Customs officials be able to seize, search and keep your laptop, sometimes for days or weeks, without having reasonable grounds to do so?  Is this a warrantless search?

These aren't just hypothetical questions, but are instead issues being argued in the US Court of Appeals.  Details here.

Here's an amazing video of a 757 at Britain's Manchester Airport ingesting two birds into one of its two engines while taking off.  Be sure to have your audio working so you can hear the radio traffic between the plane and the control tower.

This week's 'truth is stranger than fiction' story :  Exploding airline food caused $40,000 in damage to a BA 747.

I wrote a two part series about jet lag five years ago, and since then there's been little change to the information I published.  Until now, with new research findings being released this week that suggest a new 'cure' for jetlag.

I'd love to tell you about it, but if I were to mention the cure, for sure the newsletter would be bounced back to me.  But I can offer you a link to an article.

And, talking about jetlag, is it possible this US tourist was merely jetlagged when he committed this social faux pas in Nuremberg on Monday evening?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and enjoy your Memorial Day weekend

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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