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Friday 1 June, 2007  

Good morning

It is time for our fourth annual fundraising drive.  As longer time readers know, we operate on the PBS model, relying on a mix of reader contributions and sundry income to keep the website up and the newsletter regularly being published.  Our annual fundraising drive will hopefully be short and not too intrusive.

It has been another good year for The Travel Insider, and hopefully for you too.  You've received some 50 weekly newsletters and almost as many feature articles - in total, well over a quarter million words of information, commentary, advice and humor - more than you'd get in four hardcover books.  The website is an increasingly valuable resource for increasing numbers of people - over 500,000 people visit the website every month, and there are currently 22,747 newsletter readers each week.

The website and newsletter has been going - and growing - since October 2001, and continues to gain respect and 'voice' in the community - for example, just a couple of days ago I participated in a CNBC television interview (on the topic of how to avoid being bumped off flights).  With the passing of time, we together - myself as spokesman and all of you as silent endorsers and supporters - can continue to become more effective as advocates for better airline customer service, improved passenger rights, and a generally more transparent and fair travel experience.  Our advocacy for an airline passenger bill of rights has definitely helped airlines move to voluntarily offering some compensation for delayed flights, with the most recent airline to do so being United, just this week.

Hopefully you've found the last year to be interesting, at times amusing, and often helpful.  Perhaps you've even been able to use some of the ideas, suggestions, reviews and other items to save money or make better travel related choices.  For example, reader Charles wrote in to thank me for pointing him to the wonderful new Yapta service in last week's newsletter - he plugged a pending trip into Yapta and immediate saved $107.  Or if you chose to buy some Boeing stock when I recommended it on 6 October last year, at $83.68, you'd have watched the price break through its all-time record and be very pleased with its closing price yesterday - $100.59, a 20% increase in not quite eight months (my comment now - the stock is getting close to fully valued and a resurgent Airbus can be expected to take the wind out of Boeing's sales, starting perhaps as soon as the upcoming Paris Air Show, but probably only if they switch their A350 design to an all composite hull, with there presently being mixed messages about if they'll do that or not - see below).

Even with all this positive progress, the present time sees The Travel Insider at a critical - indeed, at a crisis - point, and more than ever before, your support is now very much needed.  Until a year ago, I had the benefit of a dual income home environment, but that has been replaced by an ongoing, acrimonious and expensive divorce.  The Travel Insider is now my only income source, a situation exacerbated by the diminution of its the main revenue generator - the GSM phone unlocking service, which these days is bringing in barely a quarter of what it was a year ago (T-mobile and AT&T/Cingular are finally getting the message and becoming more cooperative at unlocking phones themselves, for free).

The Travel Insider could not exist as a part time/spare time project.  To write the 5000 words or more I write each week, to maintain and update existing articles, to attend to the administration and management of the website, servers, email membership list, to read (and sometimes reply) to the 600 emails that come in each day - all of this is already consumes way more than 40 hours every week.  I could not continue to offer you comprehensive insight and commentary if I was to do this merely part-time, in my spare time - at a simplistic level, imagine what the newsletter would be like with only one quarter the content, and that one quarter at a more superficial level, and feature articles on the website perhaps once a month.  An unattractive thought for both you and me.

In addition to all my spare time, this venture consumes money, too.  New webservers of various types need to be purchased every year or two, monthly hosting charges (including fees per GB served - every visitor to the website, almost none of whom contribute, cost money for the MBs of bandwidth they consume looking at pages), software, technical support, and so on and so on.  Another appreciable cost is buying items to review - for example, our new review series on GPS units, with two units reviewed and a third review about to be published is now stalled due to the need to spend many more hundreds of dollars buying additional units to review.  Some equipment is provided free by suppliers, but much is not.

And so I find myself at a crossroads with three choices - continue the website, and on the same PBS voluntary support basis as before, switch to a subscription model with reduced free content, or close the thing down and seek to build a new future in some other way (I hear the airlines are hiring at present - do you think I'd make a good gate agent, explaining to you why you're being bumped off a flight that has also been cancelled and refusing to give you a meal voucher?).

My clear preference is the first option, and so I'm now asking for your help to make this possible.

Please reflect a minute on what you've received over the last twelve months, and then do what you feel appropriate to ensure it continues for the next twelve months.  How much a week is your 'Friday Fix' from The Travel Insider worth to you?  Is it worth the price of a cup of coffee - $2?  Or perhaps what you'd pay for a newspaper - $1 or so?  Please multiply whatever its value to you is by 50 to get the annual requested fair level of contribution.

This year you have a convenient new way to contribute.  Of course, I'll gratefully accept your money any which way - a check in the mail or a credit card payment - and the new option is the ability to choose an ongoing monthly or quarterly auto-payment.  That way instead of making a single and perhaps large (!) lump sum payment, you can split it into more convenient quarterly or monthly payments.

How much is fair to contribute?  That is entirely for you to decide - it is a PBS model, after all.  But, one thing I urge you - please do not give any amount more than that which you can conveniently spare.  If you're on a fixed or low income, please continue to enjoy The Travel Insider completely free of charge, and please feel no obligation to contribute.

Last year, we had about 21,000 readers in total, 561 (2.7%) of who chose to become contributors, sending in amounts ranging from $5 to $250, with an average of slightly more than $30 each.  This year, we have about 22,700 readers.  If 3% of you choose to contribute, that would be 680 contributions.  You can do the math - multiply 680 by whatever average contribution amount you think likely, and the result, while more than covering the operational expenses, doesn't leave much over as my 'salary'.  But it does help ensure The Travel Insider continues on for the next 12 months, same as it has for the last 80 months.

Some readers wrote in to suggest I don't complicate the contribution process with premium offers, and it was hard to spot any specific lift in contributions from the premiums offered last year, so I'm keeping it stark and simple.  Please simply go to this page, choose an amount to contribute, either monthly, quarterly, or one-time, and click the appropriate button (or mail a check to the address provided).  In return, you'll simply receive my heartfelt appreciation, and hopefully another year of The Travel Insider too.

And now, on with our regular newsletter - thanks for reading the preceding, and thanks even more if you chose to click over and contribute....

I've been living in the beautiful Pacific Northwest for 22 years now, and after writing some articles on my home country of New Zealand, I realized that I should also be sharing some of the wonderful places to visit in this part of the world, too.  A series on Victoria, BC was published a month or two back, and now I'm starting on one of my favorite places in Washington, although when you get there you might feel like you've been magically transported to south eastern Germany :

This Week's Feature Column :  Leavenworth - Bavarian Style Alpine Village :  A quaint little town reconstructed in Bavarian style architecture, and also boasting a world-famous Oktoberfest, Leavenworth is beautiful at all times of the year, and is well worth including on your travels around the Pacific Northwest.

Dinosaur watchingWelcome back to the real world, Northwest.  The airline exited bankruptcy and its new shares started trading on Thursday, with the airline valued at around $7 billion.  Amazingly, and for the first time since 2002, there are now no major airlines in bankruptcy, and none teetering on the verge.

And congratulations to Northwest's CEO and his senior executives, who between them have miraculously found themselves owning 5% of the new airline (about $350 million).  I'm sure they consider it a fair reward for taking the old airline into, through, and out of bankruptcy.  Former shareholders, left with worthless investments, may not agree on this point.

Not quite such good news for some BA senior employees, however.  A report in the London Times says that two British Airways former executives and two current employees are believed to be facing extradition proceedings over last year's price fixing scandal.  Earlier this year the airline admitted it had breached competition laws and set aside $700 million to cover legal costs and fines.  US prosecutors are said to be preparing a case against them and will extradite endeavor to extradite the BA staff to the US where they could face prison sentences of more than 20 years if convicted.

I mentioned, above, about United instituting a new policy to compensate passengers stuck on planes held on the ground for extended periods.  The policy is rather laughably trivial, however.  The airline says that if passengers on a flight are held on the ground for more than three hours between push-back and take-off, or for more than 90 minutes between landing and getting to the gate, it will deem the flight a 'flight of note' (what a delightful expression that is) and passengers on the flight will get a note of apology, a $10 meal voucher, and a certificate good for 20% off a future UA roundtrip coach class ticket.

You can bet that the 'note of apology' will not be a handwritten one, personally addressed to each passenger, by UA's CEO, Glenn Tilton.  More likely it will be printed on one side of a form, the other side being the $10 meal voucher.  And as for the 20% discount coupon, what's the guessing that it has tons of restrictions (such as not transferable to another passenger, not valid on lowest discounted fares, expires in a year, and who knows what else) such as to make it of little practical value.

So United offers some feel-good public relations nonsense in an attempt to appease some of the more gullible consumer advocacy groups, while actually costing itself next to nothing in real money terms.  Well done, United.

I've occasionally bemoaned the sad fact that air travel is getting slower not quicker.  Not only do jets fly slower than they used to, but all the delays - on the plane, in the terminal, and on the freeways to/from the airport - add significantly to the total travel time.  Here's an article, originally in the Wall St Journal, that builds on this with some depressing statistics.  Flights are being scheduled, on average, to take 10% longer than they were taking ten years ago, due primarily to ATC congestion.  That adds half an hour or more to a cross country flight.

Meanwhile airlines are trying to schedule some flights at off peak times so as to cut down on the delays (and costs associated with them).  This often means scheduling earlier or later flights than normal - which gives the airlines another benefit - increased airplane utilization.  If the airlines had their way, they'd be flying their planes 24 hours a day, instead of little more than half of each day as is common at present.

A flight with a scheduled departure of 5.30am is no fun to be traveling on.  While the good news is there's little freeway congestion on your drive to the airport, and probably not much airport congestion either (but the airline and the TSA will compensate for this by having insufficient staff on duty so as to ensure you still have to wait to check in and go through security), who really wants to be getting up at some terrible time before 3.30am to make that flight?

We all know the air transportation system is over congested at present, but most of us don't know why that is.  Vague references to 'more people traveling' are tossed about, but one of the most significant factors contributing to congestion is an increase in smaller plane service - the regional jet type planes, carrying anywhere from 37 up to 100 passengers.  If you subscribe to Joe Brancatelli's excellent weekly newsletter, you'll see in his column today some compelling analysis about how the airlines are creating their own problems, by substituting a greater number of RJ flights for a lesser number of full sized airplane movements.  It takes almost as much airport, runway and airspace resource for a 37 seater regional jet as it does for a 170+ seat 737 or larger regular jet, or even a 370 seat 747.

If our skies are getting to crowded, why don't the airlines simply start operating fewer larger planes?  Sure, we all like the flexibility of lots of flights to choose from each day, but do we really need that flexibility?  Isn't most of the time the only reason we're pleased there is a second (or third or fourth) flight available due to our preferred flight being sold out of reasonably priced tickets?

The headline on this article says 'Travelers win amid Hawaiian airfare war', but do you really think that travelers are winning when the three Hawaiian regional carriers are selling tickets for $9 each way?  All that is happening is the three airlines are trying to bleed each other dry, in the hope that one of the three - and most probably the new startup airline, Go (I refuse to write it in the stupidly affected way the airline wishes itself to be known - 'go!') is the one that will lose that fight.  And then, when the market returns to stability with just Aloha and Hawaiian, what will happen next?  Yes, airfares will go up to their previous levels and perhaps even a bit higher, with the airlines 'punishing' the market for having allowed a competitor to have a play in their sandbox.

On the other hand, for the pretentious airline that doesn't even know how to write its own name, but which demands an explanation mark after its lower case name, the move smacks a little of desperation.  Go (what - do they expect me to even not capitalize their name at the beginning of a sentence?) has only gained about a 10% market share, and the fight between the three airlines is following the oh so predictable path, yet again.  Step one - new entrant comes in with low fares.  Step two - existing carriers match.  Step three - existing carriers schedule flights - often extra flights - as close to the new competitor's flight times as possible.  Step four - a carrier (usually the new carrier) drops fares below the level necessary to break even, making some brave excuse for what they're doing.  Step five - existing carriers match.  Step 6 - fares go even lower and are matched.

We're at step six at present in the Hawaiian market.  Look for signs of step 7 - the desperation step, where the carrier that is hurting the most then tries to desperately bring in some extra cash to stay alive by selling future travel vouchers at discounted rates.

So, if you live in the Hawaiian island group, by all means 'make hay while the sun shines' because for sure, when the sun sets, there won't be so many carriers or flights, and fares will be way up to the bad old levels or worse.

Texas Pacific Group seems desperate to invest in an airline at present.  After their failed bid to buy Qantas, they joined in a bid to buy Alitalia (wow - who could ever sensibly compare the dynamics of Qantas to the despair of Alitalia) but have now withdrawn from that, and are now instead joining with a third set of partners to bid on a third airline.  This time they are in a consortium with, among others, British Airways, and are hoping to buy Iberia.

And poor (literally) Alitalia finds itself relatively unloved, with its only two suitors now being an Aeroflot led consortium (which seems to be unacceptable to the Italian government simply because it is Aeroflot) and an AirOne (Italian airline) led consortium that is bidding a laughably small amount for a share of Alitalia, but which the government seems to feel to be a more sympathetic possible future owner.

Congratulations to Midwest Airlines, being named winner of Travel+Leisure's annual 'Top Domestic Airline for Service' reader poll.  JetBlue came second, and Hawaiian Airlines was third.

And in a different type of poll, members of the Priority Pass program were asked to vote on their favorite airline lounge.  Priority Pass members get access to over 500 lounges around the world, and when the votes were counted, the winner was Continental's President's Club lounge at Newark, making it the third year in a row it has won this award.

Regional winners included Lounge Bellevue in Zurich, for the European region; DCA Business Class Lounge, Dubai for the Middle East; CIAS Lounge/Skyview Lounge, Singapore Changi Airport for Asia Pacific; and LAN Salon VIP Neruda, Santiago, for South America.

A technology that has long been touted as reducing the need for business travel has been video conferencing.  The technology has gone through a number of evolutions over the last several decades, and is becoming increasingly affordable, while offering better quality interactions, including abilities to share whiteboards and computer presentations as well as the simple seeing the other people and being seen by them.  A lot of these enhancements are due to the internet providing a low cost way to share the video signal.

But is video conferencing yet having an appreciable impact on business travel?  You probably know the answer from your own experience.  Here's an article that discusses it some more.

As a technology lover, I look forward to the day when it reduces my own need for (occasional) travel, and even now find that using simple webcam chatting through Microsoft Messenger or Yahoo Messenger can provide an added level of one on one contact on occasion, and computer remote sharing adds still further.  But will there be an equivalent incentive to those offered by the airlines in the form of earning frequent flier miles and getting upgrades?

I was mentioned Amtrak service in my article this week about Leavenworth, and the mention of its appallingly inadequate service made me yet again wish we had European style rail service.  European trains just keep getting better and faster, with the latest breakthrough being a new service between Frankfurt and Paris, opening on 10 June.  Trains formerly took a sedate 6hrs 15mins to make the 370 mile journey; with the new line, the time is slashed to a mere 3hrs 30mins.  The trains average more than 100 mph and occasionally reach maximum speeds of 200 mph.  Who'd want to fly (and at twice the price or more) when you can travel by train in the same time or even less, and in comfort.

This new service between France and Germany has not been without its problems during the development process, as this article amusing reports, but the wonderful bottom line of fast convenient affordable travel seems to make it all worthwhile.

I mentioned the Boeing stock price above.  After an exciting run up in value over the last little while, who knows what its future will be.  There are several factors weighing in on that, including whether it can successfully deliver its new 787 on time and as specified, and what the Airbus competitive response will be.  Neither of these two issues are clearly defined yet, which is how you can have the one commentator writing two wildly different stories about Boeing - one predicting its price could continue to rush up to $135/share (currently $100) and the other wondering if the share price mightn't collapse terribly.

My guess is that the 787 will be delivered close to on time, and with only minor issues surrounding its performance and Boeing's ability to delivery planes more or less as per their promised delivery schedule.

But I can't guess about what Airbus is doing with its several times delayed and several times redesigned competitive answer to the 787, its new A350.  After first saying that the 787 was so underwhelming that its present A330 would be able to compete, Airbus subsequently came up with a new plane, the A350, that was very little improved upon the A330, then after the industry expressed disappointment, came out with the promise of a new more advanced A350.

The details of this new more advanced A350 remain unclear, which is perhaps why, to date, so few airlines have been willing to commit to it, allowing Boeing to continue to sweep orders off the table with apparent ease.

This week saw some possibly positive news - Airbus had decided to make the tubular hull of the A350 out of new composite materials rather than from traditional aluminium, which would increase the A350's share of composite materials to a higher percentage than the 787.  But only a few days later, Airbus was denying that it would be replacing the aluminium hull with composite materials.  And its promised first delivery date is alternating between 2012, 2014 and 2013, with different dates being announced all within the last few weeks.

So what exactly will Airbus be doing and when?  That seems to be anyone's guess at this stage, and maybe Airbus itself doesn't yet know.  There might be some announcements at the Paris Air Show, scheduled for June 18 - 24.  But maybe not.  Meanwhile, Boeing is laughing all the way to the bank.

Airbus passed an interesting milestone with the end of production of its original model airplane, the A300.  This plane was first flown in April 1974, and the last unit - the 561st manufactured - will be delivered in July, some 33 years later.  That is a long model life, but not as long as for the venerable 737, which first flew, albeit in considerably altered form, back in 1967.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Imagine this - Our security services get word of a dastardly new plot by terrorists.  They're going to bring biological warfare to the US, in the form of ahaving n infected individual enter the country with a 'super disease' that is resistant to all normal antibiotics and which is fatal in over 50% of cases of infection.  The individual will then cough on as many people as possible before the slow acting disease eventually kills the suicide terrorist himself.

Fortunately, the security services learn not only of the plot, but also of the exact identity of the person who will be acting as the disease carrier.  His name and description are added to the airline 'no fly' lists and are on the Immigration Department's computers, along with urgent warnings requiring immediate action to detain the terrorist, using force if necessary, if he is detected trying to enter the country.

So what does the wily terrorist do?  He flies to Canada instead of the US, then drives across the border and disappears into the US, able to then spread disease wherever he wishes.

Most of this is, alas, true.  But instead of being a terrorist, the person in question was (is) actually an American citizen, a 31 year old attorney from Atlanta, and he was infected with a very antibiotic resistant strain of TB.  His name was placed on the 'do not fly' lists and his details were posted on the Immigration computer systems.  But somehow he managed to fly to Canada (Canada uses the same do not fly lists we do) and then managed to drive across the border, even though an urgent notice to stop him and don protective gear was seen - and then ignored - by the border guard who let him in the country.

If we can't even stop someone like this, when all his details, description, and everything is known, and when he is even detected crossing the border, what hope do we have to catch terrorists who are trying their best to evade the system?  For more details about this case, which is extraordinary on many levels (such as the infected man's new father-in-law being a specialist in TB, working for the CDC), see this and this article, and look for more news on this story in the next days.

There's a lot to dislike about the thought of having terrorist organizations hidden away somewhere in the social fabric of the US, but you'd hope the very least our government could do, if not find them and eradicate them, is to tax them.  But even that seems to be asking too much.  As this article reports, the IRS admits it is failing to comprehensively check that tax-exempt charities are not actually operated by terrorism suspects.

I wrote last week at the chronic shortages of Customs and Immigration agents, and the delays incoming international passengers are experiencing as a result of this, even though we all pay ticket taxes and fees of about five times more than the actual cost of providing airport services to arriving passengers.

The solution to this problem is acknowledged by all - hiring more staff.  But what happens this week?  We learned that the Secret Service plans to take many hundreds of agents from Immigration and TSA duties and co-opt them into helping out during next year's Presidential campaign, protecting the various potential candidates.  Of course we need to protect such worthy VIPs, but who suggested to the Secret Service that there were spare people in the Immigration or TSA departments?

Well, it is now 2am and that's it for another week, with almost 6500 words more material for you in this newsletter and the feature article.  In closing, could I ask you again to please consider supporting this newsletter and website.  If you haven't already, please click to the donation page now and give your much needed support to this year's annual fundraising drive.

Your help really does make a difference, and truly is much appreciated.

Lastly this week, one of our favorite monsters has put in another brief appearance.  Yes, after a long absence, Nessie has been sighted again.  Video on this link.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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